What Elliot Rodger did on the evening of Friday, May 23, 2014, isn’t contested, but the reason he did it is. That night Rodger knocked on the door of a sorority house near the University of California, Santa Barbara, and when the women inside didn’t let him in, he left and shot three women who were on the sidewalk, and then continued the rampage, ultimately killing six people and injuring fourteen. He then shot and killed himself.
Before the attacks, Rodger posted a video of himself online, declaring that he intended to punish women for not giving him the attention he felt he deserved—and the men whom he perceived as receiving that attention and therefore envied. In light of the evidence, a number of feminist commentators called the killing spree an act of misogyny, part of a pattern of gender-based rampages. But others in the media and the academy argued differently. They claimed the cause was mental illness.
It was then that Kate Manne, an assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University, started to write. What was missing from the debate, Manne thought, was a clear account of the nature of misogyny, and so she set out to develop one. The result is her new book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, a carefully argued work aimed at a broad audience, which proposes that misogyny is the act of correcting women who fail to give men what men believe they’re due.
Manne tosses out the common thinking that misogyny is equivalent to despising all women, and instead offers that it’s a way to keep women in their place. Misogyny, she writes, is “the system that operates within a patriarchal social order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance.” Like a shock collar used to keep dogs behind an invisible fence, misogyny, she argues, aims to keep women—those who are well trained as well as those who are unruly—in line. The power of Manne’s definition comes from its ability to bring together various behaviors and events under one umbrella. If misogyny is anything that enforces women’s subordination, then it turns out that lots of phenomena fit the profile.
I spoke with Manne over the phone in an attempt to shed some light on this past year, during which so many brave women have come forward to share their experiences of sexual trauma and have actually been taken seriously. The moment is ripe for a reckoning, and Manne offers the language and theory I’ve found myself grasping for. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, she combines the hyper-articulateness of a philosopher and the energy and humor of a down-to-earth millennial, which is electrifying; I imagine she’s a popular professor. At one point during our call, her corgi happily barked in the background, and she pointed out that her dog “couldn’t be silenced” by the patriarchy.
More than anything, I could feel an urgency on the line. Manne is restlessly driven by a sense that things are not right, a sense that this world is a very unjust place for women. She doesn’t think she can fix it. “I’m much more a clarity person than a solutions person,” she says. But she does believe that philosophy can help us understand what’s at stake in the broader fight to overcome patriarchy. “It’s so far from cessation,” she says, “but I’m not despairing.”
—Regan Penaluna for Guernica
Guernica: Why did you write a book about misogyny?
Kate Manne: “Misogyny” wasn’t on my radar until October 2012, when the prime minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, used it in a speech before parliament to call out Tony Abbott, the then opposition party leader, for his sexist and misogynist behavior. Although Gillard’s speech went viral, the occasion for her anger was lost on many people. Abbott had originally demanded Gillard call for the resignation of one of her ministers, who had sent text messages leaked to the media likening women’s genitals to mussels—shucked, he specified—and calling a female colleague an “ignorant botch,” thanks to the Freudian intervention of auto-correct. But Gillard did not want to have to call on Slipper [the minister] to resign; to her mind, he was still a serviceable minister. And she was not sanguine about being “lectured,” as she put it, by Abbott on fitting conduct with regards to gender.
When Gillard’s speech became news, I was interested to realize that “misogyny” wasn’t one of my words—to the extent that I couldn’t remember ever having used it, or even having heard it discussed at length by analytic feminist philosophers. And this despite just having finished a PhD in a philosophy department that is a research hub in that area.
“Misogyny” is also a word that I could have used earlier on in life, as I came to realize later. As one of three girls to attend a hitherto all-boys’ school, I experienced a fair amount of what I now think of as misogynist hostility. “Bitch,” “slut,” and “cunt” were common epithets inscribed in permanent marker on my locker, which was also doused with fish oil to express a disgust of the vagina. I didn’t understand the meaning of the olfactory slur back then, and had to have it explained to me, much to my embarrassment. I experienced other derogations and #metoo moments almost daily. It was against this backdrop that l ultimately came to think misogyny needed a thorough theoretical treatment, after the shootings by Rodger in May 2014.
It wasn’t just what happened that gripped me with horror, though that was certainly part of it. It was also the difficulty of pointing out the gendered nature of the hateful violence plainly, without its importance and systematicity being denied or at least minimized. If not here and now, then when?
Guernica: You also write about a gruesome scene from the TV series Fargo, in which the male protagonist bashes in the face of his wife because the washing machine broke. You felt there was something morally wrong about the presentation by the show makers, and were disturbed by your inability to articulate why. What do you think now?
Kate Manne: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I think what that episode demonstrates most, which I took even longer to articulate, is “himpathy.” The premise of that first episode and the way it gets you hooked is the idea that you will identify enough with his point of view, both literally and metaphorically, to be invested in his fate, and his escaping law enforcement. At the end, his wife is presented as a nagging bitch whom he shuts up.
[His act of violence] is represented as anomalous. It might be anomalous to have Elliot Rodger, in particular, lash out at a sorority house, or this guy in this fictional case in Fargo kill a woman for mocking him about a washing machine repair. But the broader pattern of lashing out because of that feeling that women haven’t been giving enough—that’s everywhere.
Misogyny is the stuff that women face that destroys them in some instances. “Himpathy” is part of the explanation of why we don’t see it, because we’re identifying with “him” and seeing “him” as the good guy, or worrying about “his” future. We don’t see him as taking a life. We see him as asserting his masculinity or defending himself, or as a poor pathetic character, or as vulnerable. Sometimes these things are true, that he is pathetic and vulnerable, but let’s focus on the women.
Guernica: You disagree with defining misogyny as a psychologically motivated phenomenon. Why?
Kate Manne: Yeah. I think it would make misogyny a virtually nonexistent problem. I think it’s based on a stereotypical view of anti-Semitism. It’s just false that Nazis hated all Jews. Like, that was the rhetoric, but you have Eichmann with a Jewish mistress and Jewish family members. There’s a general myth about prejudice, that it’s going to be leveled toward any and every member of a certain historically subordinate class, rather than that it’s something that comes out as a method for enforcing and policing social hierarchies.
So, the first move that I make in defining misogyny is to make it something that needn’t target any and every woman. I understand it not as this psychological property of individuals, but as something that women and girls face, not because they’re women in a man’s mind, but because they’re women in a man’s world. And they’re either represented as, or actually seen as, the epitome of girls and women who are transgressing the norms and expectations of the patriarchy that misogyny polices, enforces, and keeps in place.
Guernica: What are the different ways that misogyny discourages women from challenging the patriarchy?
Kate Manne: I think silencing is a big part of it. And silencing can mean replacing anything unpleasant to the patriarchal collective consciousness with pleasantries—like saying, “He’s a good guy.” And it can mean not speaking out, or defending him, as well as not testifying to his misdeeds.
But I think it takes so many forms that it’s almost difficult to catalog. Basically, take any hierarchy that people care about, like aesthetic, or women’s bodies, or women’s intellect, or women’s moral goodness, or women’s moral status, and you can punish someone or threaten someone with the prospect of being down-ranked according to that hierarchy. Or you can just express anger and lash out in a way that’s a more direct kind of shock to the system. It can be a low-grade, unpleasant vibration, like disapproval. Or it can be the really huge outbursts of violence and the shocks that burn, and are on their own called trauma.
Guernica: You argue that sexism and misogyny aren’t the same thing. Misogyny enforces patriarchal norms, whereas sexism rationalizes them—for example, by arguing for gender differences, especially where men come out superior to women. There are scientific studies suggesting that men and women think differently, feel differently, or generally perceive the world differently due to biological differences. I don’t think that the scientists who conduct these studies would call their own research sexist. I think they’d say that they’re merely observing nature, and that to call nature sexist is a categorical error. What would you say to them?
Kate Manne: I think a lot of that science is bad science. There’s no control group in a patriarchal culture. There’s no group of women raised such as not to have sexist theories and misogynistic enforcement mechanisms operating on them. Of course some differences will show up. But it doesn’t lead to an enhanced kind of epistemic state, where we know something interesting and new about two different groups. So it’s not knowledge producing science.
One thing that these pieces of scientific research do is they end up conserving the null hypothesis of no difference. You know, by showing some sex difference, they then make it seem like less of a concern if women are underrepresented, say, in philosophy. They make it seem like, well, that’s just what we’d expect. It’s also used to continue to rationalize exclusion, and say, “Yeah, it’s not a big worry.” We don’t have to worry about sexual harassment in philosophy, or the subtle exclusion mechanisms of great philosophers, or syllabi that are totally dominated by white men. Because women just aren’t as into philosophy. But come look at my intro philosophy classes! They’re, like, 60 percent women and 30 percent women of color. I really think, anecdotally, we can do better.
Guernica: What is it like writing a book about misogyny in philosophy, a field that is historically hostile to women and in which even today women are greatly underrepresented?
Kate Manne: Because misogyny divides women into good women and bad women, I feel like—partly due to things like white privilege, class privilege, having a professor father who taught me to sort of talk the academic talk—I’ve been treated as one of the “good ones.”
Here’s an anecdote that I actually haven’t told anyone beyond philosophy. I have a background in logic, which I think helps, because it’s heavily masculine-coded. One of the first times I gave a talk based on the first few chapters of the book, it was at a university where a very prominent feminist philosopher had recently died. And after the talk, one of the faculty members compared me to this recently deceased feminist philosopher, [who was] his colleague of many years. And he said, “I think you’re much better than her. I think you’re a real philosopher.”
And that was my second year as an assistant professor, so I couldn’t make the equivalent of the vomit-face emoji. I just kind of stopped in my tracks at how lacking in self-awareness, and how morally hideous, what he’d just done was. I just asked him what he meant by that. And it turned out he felt like his colleague had done mostly sociology, and somehow he thought that I was doing philosophy, because of the distinctions I’d made.
Why is philosophy an honorific? We should just be talking about what’s interesting, and there’s lots of stuff, sociologically and psychologically, that is worth talking about. [What he did] is just another way in which hierarchies are enforced. Philosophy is masculine-coded, but thinks of itself as the ultimate humanity.
Guernica: You’re critical of the argument that misogyny is a problem because women aren’t treated as human. In fact, you argue that women are treated as “all too human.” What do you mean by that?
Kate Manne: Yeah, that’s just the wrong metaphor. I feel like it’s just really implausible that women wouldn’t be seen as human, because there’s no spatial segregation. And women have been having human babies for men. It’s also so exonerating for men, like, “Oh, if they only just got it.” No. What’s to get? Here we women are talking, walking, writing, being athletes and comedians, and trying pretty much every human activity that is known to mankind. Pun intended. And men freak out when women do human things. It’s not that men don’t get it, it’s that they don’t welcome human equality.
The other part of it, too, is that I think [this metaphor] misses that violence doesn’t need an elaborate psychological explanation. Men do violence to women all the time as a method of enforcing norms or punching down. It’s just not true that people have these huge inhibitions when it comes to violence. Like, maybe with people they don’t know, but with people whom they’re intimate with, and want to express resentment against, it’s ubiquitous.
Guernica: You also touch upon “misogynoir.” Can you say more?
Kate Manne: “Misogynoir” is [the scholar] Moya Bailey’s term for the potent intersection of anti-black racism and misogyny faced by African American women in the US. One example of misogynoir that I write about in my book is the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, formerly a police officer in Oklahoma City, who preyed on black women—often those who were also further vulnerable in that they were sex workers, poor, and/or were known by the police to have drug addiction issues. Holtzclaw was ultimately convicted of eighteen counts of sexual assault—including sexual battery, rape, and forcible oral sodomy—against these women. The jury, which found him guilty of these crimes, sentenced Holtzclaw to 263 years in prison. The convictions only represented eight of his thirteen accusers. But the white feminist silence around the case in the press, at least initially, was telling—and, I argue, shameful.
So in the book I’ve tried to speak mostly as a white woman who can very easily be made complicit in not only misogyny in general, but misogynoir in particular. But also, I’ve tried to make it clear that I think there’s a crucial need for continuing to theorize misogynoir in academic philosophy, especially due to the extreme absence of a sufficient number of people of color in general [in the field], and black women in particular. We need more voices on the subject. And I think the same applies to trans misogyny, too. We need more trans voices urgently.
Guernica: You also write about how Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election was due in large part to misogyny. What’s your thinking there?
Kate Manne: The question I’m interested in is how we got to that point, and why I think it was predictable. It was so obvious. The thing is, people think the rhetoric is unique to Clinton, and it’s just not. It’s the same thing we said about Julia Gillard [the former prime minister of Australia]. You know: bitch, witch, liar. She was seen as so fake, like a nest of Russian dolls. She has many masks, but who has seen her face? There were also complaints about her voice. Endless complaints about her breaking promises and being corrupt, such that she was even brought up on these bogus corruption charges after she left office.
Guernica: So Clinton’s loss is an example of a woman trying to punch above her station, but failing because misogyny forced her down?
Kate Manne: Exactly. Hierarchies are really, really hard to shift. And people don’t realize they’re post-hoc rationalizing when they use values like competence or likeability, just to keep [the male opponent] up.
Guernica: You talk about how despite Trump’s blatant misogyny the majority of white women voters supported him. There was also a lot of support among white women for Roy Moore, the republican candidate for the Alabama senate, who was accused by numerous women of sexual assault. You write in your book, “Misogyny works to disrupt female solidarity, especially among white women.” Why is that?
Kate Manne: I was so angry after the election. But it’s important to be clear that white men are worse, and are more to blame.
About 90 percent of white women who are partnered with men are partnered with white men, and that’s according to the most recent Pew statistics I’ve seen. It could have shifted slightly, but that just gives an indication of how homogenous white women’s preferences are, and how racist. If you hold fixed, both in time and also as a causal explanatory factor, that white men were the vast majority of Trump supporters, you see women falling into line with these white men in support of Trump. White women doing that, it feels like such a betrayal. And it sucks so much. And I feel so ashamed of it.
On the other hand, the book shows what’s at stake in resisting white supremacist patriarchy, which is misogyny of the most brutal kind that’s visited partly on more vulnerable women, women of color, but also on white women within these racially homogenous and patriarchal partnerships.
Guernica: What about misogyny in art and literature—how should we address it? Not just artists who are or might be labeled misogynist, but also the portrayals of women that are misogynist. The traditional argument is that some of these works are beyond moral reproach because they’re genius.
Kate Manne: I’ve overlooked so many problems that are not just moral, but artistic. Iris Murdoch, who’s a philosopher I just love, thought of morality as the battle to see what’s real, and to strip away the gossamer tissue of seeing the world in a way that is self-centered and egocentric.
I think there’s so much truth in that. It’s often the case now that I’ll see or read something that I used to think of as great. There are artists that rate as incredibly crude, and [indulge] male fantasies. There’s often a premise in these conversations that it is great art, and that we haven’t overestimated it. But I think oftentimes that we have overestimated it, because it has this element of just centering around one kind of person’s story, and one kind of person’s voice. And the other thing is, it’s such a good opportunity to branch out, because there’s so much underestimated art made by women of color that just hasn’t been really attended to.
Guernica: Now that the book is done, what are you working on?
Kate Manne: I’m interested in gaslighting. In misogyny from the inside, from the perspective of the gaslit, someone who fears being morally punished—not just being treated as bad, but being bad for doing things that are in reality just fine. Like saying no to sex. I guess I’m really talking about all of the ways in which women don’t know our own wills or minds, and also in which women [are encouraged] to act against them because of social control structures.