What Misogyny Does

A Man’s World

Reckoning with misogyny in the age of Me Too.


If the Me Too movement exploded with a reported story, its backlash began with an apology. “I so respect all women and regret what happened,” the disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein wrote in a long-winded response to The New York Times’ article. “I cannot be more remorseful about the people I hurt.”

Weinstein’s apology, which veered between subjects like the National Rifle Association, Jay-Z’s album 4:44, and his mom (“I won’t disappoint her”), was too ridiculous to be taken seriously. But it marked the beginning of a genre: Like accursed clockwork, it seemed that every man who found himself facing even minor consequences for his mistreatment of women was suddenly issuing an apology. These letters ranged from semi-self-exonerations, such as the one composed by Matt Lauer—“some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed”—to those that deflected, such as the one written by Dustin Hoffman—“I have the utmost respect for women and feel terrible that anything I might have done could have put her in an uncomfortable situation.” Some, like the one proffered by Charlie Rose, posited that he was just part of the greater learning curve and that “all of us” were evolving together and “coming to a newer and deeper recognition of the pain caused by conduct in the past.” Others, like the one written by comedian Louis C.K., claimed that he was going to “step back and take a long time to listen,” before stepping forward a short nine months later.

The slew of apologies from men raised an implicit question: If they no longer felt good about what they allegedly did, if they felt “ashamed” and “terrible,” does that change our collective understanding of who they are and their past actions? They did not feel like misogynists—they had the utmost respect for women! But if they treated women terribly, what could they be?

In her new book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Kate Manne offers us a way out of this bind with a wholesale rethinking of what misogyny is and how it works. Misogyny is perhaps most often defined as a hatred of women, a set of hostile attitudes held and acted upon by men. Manne calls this a “naive conception” that focuses our attention on what the Weinsteins and Lauers of the world feel deep inside. What she proposes instead is that we move the definition of misogyny away from what men feel and toward what it might mean “from the point of view of its targets or victims.” The measure of misogyny, in other words, should no longer depend only on the words of men but instead focus on the unequal and often hateful systemic experience foisted on women. “Agents,” Manne says in the second chapter, “do not have a monopoly on the social meaning of their actions.”

Manne’s insistence that we should focus more acutely on women’s experiences seems like a simple and sensible recentering of our attention, but it has broad implications. Her book is an attempt to construct a conceptual scheme around misogyny that is political rather than individual. If we begin to understand misogyny from the perspective of women, we begin to see its systemic and collective nature. As Manne writes, “What matters is not deep down, but right there on the surface.”

Manne is a philosopher by training. While others might approach the subject focused on the larger sociological implications of misogyny, Manne is concerned with first principles and definitions. In Down Girl, she employs her skill in rigorously examining and parsing the moral and theoretical quandaries that emerge in the work of developing the concept of misogyny. Yet her results are nearly similar to those that might be expected from someone working in the field of sociology or political analysis: Down Girl offers us a compelling and wide-ranging understanding of what misogyny is and how we should define it, as well as a sense of the politics that should follow from such a definition.

In organizing the hierarchy of her terms, Manne places misogyny within an overarching patriarchal order that she describes, plainly and simply, in terms of a “man’s world.” In a “man’s world,” we find much more than just misogyny. We find a whole system organized around gendered forms of inequality and domination, a heteronormative economy in which men are asymmetrically entitled to certain goods and women are expected to provide them.

Manne lists numerous examples of how this man’s world works and of the things that men are warranted to take under this order, including “social positions of leadership, authority, influence, money, and other forms of power, as well as social status, prestige, rank, and the markers thereof.” Women, on the other hand, are expected to produce “feminine-coded goods,” not only in the form of domestic and reproductive work but also in the form of social and emotional labor, from “affection, adoration, indulgence” to “simple respect, love, acceptance, nurturing, safety, security, and safe haven.”

In Manne’s view, sexism and misogyny are distinct entities that are produced by this man’s world, and both work in the service of patriarchy. But she also notes the differences between them: Sexism, Manne argues, is the ideology that rationalizes the patriarchy by “naturalizing sex differences,” while misogyny is the “law enforcement branch of a patriarchal order” that works to maintain it. As she puts it, “Sexism wears a lab coat; misogyny goes on witch hunts…. Sexism has a theory; misogyny wields a cudgel.”

While sexism claims that in the “natural” order of social organization, women act as emotional and social caregivers and men are the recipients of this emotional and social production, misogyny is the means by which to enforce this naturalization of gendered inequality. When women violate this “natural” order—whether by refusing to give these things or, worse, by taking “masculine-coded goods away from dominant men”—then the enforcement mechanism of misogyny kicks in to put them in their place.

Manne illustrates this difference with Donald Trump, who, she argues, is not necessarily a sexist in practice but is certainly a misogynist. As she notes, Trump hired women as executives in his company, “which suggests he doesn’t underestimate [all] women—​rather, he needs to control them, and head off the risk of their outshining him.”

In Manne’s conception, not only does misogyny punish women; it also rewards them when they work to serve the patriarchy and enforce its gendered norms. It’s no secret that many (usually white) women have a lot to gain on a personal level in doing so; just look at Hope Hicks, Ivanka Trump, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Not all of Manne’s assertions are necessarily radical; in fact, at times they seem quite obvious. Take her concept of “himpathy,” which she describes, among others things, as the “excessive sympathy sometimes shown toward male perpetrators of sexual violence.” Manne gives the example of Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman and received only a six-month county jail sentence. Aaron Persky, the judge in the case, made sure to highlight Turner’s feelings when explaining his controversial decision: “Mr. Turner came before us today and said he was genuinely sorry for all the pain that he has caused to [the victim] and her family. And I think that is a genuine feeling of remorse.” In the judge’s telling, Turner was a golden boy; Persky’s main concern was “the severe impact” that a more considerable conviction would have on such a person. While moral biases like “himpathy” are certainly prevalent, the term makes a tendency within contemporary culture seem more complex than it actually is. Sometimes, portmanteaus are better left on the drawing board.

Or take Manne’s argument that misogyny need not entail the hatred of all women. For many, this might seem patently obvious: Misogynists have daughters, wives, and mothers they love. As Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of several instances of sexual assault and misconduct, said with a straight face during his Senate testimony, as he described his dedication to coaching his daughter’s basketball team, “All the girls I’ve coached are awesome.”

This is not to say that there is no value in tackling these arguments. But it unfortunately means that Manne must give a lot of space to exactly the perspectives and behaviors she hopes we can get past. While many of the structures she builds out are sound and she admits that the book is focused on “describing the state of affairs” and she leaves it largely “open how (much) to apportion blame, to whom, and how we might go about improving the situation,” at times one wishes Manne would move past that base and direct a little more energy toward developing a more affirmative theory of gendered equality that might serve as a way to resist the man’s world.

Where this limitation is clearest is in her final chapter, which she dedicates to dissecting Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 election. Manne lays out a careful case showing how misogyny worked against the first woman nominated for president by a major US party. She writes, “Someone like Hillary Clinton is frequently cast in the moral role of usurper. And unsurprisingly so (which is of course not to say justifiably); she threatens to take men’s historical place or steal their thunder.” And because women are disproportionately expected to be caring, Clinton, who bucked against this expectation, was at a much greater risk of “seeming nasty, mean, unfair, and callous.” That a majority of white women who voted chose Trump was also to be expected under Manne’s conceptual framework, in which misogyny acts as an enforcement mechanism. “Women police other women,” she rightly notes, “and engage in gendered norm enforcement behavior.” But the book does not address how Clinton, or any politician, might have been able to help break through a system defended by misogyny. As Moira Weigel wrote in her review of the book, “I wish Manne the analytic philosopher could have engaged more with other feminist traditions—particularly the leftist feminism that emphasises material conditions and history.” Doing so would have created a fuller, more historical framework that would point us more directly toward the way forward. As Weigel adds, “The left feminist tradition suggests that there is a way to change a society defined by ‘asymmetrical giving’: through better social provision of those same goods, through such mechanisms as family leave, childcare, healthcare, care for the elderly, equal wages.”

As much as Clinton has been extensively subject to the policing arm of misogyny, she has also benefited from enforcing the patriarchal order herself, both in moral ways (her continued defense of her husband over Monica Lewinsky) and material ones (her support of neoliberal, anti-welfare-state policies). “Sexism is bad, always, of course,” as Charlotte Shane put it in a Baffler article, “but if you came to me with news that someone used a gendered insult against Betsy DeVos, I’m going to respond like a dad who’s tackling a major home plumbing problem completely beyond his skills: ‘I’m kind of busy right now, pal!’” As the world burns around us, a lack of prioritization can be as deadly as anything else.

Despite these limitations, Manne’s greater argument still stands and offers us a forceful new point of focus—that misogyny targets women because they are women in a “man’s world” rather than because they are women in a “man’s mind.” Perhaps the most compelling application of the book is this political understanding of misogyny. She may not direct our attention toward solutions, but she does remind us that the problems of sexism and patriarchy are collective and structural, not individual, and they therefore require movements and institutional change. As Manne argues, defining misogyny solely as a problem spawned by a few (or even many) bad apples renders it “a matter of psychological ill health, or perhaps irrationality, rather than a systematic facet of social power relations.” By concentrating on the experience of women and by seeing that misogyny is not dependent on individual misogynists (while still not exonerating them) but on its service to a greater patriarchal order, Manne allows us to better understand the ways in which misogyny works as an institutional force.

She may have a very specific construction of misogyny, yet she isn’t alone in making the argument that feminist analysis needs to be structural first. In recent years, as the limitations of the Lean In, girlboss ethos have become more broadly obvious, a more political and socialist feminism has reentered the mainstream, one that sees the idea of a feminist meritocracy as a sham. Liberal feminism’s representation-first focus has done little to reform a precarious world; it has left many women who are not in a position to “lean in” to find themselves in even greater positions of inequality and forced to suffer even worse forms of disempowerment and violence. While there may be more individually empowered women than ever before and more individual men who have been removed from powerful posts since the emergence of Me Too, our institutions and our social system have remained patriarchal.

Manne’s pointed redefinition of misogyny helps us reckon with the need for institutional change. Consider, for example, the Me Too apology tours. As The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino wrote, discussing former public radio hosts John Hockenberry and Jian Ghomeshi after they were accused of sexual harassment and, in Ghomeshi’s case, also of assault and then given thousands of words in esteemed literary publications to expound on what the revelations did to them: “In all of the cases that I heard about, it seemed to me essential, as a bare first step, for the man in question to understand that his experience is not inherently more important than the experiences of women, to acknowledge what he did, and that it was wrong. This is the minimum precondition for the better world we’re struggling toward. It is amazing, if not surprising, how many of the men in question are incapable of it.” It’s a sentiment that, as Tolentino notes, is hard to imagine in practice. Can a world where we shift the narrative away from men and their feelings toward women and their experiences exist without a considerable reworking of how power, influence, capital, and rank are distributed in society?

In July we got another reminder of this reality with Jane Mayer’s rehabilitative profile in The New Yorker of Al Franken, who resigned from the Senate after eight women accused him of forcibly kissing or groping them. Much of the article is focused on him, the politicians who now regret calling for his resignation, and inaccuracies in the account of his initial accuser; less space is given to the stories or perspectives of the seven other accusers. Instead, we hear about how Franken himself feels and even are told how—in response to Mayer relaying comments from a woman who told Politico that he tried to kiss her in 2006 at a taping of his Air America show—he begins to cry. He claims that there was a misunderstanding, that he was likely just trying to thank her. Mayer notes that he is “stricken” when he hears the woman’s comments. At the center of Mayer’s profile is the question of Franken’s intent, not the experience of his accusers. Mayer asks the woman from the Air America show if what he did was a sexual advance or not, to which she responds, “Is there a difference? If someone tries to do something to you unwanted?”

The first step toward a better world is to begin to imagine that an alternative reality is possible. One in which men like Franken and Hockenberry and Ghomeshi don’t get to define their actions by how they themselves feel about them but in which we try to form institutions and social practices that are, at their root, free of the misogyny that enforces the patriarchal order. Manne’s proposal to construct a framework that focuses on women’s experiences is a start toward that imagining. The question is how long we’ll be stuck here.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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