Philosopher Kate Manne on 'Himpathy,' Donald Trump, and Rethinking the Logic of Misogyny

In Depth

There are few things more perennially relevant than a book about misogyny, but Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny is particularly resonant in the era of #MeToo, Donald Trump, and the often contentious narratives that flow from both. A philosophy professor at Cornell University, Manne uses the tools of her trade to parse the current state of misogyny, drawing from recent events, including the election of Trump to the trial and subsequent convictions of Brock Turner and Daniel Holtzclaw.

Manne posits a more rigorous definition of misogyny—away from the feelings of misogynists and towards its victims. 

Central to Manne’s definition of misogyny is to locate what she terms “naive misogyny,” a conception that misogyny is simply the hatred of women or the psychological ill health of one particular man. Manne asserts that this limited definition of misogyny makes the “hatred” so personal that it renders the impact meaningless and impossible to see. Take Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who killed six people in Isla Vista in 2014, for example. Though Rodger released a video prior to his shooting spree blaming women in a University of California, Santa Barbara sorority for his actions, many writers sought to vindicate him from the charge of misogyny. They argued that Rodger didn’t hate women, perhaps instead he loved women too much. Hence, #YesAllWomen gave way to #NotAllMen. Or perhaps, some insisted, he suffered from mental illness. Regardless, the narrative was empathetic to Rodger, seeking as it did, to exculpate him from his own crimes, making him the object of empathy rather than his victims.

If “naive misogyny” was used to excuse Rodger, then in a less extreme example, it works to defend Trump as well. Think of how often the president’s defenders point to the women he’s hired as proof that Trump loves women. Instead, Manne posits a more rigorous definition of misogyny, one that follows its logic and ultimately recenters its framework toward its political nature—away from the feelings of misogynists and towards its victims. “Misogyny’s essence lies in its social function, not its psychological nature,” Manne writes. “It may,” she argues, “pursue its targets not in the spirit of hating women but rather, of loving justice.”

It is very likely impossible to find a man who hates all women: Most men love their daughters or wives or mothers; they love women, Manne argues, who act as givers (emotionally or otherwise)—gender roles doled out by misogyny and naturalized by sexism. As long as women act in service of those giving roles, then all is fine. When they don’t, however, misogyny arms itself with “down girl moves” in order to sustain what it has determined to be the natural way of things.

“Sexism wears a lab coat; misogyny goes on witch hunts”

Manne posits that sexism and misogyny are distinct from one another. “Misogyny is law enforcement; sexism is justificatory,” Manne argues. “Sexism wears a lab coat; misogyny goes on witch hunts […] Sexism is bookish; misogyny is combative,” she writes later in the book. Sexism is not the “cudgel” of misogyny, instead, it’s a set of beliefs that work to naturalize the existing order. Hence, Trump, Manne argues, “illustrates the possibility of sexism without misogyny in practice.” Trump, for example, does not believe that women are inferior (he employs women at his companies!) but rather “needs to control them, and head off the risk of their outshining him.” And he does so with the “cudgel” of misogyny.

I spoke to Manne about everything from “himpathy” and misogyny to #MeToo, Aziz Ansari and (of course) Donald Trump. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

I wanted to start with the concept of “down girl,” which you use as the title of your book. You write that your dog is an example of this command of “down girl.” You describe it as a “liberating duty” or a kind of command that can be obeyed with a kind of pleasure, by your dog, of course, but also women within the structure of misogyny. Can you talk a bit about this unifying concept of “down girl” and how it works throughout the book?

Misogyny can have so many different ways of putting women in their place or punishing or threatening them for subverting or violating patriarchal norms and expectations. But the playful, secondary meaning of “down girl,” points to how hard it is to let go of the internalized “down girl” moves that we either do automatically or we take those social cues and kind of lay down on all fours. Even for a very strong-willed or feisty dog—in my case, a Corgi very much enjoying her life—sometimes the anxiety of pure freedom means that it’s actually very nice to have a command to obey. If she’s anxious, asking her to touch your hand with her nose or lay down is something that alleviates anxiety.

I wanted to gesture at the way that for women to give up some of those forms of patriarchal obedience can be terrifying. It can leave us feeling devoid of meaning and requires being creative about how to fill a gap that’s often filled with “good behavior.”

Right, when we usually consider patriarchal structures, we often talk about punishment, particularly the punishment of women who step out of the proverbial line. But you make the case, rather compellingly, that there’s a lot of rewards, especially for those labeled “good women.” What kind of good behavior is rewarded?

It’s not like the flipside of punishment is neutrality. It’s both the relief of not being punished or threatened but it’s often also being explicitly told, “You’re a good one,” combined with material and emotional rewards. The subtitle was a kind of nod to the men who have said to me, “Oh, you’re okay,” because I’ve shown that I can do masculine-coded work in my discipline. Particularly moving beyond philosophy, on to the political realm, especially for white women, there are such powerful incentives to be deemed “good” by the powerful white patriarchs who are also part of white supremacy and, more or less, explicitly racist in their dating and marital preferences.

You can have a much easier and cushy life by being good vis-à-vis these powerful white patriarchs. In the most extreme cases, look at the Trumps of the world. The women who stay on his good side who are not invariably, but almost always invariably white, get huge advantages over those who challenge him.

You can have a much easier and cushy life by being good vis-à-vis these powerful white patriarchs.

That’s interesting because a few months ago, there was a spate of pieces about how women are managing the Trump White House, and they were largely celebratory. In the context of what you just said, that narrative takes on a whole new meaning—this literal and monetary reward for good behavior.

I was thinking about Hope Hicks, she perfectly exemplifies this, as well as the obvious examples of Kellyanne Conway and Ivanka Trump. They have quite a bit of power which is, as far as I can see, fine in regard to modern patriarchs as long as it’s extremely loyal and devoted to service power that’s deployed purely in their interests. They do a huge amount of emotional work, as well as the work that needs to be done within those particular social and political roles.

In Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff actually talks about Trump preferring women in those roles because they’re more “intuitive” and fall into line with his desires and expectations, and they’re sensitive to his needs. It’s pure The Giving Tree kind of stuff.

I want to backtrack for a moment and then return to Trump if that’s okay. Part of what you’re touching on right now is the concept of “naive misogyny,” which you discuss extensively in your book. I thought this was a helpful analysis because you see a lot of “naive misogyny” across the media. It is a very popular way of defining misogyny—the simple hatred of women—but not very helpful, particularly in locating what you call the “political structure of misogyny.” I was wondering if you could talk a bit about “naive misogyny” as you define it in your book.

I think that the naive, dictionary definition of misogyny takes it to be something in men’s heads primarily—this psychological, deep-seated hatred that is extended to pretty much any and every woman just as such. What I argue is that, if you define misogyny like that, it pretty much won’t exist in the real world. Given the nature of patriarchal social roles, women are socialized to be very pleasing to men. It would be really surprising even for the least enlightened man to just hate women. If women are being super nice and oriented to his interests and serving him well, then what is there to hate?

“It’s the hatred you face, not the hatred he feels.”

What I end up doing is making two conceptual moves. One is to move an agent-center or perpetrator-center picture of misogyny to one that is victim or target-centered. So, it’s about what women face, not what men feel. The other is to make it a more explicitly politically-centered conception so it’s what women face not because they’re women, represented as such in men’s mind but because they’re women in a man’s world and within historical patriarchy. That will mean that in as much that they violate patriarchal norms and expectations, there’s a heightened risk of being subject to hostile, hateful, aversive treatment. It’s the hatred you face, not the hatred he feels.

The psychological distinction you make was really fascinating. You bring up Elliot Rodger who is someone who, under this naive conception of misogyny, cannot possibly be a misogynist because naive misogyny allows us to posit his behavior as, what you call, “psychological ill health.” I was wondering if you could talk about that a bit? Maybe I’m wrong, but I see a lot of this kind of naive misogyny threaded through #MeToo—this idea that it’s simply an individual man who is ill and needs counseling.

I see that as an interesting fixation on the psychology of the perpetrator but also this peculiarly individualizing conception where he is not part of a political syndrome. Rather, he’s symptomatic of an individual illness; he’s a lone wolf in his crimes or a sick individual who needs therapy. That’s just bullshit. I think it’s part of the problem of “himpathy.” The sense that he should go to therapy, this is a very sympathetic way of looking at something horrible that he’s done. It’s not that I’m totally uninterested in the psychology of misogynists but only inasmuch as I need to understand it to combat it for girls and women.

In terms of mental health issues, it’s a red herring. As we know, mental health is very diverse and often makes people vulnerable to violence, not more likely to be perpetrators of violence. Secondly, it’s a way of decreasing individual responsibility and excusing his behavior in making it out to be something he’s not fully in control of. So, it’s exonerating and it’s also, once again, making him the subject of this sympathetic narrative that’s centered on him and his mind.

It’s not that I’m up for particularly punitive treatment of misogynists, it’s just that it’s their business—between them, their families, therapists, and communities. I think politically what we need to do is to look at what they’re doing, and that’s enormous damage to girls and women, the kind that we can’t make excuses for or see as something that requires treatment and cure and education and management. That’s not really our place, that’s for psychologists and those intimately acquainted with the person in question. We need to focus on the victims and the way that this is a pattern of victimization.

HE felt entitled to be given the ingredients of successful masculinity.

This psychological approach hides the actual structure of misogyny, as you argue. I was wondering if you could tease out this thread in regard to Rodger? In some circles, like #YesAllWomen, it was clear that Rodger was symptomatic of a broader problem…

Exactly. His rhetoric was so familiar to so many women. Although his crimes made national news for a few weeks because they had a few unusual features, they gave rise to this debate about misogyny. In some ways, his crimes were really ubiquitous acts of sexual jealousy. We have between two and three intimate partner homicides committed by a man against a female partner every day in the States. The most at-risk a victim of domestic violence will be is either when she is threatening to leave or has just left him.

Point being, what Elliot Rodger said in his video pre-confession is that he would punish these women for not giving him love, attention, affection, and sex. And not just sex, but the warm fuzzy feelings he felt that he was entitled to. He didn’t know these women, he had never introduced himself to them, but the particular women he targeted were representative of the “hot” kind of woman he felt entitled to as the son of a pretty wealthy and successful Hollywood director. As the son, he felt as a failure in not having emulated his father. But a lot of us feel like failures all the time, but the difference is that he felt entitled to be given the ingredients of successful masculinity. He felt like these women were wronging him because they were causing him pain by not knocking down his door, or making themselves available to him. He felt rejected even though he was literally not seen by them.

What’s interesting (though maybe that’s not the right word) about your treatment of Rodger within the framework of naive misogyny is that, as you point out, there are so many writers who rushed in to defend him, arguing that he’s not a real misogynist. They argued that he clearly is attracted to women and that he loves women and, therefore, cannot possibly be a misogynist. At the time, reading some of these responses, I wondered, “How could they even come to this conclusion?” But now…

Yeah, me too. I was baffled, but I thought that there must be something conceptually and emotionally awry in terms of who becomes the victim and who becomes the villain in our narratives.

It’s exactly what you’d expect from gender, that men punish the women that aren’t nice to them, especially if they’re hurt. But we know from the better analyses of anti-Semitism, like Hannah Arendt, that even Adolf Eichmann had a Jewish mistress. Racism is often rife with exceptions for a “black friend” or, in Eichmann’s case, the Jewish mistresses or family members that he viewed as the “good ones.”

Then I began to think that the naive concept is playing an exonerating role. It’s the wrong concept, but it’s not one that can just be corrected because the term makes no one a misogynist. Why even have the term? It also fulfills this exonerating role, making excuses for someone like Rodger and making him a victim of his own crimes.

Himpathy is the excessive or inappropriate sympathy extended to a male agent or wrongdoer over his female victim.

That leads to something you already brought up, which is himpathy, a term that you coin in this book. I’m really enamored with this term and I was wondering if you could describe to Jezebel readers what exactly himpathy is?

I’m actually working on expanding it at the moment, but in the book, I concentrate on the case where it’s the excessive or inappropriate sympathy extended to a male agent or wrongdoer over his female victim. In a narrative way, he is the wrongdoer or bully or oppressor and she is the victim of his actions. Himpathy, in the simplest case, describes a reversal of that narrative, the flow of sympathy away from her, its proper object, up the social hierarchy to him, assuming that he is no less privileged given intersecting social factors. This is if you hold fixed factors like race and class, among others.

I’ve been working on thinking about himpathy as a more general family of moral biases that make us more sympathetic to male victims than counterpart female victims. We’re appropriately concerned about boys who are the victims of sexual abuse increasingly, which is a very welcome social change, but I don’t think we’ve yet shown nearly enough concern for girls who are victims of that abuse much more statistically frequently. I’m also thinking of it as extended to the male perpetrators of crimes where the counterpart female perpetrator is much more easily condemned and is less sympathized with.

I think himpathy describes a whole set of ways that we tend to be overly focused on, and tend to give sympathetic attention to, men and boys in ways that are systematically distorting.

In the book, you write extensively Brock Turner as a narrative example of himpathy, especially the kind of himpathy generated by his friends and his family. You also write about Daniel Holtzclaw as another recent example of himpathy, this very public example of empathy extended to a man despite the serial and serious nature of his crimes. In less heinous examples, I’ve been thinking a lot about himpathy during this moment of #MeToo. I feel like himpathy is so central to defenses that have been mounted against this moment. I was wondering if you see himpathy having this real clear moment right now?

I think the #MeToo movement has been good in certain ways but it has been really limited in others. If we look at the cases where we have someone who we are inclined to himpathize with—I’m thinking about Aziz Ansari, particularly.

He has an award-winning television show that portrays him as this sympathetic doofus, he’s well-meaning and well-intentioned, muddling through life. He’s not hugely incompetent, but he’s also not super suave. He’s the right amount of clueless for peak empathy, especially from a liberal audience. In certain complicated ways, his race elicits complicated biases from some, but I think there can also be an effect of being uncritical in ways in which his show has centered on white women as the romantic protagonists for him. We himpathize with him.

Here’s the social psychology experiment that I’ve been thinking about. It’s not in the book, but I think it’s important: If someone is the object of a sob story then, in an experiment where they’re competing with someone on a test, participants give more hot sauce to the rival of someone who has been given a more sympathetic narrative. In other words, that’s a measure of aggression. There’s a proneness to show aggression towards someone when we antecedently sympathize with their rival. When you think about someone like Grace, coming forward and telling the truth about what happened—the ways in which he was an asshole and, really, just so stupid and inconsiderate about sex, in ways in which he of all people should have known better (and I think this came close to sexual assault, based on her account and reading between the lines)—we’re so sympathetic to him that the narrative becomes hostile to her. She’s set up as his antagonist, testifying against him, threatening his reputation and causing him shame and humiliation.

You get Caitlin Flanagan immediately calling Grace’s story “revenge porn.” The aggressive impulse that we show to a woman who testifies against a man with whom we sympathize is really predictable. I think it’s prone to be post hoc rationalized, yet moralistic bullshit.

I find the himpathy to be a very helpful identifier because there are so many case studies. If I read the sentence, or a variation of the sentence, “He’s not Harvey Weinstein,” one more time, I might scream.

Exactly! How do we know, by the way? Harvey Weinstein started young, as men usually do. Sexual assailants will self-report starting at age 16. But given his behavior, why on earth do we suppose that his past is innocent? We don’t know, but still, the response is like “Oh, he had a terrible night!” Why do we think that? Maybe this guy is a rapist. We just don’t know. We should be keeping an open mind because there are other people at stake here.

we’re so sympathetic to him that the narrative becomes hostile to her

It’s been frustrating to watch this shift to the question of how we rehabilitate these men when we now have hundreds of women who have testified to varying abuses.

It’s the least of our problems, rehabilitating and redeeming these man. And this demand for instant forgiveness, even if someone comes forward in the first place, it’s so problematic.

I just want to add, that another way that we haven’t made progress in the #MeToo movement is that, if you look at who has brought down influential men, it’s rare for a female journalist to have been the one to have broken the story uniquely or for a woman’s testimony to be directly receiving uptake. Look at Ronan Farrow who gets huge amounts of credit for the Harvey Weinstein story as opposed to [Megan Twohey and Jodi Cantor]. A man can bring down an equally privileged man. Look at the Brock Turner case, too. Two male Swedish graduate students can testify to rape and it was almost certainly crucial to the case ever reaching trial.

Do we really now have the ability socially for a woman to say, “He did that” and for us to take it seriously when he’s the antecedent object of himpathy? I don’t think so.

I want to ask you one more question about himpathy. You argue that himpathy can also be connected to racism, especially the racism of white women. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how himpathy can work to keep women of color in an even further “down girl” position.

I think that the way it flows up the social hierarchy and away from less privileged people is so detrimental to women of color who are disproportionately vulnerable to sexual assault, especially from white or white-reading men like Daniel Holtzclaw. He still was a blip as a perpetrator in terms of national news when he was the sexual assailant of so many black women who he targeted specifically.

The white women’s tears for him, to their credit, at least they did find him guilty—but their tears as he was lead away, I think it was really inappropriate not to be able to focus on the black women who were doubly or triply marginalized in being sex workers or drug users and known to law enforcement as vulnerable in these ways. He targeted them. What he did was so evil, really, and yet there were tears for his bright future in law enforcement, not relief that he’s not doing this any longer. Shouldn’t your sympathy and empathy be with the victims? Even if you don’t show that during a juror, white women’s tears there were so inept. And insulting to black women.

You write about the fact that this is moral injury…

It’s shameful on white women’s part. I think we need to face our shame in being morally oriented in ways that are superficially positive, like feeling sorry for people, but it turns out that we feel sorry for the wrong people in the wrong way at the wrong time, to sort of butcher Aristotle. We’re doing it in a way and really betraying more vulnerable women, including women of color and trans women.

I want to return Donald Trump but before I do that, I wanted to ask just a few more questions. You draw a distinction between sexism and misogyny. There are some great analogies in the book: “Sexism is bookish; misogyny is combative,” and “Sexism wears a lab coat; misogyny goes on witch hunts.” I was hoping you could explain that distinction to our readers. I think that this distinction is such a necessity at this moment.

I find it helpful to think about sexism as a set of beliefs that somehow work to justify and rationalize women being in traditional feminine-coded roles and men in masculine coded roles. The idea that women are more empathic, which turns out not to be true. It only comes up in social psyche if you prime people with gender, it turns out that men and women can be equally empathetic on average. So, it’s a bad set of beliefs that can be either just plain false or stuff that we really don’t know that because it’s very hard to establish natural differences because it’s very hard to establish a control group with men and women who have been in raised in equal, non-patriarchal conditions.

Sexism is an ideology that says, “If the world is patriarchal, don’t worry about it, that’s how it will tend to be.” Whereas misogyny I think of as the law enforcement of the patriarchal order that enforces this system when sexist ideology is either on the wane or doesn’t suffice to keep people in their respective places. You get these myths, for example, girls and women just aren’t interested in gaming. Eventually, that turns out to dissolve as a social myth. But then someone like Zoe Quinn becomes a game developer and there is this vitriolic enforcement that tries to push women like her out of the gaming world. There’s this desire to keep women out that kicks in with the belief that [women] can’t cut it is disproven or made very implausible.

It’s not that Trump really believes that he’s so superior. It’s that he’s willing to enforce his dominance.

In your discussion of sexism versus misogyny, you make a provocative point that Donald Trump demonstrates the possibility of misogyny without sexism. Can you elaborate on that? I think it’s common and easy to say “Donald Trump is a sexist,” but you posit that he isn’t a sexist but rather a misogynist.

I think that if he had these really deep belief that women couldn’t cut it in business and politics, it would be surprising that he positioned women in pretty high profile positions beneath him. He undoubtedly engages in very sexist rhetoric, say about Hillary Clinton, but I think it’s more out of anxiety than really believing that he’s genuinely superior to her in intellect. It’s not that he really believes that he’s so superior. It’s that he’s willing to enforce his dominance. That’s why he needs to be menacing to her on stage. It’s more about putting her down than believing that she’s already down beneath his contempt. I think he knew she was formidable.

You said earlier, Trump hires women and they surround him in the White House; the face of the White House is very much white women. How is he using misogyny as what you describe as a “cudgel”?

I thought it was so striking when Megyn Kelly challenged him so explicitly on [his portrayal of women]. His immediate go-to was a smackdown and portray her as out of line. He said she was bleeding out of her eyes and “her wherever.” I’m not even sure he meant vagina but rather this bleeding mass of rage.

Also, the ways he talked about his opponent Carly Fiorina. Just as she was starting to briefly do better in the polls, he said about her face [In 2015, Trump said, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”] He implied that she wasn’t presidential-level attractive; putting her down aesthetically when… it’s not like he’s an Adonis. He makes these very explicit and crude down girl moves.

Similarly with Rosie O’Donnell, when she made jokes about his moral authority he called her a pig and a dog, among other epithets. He lashes out when a woman says “no.” It is true that Trump targets everyone, but I think the ways he does to women are, in each of those cases, clearly gendered in quality and sometimes in quantity. He goes after women particularly viciously, as well as ways that invoke gendered expectations. I think that both of those make him a misogynist as well as domineering character, generally.

I have one last reductive question: For those who read the book, what would you like their one big takeaway to be?

Because I see misogyny as something that we all perpetuate and channel to some degree—the tendency to himpathize and then get aggressive toward the woman who challenges a man we like, or the tendency to see a woman as abrasive and shrill—I would just like readers of every gender to be willing to check themselves and think, “Am I really reacting to moral reality?” or “Let’s explore the alternative explanation that I was disposed to be on his side” or “I am feeling reluctant to look up to her” or “I just don’t want to listen to her.”

For me, at least, I try not to purify my soul of those sorts of bad tendencies, but just to check myself when there’s a thought I have that could be explained by either himpathetic bias towards him or misogynistic hostility towards her. Because I think we all have these tendencies, there’s no real shame in it; instead, there’s a responsibility to open-minded about revising those beliefs going forward.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin