London Review of Books
Down Girl: the Logic of Misogyny
by Kate Manne.
Penguin, 338 pp., £9.99, March 2019, 978 0 14 199072 9
The word ‘misogyny’ was rarely used when I was training to be a child psychotherapist in London in the late 1970s, but the question that invariably came up when children were being assessed was: ‘how much’ – or, rather, ‘in what sense’ – was the mother to blame? The question wasn’t explicit; even in those days people were mindful of the significance of political and economic conditions, racism and sexism, and transgenerational histories, and psychoanalysis was against blaming. Indeed if psychoanalysis was a theory of anything it was a theory of scapegoating as the saboteur of development. And yet, more often than not, the focus was on the mothers: on their histories, their states of mind, their sexuality, their failure to protect their children when there were abusive men around. There was an aversion to blaming mothers, but mothers were often told, in the nicest possible way, that if only they had done, or could do (or feel) this, this and this, their children wouldn’t be so unhappy. (Mothers and child therapists each, in their different ways, had a lot of explaining to do.) In those days, when there was a viable NHS, there were a lot of amazingly sympathetic and imaginative people working in child-guidance clinics and departments of child psychiatry, and a remarkable service of care was often provided. But, as one of my supervisors said to me, ‘No one can ever really forgive their mother.’
Freud, however, had been more preoccupied by fathers, differing in this respect from the prominent British child analysts Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott and John Bowlby. Questions were asked about the significance of the father in child development, and family therapy opened up the family as a system rather than a cult of personality. At the same time we were encouraged to believe that everything depended on what the mother was like, and what the experience of dependence was like (for both the mother and the child). So powerful had mothers – and their absences – been in everyone’s life that something about femininity was deemed to require a great deal of regulation, much of it punitive and some of it nominally and some of it genuinely therapeutic. And this is where the plot against women’s pleasure (and aggression) begins, and in particular the plot against women’s pleasure that excluded men (and children).
The male child, in this story, had to turn the trauma of having been mothered into the triumphalism of male potency. In this set-up vulnerability is masculinity’s dirty secret, leaving men with a haunting and haunted sense of impotence that only becoming a bully can assuage. Looked at this way, development would be about getting even. Boys who have grown up experiencing their mothers’ care as a regime become men who are intent on turning the tables, on revenge. (Not surprisingly it is problematic for adolescent girls that boys treat them as both alluring and frightening.) And psychoanalysis was left trying to address everyone’s terror of their own misogyny. It wasn’t just that everyone wanted to kill the thing they loved, but that they mostly wanted to keep it alive in order to torture it, unable to forgive their own need for someone they could not be everything to. In this story the child’s dependence on the mother was tainted by his fear of harming her when he felt let down, as he always did, and by his terror of abandonment. The child’s question was: how do you sustain contact with someone you need when you are all too often enraged with her? How can you ever be confident that your love is stronger, and better, than your hate?
In this account of child development it wasn’t hard to understand why men felt enraged by women, even if that wasn’t all they felt. Similarly mothers don’t necessarily intend to frustrate, though they are inevitably experienced as frustrating. Desire, as Freud pointed out, is always in excess of any object’s capacity to satisfy it. (Though that never stopped anyone wanting what they want.) Children are frustrated, and mothers are guilty (among many other things). In Freud’s view, we are ambivalent animals, partly because we were born with varying amounts of innate love and hate, and partly because hate is what we feel when love is frustrated; and love is always frustrated. Everyone, in this account, is ambivalent about both their parents, and indeed about anyone and anything they love; the discrepancy between the ideal loved object of fantasy and the real loved object is always only more or less bearable. People could never get over the fact that the people they loved and desired weren’t exactly the ones they wanted.
It was the child analysts, perhaps unsurprisingly, who made early development all about mothering, and who made early development the key to all subsequent development. The child starts out in a state of absolute dependence on the mother (or caretaker), and if all goes well – if the child has a ‘good-enough mother’, is sufficiently well attached, isn’t born with too much innate aggression and develops appropriately – he begins to acknowledge that the mother he depends on can’t be controlled by him and doesn’t desire only to satisfy him. The mother who can make him feel wonderful by satisfying his needs is by the same token the mother who can make him feel deranged and destitute by frustrating him. So mothers are the best and worst of people; and at some ‘deep’ level all women are experienced as mothers. Women are exorbitantly promising, and so shatteringly disappointing. They are the most gifted and competent people in the world, and the least. The kindest and the cruellest, the cleverest and the most stupid; the most reliable and the most fickle; the most virtuous and the most immoral. Women are maddening because they don’t invariably make everyone feel better, because they don’t give us exactly what we want when we want it. In this version women are ineluctably set up to fail – i.e. more often than not the focus of murderous aggression. ‘Some women are not beautiful,’ Karl Kraus wrote: ‘they just look as though they are.’ And so on and on and on. When misogyny isn’t horrifying or dispiriting, it is unrelentingly boring.
Everybody loves and hates the people they most depend on; traditionally, it was a woman, though it isn’t always so now. What they really hate, psychoanalysis suggests, and sometimes insists, is the part of themselves that is dependent. And they protect this part of themselves by attacking its object: men don’t hate women – they hate their need for women. In this account people are always, but to varying degrees, enraged that they are not self-sufficient, that they aren’t omniscient, omnipotent gods; the happily dependent part of oneself thinks it is wonderful to live in a world in which people can do different things: the unhappily dependent part thinks, why can’t I do that? It couldn’t be more straightforward. To begin with we are dependent on women, but we hate being dependent, so we hate women (we all do, women as well as men, though woman-hating obviously poses different questions for men and women). It is a developmental achievement, then, to be able to acknowledge the fact that one’s mother is a real person, and that we can enjoy relying on her, even though like all real people she can be unreliable. In this particular psychoanalytic version – the version derived from the British child analysts – everyone suffers initially from who their mother happens to be; from the fact that she is a person with a history, and that there is more to her than her identity as a mother. No young child accepts that his mother is anyone other than his mother, and mothers are always to blame (on this the child and some of the so-called mental health professionals agree). And this is where the trouble starts for both mother and child. And where, in this account, the misogyny starts.
Down Girl is usefully and tellingly sceptical of all such ‘psychological’ explanations: Kate Manne describes them as the ‘naive conception of misogyny’. Misogyny is not, in her view, a ‘property of individual misogynists’ and therefore something we can find in particular people, even deep down inside themselves. It’s not that sort of thing; it isn’t a thing at all, it’s a practice, a lifestyle, a way of doing something (keeping women down in both senses implied by Manne’s title). Again, it isn’t something we are, but something we do; and therefore, in our Enlightenment zeal to be able to remake what we have already made, we can imagine it as something we could do differently, or perhaps, not do at all. ‘What lies behind an individual agent’s attitudes, as a matter of deep or ultimate psychological explanation,’ she writes, ‘is frequently inscrutable,’ by which, I take it, she means something like ‘unverifiable’, impossible to locate and scrutinise. It may be that she is asking here for more clarity than is necessary; as she knows, there are people who find psychological explanations useful, without doubting their own ultimate inscrutability. But by warning us away from an essentialist, psychological view of misogyny, she also alerts us to the mystery-mongering in all essentialism, the acts of faith our essences seem to require of us. Misogynists, of course, are radical essentialists when it comes to women. They know exactly what they are like, and we should not, Manne intimates, be fighting one essentialism with another.
There are reasons people have (and want) theories about human nature – theories taken to be universal in application – and reasons we find essentialist theories so compelling. Once you know what to start with you have some idea of what you can do; once you know where to start from you can work out where to go. But all essentialist theories – theological, political, psychoanalytic – require you to believe a lot of other things in order to believe them (to believe in the Judeo-Christian God, say, you have to believe that the world was created, and that there is such a thing as omnipotence). In order to believe the psychoanalytic story about misogyny you have to believe that there is essentially nothing more to people than their instincts (and their mothering), and that human development is subject to uncontroversial, normative standards (those who have been fortunate enough to have had good enough mothering will be OK, despite the fact that what is OK, what is good enough, and what mothering is are all debatable and contentious).
There is nothing deep inside us, Richard Rorty once remarked, that we haven’t put there ourselves. So even though, at least for some people, psychoanalysis, and psychology more generally, have interesting things to say about misogyny, they also run the risk of naturalising it (misogyny is deep inside us because our mothers are). But what is deep inside us, in this odd spatial picture, is what Manne calls ‘prevalent cultural narratives’; for example, ‘a strenuous collective effort, yet to be fully acknowledged ... to uphold certain men’s innocence, to defend their honour, and to grant them a pardon prematurely, or without the proper authority to do so’. She calls these ‘exonerating narratives’, and her examples, some taken from literature and some from life, have to do with instances where women are murdered. But above all she wants us to see how it works, and acknowledge the significance of what is happening, rather than simply punish (humiliating and shaming Harvey Weinstein has more to do with the problem than with the solution). ‘Often,’ she writes, ‘sexual assault involves not just overriding the victim’s will, but mentally rewriting it (“You like that, don’t you?”).’ There may always and only be rewriting, but we need to know who and what the rewriting serves. If suspecting victims – the title of one of Manne’s best chapters – is what we are prone to do, we need to consider what it is we don’t want to know, both about ourselves and about others. It is, she says plainly, ‘just moral life’ – though ‘just’ is ambiguous here – that ‘attempts to disrupt existing power relations are rife with moral hazards.’ Manne is quite explicit in asking us not to believe what she says, but to follow her argument. And, of course, in helping us to reread other people’s rewriting, she is showing us how we might read hers.
Once misogyny is essentialised – once it is treated as in some way integral to our nature, or just a part of how we live – it all too easily becomes one of Manne’s exonerating narratives. If there is little justice for women, what is there? If there is no cure for misogyny, what is there? The question then is how to co-exist with it. This is one of the many reasons Manne’s book is so illuminating. Apart from taking for granted the fact that ideas about women, like all ideas, are culturally and historically specific, it shows us how to think (and talk) about misogyny without telling us precisely what to think. Manne knows that a book about misogyny is going to be preaching to the converted, when the converted don’t necessarily know what or how they think; or indeed what to do with their doubts, not least their doubts about the ideology of virtue, about being on the side of the angels. Down Girl rightly insists that misogyny is so all-pervading and so alluring that we are more likely to take it for granted than we are to acknowledge it properly, or want to change it for something better. ‘What could possibly change any of this?’ Manne asks in the conclusion to her book, and it sounds like a cry from the heart: ‘Even trying is liable to make me seem nasty, abrasive and pushy.’ It’s not that women can’t win, she seems to be saying, but that they are all too often shut out of the game. Or the man tells the woman what the game is, and she then has to learn how to play it.
Abook about misogyny is going to be, as Manne’s is, about kindness and against bullying. It is likely to assume that if sexual desire is not mutual, sex is something other than sex (coercion, intimidation, self-assertion, fantasy, rage). And it will be seeking the causes of something that both horrifies and excites people – sometimes the same people – with a view to doing something about it. Manne’s book does all this, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not, while bringing to its subject the engaging clarity that its subtitle refers us to. Writing as ‘someone trained in moral and feminist philosophy, rather than psychology, sociology, gender studies, anthropology or history’, she wants to offer ‘a useful toolkit for asking, answering and debating’ misogyny, a word she thinks we are ‘in danger of losing’, so fraught and overused and clichéd has it become. Wittgenstein’s familiar term is apposite here because Manne is showing us what we do, what we might do and what we don’t notice we are doing with the word ‘misogyny’, and how we might best use it. She wants her book to be ‘a bulwark against ... the siphoning off of heat and light from the problem of misogyny, in both private life and public discourse, and the concomitant denialism’. And Down Girl does this with an acuity and precision that is both hospitable and exacting. In eight chapters, each of which can be read as a self-standing essay, divided into sections with titles like ‘What Kind of Question Is “What Is Misogyny?”’, ‘Care-Mongering’, ‘His for the Taking’, ‘The Giving She’, Manne makes it clear how difficult it can be to see misogyny at work, self-evident and flaunted though it is; and why misogyny is ‘still a thing’. We can only get a sense of why ‘misogyny’ exists if we know what it is, if we have workable descriptions of it. And this is what Manne sets out to provide. ‘It functions,’ she writes, ‘to police and enforce a patriarchal social order without necessarily going via the intermediary of people’s assumptions, beliefs, theories, values and so on.’ It doesn’t, in other words, require consent or assent; it’s how things are, rather than a regime or a set of instructions. Both sexism and racism, she writes, uphold the patriarchal order, but ‘sexism purports to merely be reasonable; misogyny gets nasty and tries to force the issue ... misogyny goes on witch hunts’. There will be people who take exception to phrases like ‘the patriarchal order’, but it would be Manne’s salient point that a patriarchal order, by definition, defies formulation and so disarms criticism. When you go on a witch hunt, you can only find what you are looking for.
Manne aims to understand ‘the nature of misogyny, both in terms of its general logic’ and through ‘one (though only one) of its key dynamics. This involves men drawing on women in asymmetrical moral support roles.’ She has in mind ‘a more or less diverse set of women on whom such a man’ – the sort of man she refers to as the ‘most privileged’ (i.e. white, straight, cisgender, middle-class and non-disabled) – ‘is tacitly deemed entitled to rely on for nurturing, comfort, care, and sexual, emotional and reproductive labour’. These entitlements more or less define how such a man treats a woman – what he treats her as – and may, for example, lead women to try to work out what men want, and then try to provide it. It is asymmetrical because men will then assume that women want to satisfy men’s wants, without thinking too much about women’s wants (or wanting these to be articulated). Wanting nurture, comfort, care, sex and children is not the problem here: it is the entitlement and the asymmetry that ultimately get everyone, but mostly women, down. Entitlement is always fuelled by rage; and even though the wish for symmetry in relationships all too easily narrows the repertoire, asymmetry breeds resentment.
Manne’s picture here – allowing for the fact that everyone’s experience is limited, and no one knows everyone – seems incontestable. The question would be – though this may be too ‘psychological’ for Manne – what does this arrangement satisfy? Manne urges us to distinguish not between women as human beings and women as objects, but ‘between a (self-)recognised human being – e.g. white men who are otherwise privileged in most if not all major respects – versus a human giver, a woman who is held to owe many if not most of her distinctively human capacities to a suitable boy or man, ideally, and his children, as applicable’. ‘Versus’ is the right word here for what is virtually a structural antagonism. The advantage of this description is that it can both be reversed (men could be human givers) and allow us to think about what we might want to give each other, as opposed to what we think we owe each other. Once giving is gendered, it’s extortion. In wanting to redescribe the repertoire of ways in which men and women can do things together – against what she calls the ‘regular social-norm enforcement mechanisms’ – Manne wants not only a redistribution of labour, but more probity in our descriptions of these mechanisms.
‘Misogyny,’ she writes, ‘though often personal in tone, is most productively understood as a political phenomenon.’ It isn’t that Manne favours the norm enforcement mechanisms over individual voices, rather that she wants us to notice how informed by these mechanisms our voices are; as though we – and perhaps women in particular – always run the risk of being the ventriloquist’s dummies of patriarchy. ‘We need to try to do justice in our theorising,’ she writes, ‘to both agents and social structures,’ but the difficulty of doing this has always been the point not the problem. Productive understanding for Manne – aware as she is of the potential gap between those who write about misogyny, and those who practise it and the potential for complicity between them – has everything to do with alerting us to codes of practice that legitimate the systemic humiliation of women.
But it is also a shame to relegate individual psychology entirely, to lose it in the name of something else. What is personal in tone is often theory’s first casualty, in its will to generalise and abstract; and misogyny, unlike virtually any other subject, as Manne’s book makes abundantly clear, causes us to wonder what we think we are doing when we are theorising (people who commit horrifying crimes against women are unlikely to read her book). So when Manne writes about misogyny from a philosophical point of view her instances and examples are there to temper her speculation. ‘It can be useful,’ she writes, ‘to understand the inner workings of a system that upholds the status quo in intricate, and sometimes even morally gory detail, in order to see how best to combat it’ – the gory detail and the combat being inextricable, even though the less vivid descriptions of the inner workings of the system are the point of the book. But it is inevitably the evidence the book cites that stays in the mind. Theoretical descriptions are easily trumped by accounts of violence, as though theory itself is never traumatic enough. An introductory section of the book entitled ‘Smothering’ begins:
Women who are strangled rarely co-operate with the police. Often incorrectly called ‘choking’, non-fatal manual strangulation is inherently dangerous. It can lead to death hours, days, even weeks afterward due to complications from the brain being deprived of oxygen. It also causes injuries to the throat that may not leave a mark. If you don’t know how to examine a victim’s throat, what to look for in her eyes (red spots called ‘petechiae’), and the right questions to ask, it may seem no harm has come of it. She may not seek medical treatment. The incident will be ‘shrouded in silence’. Sometimes she won’t wake up the next morning ... victims of a non-fatal attack of this kind have also been found to be some seven times more likely to become the victim of an attempted homicide by the same perpetrator.
The starkness of the presentation, and the bluntness of the facts, make strangulation an emblem of Manne’s argument: the evidence of misogynistic acts is often invisible, ignored or actively covered up (both by the powers that be and by the terrified victims); and, their long-term effects having to be allowed for, they can be more or less fatal. Steven Bannon and Donald Trump’s ex-wives, among others, are cited as victims of similar acts, both of whom seem to have been intimidated into retracting or airbrushing their accusations. Everyone knows the truth, so everyone turns a blind eye. Humiliation is enforced agreement.
Manne wonders why it is, and always has been, so difficult to take misogyny seriously; and indeed found that during the time she was researching the book she became ‘less optimistic about the prospects of getting people to take misogyny seriously – including treating it as a moral priority’. So it is essential to the problem of misogyny that most people don’t think it is a problem; and for Manne the result of the 2016 US election overwhelmingly confirmed this. (‘It surely cannot be doubted,’ she writes, ‘that, among the factors that account for this largely unforeseen and disastrous outcome, misogyny is one of the most important.’) It is, of course, dangerous for women to complain about abusive men, or try to shame them – women’s ‘designated role is to listen, not to criticise or censor’. Calling it a role, even if designated, implies the possibility of change, though you sometimes feel that the possibilities Manne senses require women to manage a lurking defeatedness. And this in itself makes the book more not less engaging.
Manne has to be resolutely political rather than psychologising in her quest for causes, steering clear of what she calls ‘fairly puzzling putative psychological attitudes’. And sometimes her book suffers from a determination not to be vague. Misogyny, she insists, is not ‘a matter of psychological ill-health, or perhaps irrationality’: it is a ‘systematic facet of social power relations’. Her book is clarifying about misogyny, but it is equally interesting for what it has to say about the issue that has dogged the social sciences virtually since their inception: the relationship of the individual to the systems and structures that seemingly comprise him or her. We can punish and give therapy to those who behave misogynistically, or we can try to change the systems and structures, if they are the kinds of thing that we can change, or know how to change. Misogyny is as misogyny does, Manne proposes:
I try to understand misogyny throughout from the inside, not primarily as a psychological matter – but rather as a social-political phenomenon with psychological, structural and institutional manifestations. I present misogyny as a system of hostile forces that by and large makes sense from the perspective of patriarchal ideology, inasmuch as it works to police and enforce patriarchal order.
The ‘inside’ may be a ‘social-political phenomenon’. But the difficulty is always what you say after that. Down Girl makes it very clear that in talking about misogyny we are talking about many of the things that matter most to us. Or should.