Let us now raze famous men.
We could reveal every sexual harasser in Hollywood, politics, tech and the news media; we could rewrite the obituaries of recent luminaries, their hidden transgressions deservedly diminishing their legacies. We could out and rout the predators and misogynists and attackers lurking in our midst and our memories, until all those open secrets are simply open.
But even if what has been dubbed this “Weinstein moment” succeeds in unmasking, shaming and banishing more and more offenders, it’s not clear that crossing names off an endless list of hideous men will topple the structures of entitlement and permissiveness enabling their actions. “Trying to fight misogyny using juridical moral notions is a bit like trying to fight fire with oxygen,” writes Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne. “It might work on a small scale — we do manage to blow out matches and candles, after all. But when we try to scale up the strategy, it is liable to backfire. We would be trying to put out a fire while feeding right into it.”
Manne’s “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny” is excruciatingly well-timed, providing a theoretical framework for a phenomenon baring itself before us, perverse and pervasive. Together with other books exploring recent infamous instances of sexism — from the Gamergate wars to the 2016 presidential campaign — “Down Girl” reminds us that while revealing individual misogynists is hard, uprooting misogyny is much harder. And it becomes all the more so when the dominant figure in American politics displays misogynistic and abusive tendencies himself, and when the reenergized movement advocating for the rights of women shows deep divisions.
A watershed. A reckoning. A cultural revolution. There are lots of descriptions for this moment, signals of its weight and impact. But there’s also a downside to moments: They can be fleeting.
Misogyny is typically understood as hatred, dislike, mistrust and prejudice toward women, and even their dehumanization. For Manne, this is a misleading and “naive” definition that risks limiting misogyny to the realm of emotion and psychology — where it can be particularized and even excused. Manne sees misogyny in systemic terms, especially in its relationship to sexism.
“Misogyny should be understood as the ‘law enforcement’ branch of a patriarchal order, which has the overall function of policing and enforcing its governing ideology,” she writes. That ideology is sexism, the belief in inherent female inferiority, and misogyny is the mechanism that upholds and imposes that belief in daily life. Manne uses several metaphors to make her point — too many, really — but her meaning is clear. “Sexism wears a lab coat, misogyny goes on witch hunts. . . . Sexism is bookish; misogyny is combative. Sexism has a theory; misogyny wields a cudgel.”
In this sense, determining whether individual harassers and abusers are themselves misogynists matters less than realizing that an environment where harassment and abuse are chronic — limiting women’s safety, livelihoods and well-being — is itself misogynistic.
Any and all women can suffer misogyny, but its primary targets are women who overtly undermine that power imbalance, “those who are perceived as insubordinate, negligent, or out of order,” Manne writes, those unwilling to be categorized only as the supportive wife, cool girlfriend, loyal assistant or attentive waitress. Misogynists expect women to dutifully provide “feminine-coded goods” such as affection, adoration and indulgence while they enjoy “masculine-coded perks” such as leadership, authority, money and status. Women give, men take. Misogynists love this arrangement and can love their mommies, too.
But women violate the code if they call out powerful men for their misdeeds. Or if they try to take a man’s job — say, the presidency of the United States. Or if they just say no. “You’re no fun,” Matt Lauer reportedly told a colleague who resisted his advances.
This is why it’s so hard for women to publicly accuse men of predatory actions. The victims are perceived as “dramatizing and self-important,” Manne writes. They risk not being believed. Or getting blamed. Or having crimes investigated improperly. Or being called selfish, mendacious. Women suffer automatic “credibility deficits” when leveling such accusations, Manne writes, while men enjoy what she calls “himpathy,” or the “excessive sympathy sometimes shown toward male perpetrators of sexual violence.”
That credibility deficit may be shrinking with each new charge against a high-profile man. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looks at the allegations against GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama and declares “I believe the women,” it seems the benefit of the doubt is no longer automatically with the accused. But recent events have not disproved Manne’s argument; they affirm the courage women must summon to speak truths they’ve held for years or decades, with the chance of being belittled, threatened or injured once again. And they remind us of the many women — facing an all-powerful department chair, a groping mid-level exec, a terrifying kitchen manager — who still fear taking the risk.
Zoe Quinn knows the dangers that come with upending the established order. In “Crash Override,” the game developer and anti-online-abuse activist describes the notorious episode known as Gamergate, a case of brutal and unceasing digital harassment against a woman who had the temerity to make inclusive video games that grapple with subjects like mental illness. “Let me be the Virgil to your Dante as we descend through the various webrings of hell,” she writes, recounting how an ex-boyfriend’s savage 2014 manifesto about their relationship incited a relentless mob of “online white supremacist movements, misogynist nerds, conspiracy theorists, and dispassionate hoaxers” who got their kicks threatening and harassing Quinn and her friends and relatives. They encouraged her to kill herself, fantasized about raping her and disseminated intimate photos of her. Quinn watched it all unfold online.
“This kind of behavior is not just about terrorizing you; it’s about control,” she writes, echoing Manne’s analysis. “It’s about making you want to disappear, instilling fear, and limiting your possibilities. It’s about punishing you for stepping out of line.”
Quinn, who identifies as queer and feminine, appears torn over the extent to which her gender and identity made her a focus. She stresses that online abuse “isn’t limited to a ‘women’s issue,’ nor is it solely or always primarily rooted in misogyny.” But as Gamergate dragged on, Quinn grew exhausted by “being a punching bag for people who hated women,” she admits. “There are different tactics and systems at play, but there is always one constant: the mob needs a witch to burn.”
The 2016 presidential campaign offered another such target for the mob: Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. In a new anthology, “Nasty Women” (the title evoking Donald Trump’s muttered insult to Clinton during their third presidential debate), several contributors examine the role of misogyny in the race, and their conclusion is unmistakable. “This election wasn’t simply a political contest,” memoirist Cheryl Strayed writes. “It was a referendum on how much America still hates women.” Cultural critic Carina Chocano further echoes Manne’s framework, declaring that “there’s no more despised figure on earth than a woman who seeks power.” But the writers diverge on the culprits they emphasize and the most authentically feminist ways to respond.
Who, for instance, was responsible for Trump’s victory? “They’re white men,” explains anthology co-editor Kate Harding. “They’re white women who will do anything to maintain the protection of white men. They’re a few sexist men of color. They’re stone-cold racists.” It’s as clear a distillation as you’ll find of the left’s common wisdom and enduring anger regarding the election.
The white female voters who cast their ballots for Trump are also a recurring preoccupation. “My faith in the possibility of us as a collective, a village, was shaken by the 53 percent of white women who voted for The Bully,” writes essayist Sarah Michael Hollenbeck. Others are slightly more sympathetic, and persuasively so. “That there are a lot of women in the United States who are not feminists is not surprising,” Rebecca Solnit argues. “To be a feminist you have to believe in your equality and rights, which can make your life unpleasant and dangerous if you live in a marriage, a family, a community, a church, a state, that does not agree.”
Liberal men get no such pass. Harding compares them to alt-right provocateurs such as Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos. “Men on the left can be nearly as relentless in their petulant demands for attention if you make a political choice they disapprove of, such as supporting an imperfect female candidate,” she writes. To a certain kind of progressive white man, “the right time for women is always some day in the future, and the right woman candidate is always the hypothetical one.”
Writer Jessica Valenti zeroes in on the “mostly skinny, white, and telegenic” female conservatives who claim everything’s fine for American women. “To Republican men, they’re shining examples of true womanhood: poised, smart, and satisfied with whatever rights men choose to bestow them with,” Valenti writes. She targets — and doesn’t miss — the “faux feminism” of Ivanka Trump, “a woman who epitomizes what happens when the movement turns into something so nebulous and broadly defined that women could help elect a monster and call themselves ‘empowered’ because of it.” Or as Manne puts it, “Women’s power will be better tolerated when it’s wielded in service of patriarchal interests.”
Perspectives on the feminist reaction to Trump are similarly mixed. The Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration embodied “boilerplate and mainstream feminism,” writes Nation contributor Collier Meyerson, who thinks pink hats and “nasty” slogans don’t speak to the challenges facing African American women. Former Clinton campaign staffer Zerlina Maxwell highlights the role of black women in the feminist movement, women who worked for Clinton and voted for her overwhelmingly, even though the candidate was “the public face of white feminism.” And journalist Meredith Talusan laments the “gender essentialism” of the feminist movement, in which trans and gender-nonconforming women “have always been marginalized.” A fixed view of gender roles, she argues, is precisely the reason Clinton lost and only undercuts the power of the feminist response to Trump.
What does not emanate from these pages is a sense of unity within the movement, or maybe it’s just hard to hear among the ethnic, ideological and identity call-outs. Internal debate can be clarifying and renewing for any movement, but some of the contributors to “Nasty Women” express meaningful concerns over these divides. “Feminists have much more important work to do than bashing Lena Dunham or calling out other feminists on Twitter for some minor thought crime no one will even remember in a day or two,” writes Katha Pollitt, who urges fellow feminists to “focus on the big picture.” Black Lives Matter activist Alicia Garza explains how she made herself attend the Women’s March in Washington, even though it didn’t necessarily embody all her views and values.
“If our movement is not serious about building power,” Garza explains, “then we are just engaged in a futile exercise of who can be the most radical.”
For Clinton herself, the matter seems clear. “Sexism and misogyny played a role in the 2016 presidential election,” she states in her recent memoir. “Exhibit A is that the flagrantly sexist candidate won.” Being a woman in American politics, she writes, is humiliating. “The moment a woman steps forward and says, ‘I’m running for office,’ it begins: the analysis of her face, her body, her voice, her demeanor; the diminishment of her stature, her ideas, her accomplishments, her integrity,” Clinton writes. “It can be unbelievably cruel.” The response to the publication of her memoir — with even members of her own party wishing she’d go away — hardly disproved her point.
In “Down Girl,” Manne recalls the incessant “lock her up” refrain aimed at Clinton at Trump rallies. The chant “obviously expressed a desire to see her punished,” Manne writes. “But it also went beyond that and seemed to express a desire for her containment.” Solnit remembers the second debate, when Trump stalked his opponent across the stage. “Like many men throughout the election,” she writes, “he appeared to be outraged that she was in it.” No wonder he threatened to jail her if he won. Clinton got too close to power and needed to be put in her place. She’s no fun.
Trump won even with all that the campaign revealed about his attitudes toward women. “Misogyny was plausibly a selling point with many of Trump’s fans,” Manne contends. “For Americans tired of so-called political correctness . . . watching Trump vent his vile spleen without so much as the risk of subsequent embarrassment, must have been a cathartic and sometimes emboldening spectacle.”
If Trump had not run for president and we were still experiencing this national reckoning about sexual misconduct, might not a narcissistic real estate developer and reality television star with a checkered personal history have become one of this revolution’s obvious targets? Perhaps. Or maybe it took the shock of electing a man who constantly demeans women, who boasts about grabbing them by their genitals, to help propel this moment in the first place.
If so, we’re left with a president thus far exempt from the backlash synonymous with his time, a leader who holds power not despite his transgressions but because of them. It’s worth remembering, just for a moment.