‘I felt a little lost at this point’

Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne (Oxford University Press; Hb £18.99), reviewed by Paula Nicolson.

Most psychologists already know that misogyny stems from patriarchy and impacts on women at work, at play and, perhaps more disturbingly, at home. Active hatred of women thwarts social wellbeing by preventing half the population from making their contribution to social prosperity. Needless to say, misogynist practices are persistently challenged in popular culture, applied psychology and academic discourse. Kate Manne, assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University, goes as far to suggest that the term and its practices may be unfashionable.

Manne here offers us a series of intermingled narratives. The ‘Down Girl’ of the title, superficially resonating with the ‘girl’ from recent popular novels, is woven into a philosophical feminist analysis of the theory and practices of misogyny, supported by detailed footnotes on almost every page. What we have therefore is a densely argued, complex proposal for incorporating the concept of misogyny, as a general means of keeping women (girls) down.

Misogyny in its extreme form means that women’s and girls’ lives are at risk. But Manne here presents an opportunity to consider its logic. The logic of woman-hatred, she proposes, may be seen in places where men draw moral support from women asymmetrically. That is, where privileged (i.e. white, heterosexual, middle-class and non-disabled) men consider themselves entitled to rely, for nurturing, comfort, care and sexual and emotional reproductive labour, on a more diverse set of women. Such women may be intimate partners, wives or daughters, and it may be the case that despite tacit social permission a man may not always practise this moral asymmetry. Phew! I still have to give this more thought even after several read-throughs. But I think I get it – all men have power over all women, particularly those with lower social standing, but they may choose not to abuse it.

Manne helps people like me to assimilate her arguments further through pertinent, even if convoluted, examples. To begin we are asked to consider why ‘strangled’ women, usually from the hands of intimate partners, rarely cooperate with the police. I felt a little lost at this point, which seemed to come out of the blue. Manne identified this form of intimate partner abuse, typically referred to as ‘choking’ as potentially leading to death from oxygen deprivation.

As I pondered the rationale for launching so immediately into this semantic conundrum, she hit home with the case of Donald Trump wanting to ‘grab’ a woman’s genitals, rather than choosing to ‘sexually assault’ her. Dismissing this as ‘locker room talk’ was apparently enough to silence his critics, or so he and his lawyer believed. So, logically, when his ex-wife claimed that Trump had raped her, his lawyer was able to declare that whatever had taken place, ‘rape’ was not the right ‘word’. Simply that Ivana Trump had felt raped emotionally.

OK. There is no way I am making light of choking/strangling, grabbing genitals/sexual assault or actual or emotional rape. These activities – all of them – are abhorrent. But my mind was beginning to wander again, dissipating my anger at Trump and men like him. Manne then provides a clearer real-life example. The theme of an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show was ‘High Class Battered Women’. The surprise here was that after telling the world of her horrible ordeal with a misogynistic, rich and influential ex-husband, the woman concerned later remarried, changed her name and recanted her original account agreeing with his story in which he was blameless.
What did any of this mean, logically, for Manne’s argument? As the book develops the examples and the narrative do become better defined. Manne claims to be constrained by not being a psychologist, so maybe I was constrained in my reading by not being a moral philosopher. She subsequently asserts (p.60) though that her approach avoids by psychologism and individualism making misogyny more epistemologically tractable by avoiding a woman or girl interpreting a hostile environment as specific to their own situation. Misogyny is not interpersonal but endemic. Or at least this is how I understood it.

Ultimately a diatribe against right-wing supporters of Trump lingered just under the surface. As I reached the end of the book I realised that I had been made to think, but, as hard as I might try, I cannot echo the abundant praise for this work that adorns the cover. As ever, I have heard more persuasive, well-evidenced arguments from my POWS/POWES colleagues.

- Paula Nicolson is Emeritus Professor, Royal Holloway, University of London

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