In her increasingly influential book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, philosophy professor Kate Manne offers a radical new way to think about sexism and misogyny. Unfortunately, her account is methodologically flawed, scientifically ill-informed and counterproductive to the feminist cause.
Are we living in a misogynistic society? Prior to reading Manne’s book, I would have answered no, but. In modern democracies like Australia (from whence both Manne and I hail), the US and the UK, we have by and large outgrown the notion that women don’t deserve to be treated as full moral equals to men. While, of course, many sexists and misogynists still exist—some of them enjoying unfortunate degrees of influence and power—sincerely held beliefs in female inferiority have become the exception, not the rule.
The World Values Survey shows large majority support in these countries for the propositions that women have the same rights as men, as well as large majority rejection of the ideas that men make better political leaders or business executives than women. This data also reveals a stark contrast between the levels of support for female equality in different countries. For example, only 21.9% of Australians and 19.4% of Americans agree that men make better political leaders than women. Compare this to Russia (57.3%), Malaysia (69.6%), Jordan (80.5%) or Qatar (85.4%).
Australia’s 2017 National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey suggests that the vast majority of Australians support gender equality and reject attitudes supportive of violence against women. Pew Research Center findings show that support in the US for the proposition that women should return to their traditional roles in society dropped from 30% to 18% between 1987 and 2012. The values and attitudes about women generally held in a country tend to be reflected in its policies and outcomes for women. A recent working paper for the Center for Global Development analyzed correlations between a country’s norms, as suggested by survey data, and how gender equal its laws and outcomes are, concluding that the former has a “reasonably strong relationship” with the latter.
In short, beliefs and attitudes towards gender equality have improved markedly over the decades and this positive trend will likely continue into the future, as ignorance and maliciousness cede to reasoned discussion and mutual respect between the genders.
According to the thesis of Manne’s book, this way of thinking is hopelessly naïve. For one thing, it cannot resolve the following paradox. If sexist beliefs and attitudes are what drive misogynist behavior—and people’s beliefs and attitudes are overwhelmingly egalitarian—then why do we still see so much rampant misogyny today?
Men still dominate the highest levels of politics, business, science and technology. The President of the United States and some of his closest advisers have been accused of sexual assault and use disrespectful language towards women. Male serial killers write long screeds blaming women for not providing them with the sexual gratification they are supposedly owed. Film and television still portray women as less than fully rational moral equals to men.
This stark disconnect between people’s reported egalitarian attitudes and the persistence of misogynistic behavior is what Manne’s book sets out to explain. Its core philosophical thesis is that we need to reconceive misogyny as not only something perpetrated by “true believing sexists,” but as a structural force, which can survive and even thrive in the absence of discriminatory beliefs.
Manne articulates and illustrates how women face all manner of hostilities simply by existing in a man’s world: consisting not of individual sexist pigs, but of largely subconscious negative reactions to women who refuse to fulfill their traditional gender roles. She does this by examining, in fine detail, various high profile case studies of misogyny at work in the modern day. The key idea put forward by the book is that these examples add up to a systemic problem with misogyny: a hostile patriarchy in which women are unjustly oppressed by men. At one point, Manne describes her method as “that of a bowerbird, a collector of shiny bits and pieces, which it uses to make a nest for itself.” This is a rhetorically successful strategy, no doubt, and has won her book acclaim across the global intellectual community. The question is whether this method is adequate to establish the broad social scientific claims that Manne makes.
Enter the Donald. As one of her examples of misogyny at work, Manne covers in length the credible accusations of sexual assault against both Trump and several high-ranking members of his team. She rightly critiques the lack of concern, let alone condemnation, these behaviors received from voters. The implication is that any society that can ignore such behavior must be systemically misogynistic. As offensive as one may find Trump’s treatment of women, however, only 25.7% of the eligible adult US population actually voted for him. A greater percentage voted against him. It’s also reasonable to assume that not all of those who voted for him were signaling with that vote their enthusiastic support for Trump’s attitudes towards and treatment of women. This hardly adds up to a majority of the country supporting the man or his behavior.
Politics aside, do serial killers motivated by a hatred of women reflect a dominant misogynistic social order? Manne raises the example of Elliot Rodger, the twenty-two-year-old who killed six people and wounded fourteen others in Isla Vista, California in 2014. His final writings and videos explain that he wanted retribution: both against women for rejecting him sexually, and against sexually successful men for out-competing him. Manne claims that extremely violent actions such as these lie on a continuum with the dominant social enforcement mechanisms of the broader society such perpetrators live within. Rejecting the popular argument that those who commit such acts can do so only because they have dehumanized their victims, Manne argues that the animosity of people like Rodger towards women is only possible on the assumption that such women possess the full human capacities required to voluntarily grant or deny sexual gratification in the first place. After all, it was the fact that the hot sorority girls could have provided Rodger with distinctly human forms of affection—and chose not to—that incensed him into a murderous rage.
But, while Rodger certainly didn’t completely dehumanize his victims, to the extent of treating them as mere things, he failed to attribute to them the cognitive faculties most characteristic of humanity: autonomy and responsiveness to reason. By projecting onto all women the same vindictive contempt for him, he was treating them as a collective set of demonic clones, erasing any individual differences and subtleties in their personalities and beliefs. He had not actually met or interacted with any of his eventual victims, and made no attempt to accurately represent them as individuals with their own agency and autonomous thoughts. In this sense, he did not attribute full moral personhood to the women he despised. He made no attempt to engage them in dialogue about how unjust it was for them to deny him immediate sexual gratification. Although the final video he posted was partly a message to these women, he obviously never intended them to watch it, setting out as he did to murder them immediately after posting the video online. This fits with an (admittedly vague) diagnosis of pervasive developmental disorder on the autism spectrum. Rodger had not developed a fleshed-out theory of mind: the capacity to represent others as possessing a unique cognitive model of reality, which is responsive to argument and evidence. Despite his at times florid rhetoric, his cognitive model of the women he hated was strikingly childish. He possessed base animalistic drives (sex, companionship etc.), he felt frustrated he could not satisfy those drives, and he identified a simplistically defined agent who mockingly taunted him with the subject of his desire. His actions had the sophistication of a toddler, whose cruel sibling dangles candy just out of reach: I want that. I hate you for not giving it to me.
Elliot Rodger appears to be a canonical example of mental illness, rather than someone who has internalized dominant social norms of misogyny from the culture around him. I stress that the culture was around him, as opposed to his being within said culture, because he was cognitively closed to it. In one of his videos, he expresses his sadness at how alone he has been for so long, aware in some dim respect that he could not connect to the conversations, beliefs and habits of being that surrounded him. For him, the broader cultural realm was a blurry, booming source of frustration.
It’s not that misogynist ideology didn’t play a motivating role in Rodger’s crimes. No doubt, as Manne points out, he was influenced by virulent strains of misogyny hiding in the depths of the internet. It is therefore reasonable to place Rodger’s attitudes on a continuum with versions of misogyny motivating more common cases of sexual harassment and domestic violence. Manne focuses particularly on men who strangle their female intimate partners, or annihilate their entire families. She argues that this violence results from dominant patriarchal notions about the kinds of goods owed to men by women, which leads some men to lash out when women fail to conform to these traditional gender roles.
While this is true in an important sense, men who enact violence against their partners do so despite the dominant cultural norm that such violence is unacceptable. There’s a key difference here between the persistence of default gender-based norms, and the kinds of mechanisms societies tend to use to enforce them. In some kinds of honor cultures, it is common for violence to be enacted and endorsed by the whole family or community of the perpetrator. This kind of communal support for spousal abuse is exceedingly rare in modern liberal democracies. What is too rare, unfortunately, is adequate positive support for women who find themselves in abusive relationships. The contemporary problem is thus more one of communities failing to know about and being unable to do something about removing a victim from a dangerous situation. But some progress is being made. Some particularly important initiatives have been undertaken by governments like my own in Victoria. The fact that there still exists far too much violence against women does not imply that we live in a culture that is misogynistic, in the sense of endorsing or being indifferent to such violence.
Manne goes on to argue that systemic misogyny is also reflected in popular films and television. Exhibits A and B are the popular film Gone Girl and television series Fargo, which present fictional stories that are “nevertheless instances of a prevalent cultural narrative to which we ought to pay close attention.” This cultural narrative consists of a collective effort to uphold men’s innocence and pardon them prematurely. Employing the same inferential strategy as she did with the election of Trump, Manne asks, “What does it say about us, and the zeitgeist, that viewers in some sense wanted to watch this in 2014?”
Manne’s complaint is that these works feature flawed male protagonists, whom the audience is nevertheless encouraged to root for because their female spouses are a psychopath and a bully, respectively. She infers that this says a lot about our tendency to pardon historically dominant men when they’re down on their luck: a case of excessive himpathy (a popular neologism coined by Manne). Manne bases this claim on the comparative rarity of narratives in which this gender dynamic is reversed. But, in a footnote to that argument, Manne concedes that two contemporary films both feature sympathetic vengeful female protagonists: Enough (2002) and The Brave One (2007). By her own metrics, she fails to establish a trend. Hollywood has been historically overrepresented by male writers, which naturally translates into more interesting leading roles for men. But it does not follow that current day film and television systematically depict women as less trustworthy or as more readily convicted of crimes than men.
Manne concludes the chapter with an analysis of the infamous 2016 criminal case in the US, in which twenty-year-old university student Brock Turner was accused of sexually assaulting an unconscious twenty-one-year-old woman. Manne argues that the subsequent trial was a classic case of himpathy on display, given the outpouring of defenses of Turner’s personality from friends and family. Manne believes the judge fell for this pattern of exculpatory inference when he took Turner’s previous good character into consideration when deciding on the sentence. What Manne doesn’t emphasize is the clear fact that Turner was convicted of felony sexual assault and that he received widespread public condemnation for his obviously criminal behavior. Also, considering evidence of the defendant’s prior character has always been a part of sentencing decisions, as it should be. But even if Turner hadn’t been convicted, and even if popular opinion had been universally prejudiced against his victim and in favor of letting Turner go free—this is a single court case. It is a sample of one. The major claim of the existence of a patriarchal, oppressive nation requires a correspondingly large sample size, which Manne fails to present.
The idea, Manne reminds us, is to be able to recognize types of cases and their prevalence as they arise. But, by her own admission, she does not undertake the empirical research necessary to distinguish prevalence from seeming prevalence. Manne concedes that questions about the statistical prevalence of testimonial injustice are “beyond my pay grade as a philosopher.” But this claim to epistemic modesty rings somewhat hollow, since Manne makes generalized empirical claims about the character of whole societies without such data in hand. This makes her way of thinking vulnerable to the availability heuristic, a phenomenon studied extensively in behavioral psychology. This is a cognitive bias that makes us prone to assuming a trend based on a few prominent examples that come easily to mind. Manne spends a long time discussing the intricacies of particularly notorious events, without building an argument as to why they reveal a problem with the culture at large. In doing so, she ignores the fact that their very notoriety is a sign that they are not part of a dominant cultural trend.
To account for why Manne may feel justified in generalizing societal norms from specific cases, we need to return to her conceptual project of redefining the terms sexism and misogyny. According to Manne, sexism is the set of beliefs that justifies or rationalizes the patriarchal social order, while misogyny is the system of enforcement of patriarchal norms and practices. This allows her to propose both that “misogyny’s essence lies in its social function, not its psychological nature” and that “it can also be a purely structural phenomenon, instantiated via norms, practices, institutions, and other social structures.” The gambit of fundamentally separating people’s beliefs about women and their behavior towards them as women is a fairly radical one. In almost every other aspect of life, we acknowledge that our beliefs and values largely drive our behavior. How I tend to treat you will depend a lot on what I believe about your character. How I respond to my friend stabbing me with a kitchen knife will depend on whether I believe it was accidental or intentional. And whether and how I partake in a religious ceremony will depend on my religious beliefs. The meaning of a behavior depends on how the actor conceptualizes the world in which he is behaving. The act of eating a cracker and drinking some wine in a church is profoundly different, depending on whether you are a believing Christian or a polite atheist.
Given this strong connection between beliefs and behavior, Manne’s counterintuitive distinction requires further substantiation. How is it possible that a misogynistic culture could sustain itself without its individuals personally holding sexist beliefs? Manne explains:
The hostility they [misogynists] 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.
Manne is validly pointing out that we can all fail to live up to the abstract ideals we believe in. For example, many of us consider donating regularly to charity to be the right thing to do, but instead go into debt buying frivolous gifts for ourselves and our loved ones. But is this really the kind of thing going on with misogyny? Is an act of misogyny equivalent to a failure of will? It seems more plausible that part of the meaning of a misogynistic act is that its perpetrator holds sexist beliefs, even implicitly, in the same way that it is part of the meaning of murder that the perpetrator possessed the intent to kill. A classic misogynist behavior like insulting a woman as less intelligent because she is a woman, implies that the misogynist believes that women are less intelligent than men. Otherwise the behavior is ambiguous. He could be calling her stupid because he believes she actually did something stupid, or because she’s French, and he happens to be a Francophobe instead.
Can a perpetrator of misogyny still love his wife and daughters? When politicians are accused of using misogynistic language, they often respond by waxing nauseatingly poetic about their affection for their intelligent and courageous female family members. But if the politician is actually a misogynist, his love is surely but a pale shadow of the real thing. It is conditional on his wife and daughters enacting their traditional gender roles, and the sweetness would quickly turn to hate if one of them failed to perform. Manne argues that, in cases like these, the naïve psychologistic conception of misogyny gives such a man a free pass, because he doesn’t actually feel hatred towards the women closest to him. But the naïve account doesn’t require one to feel hatred towards women simply for being women—obviously a misogynist may be perfectly happy with docile women, just as a slave owner is perfectly happy with compliant slaves. To be a misogynist, one only has to manifest hatred or contempt when women fail to serve one’s interests as determined by their proper place in one’s sexist ideology. What is important is the actual contents of the minds of perpetrators, not structural features of their environments. At one point, Manne accepts that we should avoid construing misogyny in “purely structural” terms, to the exclusion of “the distinctively agentic and interpersonal,” but it is difficult to interpret the rest of her book as arguing anything but otherwise. Her entire project appears to consist in removing misogyny from the mind: to show that we act it out largely as mindless automatons.
Manne’s project is enabled by a key conceptual device from the toolkit of analytic philosophy. She draws on the distinction made by the philosopher Sally Haslanger in a famous 2000 paper, between three different ways to think about the definition of a term. The first is its conceptual meaning, which is how it relates to other concepts. For example, the concept bachelor is composed of two other concepts: unmarried and man. The second is its descriptive meaning, which is about what it supposedly tracks in the real world. The term bachelor partly refers to existing men out there, whom we can study empirically. Haslanger invented a third kind of definitional project, which she called the ameliorative approach. This is when we seek a meaning of the term that suits the particular purposes or aims of our inquiry. The example Haslanger uses in her original paper is the definition of woman. Rather than defining this concept as referring to, say, a biologically female human, she wants to redefine it to include the necessary condition of being subordinate to men. Under this revised (or ameliorated) definition, it would therefore be a logical contradiction to refer to women as not being politically and economically subordinate to men. Haslanger explicitly states that part of the motivation for this redefinition was to develop accounts of gender that would be effective tools in the fight against injustice (i.e. against existing inequalities between men and women).
Putting aside the question of whether Haslanger’s ameliorated definition is a good tactical move for feminism, the whole notion of an ameliorative project is intellectually suspect. Our concepts are our attempts to accurately represent reality. They collectively make up our world-model: how we take the world to be. Seeking to transform your concepts to suit your desired ethical or political goals is nothing other than wishful thinking: I really want to be able to fly, therefore, I am able to fly! This kind of conceptual engineering often ends in tears. Intentionally transforming your language to suit your political ends is precisely what George Orwell critiques in his novel 1984. Your political ends should follow from wherever your conceptual scheme takes you, not the other way around. This is what it is to be a rational inquirer, and not a slave to ideology.
Manne essentially makes the same mistake as Haslanger, by seeking to redefine misogyny to suit her own ends: namely to be able to more easily identify instances of misogyny. This is because her approach obviates the difficulties of providing evidence of actual sexist intent or belief, which Manne refers to as “frequently inscrutable.” Using Manne’s definition, misogynistic behaviors and norms become more “epistemically accessible” and we can more easily judge people to have committed misogynistic acts. If this doesn’t already sound worrying to you, map the same reasoning back onto the crime of murder. Imagine a politician saying: it’s just too damn hard to convict anyone of murder, because whether or not they actually intended to kill their victim is frequently inscrutable. It’s crucial that we remove this requirement of mens rea and focus rather on the hostility the victim experienced. After all, it’s perfectly possible to perpetrate murder without possessing a murderous intent.
One crucial effect of this linguistic alchemy is that potentially any negative behaviors towards women, or negative outcomes for women, can be interpreted as misogynistic. In a recent example of this, a professor was accused and found guilty by his professional organization of offensive behavior, for telling a joke in an elevator. When asked which floor he was heading to, he responded “ladies’ lingerie.” A woman who happened to be in the elevator made a formal complaint, and refused to engage him in dialogue when he emailed her, attempting to clarify what he meant by his quip. When the distinction between a faux pas and a misogynistic act becomes determined wholly by the interpreter’s subjective experience, the intentions of the speaker no longer matter. But it does matter what individuals intend to mean by their actions and words, because this is the only thing individuals can control themselves. This is what makes them morally responsible for their words and deeds in the first place.
Manne claims that one value of her approach is that it avoids a narrow “individualism” when it comes to diagnosing the causes of misogyny. But blaming disembodied forces like practices, policies and institutions actually undermines the task of attributing real responsibility for misogyny. The whole point of the #MeToo movement is to call out individuals, so that they own up to and face the consequences of their misogynous acts. Unless one can point to a specific law, policy or practice that is misogynistic in design or effect, blaming vague social forces is a get-out-of-jail-free card for actual misogynists.
Despite this criticism of Manne’s analysis, I am deeply sympathetic to how she sees the situation. Clearly, in a certain sense we still live in a man’s world, and I don’t like that fact any more than she does. This makes the following syllogism extremely compelling:
- Men disproportionately occupy social positions of influence and power.
- People’s attitudes and beliefs about women’s interests and capacities are strongly egalitarian.
- Innate psychological differences between men and women are non-existent or insignificant.
Therefore: people must be subconsciously enacting sexist and misogynistic behaviors and practices to keep women down.
Let’s wade into the boiling water that is premise (3). Manne claims that the science of psychological gender differences with regard to personality, preferences and intelligence is at best inconclusive. Therefore, anyone who invokes scientific findings that purportedly bear on this issue is probably motivated by sexist beliefs—he is simply employing pseudoscience to rationalize our patriarchal system. To those who would seek to discuss such issues, Manne poses the following challenge: “Are you just curious about the truth of this hypothesis [of biological sex differences], which has attracted quite a lot of attention for one that is not yet falsifiable? Or are you, rather, inchoately worried about it being false indeed, i.e. women being every bit men’s equals?” Implicit in these questions is the assumption that, for women to be “every bit men’s equals,” men and women must be practically identical in terms of innate psychological traits. But this clearly isn’t true as a matter of moral principle. Our equal moral standing as human beings derives from our equal status as reasonable beings capable of reflecting upon our beliefs and desires. Just how competent we happen to be along any particular cognitive dimension is irrelevant. The chess champion Garry Kasparov does not have superior moral status to the famous therapist Dr Phil because he has a higher IQ, and Dr Phil doesn’t have superior moral status to Garry Kasparov because he has greater social skills. The same goes for any statistical biological or genetic psychological differences that may exist between men and women.
Since we seem to be wading deeper into these treacherous waters, let’s examine where the science currently stands on this issue. It is a highly robust finding in psychology that there are significant psychological sex differences between men and women in spatial rotation abilities, agreeableness, sensation seeking, interest in things versus people, physical aggression, sexual behaviors like masturbation and pornography use and attitudes towards casual sex. And, when it comes to intelligence, the data suggests that, on average, men and women’s IQs don’t differ, but men’s IQ scores are more variable than women’s. That is, there tend to be more very high IQ and very low IQ men than women.
One natural response to this data on personality, interests and IQ is that these differences are generated by social or cultural factors. The way young boys and girls are treated in a particular culture may influence their development in dramatic ways. However, many of these sex differences in cognition and behavior have been found to be universal across cultures. But even this data is not problematic for someone convinced that gender differences are socially constructed. As Manne phrases it, “this [evidence for innate sex differences] is generally lacking at this historical juncture, for lack of a control group: i.e. a society in which people have lived for some time under genuinely egalitarian conditions.” Manne is absolutely correct, if what she means by “genuinely” is perfectly. No society has perfectly equal gender relations, and perhaps no society ever will. But some countries are definitely more gender egalitarian than others, and we would expect, under her conception, that as gender relations equalize— that is, as social and political norms become more gender neutral—we would see fewer sex differences expressed between men and women. However, this is not what researchers find. Psychological sex differences are actually larger in more gender egalitarian cultures, and smaller in less gender egalitarian ones. This has been called the gender-equality paradox. Some researchers have hypothesized that “life-quality pressures in less gender-equal countries promote girls’ and women’s engagement with STEM subjects,” as they tend to be more rewarding financially. The flip side to this is that, as individuals’ political and social differences are minimized, any genetic or biological differences in preferences or capacities between them will be maximally expressed. Although these findings go against the theory that gender differences in interests and performance are entirely socially constructed, it should be noted that they do not threaten the doctrine of the complete moral and political equality of men and women. They simply imply that some of the differences we see in the representation of men and women in particular fields and industries may not be the results of sexism and misogyny. The question remains: how much? Manne’s methodology doesn’t help us find out. In denying the need for any psychological component to misogyny, she removes the ability to quantitatively measure sexist or misogynistic beliefs and attitudes, in the form of survey data of the kind presented at the beginning of this article.
In stripping misogyny of its psychological essence in the minds of real individuals, Manne diffuses this toxin to a vague, ethereal patriarchy. No wonder she ends up lamenting how pessimistic she is about convincing people to take misogyny seriously: “So maybe the thing to say, somewhat reluctantly, is— fuck ’em, in the limited sense of ceasing to even try to catch the moderate with mild honey.” In other words, it’s no good trying to engage people in good faith, since according to Manne’s account, “a good portion of the dominant social class have a vested interest in maintaining men’s superiority.” Manne unhelpfully leaves unsaid what exactly should be done about this.
Given this practical dead end, perhaps we should reconsider this semantic wrong turn. Perhaps we should stick to the definitions of sexism and misogyny that have served us well so far. If you believe that women are inferior to men, you are a sexist. If you are a sexist who enforces your beliefs on women by disrespecting or subjugating them, you are a misogynist. Everyone’s ideology leaves a footprint, however faint, and yours will eventually be discovered. As for the rest of us, let’s continue the decades-long trend of increasingly denouncing such beliefs and behaviors wherever we find them, and helping to create an ever more gender-equal world.