“On my analysis, misogyny’s primary function and constitutive manifestation is the punishment of “bad” women, and policing of women’s behavior.” -Kate Manne
Reinterpreting Sexism and Misogyny
Sexism and misogyny, like racism and homophobia, are tricky concepts. For one, they place the spotlight on the internal life of their purveyor, asking his accuser to prove that his misdeed truly stemmed from a deep-seated, generalized hatred of women for the fact of them being so. In this conflated understanding of the two terms, argues Kate Manne, sexism and misogyny would be rare phenomenas, for why would one disdain someone who consistently follows their rules? Yet, we’re constantly presented with evidence to the contrary, such as testimonial injustice (in the form of silencing or writing out the narratives of female victims, in this context), judicial leniency, unwarranted verbal assaults to women striving for positions of power, and sexual assault. So, if sexism and misogyny are as rare as their definition implies, the aforementioned incidents should seldom occur, if ever at all. Yet, we find that they do, and quite frequently. But how can we make sense of that?
According to Down Girl, the answer lies in redefining the terms to reflect both the sociological and psychological findings. When we seek to understand the mind of a misogynist, we need to look no further than his actions, which indicate all that we need to know about his beliefs and internal-life. Thus, in her book, Dr. Manne recasts both terms in a more empirical light, making it easy for the rest of us to detect the very beliefs and feelings that we’re seeking. She notes that:
“…misogynist hostility can be anything that is suitable to serve a punitive, deterrent, or warning function, which may be anything aversive to human beings in general, or the women being targeted in particular.”
According to Dr. Manne, misogyny is the law enforcement branch of a patriarchal structure which exists to perpetuate the domination and subservience of women. Whereas, sexism is the belief system that upholds misogynistic acts, justifying male dominance and punishment for those who resist it, even if the apparent “resistance” is a simple attempt to increase one’s lot or place in the world.
What struck me most about this book was Kate’s understanding of white, heteronormative, male entitlement. It transported me back to the periods of my life in which I was overly demanding of the women who occupied it. In my mind, as in those of my closest friends, we were simply able to demand whatever we wanted because that was our right. I demanded attention and affection, and most of the guys I knew went so far as to try to prevent their girlfriends from having male friends that they were threatened by; and I, sadly, was one of them.
My sense of entitlement, at times, superseded any sense of equality that I may have apparently subscribed to. I was born into a male-dominated culture in which the women were expected to serve: to provide attention, affection, sex, and nurturance. And, I believed myself to be inferior if I weren’t able to attain this sort of “good” girl.
It’s said that hindsight is 20/20, and through this book, I acquired a level of clarity that I hadn’t reached before. I was able to see my actions in light of the extreme cases that Manne examined, not to use them to pat myself on the back, but to remind myself of how, in some ways, I resembled those horrifying individuals.
That, I believe, was one of the main purposes of Kate’s work: to place a mirror in front of all men, asking them to examine the effects of their actions on the women whom they’ve encountered. In that respect, her book is just as much psychological as it’s philosophical, even being therapeutic.
But its most significant contribution is the concept of “himpathy,” which Manne defines as “the flow of sympathy away from female victims toward their male victimizers.” This is evident in a slew of criminal trails, including Brock Turner’s, Daniel Holtzclaw’s, and Ted Bundy’s, which is presented with brilliance in the new Netflix movie on his murders (e.g. When the judge tells him he wishes that he could have practiced law in front of him, effectively kissing his ass regarding how much potential he believed he had.) And in her book, Manne points to various cases, including the ones mentioned above, to support the notion that sympathy is often disproportionately given to male perpetrators before, and often even after, the evidence proves their guilt. What’s striking is how prevalent this is, and how its existence hadn’t been defined until now, hopefully increasing the likelihood that its social manifestations are affectively attended to.
Working Toward Growth
Unfortunately, most of the young guys in my community and culture didn’t realize that we weren’t entitled to any woman’s attention and affection, but that it was our right to try to earn it. Elliot Rodger, the man responsible for the Isla Vista killings, in his delusional and narcissistic state failed to heed these truths, instead choosing to blame others for his perceived misfortunes. Had he actually had the courage to look inward, accept his flaws, and work toward personal development, he would have had more opportunities at dating than he purportedly did. Instead, he worked toward shoring up his self-image, convincing himself of his own perfected self. He sought validation instead of maturity; but, one can convincingly argue that the main purpose of any good relationship is the union of two partners who work in harmony to create interpersonal growth, which was seemingly lost on him.
“Misogyny wields a cudgel,” writes Manne, and too often, the rest of us sit on the sidelines without speaking out against its perniciousness. In our community, you were called “Captain Save a Hoe” when you attempted to defend a girl from male-maltreatment, which precluded most of us from trying. It’s so interesting how subtle control is, and how rarely its questioned; back then, we simply accepted that that just was how it was, without any further exploration. The message the boys received was to stay in our own, proper place. So, we did. Because how terrifying would it have been if we didn’t?
Power is a terrifying possession to lose, especially when one doesn’t believe in his own worth or ability to sustain a healthy relationship based on mutual respect and equality. Power is, and always has been, associated with fear, and all of the boys I grew up with and the men they became were and are terrified of losing their grips. Those who fear the exposure of their vulnerabilities ought to know that their lust for power shines a radiant light on their fragility. Despite their desperate attempts at concealment, exposure is inevitable, and Manne’s suitable and necessary reinterpretations foster its development.
For more on Down Girl, tune in to episode 8 of Seize the Moment Podcast as we explore the important concepts in Dr. Manne’s book with philosopher Jamie Lombardi: