Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny and Citation Politics

Kate Manne’s recent book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford University Press, 2018), discusses the concept of misogyny and its relationship to sexism. Her basic premise rejects the dictionary definition of misogyny as the expression of an emotion -ie. the “hatred of women”- in favour of a definition which classes misogyny as an action: the punishment of women for not conforming to patriarchal norms. Similarly, she rejects the correlation of sexism with misogyny, arguing that sexism should be better understood as the justification and rationalisation of a “patriarchal social order”. In this way, sexism is expressed by arguing that women act in a certain way because they are women and justifies sexual discrimination via science. Misogyny is, on the other hand, “the system which polices and enforces” (via verbal and physical violence) women’s obedience to the sexist norms. With these redefinitions, Manne argues that patriarchy is a system that guarantees male supremacy via both misogyny and sexism. This system requires the collusion of both men and women, and as such, can never be conceived as exclusively male.

In order to defend her hypothesis, Manne makes the following argument: in patriarchal ideology, the gender binary dictates that men and women have different emotional, social and cultural roles. The male is the principal actor, around which narrations are formed and whose point of view is always prioritised. The female role is that of an eternal supporting actress, whose job is “to give to him, not to ask, and expected to feel indebted and grateful, rather than indebted.” This role is most obvious “with respect to characteristically moral good: attention, care, sympathy, respect, admiration, and nurturing.” As a result, men feel entitled to women’s emotional labour:

[i]ncluding -it would seem- the lives of those who can no longer give him what he wanted in terms of moral succour. He may love and value her intrinsically -that is for her own sake- but far too conditionally, that is, not on her identity as a person (whatever that amounts to) but her second personal attitude of good will towards him.

According to Manne, this division of (above all) emotional labour, explains why patriarchal culture is always predisposed to what feminists have labelled “victim-blaming”: that is the desire excuse the behaviour of violent men by attributing it to the failings of the victim. Moreover, in such a culture, people are inclined to have more sympathy with the perpetrator of violence against women (something she calls “himpathy”) and will criticise any victim who attempts to “steal” moral goods, in this case sympathy, compassion etc, that should -in accordance with patriarchal norms- only be given by women to men. Himpathy is thus one of misogyny’s enforcement tools.

Manne’s discussion also leads her to reject the idea that violence against women can be attributed to the dehumanisation of women by patriarchal culture. She argues that for misogyny to work as a tool of patriarchal enforcement, it is necessary for people to regard women as people, not objects. Women are humans with a particular role that must be followed in their interactions with others, and her value as a “good” human woman is dependent on how well she manages to fulfill this role. This part of her argument can also be applied more widely to provide a counter-argument to the idea, developed by Hannah Arendt and others after the Second World War, to explain how one community of people can be persuaded to inflict mortal violence, even genocide, on other communities.

There is much food for thought in Down Girl. Her model of a male human actor complemented by a female human giver, understood as an affirming and appreciative audience, allows her to explain the relationship between the diverse strands of the criticism and opposition faced by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US Presidential elections. Clinton’s cardinal sin was to occupy the role of the male: the principal actor. She was thus perceived to be taking emotional goods (admiration, support etc) that were not hers to enjoy: she was thus “entitled”, “ungrateful” and “arrogant”. She did not display the requisite nurturing qualities, and was consequently perceived as lacking humanity: she was “cold”, “barren” and “dried up”. Finally, the accusations of her personal and political corruption, the obsessions with her “scheming” and the endless conspiracy theories, point to the patriarchal anxiety inspired by a woman who is seen to be “stealing” a position which should only be held by a man.

Even so, I must admit to finding the book mostly disappointing. This is not a result of my disagreement with her arguments; to the contrary, I find them quite persuasive. Her book contributes to the understanding of the patriarchal cultures we inhabit and how, as women, our happiness and personal development are constrained by them. My disappointment lies with her framing and above all, her failure to historicise (and cite) the considerable body of feminist scholarship that informs her writing.

In short: Manne’s arguments are considerably less original than she makes them out to be. Let me start with her division of male and female roles: the man as the most important human actor, and the woman as the giver, the nurturer and the ever appreciative audience. This understanding of male/female roles within patriarchy was most forcibly expressed by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, a work of philosophy that merits no mention by Manne in her book. De Beauvoir’s description of man as the ego -the “I”- while the woman as the eternal “Other” clearly provides the backdrop to Manne’s arguments. While it is true De Beauvoir also defines this division in terms of “subject/object”, she does not mean to imply that women are thought of as less than fully human within patriarchy. Her point is to underline every woman’s dilemma: the constant contradiction of being a subject playing at being an object: expected to reflect the emotions and the needs of the subject and never to act as if she had her own. It is inexplicable to me that Manne should feel that De Beauvoir deserves no recognition as an inspiration for the theory that she proposes.

Secondly, the scholarship of feminism’s second-wave theorised how patriarchy imposes women’s role as nurturers and care-givers, yet none get a mention in Manne’s book. Nancy Chodorow, Carol Gilligan and others developed arguments around the psychology of motherhood and how (in Chodorow’s words), the experience of motherhood was “reproduced” via socialisation.[1] Adrienne Rich compared the institution of motherhood: “which aims at ensuring that … all women … shall remain under male control” with the potential of motherhood for redefining women’s relationships with themselves and others.[2] Black feminist theorists like Angela Davis and bell hooks examined implications of slavery for the expectations surrounding black mothers in the US and criticised the continuance of the archetype of the “black mammy” or “Aunt Jemima” within contemporary culture.[3] The scholarship of black and women of colour from the seventies onwards clearly demonstrated that care-giving, nurture and emotional labour was not uniformly expected nor demanded within US culture.[4] A discussion of this scholarship would have greatly enhanced Manne’s conceptualisation of the female “giver” especially in relation to the question of abortion (chapter 3). At the very least, it would have allowed her to avoid arguing -as she appears to do- that the feminine role under patriarchy is universally applicable to all women.

This brings me to the question of framing. In her introduction, Manne is careful to argue that, since her analysis is contingent to (and informed by) her own experiences as a white Australian academic working in the USA, she does not feel qualified to extend her argument to include any discussion of misogyny experienced by trans women and only limited analysis of that faced by black woman. Feeling there was no “no morally perfect way to proceed” she preferred to leave these issues to one side. This is all very exemplary, but as the reader may have already grasped from the previous paragraph, this silence serves her ill.

Firstly, it is revealing that Manne feels compelled to begin the section she dedicates to explaining her “regrets” by observing that “perhaps the biggest omission in this book” is an examination of transmisogyny. She also makes the effort to cite authors who could provide an introduction to this subject. As a result, the omission of misogyny endured by women of colour is relegated to secondary status; not as important as the omission of transmisogyny. She also does not cite any authors that could educate the reader in this question. In other parts of the text she cites a Tumblr post by feminist media scholar Moya Bailey on “misogynoir” but fails to quote any of her academic work.[5] The conclusion I drew from this framing was that Manne had not read widely around the question of misogynoir and did not feel the scholarship of black women on this question had much to offer her nor her readers.[6]

Secondly, her admission of the lamentable “omissions” to her text is not accompanied by any analysis of what these “silences” mean for her arguments. Manne does not reflect on how her decision limits the scope of her book nor how her reliance on her own white perspective may distort the hypothesis presented. As I pointed out above, the biggest issue for me is the question of how she establishes the patriarchal model of the female giver without reflecting that patriarchal norms are always racialised. To cite, black legal and feminist scholar Dorothy E. Roberts:

Racism and patriarchy are not two separate institutions that intersect only in the lives of Black women. They are two interrelated, mutually supporting systems of domination and their relationship is essential to understanding the subordination of all women. Racism makes the experience of sexism different for Black women and white women. But it is not enough to note that Black women suffer from both racism and sexism, although it is true. Racism is patriarchal. Patriarchy is racist. We will not destroy one institution without destroying the other.[7]

This is not to say Manne doesn’t engage with race, but that she examines misogyny separately from race. Her norm of a female-giver is universal. There is no discussion of what is expected of white women of different classes or professions; or of black women, or brown women etc. Consequently, her analysis concentrates on white experiences of misogyny as the norm, with those of women of colour considered only to show how much worse things are for women if they are also oppressed by racism.

This is illustrated by her treatment of misogynoir in chapter six. Here she examines the relative “reliability” and “worthiness” of victims in subordinate social categories compared to those of higher social class. In so doing, Manne compares the “himpathy” offered to Brock Turner (who raped a white woman) and to that enjoyed by the serial rapist Daniel Holtzclaw (who targeted black women). She describes the lesser public outrage at Holtclaw’s multiple rapes as “misogynoir in action”, while presumably that received by Turner could be called just the average “misogyny in action.” This framing ignores the considerable black feminist scholarship on the subject black women’s experiences of rape and how the patriarchal ideology of white supremacism assumed that the “animal-like” “uncontrolled” sexuality of a black women meant that she could not be raped.[8]

In short, my disappointment with Down Girl, is based on how Manne presents her research. I am disheartened by her unwillingness to engage with the history of feminist thought, especially feminist scholarship by black women and women of colour. One of the continuing characteristics of white feminist scholarship is the marginalisation of black feminist ideas and scholarship of women of colour. It is not enough to “stay in our lane” if this means also ignoring or appropriating the work of those feminists of other lanes. As Sara Ahmed observes: “Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before[.]”[9] If this memory remains predominantly white, it only reinforces the very patriarchal and racial norms of white supremacy that Manne wishes to expose and reject.

[1] Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and The Sociology of Gender: With a New Preface Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999; Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice. Harvard: Harvard  University Press, 1982.

[2] Adrienne C. Rich. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. Reissued ed. Women’s Studies. New York: Norton, 1995: 13.

[3] bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. London: Pluto Press, 2001; Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race & Class. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

[4] For a historian’s perspective, see for example, Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, And Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, And Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1996. For a wide-ranging discussion of the literature and theories surrounding Black motherhood see, Dorothy E. Roberts ‘Racism and Patriarchy in the Meaning of Motherhood’. Journal of Gender and the Law 1, no. 1 (1993): 3. http://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/faculty_scholarshiphttp://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/faculty_scholarship/595.

[5] Manne cites the following post: Moya Bailey. ‘More on the Origin of Misogynoir’. Moyazb-Tumblr, 2014. http://moyazb.tumblr.com/post/84048113369/more-on-the-origin-of-misogynoir. I think she (and her readers) might also have been interested in: Moya Bailey. ‘Misogynoir in Medical Media: On Caster Semenya and R. Kelly’. Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 2, no. 2 (21 September 2016). https://doi.org/10.28968/CFTT.V2I2.98. On the subject of misogynoir, the following post from the blog Gradient Lair might also have been a good reference to offer since the author (known only as Trudy) has also been influential in the popularisation of term on digital media: Trudy. ‘Explanation Of Misogynoir’. Gradient Lair, 2014. http://www.gradientlair.com/post/84107309247/define-misogynoir-anti-black-misogyny-moya-bailey-coined.

[6] It is pertinent at this point to cite the following from Moya Bailey and Trudy. ‘On Misogynoir: Citation, Erasure, and Plagiarism’. Feminist Media Studies 18, no. 4 (4 July 2018): 762–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2018.1447395. This is written in the form of an interview. The 2014 essay cited by Trudy here is the one referenced in the previous footnote.

Trudy: I experience an almost immeasurable amount of plagiarism for many years now, including of my years of work theorizing on misogynoir. Since I am an unaffiliated writer—or in other words, I write independently and without mainstream media, academic or corporate support and without the accompanying social status, yet I have an extremely visible presence in social media spaces—I face the phenomenon of people plagiarizing my work in very public and grotesque ways. People who do this know that since I am without institutional support and resources, they will face no repercussions. While social status cannot prevent plagiarism, it often determines if the person plagiarized will have any emotional support and resources for recourse. I have very little of the former and none of the latter, when it comes to dealing with plagiarism.

I experience two types of plagiarism, which in my writing I refer to as opportunistic plagiarism and punitive plagiarism. Opportunistic plagiarists use my writing and tweets without citation to meet journalistic and academic deadlines, whether for pay, social status (as misogynoir guarantees anyone socially/economically “above” an unaffiliated Black woman will be praised for the things Black women theorize and write), or both. Punitive plagiarists can be opportunistic as well, but they are also interested in punishing me for my work. Punitive plagiarists do not only want the opportunities they can gain through exploiting me, but they are also interested in erasing my labor altogether. Often times, this looks like someone mentioning that Moya coined “misogynoir,” but then they plagiarize my actual theorization work. While the opportunistic plagiarist does not consider me important enough to cite, the punitive plagiarist is concerned with both opportunism and erasure, in a personal way. At times, these are people who know me online and will even go as far to say that I “inspire” them, but ultimately are harmful because there is social capital in knowing what Black women do, without being a Black woman.

Many spaces and publications, both indie and mainstream, either reduce my years of work to a single essay of mine or erase my work altogether (2014). When I wrote that particular essay in 2014, I did not do so as a journalist who learned a new word but as someone who had been theorizing and developing a framework for how misogynoir is even defined and understood, especially so outside of the academe. In other words, primarily Moya and I are why journalists, activists and others can even write on misogynoir at all. Because of the social status ascribed to mainstream media, their words are held over mine. This hierarchy that facilitates the conditions for plagiarism and erasure that I experience around my theorizing on misogynoir ironically reflects how misogynoir functions in social and institutional settings.

[7] Roberts ‘Racism and Patriarchy in the Meaning of Motherhood’: 3.

[8] See, for example, Hazel V. Carby, “‘On the Threshold of Woman’s Era’: Lynching, Empire and Sexuality in Black Feminist Theory”. In Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Reina Lewis y Sara Mills, 222–37. Taylor & Francis, 2003.

[9] Sara Ahmed. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017 [Kindle edition]: position 365.

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