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Down Girl

07 Feb 2018

I added this book to my list some months ago after I believe seeing a review in a newspaper. I bought it in the last batch of books along with Between the World and Me, not fully aware of the potential for overlapping themes. But after reading the former, I decided why not continue in the spirit of understanding bigotry and continue on to reading Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. A modern take on the foundational philosophical foundations of mysogyny. This book is fantastic. I highly recommend it, although I will have a few caveats below.

Down Girl was fascinating to me because I have never really taken the step back and examined what it means to be a man versus a woman in western, primiarly American, society. I have thought about it in passing, I understood vaguely that women are discriminated against, I knew there must be some ways that I view things which are inherently sexist. There has been a lot of talk about misogyny and sexism especially with the 2016 presidential race. So I wanted to have a foundational understanding of the topic. Too often there are ideas that we believe or things we know to be true, but we haven't really scrutinized them. They either have some deep unknown source of truth or there are bits and pieces of evidence that we point to which may or may not hold up to deeper scrutiny.

My dictionary defines misogyny as:

dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women

and even this I think is a very modern viewpoint on the word. Most people who deny the existence of prejudice against women like to hang on the definiton of misogyny as a very narrow pathological hatred of women. This book takes a more broad approach which encompasses the current usage of the word without holding to that narrow focus. Hence, the purpose of the book is to build

a general framework which understands misogyny in terms of what it does to women ... we should think of misogyny as serving to uphold patriarchal order

Which then essentially defines

mysogyny as primarily a property of social environments in which women are liable to encounter hostility due to the enforcement and policing of patriarchal norms and expectations

The book then moves on to discussing how this plays out in our society, in particular where and why we see misogyny occur:

It is punitive, resentful, and personal, but not particular. And the psychological targets of such attitudes may little resemble the actual victims. They are often instead directed toward a crude composite image of a woman pasted over the face of a real one.

There is also a lot of interesting information related to how women can be arguably the worst perpetrators against other women.

She can escape aversive consequences by being "good" by the relevant ideals or standards, if indeed any such way is open to her. ... Double binds--and worse--are common.

   

Such excellence in a woman may have the opposite effect on some people, resulting in her being a polarizing figure.

   

women penalize highly successful women just as much as men do, but for seemingly different reasons. ... penalizing successful women serves an ego-protective function (only) for other women.

Reading this after reading Between the World and Me was particularly enlightening because of the overlap in themes. This is brought up explicitly in this book as

Different forms of bigotry often have a high comorbidity

The first line that jumped out at me was the identical language to the aforementioned book, namely

Women are sometimes told they need to be twice as good as men, all else being equal

I know this is a common sentiment expressed by a lot of parents to their children when they are not white, for statistically good reason. I guess I never thought that parents were telling women the same thing. Again the data verifies the veracity of this, at least in spirit if not degree.

One interesting theme that I think needs to be explored more is the idea that

a misogynist social environment may but need not be the product of individual agents' bigotry

Too often I see people fighting the concept of structural oppression as some kind of affront to their personal morality and dignity. As if admitting that there are systemic reasons why certain groups of people are disadvantaged somehow makes you either a bad person or somehow less deserving of what you have or have acheived. This idea along with some other meanings is tied up in the following quote that I really liked

Agents do not have a monopoly on the social meaning of their actions.

At the end of the day, she makes a very good point that

We must accept the banality of misogyny

Misogyny is typically very boring, unoriginal, and hard to see if you are not looking for it. It is not typically some grand act of women hating. This is what makes it hard for those of us on the other side to admit it exists, understand the damage, and to do something about it. Injustice against me almost always has to be in the form of something obvious and large. There are no prejudices built in to our society that disadvantage me. I do not experince micro aggressions. I have experience in overt agression, conflict that is clear. So my baked in belief about everything else is that it is not a big deal. The damage is therefore not clear to me unless I really take the time to internalize the idea and attempt to empathize with it. Nonetheless I will never really get it because it is the type of feeling that takes many years to drill in to someone through constant reinforcement. Then for me to do something about it when it happens is again usually difficult due to not being aware that it is happening. Misogyny

may take the form not only of unwittingly policing and enforcing distinctively gendered norms and expectations but also, on my analysis, over-policing and over-enforcing gender-neutral and potentially valid norms

I don't personally feel threatened by the idea of not living in a patriarchal society. I feel like most men would say that. But seeing certain actions and beliefs as simply a bias intended to support this patriarchy is much harder to get to. I'm clearly not there and I just purposely read a book about it.

Discussing the idea of blaming the victim as well as sympathy for male offenders should be required especially of those in institutions of higher education.

when we have a sense that a woman is "playing the victim," "pulling the gender card," or being overly dramatic, we have reasons to be critical and doubtful of our instincts. What she is doing may stand out not because she's claiming more than her due but because we're not used to women claiming their due in these contexts. Women are rather expected to provide an audience for dominant men's victim narratives, providing moral care, listening, sympathy, and soothing.

Okay so what is wrong with this book? Well it is written in the style of a philosophy textbook. This results in chapter titles like

The Metaphysical Dependence of Misogyny on Patriarchy

along with a lot of strange word choice. This is not altogether weird for a certain subgenre of philosophy, but it makes it difficult to read at times. I have read a fair amount in this genre so I slogged through it, but it is not an easy read. Moreover, if you have any hint of dislike for the overly apologizing and tentative nature of modern academics then my ask of you is to just roll your eyes and keep moving. The first maybe quarter of this book was hard to read with the overuse of currently popular annoying phrasings of certain ideas. I understand this is a bias of mine, and I get that intersectionality as a concept is valid, but sometimes I just want to hear the argument without thirty different qualifications. The writing of the book as a whole is not the best because I believe she said the parts are written to be more or less self contained. This leads to quite a bit of repetition, so acheiving that goal makes the read from start to end more annoying.

Overall I highly recommend this book to everyone. To women who have experience with misogyny it might be frustrating but there are some poignant pieces of information. To men who don't think misogyny is a thing, maybe give the enemy a chance to explain themselves. At the least you will be able to argue more persuasively when you understand why you believe what you believe. Just make sure you have some way to look up definitions and you are willing to push through some slow bits.


Category: book