Easiest bits first. There is so much of value in this book. In
particular, Manne’s multi-layered formulation of misogyny not as simple
“hatred of women” but as a self-perpetuating system of behavior policing
is convincingly argued and I think should be taught widely. By this, I
mean beyond philosophy including fields such as my own in economics,
which has proved notoriously incapable of incorporating such systemic
phenomena in its analytical frameworks. It is important.
The book is unfortunately very difficult to read. It is an academic book that the reader will quickly learn is not oriented towards general audiences. Even as an academic in a field of bad writers and opaque equations, this was frequently impenetrable and as a result, I took a break from continuing the book for about seven months. Lots of Goodreads reviews have voiced this frustration but I particularly relate to one that singled out the following sentence from page 180:
The implicit modus ponens here is too seldom tollensed.
I involuntarily said, “Oh fuck off” within earshot of a children’s
playground when parsing that sentence before highlighting it and noting
“wtf” next to it. As someone who went to college intending to major in
philosophy, I get the temptation of verbosity but an editor should have
axed that on sight. The concepts aren’t even that difficult to express
in simple writing and frankly, it is a wasted opportunity to invite
marginalized voices to participate in philosophy, a field that like mine
suffers from elitism and a lack of diversity.
Beyond this, it is a bit disorganized; the chapters could be better distinguished and there are too many large footnotes throughout. The constant forward and backward references to previous and forthcoming chapters (e.g. “We will see in Chapter 5 how this manifests...”, “recall in Chapter 2 how…”) breaks the flow of an already laborious read.
The writing isn’t bad. The examples provided, drawn from news stories, literature, movies, and other art, are well chosen. Manne’s writing is very quotable and there are a lot of segments where as a reader you just think, “I’m familiar with this concept but just hadn’t seen it systematically put into words before.” Case in point, a lot of people engaged enthusiastically with this tweet of mine , which was a literally random sentence from the book (replies seem to be hidden for some reason). I like in particular the exposition of exonerating narratives. I’d recommend this review of the book —it’s what got me to buy it in the first place.
Now, the bad parts and they are indeed very bad. In particular, this
book is deeply irresponsible in its discussions of race and empire.
Manne to her credit begins with a positionality statement acknowledging
her limited vantage point and throughout makes reference to misogynoir
and the privileged status of white women like herself. Nonetheless, the
racial analysis is severely lacking and oftentimes harmfully so,
disappointing in a book that bills itself as intersectional.
The first major stumbling block I identified is from her chapter on victim-blaming, namely the public’s predisposition to not believe the accounts of victims of misogyny. In it, she considers reasons that would bring women to make public their grievances in anticipation of too-common and nonsensical counterarguments that the victim would somehow benefit from the attention. As the Me Too movement has made undeniable, this he said/she said battle unfortunately places an unfair burden of proof on the alleger, who is often a stranger to the public sphere lacking the resources and benefit of familiarity of their more powerful, typically male abusers. Manne is convincing in making the point that if it were the case that the accuser seeks to attract sympathy, this is a terrible way to do it: the public is primed to preserve its goodwill towards the familiar and powerful and is prone to intrusively scrutinizing imperfect victims. The burden of proof is unbelievably daunting, often humiliating, and evidence is routinely purposely destroyed. Clearly, no sane person would willingly go through this ordeal without at least the truth on their side.
Then Manne off-hand (page 238) says that “given... the paucity of analogues running in the other direction, gender-wise”—meaning given that we rarely see actual evidence of malevolent accusers—we can dismiss this motive. This was shocking to read a few days after a national commemoration of Emmett Till’s 79th birthday and during a moment where video footage keeps surfacing of white women using their privileged status in attempts to weaponize white supremacy through some wrongly perceived or outright invented abuse, i.e. “Karens”, to use the ironically now-gentrified nomenclature. Of course, the most high-profile recent example is that of Amy Cooper calling the police on Christian Cooper in Central Park. You’ll also remember this immediately recognizable dynamic gives the movie “Get Out” its climax when a police car finds Daniel Kaluuya’s character strangling Allison Williams' without context. “Who are they gonna believe?” is indeed a weapon and it is unfair to dismiss that it is wielded by the powerful, who are sometimes women. Manne’s analysis, in my understanding, cannot accommodate this complication, wherein in white women have repeatedly been shown to abuse their credibility as victims to threaten the lives of innocent others. We lament how the Black Lives Matter movement has been so dependent on fortuitous camera footage to inspire the support of non-Black people because they face the same unjust burden of proof. Believe survivors, of course, but where there is intersectional power, there is complexity beyond what Manne’s framework permits.
Chapter 8 is mostly a reflection on Hillary Clinton’s election loss to Donald Trump. Like other Goodreads reviewers here, I had followed Manne on Twitter for a while before getting to this chapter and it is clear and understandable that she identifies personally with the undeniably sexist treatment Clinton has received throughout her very public career.
Unfortunately, the relatability of an objectively qualified and competent white woman occupying elite space has clearly clouded her judgment to the point of being unable to consider Clinton’s objective flaws. Chapters earlier, Manne makes the vital point that we cannot hold victims of misogyny to the impossible standard of being perfect victims. In fact, she invokes Michael Brown to make this point. Why then does Manne do Clinton the disservice of making her out as a perfect politician? Decades as arguably the most powerful woman in the world straddling neoliberal economics, a racist and punitive war on crime, and a hawkish war agenda, but Manne will only concede that some unspecified policies were “misguided” without elaboration. When she later considers Clinton’s support of the Iraq War (which she introduces as Bernie Sanders’ “controversial remarks about Clinton’s being unqualified”), she does so only to point out that “Donald Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, also voted for the war in Iraq” and that he received less scrutiny.
Manne also uses this chapter to vaguely highlight the plight of Alice Goffman, completely omitting the racial-exploitative nature of the controversy surrounding her. There is probably a sexist component to her treatment—I was a b-school undergrad not remotely interested in academia at the time so cannot speak to what the backlash was like—but the absence of context is odd given Manne’s tendency elsewhere to elaborate on the context behind all her case studies and how they fit the discussion at-hand. It is also telling that Manne’s next book reportedly will include a chapter on Elizabeth Warren’s run in the 2020 Democratic primary. Manne on Twitter has repeatedly and explicitly rejected the notion that there could be a non-gendered reason for favoring any candidate besides Warren. I don’t think I need to appeal to support of Clinton over Sanders in 2016 and initially Warren over everyone this cycle (before strongly favoring Sanders) to call this ridiculously out of touch and reflective of an elitist tunnel vision. This limited perspective palpable throughout the book contributed to my hesitation to finish. Even if we were to accept the premise, there is no good reason to repeatedly narrow your scope of analysis to white, rich, powerful politicians whose chief downfall is that they’ve only occupied the second most powerful political positions in the United States. Julia Gibbard hardly constitutes diversification. There is a wealth of material ripe for philosophical analysis outside of the white Anglosphere.
Finally, there is the matter of Manne’s analysis of the 2016 election. You would not know it from her treatment, but 82% of Black men, 63% of Latino men, and 61% of non-white others voted for Clinton. Sure, these are lower than the 94% and 69% of their female counterparts, but Manne’s analysis is so unable to consider non-white agency that one gets the sense that these facts are mere inconveniences. The racial dimensions of the election of a billionaire who popularized the Birther movement, ran on a platform explicitly equating Mexicans with rapists, and who labeled Africa a collection of shithole countries are completely absent from Manne’s election autopsy.
This isn’t to say she does not talk about race in the chapter:
My sense is that people in liberal and progressive circles were not generally as proud to vote for Clinton as President Obama, despite their very similar policies and politics, and the fact that each was or would have been (respectively) a history-making president
Beyond this casual equation of breaking the highest gender and racial barriers, how deeply must one lose themselves in the professor bubble that they cannot fathom a non-gendered reason that an upstart Obama would have an appeal that Clinton did not? It is completely lost on Manne that, as the numbers above attest, the reason the United States does not currently have a female president is because of racism. Is it possible that white women may be active participants and benefactors in the perpetuation of white supremacy (I’m thinking, for example, of the legacy of female participation in slave ownership as documented by the historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers)? In Manne’s shockingly aracial analysis of why white women voted for Trump, it does not seem so:
It turns out that women penalize highly successful women just as much as men do... In the days following the election, it was common for those of us grieving the result to judge the white women who voted for Donald Trump even more harshly than their white male counterparts. I was guilty of this myself. But... I subsequently came to redirect a good portion of my anger toward the patriarchal system that makes even young women believe that they are unlikely to succeed in high-powered, male-dominated roles.
How can one square this takeaway with the voting patterns of non-white women unless “women” here implicitly means “white women”? Does Manne suggest non-white women think themselves more likely to succeed in high-powered, male-dominated roles? She refuses to entertain the notion of white female racism:
…almost no black women and relatively few Latina women voted for Trump over Clinton. Is racial difference part of what makes for psychological self-differentiation from Clinton? Or was the obvious fact that these women had more to lose in having a white supremacist-friendly president rather an overriding factor in blocking the underlying dispositions that might otherwise have been operative?... Whatever the case, it seems plausible that white women had additional psychological and social incentives to support Trump and forgive him his misogyny... As white women, we are habitually loyal to powerful white men in our vicinity.
By this account, white women are not racist. No, they are just more embedded in white culture and thus have a proclivity to forgive while Black and Latina women are just looking out for what they have to lose. As for non-white men’s overwhelming support for Clinton, it doesn’t get mention at all.
I realize the bulk of this review is negative—it’s turned out much
longer than I intended—and hones in on one chapter of nine. These
missteps were particularly egregious to me maybe because they spoil what
is otherwise such a valuable offering. I would quite readily recommend
the first seven chapters to anyone with an open mind about dense
As an aside, this book was my first time reading an excerpt from then-anonymous Chanel Miller’s impact statement in the Brock Turner case. It’s a timeless piece of writing.