Feminist writing since the crisis has notably targeted the collusion of gender politics with corporate capitalism. Though liberal feminism still commands the mediasphere, new theoretical work has taken a more critical approach—calling for a ‘Goodbye to Boardroom Feminism’, as in Lorna Finlayson’s invigorating Introduction, for a ‘feminism of the 99 per cent’, or for the large-scale social change demanded by the tech-utopian Xenofeminists. By contrast Kate Manne’s Down Girl takes the opposite tack, arguing that the oppression of the most privileged women should be taken as the basis for a more effective philosophical approach. Her book opens with the wrongs suffered by Ivana Trump and the former Mrs Steve Bannon, and ends with an impassioned defence of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Trailed in talks at Harvard and Princeton, rehearsed in the New York Times and Huffington Post, Down Girl was hailed in the New Yorker and praised in the London Review for its ‘acuity and precision’, its illuminating and exacting arguments. What is its case?
Kicking off from some spectacular expressions of male aggression, Manne asks why patterns of misogynist violence persist in allegedly post-patriarchal societies like the us and her native Australia. But Down Girl is explicitly not a work of cultural sociology, nor of anthropology, history or gender studies. Manne teaches moral philosophy at Cornell and claims that hers is the first treatment of misogyny in the analytical-philosophy tradition, expanding that approach to draw on the meta-ethical foundations of morality in the social order, and combining it with cultural criticism and ‘ideology critique’. Drawing on what she describes as ‘my own (highly privileged) social position’, she aims to provide a conceptual skeleton which others are invited to fill in as appropriate for their own class position.
Before going on to track its logic, Manne redefines what ‘misogyny’ is: not a deep-seated male loathing for the opposite sex or, as Cold War Freudianism had it, a psycho-pathological revulsion rooted in the experience of an overpowering mother; Manne re-nominates the term ‘gynophobia’ for that phenomenon. Instead, misogyny should be understood as serving a social rather than a psychological function: as a policing mechanism, enforcing the norms of asymmetrical gender entitlement. According to the moral economy of these norms, ‘women owe men’—men are ‘tacitly entitled’ to rely on women in their social orbit for ‘nurturing, comfort and care’, for ‘sexual, emotional and reproductive labour’; if these entitlements are denied, the men may feel aggrieved or disappointed—sometimes murderously so, as in the case of the student who went on a killing spree in Santa Barbara because none of the women at his college would go to bed with him (the ‘Isla Vista’ case). Meanwhile, women who violate the giver-taker roles, or who take male goods (money, protection) without reciprocating in care and concern, or who seek masculine-coded perks and privileges—status, leadership, wealth, power—for themselves, are liable to be targets for misogynist aggression in this policing sense.
However, as Manne develops and defends her case, misogyny’s frequency contracts—it is confined to ‘particular kinds of women’, not ‘universally’ experienced by ‘women across the board’; only a small minority of men are serial predators, and it’s not the case that there is ‘a misogynist inside every man’; indeed, across Anglophone societies in general, misogynist aggression may be defined as ‘rare’. At the same time, the potential extent of misogyny expands—its expressions may range from ‘subtle social signs of disapproval’ to life-threatening violence; it may include sexualizing or de-sexualizing, patronizing, infantilizing, disparaging; dismissing, shunning or putting to shame—and its enforcement agents multiply: most people (men, women, non-binaries) are capable of channelling misogynistic forces, or unwittingly policing gendered norms. For Manne, it is a ‘threshold concept’—supposed to open up a new way of thinking—as much as, if not more than, an empirical reality.
Although she devotes a good many pages to the gunman of Santa Barbara, it’s the third instance of patriarchal-norm violation—women who seek masculine-coded rewards for themselves—that sparks Manne’s warmest interest. Down Girl’s preface opens with a famous passage from A Room of One’s Own in which Virginia Woolf describes inadvertently striding across the lawn of a Cambridge quad, rapt in her thoughts, when the figure of a man looms before her, horror and indignation on his face: ‘Instinct rather than reason came to my help: he was a Beadle’—a college constable—‘I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.’ Somewhat tangentially, Manne relates Woolf’s ‘misstepping’ on the College grass to the discussion of how one feels if someone steps on one’s hand—accidentally or, on the contrary, with intent—in Peter Strawson’s 1962 essay, ‘Freedom and Resentment’. Strawson’s argument was that the pain would be the same, but that in the second case he would also feel a sense of moral indignation and resentment, which could be mitigated only by an explanation or apology.