Understanding misogyny is a grim topic, but a necessary one, as I struggle to make sense of the ongoing violence against women that surrounds me (not to mention what I’ve also experienced).
It’s summer! I’m not teaching! I’m free!
…so of course, I’m spending all my time reading about rape and sexual assault and the various ways misogyny impacts women (and men) on a daily basis. It does not exactly make for a fun time, but it’s helping me understand the world around me a little better.
Why this somewhat morbid draw to get a better grip on the hows and whys of misogyny? Here’s a brief list:
- Every semester, without fail, at least one female student mentions having experienced sexual harassment or assault or rape. Usually more than one. And if only a few speak up, I know it has to be happening to more. It breaks my heart.
- The news. Pick a week, pick a day, and look for the multitude of news reports about women being murdered, whether at the border or at the hands of partners; look for the stories of powerful men getting away with rape and molestation; look for the casual and constant ways in which women’s worth and well-being are demeaned.
- I learned that a man I’d been in a long-term relationship with was (is?) a child molester. How did that even happen?
- I used to say that I’m one of the few women I know who hasn’t been raped. But if I’m being honest, I’ve experienced coerced sex, and I don’t want to call it rape for a variety of reasons, but like the above bullet point, pondering it is kinda messing with me.
My main guide in this quest for understanding has, of course, been Kate Manne’s amazing book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. I just ordered a copy so I can stop hogging my library’s copy, but until that happens, I’m pretty much reading and rereading this book on a daily basis.
So, if I can’t stop my brain from gnawing on these questions, what are the answers?
According to Manne, we can begin by distinguishing between sexism and misogyny. Sexism is:
the “justificatory” branch of a patriarchal order, which consists in ideology that has the overall function of rationalizing and justifying patriarchal social relations (79).
Frequently, we see sexism naturalizing sex differences, by making them seem essential or inevitable, along the lines of “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” type stuff. Yes, obviously there are some concrete differences between men and women, but let’s recall that gender is also culturally constructed, and that the concepts of binary gender as well as anatomical/biological sex are both fictions.
In contrast, Manne defines misogyny as “the system that operates within a patriarchal social order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance” (33). Misogyny patrols the borders of gender norms and expectations, justifying lashing out at women (and men, and others) who defy those expectations. As Manne puts it:
Sexism taken alone involves believing in men’s superiority to women in masculine coded, high-prestige domains (such as intellectual endeavors, sports, business, and politics), and the naturalness or even inevitability of men’s dominance therein. Misogyny taken alone involves anxieties, fears, and desires to maintain a patriarchal order, and a commitment to restoring it when it is disrupted. So sexism can be complacent; misogyny may be anxious. Sexism is bookish; misogyny is combative. Sexism has a theory; misogyny wields a cudgel (88).
This distinction helps me with all of the bullet points above, all of the reasons I am compelled to try to understand my experiences and the experiences of those around me. Because if we go with the old-school, more literal definition of misogyny as hatred of women, I have not experienced much misogyny in my life. I’ve been lucky and privileged in various senses; perhaps my white privilege, cisgender privilege, and/or middle-class privilege has insulated me from some of the harsher, baser forms of misogyny that plenty of other women experience.
Because I don’t think any of the men who did those things to me or people I know actually hated me/us on the basis of our being women. I don’t think misogyny as woman-hating is a useful explanation for the pervasiveness of the violence we experience, from everyday crap like catcalling on the streets and and boundary-pushing in bed to larger-scale things like domestic violence and rape. I believe that classifying women as a subspecies of human who, as I explained here, owe men emotional, social, and sexual love/affection/service, goes way farther to explain why rape culture is so deeply embedded and why these experiences are so damn common.
In short, men (and the women who internalize misogyny) don’t need to be rabid woman-haters to act in profoundly misogynist ways. We lose something when we go with the woman-hating definition of misogyny rather than Manne’s more nuanced definition.
Realizing that misogyny is the attitude that gives us permission to punish women who deviate from gender norms lets us have a more accurate conversation about how pervasive misogyny actually is, and how much it is perpetuated by people who on the surface seem nice enough. And for me, that was one of the puzzle pieces to understanding the experiences of me and mine. Using terms in precise ways is of course one of the reasons I’m drawn to academic discourse; once you define something, you can understand it better… and in the case of topics like this one, hopefully combat it.
I won’t lie: with this book at my bedside, I haven’t been sleeping well. The depth to which misogyny has impacted countless lives across most cultures is depressing. The case studies that Manne chose – from the Isla Vista killings to the rhetoric of the 2016 U.S. presidential election – are horrifyingly bad. But with this greater understanding, I feel better positioned to tackle these issues. Maybe if I have a more thorough grasp of how they’ve impacted me, I can help others reach similar understandings.
It’s not all bad, either. The ah-ha moments from reading this book are helping me, on both personal and scholarly levels. As I move through these understandings, I’m giving myself permission to put the book down, and connect with people to dance or socialize (or both). The dark circles under my eyes these days are just as likely to be from staying out late with friends as staying up late to comb my library for citations on how to better grapple with misogyny and sexism.
As Manne writes in her book’s conclusion, “I wish I could offer a more hopeful message” (300). Me too, sister, me too. It is easy to feel defeated in the face of all this, but we are still here, and we are still trying. And considering how many women have been voiceless throughout history, that’s something. That’s progress. Call us shrill, slander us, try to silence us – if nothing else, we’ve made it this far, into the halls of academe where we can use language to amplify our voices and those with less power than us. And that’s one of the things that feminism is made to do, and I’m here for it.