So, I have been studying philosophy for a while, and am still technically enrolled in a PhD program in a research university, although I’m not sure if I’ll stay. Down Girl by Kate Manne is the first philosophical work I’ve been able to read for a while. It kind of hurts to return to philosophy, and the why of that is complicated, but I guess it comes down to the fact that while I love philosophy, it doesn’t feel like academic philosophy loves me. It’s not the field, but the institution: the capitalist structure that seeds its hall with upper and upper middle class students who mistake their privilege for merit, that turns a place of learning into a competitive grist mill for tenure-track jobs that grinds out any genuine love you have for the work, the alienating, emotionless formal-speak on papers and in the classroom that restricts communication to only those who’ve learned to speak the language. Philosophy is pretty conservative among the humanities. There are few people of color here, and it’s a bigger problem than the Woman Problem, and one that’s talked about less and given fewer resources. But there is the Woman Problem: if a department deals with sexual harassment in the way that you hope it would, by giving consequences to the harasser and reprieve to the harassee, it becomes known as the Department with a Harassment Problem. If, on the other hand, the department sweeps harassment and assault under the rug, it can maintain the mantle of We Care About Women in Philosophy. Let’s just say my Master’s Program gave me a great insight into this particular incentive structure. It hurts to read philosophy now, and this book wasn’t an easy choice.
Once you get to PhD land, the common question becomes what field you’re in—mine is philosophy of language and logic, and I am (was?) starting to develop a foundation in political philosophy. I have a pipe dream of going to Ehtiopia to learn Ge’ez so that I can study Zera Yacob’s work. Being a woman and being in the philosophy game, you might think I would know something about feminist philosophy, but you’d be wrong. A lot of female philosophers are my heroes—Dorothy Edgington, Angelika Kratzer, Irene Heim—but I’ve never really buckled down to establish a solid understanding of feminist philosophy. It’s not necessarily intentional, but it’s not necessarily unintentional either.
Part of it is perversity and contrariness. I know it’s expected of me, so fuck you. That’s been my reaction to being a woman for a long time. Dresses were expected of me, and I refused to wear them until high school. I would wear only gray clothes. I was a latchkey kid and wore it on a dirty shoelace strung around my neck. I told a female colleague this and she said “That’s so fucking cool.” And it hurt, because actually I’m really fucking girly. I love dresses, and makeup, and long hair, and jewelry, and perfume. It just took me a long time to admit it to myself and to succumb to the urge, because being a girl is not cool. Now that I’ve committed to be girly, I’m equally perverse about it. I know that being a fashion plate makes people take me less seriously, but it shouldn’t take academic training to realize that an interest in inference is not inconsistent with expressing an artful version of yourself—aesthetics, after all, is a branch of philosophy.
That’s the second part of my complicated relationship with feminism—the first wave of it all. I don’t wear heels because they’re uncomfortable, but I did once have this pair of boots with kitten heels that were comfortable and also the Platonic ideal of a seventies-era thigh high slouchy boot. When I went to my Nietzsche class that day, my feminist-identifying professor launched into a tirade about how women sabotaged themselves by wearing heels and limiting their movement. It was clearly directed at me. I’ve been told by well-meaning female philosophers not to apologize so much, to use fewer hedging modals, to speak with more aggressive certainty. My aforementioned colleague advised me to tone down my clothes and jewelry. I’m sorry, but why do some feminists hate femininity so fucking much? Why is it that when we identify a trait more highly correlated with women, the conclusion is—do that less. Shouldn’t the lesson be: men, maybe do that more? I remember chipped nail polish and guyliner and ironically worn dresses and metrosexuality. That was sexy. I miss it. Maybe men should learn to apologize more. A philosopher of all people should be aware of the dangerous siryn call of a false sense certainty. Most of us start with the Discourse on Method and Meditations on the First Philosophy, after all.
Finally, even though I haven’t made a formal philosophical study of it, I do consider myself a feminist, and I think about it all the time. The thing is, as someone who has experienced violence at the hands of men since I was a child, I don’t necessarily want to think about it any more than I already do. It is hard enough for me to have some faith in humanity in general and men in particular, and I worry that sharpening my already sharp thoughts on the state of women in the world will put me past the point of no return. For instance, I’ve been strangled three times in my life. Wow, now I’m that drunk girl that cornered you at a party, huh? If I were to bring this sort of thing up in a classroom setting, my reputation would be shot as a hysterical PTSD case. But if the thesis of empiricism is that knowledge derives from experience, why shouldn’t I appeal to my experience? After all, it’s pertinent: Down Girl begins with strangulation.
The thing about strangulation that I’ve noticed is that people seem entirely ignorant as to how dangerous is. It’s regarded as kinky fair play—men will spring it on you with no warning. And no wonder they’re ignorant! If you are worried about dying, of course you’re going to pretend it’s hot. That’s what gets you out of the room. And if your Sexy Strangler knows where you live, of course you’re not going to tell them how fucked up it is to be surprise strangled in the middle of sex. After all, strangulation is one of the best indicators of homicidal tendencies. In fact, it can kill you or maim you by accident. When you see black swim in front of your eyes, damage has been done. You might not see it, but you could be brain damaged, or have a stroke, or an aneurysm. You might die the next morning, or day, or a few weeks later, and no one will ever be the wiser. Speaking of wise, most people are not wise to the fact that strangulation is so dangerous that breath play is broadly discouraged within the BDSM community. The more you know.
Ethics and epistemology, the field concerned with evidence, belief, and knowledge, have more overlap than you might think. W. K. Clifford, in “The Ethics of Belief,” defends the thesis that one is morally obliged to have sufficient evidence for every one of their beliefs. So, let’s apply that to the fact that sex play has been used to dismiss murder charges in a number of fairly recent cases of fatal strangulation. It’s not enough to claim ignorance when you strangle someone and cause them damage—you had a duty to seek out evidence before engaging in the act. I like this idea, because the ignorance that men profess to when it comes to the damage they do women only seems possible if they don’t think of us as fully human but somewhere in between sex dolls and some kind of servant-pet hybrid. They seem incapable of the basic move of putting themselves in our shoes: what if I were naked with a much bigger person and that person started strangling me? Would that be sexy?
As often as I entertain the question “Is there something wrong with men on a biological level?”, I do agree that Kate Manne has a more constructive approach. The basic idea that guides Manne’s work is that it is less productive to think of misogyny as a property of a person, than as an action or behavior enacted or enabled by a person. The former characterization can stymie communication—when misogyny is an intangible psychological quality, it is as difficult to identify as it is to disprove. It makes it easy to deny: since we have no direct access to any agent’s deep psychological states, we can make up charitable possible motives and thus dismiss accusations of misogyny. Manne runs down an infuriating list of media responses that disavow the idea that the Isla Vista shootings have anything to do with misogyny. It didn’t really have to do with hostility towards women—it was mental illness, or anxiety, or frustrated desire. Elliot Rodgers wanted to be with women, how can you say he hated them?
Characterizing misogyny as an innate personal property also makes it surprising when you find women being treated without hostility in a patriarchy (I have heard this called benevolent sexism before), and instead treated positively, by people who exhibit clear misogynistic behavior. Manne explains that women who abide by misogynist norms are lovable by misogynist standards: “To put the problem bluntly: when it comes to the women who are not only dutifully but lovingly catering to his desires, what’s to hate, exactly?” (47-48). It is then easy for a misogynist to disavow accusations of misogyny by pointing out the love he extends his daughter, or his wife, or to gesture towards the binders of women at his workplace. The parallel to the “I have a black friend” racist is easy to see here. It just makes people defensive. It’s the difference between telling someone they’re racist and telling them that what they just said is considered racist by many.
Instead of focusing on the hidden psychological attributes of the oppressor, misogyny (and its corollaries, namely racism, xenophobia, ableism, transphobia, etc.) should be understood in terms of the experiences of the oppressed—after all, experience is a form of knowledge, even if you reject empiricism. In rooting her treatment in the hostility experienced by women rather than felt by men, we can make sense of the fact that misogynists can be successful alphas as well as failed betas, and can sometimes also be women. Misogyny is an experience more often than not instantiated in collective rather than individual settings.
Manne portrays misogyny as the law enforcement branch of the patriarchal system, a property of social systems, a pattern of incentives and disincentives that encourage women to abide by patriarchal norms and men to enforce those norms. In general, it serves to uphold feminine subordination and masculine dominance, but other structures complicate the matter—class, race, sexual orientation, religious identities, physical ability, and so on. The result is a system in which most or all men are dominant over (at least) some women.
Manne’s approach is ameliorative: that is, it’s oriented towards the goal of bettering public discourse around misogyny, rather than serving as an abstract academic project. I like this approach just because broadly speaking I have been so disappointed by public communication in general lately. On the conservative side, He Who Shall Not be Named has injected bad-faith argumentative time-wasting pwn-centered game-playing “arguments” with steroids in the last four years. On the progressive side, I have seen people who agree on 95% of the things they’re talking about at each other’s throats because people aren’t talking about things the right way or aren’t angry enough or in the right way during a time in which there’s just too much to be angry about in the first place. I often find myself thinking: what’s the goal here? If you want to make x happen, you’re more likely to succeed if you figure out how to persuade people rather than to bully them into quietude on the subject, right? If you want to persuade people, you’ve got to figure out the right way to talk to them. And it seems like it’s getting harder and harder to figure out the right way to talk to people. The words “misogyny” and “sexism” and “feminism” alone tend turn people’s brains off and invite hot “but actually” takes.
This approach also allows Manne’s approach to be consistent with an intersectional approach. If misogyny is the law enforcement of a patriarchal culture, then it’s not surprising that there are different laws for black women (instances of misogynoir such as disproportionate rates of eviction and police brutality), trans women (violence), queer women (fetishization), and disabled women. It also allows us to understand that in enforcing gender norms, women can also be rewarded (for embodying the relevant norms) and men can be punished (for flouting the relevant norms). The conservative white woman is understandable: she’s figured out how to play the game to her benefit—of course she doesn’t want the game to change.
However, even women who abide by the norms are not safe, since they may serve as a symbol for other bad women—hence the women subject to violence and aggression by men who perceive their sexual needs to not be adequately satisfied. Elliot Rodgers had no particular hot woman in mind who owed him sexual favors. His unsatisfied entitlement was an injustice committed by no one in particular, which opens up the possibility that the punishment will be meted out to no one in particular, as was the case in the Isla Vista shootings. Men were killed, too. Women are always in danger of serving as the symbolic figure of male disappointment of this kind, and though the risk of outright annihilation is low, less violent consequences abound. There is also a double bind here: should women abide by the purity norm, which serves a man’s need to have full proprietary power over a woman, or should they cater to men’s needs by sexually satisfying them? There’s no way to play the game without losing. Those who don’t lose are just lucky.
That’s it! That’s the review! If you want to read it, please don’t buy from Amazon. I just got a twitter where I write haikus. It’s happier than this review. Follow me, fellow bitches!