Exploring Kate Manne’s current, nuanced meaning of the word
Kate Manne is an associate professor of the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University. Her 2018 book Down Girl is an exploration of the true nature of misogyny and how that differs from simple sexism. All the concepts in this article are taken from Manne’s book, which is described on her website thusly:
“It (Down Girl) argues that misogyny should not be understood primarily in terms of the hatred or hostility some men feel toward all or most women. Rather, it’s primarily about controlling, policing, punishing, and exiling the “bad” women who challenge male dominance. And it’s compatible with rewarding “the good ones,” and singling out other women to serve as warnings to those who are out of order. It’s also common for women to serve as scapegoats, be burned as witches, and treated as pariahs.”
In order to differentiate between the two, let’s look first more closely at what constitutes sexism. Sexism is an over-focus on the perceived difference between men and women. It’s used to justify patriarchal social arrangements by highlighting and naturalizing sex differences and pointing out how pointless it is to resist them. Sexism is made up of assumptions, stereotypes, and theories that seek to portray patriarchal norms as the most valid, desirable, and inevitable.
The other day a man actually said to me, “True patriarchy demands that men be competent and responsible and that women voluntarily reward competence and responsibility with submission.” He went on to opine that traditional couples are happier, have more sex, and even have healthier children, with no data to support any of that, of course. I thanked him for helping to illustrate the point of my piece, Patriarchy Teaches Men To Be Tyrannical Children with his classic example of sexism.
Misogyny is typically less heavy-handed, but also more insidious. It is in many cases a largely subconscious reaction to women who are not upholding patriarchal societal constructs. Rather than being a philosophy centered around women being inferior or designed for overt submission, misogyny is the policing arm of patriarchal norms. It is not about hating or disdaining women for being women. In fact, one can even love individual women and bear no ill will towards women as a whole, and still be a misogynist.
Notice then that on my proposed analysis misogyny’s essence lies in its social function, not its psychological nature. To its agents, misogyny need not have any distinctive “feel” or phenomenology from the inside. If it feels like anything at all, it will tend to be righteous: like standing up for oneself or for morality, or — often combining the two — for the “little guy.” It often feels to those in its grip like a moral crusade, not a witch hunt. And it may pursue its targets not in the spirit of hating women but, rather, of loving justice. It can also be a purely structural phenomenon, instantiated via norms, practices, institutions, and other social structures.
Manne, Kate. Down Girl (p. 20). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Misogynists may not expect women to be overtly submissive, but it is anticipated that they will be “cool” girlfriends, loving wives, devoted moms, loyal secretaries, and good waitresses, etc. The emotional labor and care-giving that are a part of so many women’s daily experiences, both in the family and in the larger community, is unremarked upon unless a woman is notably resisting these functions. Misogyny is the hostilities that arise in the face of such resistance, which may be intended to punish, dominate, or condemn the women who are perceived as a threat to the status quo.
These mechanisms will range widely in the consequences they visit on women, from life-threatening violence to subtle social signals of disapproval (e.g., when people are unconsciously slightly “taken aback” when women are as interpersonally direct or unapologetic as their male counterparts). These coercive enforcement mechanisms vis-à-vis patriarchal norms and expectations, and the social roles they govern, are the functional essence of misogyny.
Manne, Kate. Down Girl (p. 47). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
A woman who is dutifully but lovingly catering to the needs and desires of the males in her world has no reason to be vilified or punished. It is only if she is insubordinate, negligent or otherwise out of line, that such a woman deserves to be viewed negatively and actions taken to rein her in. Misogyny is, fundamentally, the enforcement of patriarchal structures.
Misogynists don’t hate women in a broad sense. In fact, they may truly love their mothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters and female friends as long as they maintain their perceived place in the social structure. Being too outspoken or too independent is one of the violations of this tacit social contract. And for this, one woman may be made to pay for the sins of others who are similar.
Internet trolls target women who express opinions that challenge patriarchal norms by calling them gender-specific slurs like bitch, slut, and cunt. They threaten, intimidate, and vilify, and the more high profile the woman, the more vehement the reaction to her. She is both a stand-in for and an example to other similar women.
Women who resist or flout gendered norms and expectations may subsequently garner suspicion and consternation, which has less to do with their challenging gendered norms per se, and more to do with their challenging entrenched norms simpliciter. And for some people, feminism in particular has profoundly disrupted their sense of the social order. The hostility they display to women who disrupt or pose a threat to gendered social hierarchies, say, is compatible with their being egalitarians in the abstract. They may nevertheless perceive powerful women who do not wield their power in service of men’s interests as abrasive and threatening. For that reason among others, a misogynist social environment may be partly the result of more or less well-intentioned people acting out of disavowed emotions, or exhibiting flashes of aggression that are not consciously experienced. And indeed, such aggression may be acted out partly as a substitute for feeling it: the expression “acting out” is suggestive in this context.
Manne, Kate. Down Girl (p. 61). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Misogyny need not and typically does not arise out of putative psychological attitudes such as the idea that women are primarily sex objects, that they are viewed as subhuman, or are otherwise hateful simply for being female. Instead, it is overwhelmingly about the enforcement and re-establishment of patriarchal order and a reaction to any challenges to it.
Individual misogynists are not even necessary for corresponding social environments and structural mechanisms to be in play. In other words, it’s not about “bad apples.” Compliance may be asserted by vilifying, demonizing, belittling, humiliating, mocking, lampooning, shunning, and shaming of any woman who has dared to step outside of patriarchally established norms. But men are not the only ones enforcing compliance in this way. Women, as well as non-binary people, may also participate in misogynistic behaviors or structures. Women uphold patriarchy as well. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t still be able to exist as a viable social system.
Sexism may be used towards misogynistic ends, but they are not one and the same. Here’s how Kate Manne has made the distinction, “But sexism purports to merely be being reasonable; misogyny gets nasty and tries to force the issue. Sexism is hence to bad science as misogyny is to moralism. Sexism wears a lab coat; misogyny goes on witch hunts.”
The naive usage of the term misogynist, meaning someone who hates and disdains women out of hand, is not the current definition. It has been evolving over the past 20–30 years, particularly in feminist circles, and common usage, as well as dictionaries, have started to reflect this more nuanced interpretation. The commenter I quoted from earlier who had perfectly illustrated sexism finished up his diatribe by also giving a great example of misogyny when he chided me for trying to mess things up for patriarchs everywhere.
“Then again, maybe you’re just the sort of person who wants to ruin everyone else’s good time just because it didn’t work out for you.”
It’s important that we be able to call out coercive behavior with words that name it appropriately. Understanding the true meaning of misogyny is one way to begin.