It Takes Many Kinds to Dismantle a Patriarchal Village

STRANGULATION IS A FORM of torture that often comes at the hands of a misogynist. It’s mostly inflicted by men on intimate female partners. It’s less obvious and more insidious than cat-calling, social media trolling, and mansplaining, since the effects can be slow to impact the victim; the signs are subtle unless a doctor knows what to look for, and victims are often afraid to speak up. This is also one of the reasons why it tends to go underreported and misreported. In her first book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Kate Manne unpacks strangulation and other forms of keeping women down.

“Silence is golden,” she writes, “for the men who smother and intimidate women into not talking, or have them change their tune to maintain harmony. Silence isolates its victims; and it enables misogyny.” 

I connected with Manne, a professor of Philosophy at Cornell University, via email to talk about misogyny, sexism, and breaking the silence.


SKYE C. CLEARY: Why does misogyny manifest in cat-calling, social media trolling, mansplaining, and strangulation?

KATE MANNE: Rather than seeing these behaviors as disparate, we can see them as symptoms of a common social ill, unified by their common misogynistic function: that of policing and enforcing patriarchal norms and expectations. This includes not just putting or keeping women down when they threaten or challenge male dominance — as in many cases of strangulation — but also maintaining or reinstating male dominance via subtler controlling behaviors.

Take cat-calling, for example. If he sets the evaluative terms — by commenting on women’s bodies or ranking her attractiveness within earshot — then that’s a form of social control. It doesn’t necessarily matter if you pass or fail the test. It’s a potent reminder that he gets to judge you, and he gets to define the terms — and to broadcast the results for all and sundry, oftentimes.

Of course, it’s only human to react appreciatively to people’s appearances, to experience more or less unbidden attractions, to have sexual fantasies, and so on. And that’s not what I’m objecting to. That can all be perfectly benign, within reason, depending on umpteen contextual factors and subsequent behavior. The question is more: who may tell a total stranger to smile, that is, to arrange her countenance to be more pleasing to him? Many more men do this to women than vice versa, and that says a lot about a sense of male entitlement that is prevalent in our culture.

Sexism, you argue, is “the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalizes a patriarchal social order, and misogyny [is] the system that polices and enforces its governing norms and expectations.” What makes a person a misogynist rather than a sexist? And why is it important to know the difference?

Sexists truly believe that women are “naturally” inferior to men in masculine-coded domains, such as math, tech, science, and philosophy, and less worthy of historically male-focused spotlights of collective attention in, for example, political leadership positions, comedy, some sports, and certain kinds of writing or commentary — often, the most prestigious. This ideology of supposedly natural sex differences undermines the presumption that stark gender imbalances in these domains and roles is evidence of biases operating to systematically keep or push women out of them.

In theory, a sexist might be open to learning they are wrong or, more subtly, that there’s currently little compelling science that can demonstrate “natural” sex differences of this kind — given the lack of a control group of people not exposed to patriarchal social forces. A misogynist is typically someone who inchoately wants to keep women out of masculine-coded domains and for women to continue to give men, and society in general, the bulk of feminine-coded forms of labor, such as social, emotional, moral, and reproductive services. And he — or she, in some cases — tends to be prepared to threaten and punish non-compliant women.

A misogynist who is not really sexist deep down may be in denial — clinging to sexist ideology as a form of wishful thinking — or anxious and angry. But a “tell” is that he will be happy to have women serve in traditionally masculine-coded power positions if she is loyal and deferential to patriarchal authority figures. Donald Trump is hence a brazen and virulent misogynist but is not particularly sexist — or so I argue in my book. And he’s self-centered and narcissistic to the point that women most reliably inspire his aggression when they challenge or threaten him directly, rather than violating broader social mores.

Of course, in practice, sexism and misogyny have a high co-morbidity in individual agents. And, when it comes to maintaining a patriarchal social order, both tend to play crucial roles.

Women have been treated as the second sex, as Simone de Beauvoir wrote, for most of history. So, is misogyny getting worse, or are we just noticing it more now? 

I think of misogyny as something that can be latent. I suspect certain forms of it are liable to manifest when the patriarchal status quo is threatened. So, ironically, genuine feminist social progress tends to beget eruptions of misogyny in the form of backlash. It’s an intertwined vicious and virtuous cycle, since that backlash also tends to inspire more feminist consciousness-raising and activism in turn. It’s pretty clear we are seeing both in the United States at the moment.

To what extent do you think the rise of Trump is white male disappointment and revenge against feminism?

To a very large extent. It’s important to recognize that misogyny and its associated ills — something I’m tempted to call “sympathetic attention deficit disorder” — can lead to “punching down” behavior. Consider the intense and irrational meanness that prevails within conservative circles toward refugees, immigrants from what Trump has charmingly termed “shithole countries,” undocumented people, and marginalized Americans in need of basic health care and welfare benefits. There’s both a denial that the care is needed, and an extraordinary resentment toward those who are doing okay or positively prospering. To me, that’s plausibly a symptom of a kind of deprivation mindset with regard to the caregiving labor that has remained very much women’s work in the conservative imagination, in particular. Indeed, women in general continue to do a great deal more of this work than their male counterparts in the United States to this day. The sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has shown that, though women have entered traditional male professions more and more, the “second shift” problem of unequal distribution of domestic drudgery has been disappointingly enduring. True, norms of fatherhood have been shifting in a salutary direction. But I see surprisingly few calls for men to give moral, material, and emotional support to women in het — or so-called straight — relationships, and more broadly.

Esther Perel, who I have also interviewed for LARB, suggests that one of the main problems of the 21st century is that we are facing a crisis of masculinity because, she proposes, “We have the permission to ask what it means to be a woman, but men have not been given nearly the same permission to think about personal growth.” Is this exacerbating the problem of misogyny?

I’m a fan of Perel’s, but that sounds a little “himpathetic” to me, to invoke a term I use for the disproportionate or excessive sympathy of which privileged men are often the beneficiaries. As Lilian Calles Barger put it to me recently in conversation, “there is always a crisis of masculinity” — primarily white masculinity, I am tempted to add. I will be more sympathetic when white men stop hurting, blaming, and lashing out at others due to their pain and shame. It’s not as if feeling pain and shame is unheard of for the rest of us.

You propose that white women tend to enable misogyny for reasons of self-preservation and “strong norms of loyalty.” This is not only morally damaging to themselves, but also disproportionally harms more vulnerable women, such as nonwhite and transgender women. This makes sense in light of the fact that more than half of the white women who voted in the general election voted for Trump. Can you talk about why so many white women act as gatekeepers of the patriarchy, and the effect that it has on more vulnerable groups?

Recent Pew statistics show that white women who are married will have a white male partner in a very high proportion of cases — around 90 percent, and even higher than that in non-metropolitan areas. Now observe that white men in these areas are disproportionately likely not only to be Trump voters, but to have relative legal, social, and moral impunity to enforce norms of loyalty within intimate relationships, by means of threatening, controlling, and sometimes violent behavior. That makes a considerable proportion of white women subject to a system of powerful incentives and punishments, risks and rewards, which can make it hard and costly to challenge or disagree with the white supremacist patriarchal status quo. Of course, that doesn’t excuse privileged white women’s complicity, but it does point out that white women are often both oppressed by white men and oppressors of more vulnerable women — those who are nonwhite, queer, trans, and/or disabled — among others.

Another factor is that if white men are resentfully hoarding and enforcing women’s feminine-coded care work, then their — again, on average — white female partners are liable to be exhausted, to have so-called “compassion fatigue.” It’s a bit of a euphemistic expression and, to reiterate, I don’t mean to be offering excuses, but rather explanations here. To that end: If, as a woman in this position, you’re not consciously questioning or challenging the social norms that mandate you to give enormous amounts of moral, social, and emotional labor to him, to your family, and to your local community, without asking for or receiving much reciprocal care in return, then perceived outsiders who ask for or are suspected of feeling entitled to such care will tend to be unwelcome. That makes it a case not of “punching down,” exactly, but similarly directing resentment outward, or inadvertently taking one’s frustrations out on less powerful people.

How did you come to write about misogyny?

“Misogyny” was a word that first came on my radar in October 2012 when Julia Gillard — then prime minister of my home country of Australia — used it in a speech before parliament. She called out Tony Abbott — then opposition party leader — for his sexist and misogynistic behavior. Although Gillard’s speech went viral, the original occasion for her anger was lost on many people: Abbott had demanded Gillard call for the resignation of one of her ministers, Peter Slipper, who had sent text messages likening women’s genitals to mussels (shucked, he helpfully specified) and calling a female colleague an “ignorant botch,” thanks to the Freudian intervention of auto-correct. But Gillard did not want Slipper to resign; to her mind, he was still a serviceable minister. And she was not sanguine about Abbott “lecturing” her about how to be a feminist. So what began as Gillard’s response to Abbott’s moralistic demands and mansplaining became a speech about sexism and misogyny.

When Gillard’s speech became news, I realized that “misogyny” wasn’t one of my words. Indeed, I couldn’t remember ever having used it myself, nor could I find a precise definition of it in analytic feminist philosophy. It’s also a word that would have been useful to me earlier on in life. I had been one of three girls to attend a hitherto all-boys’ school, the year that it integrated, for my final two years in high school. The experience was not pleasant, to put it mildly. It was a confusing, demoralizing mess of seemingly disparate behaviors and isolated incidents, in a general atmosphere of male hostility — as well as institutional indifference to that hostility.

As I thought about Gillard’s case and others, I came to suspect a pattern. Girls and women subject to misogyny can be, and often will be, put down in whatever ways are salient or ready to hand — via more or less brazen expressions of visceral disgust, moral disgust, contempt, and indignation — such as Abbott’s “hypocrisy” accusation toward Gillard — by disparaging our intellects, our strength, our competence, our moral characters, our accomplishments, our voices, our bodies, our whatevers, our wherevers. A woman may be subject to lewd sexualization on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and called an unf*ckable c*nt on the other days of the week. There will be various levels of post-hoc rationalization of the hostility, which need not be overtly gendered in quality.

The common theme is downranking and humiliating women who step out of line, or have ideas beyond their station. Misogyny is not usually about the way misogynists somehow “see” women; nor is it about disliking or hating any and every woman, or even women generally. Women may be liked just fine until they stray from the designated path, invade male spaces, or threaten to take masculine-coded perks and powers away from comparatively privileged men. Overall, on my account, misogyny is hostility certain women face because they are women in a man’s world — a historical patriarchy — not because they are represented as women in a misogynistic man’s mind.

So the title “Down Girl” refers to this down-ranking of women.

Yes, I wanted to get both at the indefinitely many ways girls and women can be degraded by these misogynistic “down girl” moves, and the fact that — sotto voce — it can be tempting to forestall being taken down by lying down, playing dead, or sort of groveling before one’s master — whether in an enthusiastic or hangdog manner. That is almost always unwitting and can encompass inculcated habits of body and mind that are painful and difficult for girls and women to break. But I still think it is worth it; having one’s will bent to that of dominant men being inimical to freedom.

Breaking the silence is a great first step to highlight the issues, and many people are speaking up, such as with the #MeToo movement, but how do we build on that?

I like the way you put the question, because I think the #MeToo movement has been highly valuable, and needs to be built on in a “Yes, and…” improv spirit. This is as opposed to the more or less contemptuous reactions — sometimes by self-described feminists — finding fault with the movement rather than identifying ways to expand it, or pointing out correctly, but hardly surprisingly, that it alone is far from everything we need to make feminist social progress. These forms of naysaying are predictable forms of backlash. I think we can make this and similar movements stronger and more expansive by paying attention to the women who originated them, in this case the Black feminist activist Tarana Burke. She intended the movement to center on less powerful and multiply marginalized women and, if I’m reading her right, to encompass forms of misogynistic domineering and belittling behavior that need not be explicitly sexual, but are similarly experienced as bodily domination and humiliation.

Since misogyny is not only about hating women, but smothering and intimidating them with the aim of controlling them and their narratives, how can we even begin to talk to people who think women should not challenge men’s dominance?

I’m not altogether sure we can. But I generally write not to persuade people of moral conclusions if they’re in fundamental disagreement with broadly feminist and egalitarian principles and values. I write for people with largely shared moral values, to try to change our collective moral priorities, to help us to recognize patterns, and — more than anything — to challenge some of the false moral conclusions we swallow with the Kool-Aid of patriarchal ideology.

What further steps can we take in our everyday lives, given that what’s required is a “moral and social overhaul,” which will come at a cost? Do you think we should assertively and constantly challenge the status quo, being “more radical, if acerbic,” as you say, or should we take a subtler approach of picking our battles and making incremental changes?

I think people have to fight these battles if, when, and how they can, and the best way to go about that depends enormously on social, personal, and material variables. I generally try to be self-critical and open to standing corrected for my own moral mistakes, but not too judgmental of others. We all screw up. We all have different styles, temperaments, skills, and sensitivities when it comes to mustering resistance. And it takes many kinds to dismantle a patriarchal village.

In your conclusion, you say, “So I give up. I wish I could offer a more hopeful message. Let me close just by offering a post-mortem” — because even trying to change this seems impossible or self-defeating. Can you talk about whether there is any hope of overcoming misogyny? What will it take?

I’ve realized with the wisdom of hindsight that that was overly coy writing on my part. The phrase “give up” was meant to be the operative one — a sort of liberating declaration that I’d done all I could for the moment, and was obliged (if unwilling, for many months) to step aside and let others decide what to make of my words and ideas, if anything. If I had it to do over, I might write something more like this instead: “So I give up for now — with the emphasis on the ‘I’ and the ‘now.’ I hope and trust that others will have more to offer by way of solutions moving forward. But liberation for, and as, women means not only breaking our silence when we have something to say that may cost a privileged man or boy in terms of pain, shame, or reputation. It also means an entitlement to say one’s piece and then, despite all that remains to be said, go quiet again; to finish.”


Skye C. Cleary PhD is a philosopher and author of Existentialism and Romantic Love.