I’ve just finished Kate Manne’s amazing Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (2018, OUP). Through a carefully nuanced and clear argument, Manne positions misogyny as the law enforcement wing of a patriarchal society, as opposed to sexism which, she insists, is the heady, intellectual justification for patriarchy. Misogyny, in short, is the police force of patriarchy, while sexism is the court of law.

Approaching the problems of misogyny through this broad separation of patriarchal powers enables Manne to focus on misogyny as having to do with particular acts (of speech or body) that have particular effects on women and girls, such that the latter are taught or otherwise relegated (back) to their ‘proper place’, as the latter is understood by patriarchy. This proper place, according to Manne, is both completely unsurprising and oddly under-theorized. It is that women exist and should exist as givers to men, specifically as givers of “feminine-coded goods and services” such as “attention, affection, admiration, sympathy, sex, and children,” as well as “safe haven, nurture, security, soothing, and comfort.” Women who do not align their attention and service along this giving trajectory—whether out of disinterest, refusal, or temporary lapse—can call out the ‘police actions’ of misogyny, as do women who ask for or assume “masculine-coded perks and privileges” such as “power, prestige, public recognition, rank, reputation, honor, ‘face’, respect, money, status, upward mobility, and the status conferred by having a woman’s loyalty, love, devotion, etc.” (partial paraphrase of the passage, p. 130) Hence Manne’s title: Down Girl, as in the command one gives a pet dog who needs to heel or otherwise back down or off the situation.

Manne’s analysis of misogyny as acts-with-effects helpfully avoids a psychological etiology of misogyny that wrenches discussion toward the depth, extent, and authenticity of a person’s misogyny—including whether their expressed misogyny isn’t better seen as ‘really’ mental illness or about abandonment issues, or problems with their mothers—as opposed to the inter-relational effects of their actions, specifically whether they result in limiting, constraining, or harming women and girls. It also helpfully provides a way to understand the passive and often oblique modes of misogyny perpetuated by well-intentioned liberals (men and women) who don’t think of themselves as sexist and yet act in ways that undermine or exclude women and girls. As Manne writes, inchoate misogyny “will plausibly often be subject to pos hoc rationalization, a well-documented phenomenon in psychology. We experience a hostile feeling toward someone without quite knowing why, for example. Our minds subsequently search for a rationale to justify our ill feelings. Her voice was shrill; she is shouting; and why isn’t she smiling?” (103)

I have witnessed such rationalizations so many times in academia. A faculty member’s inability to handle a woman who doesn’t act within expected norms of femininity is never discussed as an inability; instead, the discomfort and disgust they feel is rationalized as the woman’s being “too political” or “condescending.” Importantly, such a liberal or non-sexist logic (and disavowal) of misogyny helps us understand the continued widespread use of gender stereotypes in film.

Last week I watched Caroline Champetier’s 2012 TV film, Berthe Morisot on Mubi. Berthe Morisot was an accomplished Impressionist painter supported (and thus entangled) with Édouard Manet and who eventually married Édouard’s brother, Eugène. The film shows the impossibility of focusing on Morisot’s artistic talent or life without placing it in the misogynistic context of a society and art world that punished women for remaining unmarried and also for withholding sexual favors from men who asked for them. The film struck me as revolving around the gendered clichés:  the woman frightened of being an old maid; the woman tempted to and scared of becoming a prominent (married) man’s mistress; the new wife, now pregnant, complaining of isolation and boredom; the cowed wife of the prominent man; and the old mother anxious to do whatever is necessary to marry off her daughters. In a film about the agency of a woman artist, the female characters are sunk down into their patriarchally appropriate place. This seems misogynistic to me.

In Rian Johnson’s 2019 release, Knives Out, the female characters are wonderfully varied but also completely stereotypical. Lynda, the aggressive “self-made” woman,  “built her business from the ground up” (with a million dollar grant from daddy) and is much more memorable than her whoever-he-was husband. Lynda acts the man in a man’s world. New-Age Joni is dismissed as fluff, the in-law Donna is set aside as hysterical, and the political cred of daughter, Meg (bought with a Smith College education), drops into free fall when she trades it all for the expediencies of wealth.

But where is the misogyny in this? The male characters, too, receive their punch lines and comeuppance.

Similar to Manne’s self-analysis of watching and enjoying the TV version of the Coen brothers’ Fargo (182-194), I submit that the males characters of Knives Out do not come off as badly as the women. It would be hard to reverse the gender relations in this film and have it work as well as it does and this, too, as Manne suggests about Fargo, indicates how the representation of gender is at the same time the policing of gender. Even the future well-being of the nurse and her family rely in the last moment on a man’s rapid insight and embrace of her essentially “good-hearted” nature.  If she had not abided by the normative practices of womanhood, she would have been glued irrevocably to all the (very familiar) slurs the family threw at her (manipulative, conniving, slut, bitch).

The ethical questions that Knives Out evoke for me–questions about what counts as a good life and whether we are spending out the days and labors of our lives in ways that comport to the flourishing of everyone–are anchored to the politics of gender in ways that remain concerning to me, despite how much I enjoyed the film.