Sunday, October 11, 2020

Review: Down Girl by Kate Manne

 Rating: 3/5 stars

Briefly: Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny is an inconsistent book written from a sometimes frustratingly limited perspective that nevertheless has some good ideas that I will incorporate in how I describe the world.

I really liked Manne's framing of misogyny as the methods by which status quo social hierarchies are enforced and maintained. I found her examples of how this framing explains behavior such as Elliot Rodger and Rush Limbaugh to be compelling and useful. However, I wish she had expanded it to be the gender arm of a broader set of behaviors that act to keep down those who are dis-empowered not just due to gender but also due to race, sexual orientation, ability, country of origin, etc. Yes, Manne alludes briefly to the importance of intersectionality and includes a few examples of misogynoir and ableism in her book. But her framing of misogyny as an enforcement tool of its own, rather than a subset of tools of enforcement of the status quo in my opinion greatly limited her ability to discuss gender dynamics in her book and interpret political events in general.

I (currently, at least) follow Kate Manne on twitter, and nearly unfollowed her during the tail end of Elizabeth Warren's 2020 presidential campaign. To Manne, there is no single rational reason that someone could support Sanders over Warren; this phenomenon cannot be explained by anything except sexism. No, if I was disappointed in Warren's inability to understand the harms of claiming to be racialized for her own benefit, it is because I am sexist. If I trust in Sander's decades-long commitment to progressive causes and am wary of Warren's conservative roots, it is because I am sexist. If I thought Warren's somewhat wishy-washy position on universal healthcare was less preferable than Sander's enthusiastic support for universal healthcare, it is because I am sexist.

So to an extent, I knew full well what I was getting into with this book. And yet I was still somewhat surprised about the extent to which this book praised Hillary Clinton and refused to engage with left-wing criticisms about Clinton's neoliberal and oligarchic political platform. In Down Girl, Manne presents leftwing criticisms of Clinton being corrupt or conniving as misogynist reactions to Clinton requesting space in a male dominated sphere. The one Sanders supporter trotted out as an example of this is some no-name HuffPo contributor who write a piece about his friend accusing him of sexism for supporting Sanders over Clinton. Imagine instead a discussion where due to misogyny and oligarchic pressures, the first woman allowed to become a US presidential candidate was one so set on generally maintaining the power structure status quo!

Manne allows for two criticisms of Clinton: yeah maybe she got paid too much for a few speeches, and also some of her foreign policy was "misguided." This latter criticism is foiled against Obama, who had very similar foreign policy, and who benefited from enthusiasm from his voters in his history-making nomination as the first black presidential candidate. So why didn't Clinton get the same voter enthusiasm?! Misogyny, obviously! Not at all due to the fact that 2016-Clinton had decades in which to publicly demonstrate her values while 2008-Obama was a relatively blank slate upon which we could project, and who was less associated with the ruling class/more able to present himself as a Washington outsider. (Washington outsiders performed well in 2016!) Again, an example where exploring the relationship between gender and wealth/social class could have proven instructive.

I was a little shocked that the shooting of Michael Brown was used to describe victim blaming (so as to better understand female survivors of rape, or course), with very little discussion about race (with little more than a token mention that the word thug, as used to describe Brown, is usually applied to people of colour) or police violence.

I think what made this so frustrating was that there were great ideas woven together in this book, so their limited application (to misogyny only, at the expense of insightful discussion of race, class and other issues) was just that much clearer.

For instance, I liked that Manne identified that social expectations of woman were not just to provide particular acts of service/emotional labor/ego-boosting to men, but are expected to provide it enthusiastically, willingly, lovingly. I found particularly information her explanation of how covert coercion of this behavior in a patriarchal society is necessary and results in this form of internalized misogyny where women "valorize depictions of the relevant forms of care work as personally rewarding, socially necessary, morally valuable, 'cool', 'natural' or healthy (as long as women perform them)."

I thought Manne fairly deftly handled the relationship between individual agents being misogynist and social structures being misogynist. The overall thesis of chapter 1, in which she defines misogyny, was well argued (if a little mired in overly academic phrasing). I also liked the give/take framing of social expectations of women:

(1) she is obligated to give feminine-coded services to someone or other, preferably one man who is her social equal or better (by the lights of racist, classist, as well as heteronormative values, in many contexts), at least insofar as he wants such goods and services from her; (2) she is prohibited from having or taking masculine-coded goods away from dominant men (at a minimum, and perhaps from others as well), insofar as he wants or aspires to receive or retain them (Chapter 4)

Manne's definition of misogyny seemed to me to include scenarios in which men attempt to act outside the usual gender roles and experience violence or backlash, and one question I would have for Manne is whether she would consider this misogyny. I thought it was interesting that this type of violence against men (who are acting/presenting "womanly") was not discussed.

Manne's depictions of the Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke, Elliot Rodger, Brock Turner, Trump Access Hollywood Tapes, and Daniel Holtzman stories were good. However, having recently lived through these stories, and already interpreted them through a feminist lens, I didn't find them to be so edifying. Still, it was fun to get to practice using and applying the new tools/framings presented by Manne that I described above.

Overall, some useful bits that make it worth the read, if you're prepared to skim through some rather awkward and dry prose, and can stomach reading political takes from someone who attributes Clinton's 2016 loss to sexism.

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