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Utopia, No

Entitled’s vision of feminism is shorn of both future and past

Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women by Kate Manne. Crown, 288 pages.

Preaching to the choir gets a bad name,” notes Kate Manne, but “we often don’t yet know our song.” True enough: history does not simply bend towards progress, let alone liberation. It is not inconceivable that in many quarters of American society, consciousness of gender inequality may require raising to an even greater extent in 2020 than it did thirty years ago. This seems to be what the feminist elder Peggy McIntosh (who popularized the terms “white privilege” and “invisible knapsack”) was saying in an online forum of “short takes” on Manne’s second book, Entitled, published this August by Crown. “When I first read the subtitle ‘How Male Privilege Hurts Women,’” writes McIntosh, “my reaction was, ‘I hold this truth to be self-evident!’ But times have changed.” McIntosh is not wrong that—at least in the field of academic philosophy—feminists today have relatively few works of contemporary analysis at their fingertips. By prolifically publishing her meta-ethical commentaries on her website, teaching, speaking, tweeting, and battling Jordan Peterson in public, Manne—an associate professor of philosophy at Cornell—is changing that, and addressing a popular audience to boot.

Even if you weren’t among those who actually read it at the time, odds are you still recall the title of Manne’s first book, which was released to great acclaim shortly after Donald Trump’s electoral victory. Albeit, according to exit polls, a majority of white women had just voted for Trump, the evocative command “down, girl!” nevertheless functioned in that moment as an apt paraphrase of the message so many voters felt had just been handed down to women in general and womanhood’s candidate in specific. The injunction is absurdly imperious—something a human might snap at their dog—yet can feel surprisingly annihilating. In the book, Manne in fact explicitly likens the logic of misogyny to a canine “shock collar.” Dramatic as that might sound, down, girl! does accurately identify a widespread American feeling. In the winter of 2016, it clearly named the mute shock and humiliation, the smarting wrongedness and powerlessness that feminists experienced on a mass scale. Even for me—a feminist opponent of “womanhood” as a concept, not to mention of everything Hillary Clinton stands for, pretty much—the phrase painfully recalled something the many-gendered bullies used to say to “whores,” “faggots” and “sluts” in the corridors of the French secondary school I attended as a teen: baisse les yeux!—a rough translation of which is “what you looking at?!”; a more literal one being “lower your eyes.”

Manne has clearly chosen the metaphor of the shock collar carefully, so as to get at the combined and uneven, systematic but non-ubiquitous character of what she calls misogyny. In Manne’s work, misogyny is not related to opinion but to action: it is the “law enforcement branch of a patriarchal order,” the force that punishes transgressions. Sexism, for her, refers to the worldview that may or may not lurk in the background of that punishment, justifying it; the bad science, the judiciary branch, the theory about, e.g., why so few Supreme Court judges are women (they’re just by nature not that interested). Crucially, this distinction allows Manne to theorize a trend she thinks is ascendant, namely: the modern phenomenon of misogyny-without-sexism. One may hold no sexist views, in other words, and still reflexively lash out at a woman when she crosses some line. Manne’s insistence on a separation between sexism and misogyny—as well as a definition of each that almost reverses the common Second Wave understanding of the two terms—represents one of her key innovations.

One may hold no sexist views, in other words, and still reflexively lash out at a woman when she crosses some line.

In some contexts, it is quite possible for girls like me—white, non-disabled, upper-middle-class, cis-passing—to forget entirely that the shock-collar is even there, around my neck; around anyone’s. Months or years can pass, in this position, when you never quite realize all the ways in which you are living, even while a feminist, as (to quote Manne) “one of the ‘good ones.’” Then, suddenly, something happens to show you; everybody gets zapped sometimes. In early 2018, speaking with an interviewer from Guernica magazine, Manne recounted an anecdote that I suspect will resonate deeply with thousands of feminized people in academia. She had just given a talk at “a university where a prominent feminist philosopher had recently died.” Afterwards, by way of complimenting her, a colleague of the deceased told Manne: “I think you’re much better than her. I think you’re a real philosopher.” Reading this, I instantly recalled the moment—the flip side of the coin of Manne’s experience—when, at the end of my oral defense of my PhD, the internal examiner, a woman, asked me what my thesis would have looked like if I had deployed “proper” (as opposed to feminist) political economy.

Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women is a crystal-clear taxonomy of the many cultural templates that produce systematic chauvinisms which run the gamut from “morally hideous” conversational snubs like the above, all the way to terroristic violence and medical neglect. The text is short and highly accessible, being, as Manne puts it, a trade book and a “cultural analysis of the moment,” in contrast to Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, her tenure book, which was a “crossover” piece of analytic philosophy intended for both lay and academic audiences. Nevertheless, the two are linked projects: the new book identifies exactly what the patriarchal norms and expectations are that Down Girl proposed misogyny functions to police. There are, it must be said, literal overlaps, for instance, quasi-identical reprises of vignettes around Brock Turner, Elliot Rodger, and, of course, Trump. Both books progress toward a chapter on Manne’s visceral desire for a female president—a desire expressed, this time, in tears for Elizabeth Warren in lieu of tears for Hillary Clinton. But whereas, in 2017, Manne ended on a nihilistic note (“I give up”), today, she abjures the “luxury” of despair and determines to “fight” the feminist cause.

The new book is primarily about eight false masculinist entitlements that permeate our society: entitlements to women’s love, credulity, admiration, sympathy, sex, forgiveness, care labor, and nurture. Chapter by chapter, she calmly dissects the corresponding scripts of everyday verbal intercourse, mostly via literary objects (“Cat Person”) and news stories (Harvey Weinstein), calmly dissecting Supreme Court judgements and incel manifestos alike, or forensically unpacking the gaslighting tactics deployed by police tasked with investigating rape. In each case, she convincingly pinpoints the expectations we all harbor that those we identify as “women” (I might say: produce as women) must embody the archetype she describes in Down Girl as the “giving she.” The result is a lucid rundown of the vast repository of giving—smiling, soothing, agreement, selflessness, bioavailability—that the ranks of the feminized are perceived to owe.

One might almost say too lucid: Manne’s thought occasionally “suffers,” as Adam Phillips put it in the London Review of Books, “from a determination not to be vague.” Rather than radicalizing her, the intervening years since Clinton’s electoral defeat seem if anything to have intensified Manne’s anti-utopianism. Forget doing away with material inequality: the best we can hope for, at this point, appears to be formal equality. Similarly, Manne mostly gives us to understand that it is men (a category she treats as given, rather than historical and intrinsically racial) who bear “male privilege.” At other times, though, her own data lead her to messier conclusions. Quite frequently, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Manne unequivocally names women’s misogyny, even if she only quotes privileged white women being misogynists. And she often notes the existence and validity of queer, working-class, and non-binary people. But it sometimes seems as though, through this rote inclusion, she can safely leave these complications, along with the male victims of misogyny (in its guise as antiblackness or queerphobia), out of the actual abstractions in her analysis.

Take, for instance, Manne’s chapter on care work. While Covid-19 has spotlighted the structural care deficits wrought throughout America by decades of class war from above, her consideration of domestic and care labor, as Nora Caplan-Bricker noted in The New Yorker, “is largely confined to professional women” (i.e., women whose profession is not care work). I take the reasoning behind Manne’s method to be that looking closely at the misogynist harms experienced by privileged women is the only way to really isolate the object of analysis: male privilege, as opposed to cases where race, gender and class privilege are all working together against someone. But this makes for a sensation weirdly like going back sixty years and witnessing the invention of Betty Friedan’s landmark takedown of housewifery—the “problem that has no name”—all over again. One would be forgiven for wondering if Wages Against Housework, Black feminism, queer feminism, and social reproduction theory ever actually happened. Manne’s world, in order to be as wonderfully clear as it is, is eerily shorn, not only of intrafeminist conflict, but of references to actual feminist efforts and campaigns.

This makes for a sensation weirdly like going back sixty years and witnessing the invention of Betty Friedan’s landmark takedown of housewifery all over again.

To be sure, Manne is doing analytic and moral philosophy, not feminist theorizing. She does not have to cite Wynter, Kollontai, de Beauvoir, Firestone, Lorde, Spillers, Haraway, or Stryker in order to notice “entitlements” in mainstream culture, and she is not obliged to speak to the question of whether it is entitlement or something else that produces binary sex/gender in the first place. But the absence of historicity in Entitled robs it of momentum, and of the imaginative resources required to know, in your gut, that another world is possible. Manne’s very last sentence is typical of what Lee Edelman calls “reproductive futurism”: she states that “for her,” meaning Manne’s newborn daughter, she is now in the fight. But the more palpably truthful sentiment is, in my view, the one that comes immediately before it: “I still have tremendous difficulty picturing a world in which girls and women can reliably lay claim to what they are entitled to, let alone one in which they get it.”

In these final pages, Manne changes course in honor of her female baby; articulating the real (“genuine”) entitlements the baby will hold, in the future, to not be treated by anyone the way I was treated and treated others in school. Within the script of motherhood, Manne’s feminist solidarity is expressed with uncharacteristic extremism:

Even during my pregnancy, I can anticipate being willing to cheerfully kill anyone who makes her feel ashamed of her body, whatever its shape, size, disabilities, typicality, and so on. (To be clear, I am perfectly well aware that I am not entitled to do this.)

This statement elicits conflicting reactions in me. On the one hand, I am envious; I wish I had had friends, comrades, mothers standing up for me in this way. On the other, as a critic of the nuclear private household and of naturalized parenthood, I am deeply averse to public expressions of parental love of this type, because I think solidarity with children’s bodily autonomy should be all adults’ prerogative. Like those T-shirts marketed at fathers, emblazoned with threats of violence toward a daughter’s putative male sexual partner, a mother’s rhetorical expression of readiness to kill for her children seems to me inseparable from property ideology—that is so say, complicit in a politics that positions the private biological family as sovereign, exclusive, and sacred.

Laudably, in her long and uplifting list of things to which she wants her daughter to feel entitled, Manne stresses the obligations that go along with entitlements, and resolves that her daughter will also know “what she is not entitled to do, to say, or to rely on.” She pledges, to this end, to teach her daughter that, as a white person, “she has special obligations to defend and support people subject to forms of marginalization and oppression from which she will be spared.” Specifically, she shall learn to be “obligated not to tolerate, let alone participate in, the legal and extralegal policing practices that oppress Black and brown bodies in our society,” (she means of course Black and brown people) as well as “obligated not to ‘lean down’ exploitatively on the emotional and material labor of women of color, as have so many white women before her.”

All of this is eminently sensible, albeit devoid of class consciousness. What is most conspicuously missing, ironically enough, is a pledge to teach her daughter about white women’s foundational role in perpetuating patriarchy, and a corresponding resolution to teach her not to enact, well, misogyny. Instead, Manne—for whom feminism is clearly not about horizontalism—sets out her belief that “if she does end up winning or otherwise outranking [other people], she may well be entitled to occupy a position of power or authority over them.” Again, this is girlboss feminism, not no-presidents feminism. The pinnacle of the vision is “a world in which girls and women are valued, cared for, and believed, within our social, legal, and medical institutions.” One could get the impression, reading this conclusion, that “more! female! prison-guards!” is a policy to be unironically welcomed.

This lack of vision is all the stranger given that American feminism today is moving so fast. Feminism, as myriad scholars and activists have explained on behalf of Black Lives Matter, has everything to do with the current uprising against racial capitalism. Already, its beating, rioting heart seems to have burst past the neoliberal capture of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo and returned dialectically to “abolition feminism”—something like the anticapitalism pioneered by the Combahee River Collective—such that sexual violence can be apprehended in a non-carceral way as a question that is centrally about bosses, about power in the workplace. Meanwhile, amid street battles, strikes, and anti-police rallies for Black Trans Lives, the post-carceral future seems to be erupting all around us out of the maelstrom of the present. As I see it, contemporary feminism clearly includes the wave of squatters (such as Philly Housing Action or, in Oakland, Moms 4 Housing) strong-arming municipalities into providing homes and offices for the unhoused. It is the demand for “bread, roses, and hormones.” It’s the insurgency of the “glitch”; it is the universalist humanism of Black trans feminism; it is “Black quantum futurism.” Feminism is the rising generation of post-womanhood gender theorists, these legions of on-the-ground utopians, often led by trans people of color in the sex industry, who are spreading harm reduction and mutual aid across the nation. Feminism is one word for the non-hierarchical struggles they are waging, for the full decriminalization of sex work, free abortion on demand without apology, trans rights, “care not cops,” no borders, “a world without prisons,” immediate decarbonization and demilitarization of the economy, and water protection.

Surely, in ways outlined in her own analysis, no human being is entitled to hold power over others.

But Kate Manne’s feminism is limited by her own definition, intended for an audience of “women and girls.” In reality, it seems to me more useful for shutting down vile strains of liberalism like Jordan Peterson’s, and she has my full solidarity insofar as her high-profile efforts to isolate and analytically clarify the logic of contemporary patriarchy place her squarely in the sights of the alt-right and on the right side of history within today’s conjuncture. Ultimately, though, she has little to offer the rising generation of younger feminists, the majority of whom are quite unmoved by vagina-having politicians. The passage that really rammed the fact home to me—indeed, made me spit out my tea—was the chapter-opening in Down Girl whose epigram is a hefty chunk of the “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” monologue from Julius Caesar. “Okay,” I thought, expecting something entertaining and sarcastic on the topic of “himpathy.” No. To my amazement, it turned out, Manne was identifying not with the regicides, but with the imperial despot’s posthumous PR man:

Marc Antony breaks down at the end of his famous speech, having exposed the “honorable Brutus” as a traitor and a fraud. “Bear with me,” he says, “my heart is in the coffin there with Caesar; and I must pause till it come back to me.” Writing in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, I have to say: I know the feeling.

You got that right. Here we have Hillary Rodham Clinton as Caesar . . . as though that’s a good thing. The candidate whose only discernible policy proposal was “it’s my turn” (which still, it has to be said, won the popular vote) was our true emperor, vilely stabbed in the back.

Explicitly, then, power per se is not a problem for Manne. After Joe Biden chose the police-protecting state prosecutor Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential candidate, Manne opined in The Atlantic that left voters should not “sit in judgment over Harris,” affirming: “I will defend her at every turn from the egregious misogynoir to which she will inevitably be subjected.” Earlier, in The New York Times, her bottom line was “women are just as entitled as men to hold power.”  But surely, in ways outlined in her own analysis, no human being is entitled to hold power over others.

For centuries, revolutionaries have speculated that that which we call power would disappear under conditions of real equality. Thus my kind of street-variety feminist philosopher is wont to challenge the whole concept of “power over” and to air the old communist saying “we don’t want a bigger slice of the pie, we want the whole fucking bakery.” It is fair to say, I think, that this particular author evinces no real critique of the bakery, or pie-markets. In the end—even leaving aside the anti-utopianism—my personal dissatisfaction with Entitled probably stems from the fact that Manne, by her own admission, is “not a marcher.” While philosophers have often changed the world, for her, the point is to interpret it.