When misogyny is a dead cat

Content warning: this post discusses rape threats and misogynistic abuse

A pattern has developed in mainstream political discourse: white woman politicians and paid hacks keep experiencing misogyny.

Oh, and there’s other things going on in the background: legitimate criticisms, indefensible actions, racism, literal wars… I could go on, but hey, let’s focus on the fact some egg on twitter called the subject a bitch.

There are approximately 800 million examples of this going on, from the decision to bomb Syria (which led to some of those who decided it was cool to kill loads of children with expensive missiles to receive rape threats) to a petition to sack an incredibly biased boss at the BBC being shared with accompanying misogynistic comments.

I suspect what’s going on here is something called “dead cat politics“, which floppy-haired twatbanana Boris Johnson–himself a heavy user of the tactic–explains:

“The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case.

“Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as ‘throwing a dead cat on the table, mate’.”

Going on to describe the manoeuvre he explains: “The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

In this situation, the misogyny is the dead cat. And let us be clear: the dead cat is actually present. There is misogyny going on. It is just that the misogyny is levelled as a distraction from issues they don’t want you talking about. Receiving rape threats doesn’t change the fact that it is wrong to choose to drop bombs on children, it simply shifts the discussion away from the inherent wrongness of dropping bombs on children. Using misogynistic language does not change the important discussion about bias from a public broadcaster, it merely deflects away from what we ought to be talking about.

It is worth noting at this juncture that the dead cat tactic only works for some people–in my first sentence, I mentioned that it is white women who use this. This is perhaps linked to the white woman tears phenomenon, an example of privilege that white women hold under white supremacy. They are also invariably cis, and middle-class.

Very frequently, when the misogyny dead cat is thrown at the table, a particular name comes up, condemning it: a Labour MP called Jess Phillips. Now, Phillips herself clearly has an agenda at play: as a Blairite, her vicious politics are slowly dying on their arse, and she’d rather we didn’t notice, so tends to fall down on the wrong side. She also demonstrably does not care about misogyny when it is not afflicting white women with whom she agrees. Phillips remains notoriously tight-lipped whenever misogynoir (the intersections of misogyny and antiblack racism) is thrown at her colleague Diane Abbott, and in fact has gleefully perpetrated it herself.

I use Phillips as an example of this problem, not the sole source: if I went into every single example of white women having an incredibly specific model of misogyny we’d all grow old and die. What matters is that misogyny is more than just a white woman receiving misogynistic tweets: but the dead cat always looks like the Angry Trolls On Twitter, Poor White Women.

There are ultimately three tactics for dealing with dead cat politics, of varying functionality. Some may be more effective for dealing with the dead cat of misogyny than others.

1. Drop the dead cat under the table: In this scenario, where the distraction tactic is attempted, just ignore it and attempt to steer the conversation back to what it was. Unfortunately, this has limited use, with an unsympathetic media who are profoundly fond of pushing the Online Spaces Are Misogynistic narratives because the internet is kind of killing their filthy industry. They will continue yelling that there is still a dead cat under the table, and they’re right about that.

2. Throw the dead cat right back at them: This can work under very specific situations, especially with politicians. Look at their voting records: did they, for example, vote for laws which would make abortions harder to access, or to cut domestic violence services? Fucking throw that right back at them, and show that they are using misogyny as a distraction rather than something they truly care about. This tactic, again, is a difficult one to wield, though. One needs direct ammunition–it doesn’t matter if they are the sort of politician who votes repeatedly in favour of austerity, and austerity hits women the hardest: sadly, while this is entirely true, the link is not direct, and dead cat politics is a very simple, blunt-force instrument. The dead cat you’re flinging back needs to be so obvious a three-year old could understand it’s bad.

The other downside to this approach, you’ll have probably noticed, is that the real issue has got lost in among a dead cat-flinging fight. You may be able to drag things back on course. You probably won’t.

3. Keep all the cats alive: The easiest way to avoid a dead cat attack is to avoid any cats dying nearby. As a cat person, an idealist, and a stone-cold pragmatist, I like this strategy the best, but it is the one that requires the most long-term work. The only way we can truly stop seeing misogyny being used as a dead cat is to stop with the fucking misogyny. Don’t give them anything, and they cannot use it against you.

Why say “horrible woman” when you can say “horrible person”? Why say “shrill” when you can say “odious”? Why say “bitch” when you can say “butcher”? This is all commonsense things we should be striving to do anyway, and yes, it still matters when it’s someone we dislike. This also requires keeping our own house in order–taking steps to deal with misogyny where we see it, as a means to keep the conversation on track (as well as it being fucking vital anyway).

Any cat owner will know that when there’s a live cat on the table, you kind of get on with it: it’s only the dead ones that need dealing with.


I find it deeply unpleasant that there are certain quarters who are deploying the very real and expansive issue of misogyny as a little curtain to draw in front of their own messes. Much of the time, these are women who do not bat an eyelid at playing an active role in making the material conditions of other women far worse: transmisogyny, supporting the Nordic model, supporting austerity and playing to misogynoir.

They are able to use the power they have because they can, steering the very definition of misogyny to centre only themselves.

It is for this reason that the rest of us have so much more work to do, to educate about the intersections, to support marginalised women, to oppose the violent structures of overlapping and intersecting oppressions.

In an ideal world, these women would not throw the dead cat on the table–as many of us do not, because we must pick our battles–it ought to be their responsibility to stop with the dead cat politics. Unfortunately, the political system is not built for people to behave like mature adults. And for this reason, hopefully that, too, will die out with all of the violences it props up.

Update: There is now a sequel, including a worked example of what campaigners should be doing in the face of dead cat misogyny.

9 thoughts on “When misogyny is a dead cat”

  1. How does supporting the Nordic Model make the material conditions of other women far worse?

  2. I think there’s a danger in this. Fortunately the British left isn’t dominated by misogynists, but the American left definitely is and it became this way because men who aren’t actually interested in equality have long been given license to behave however the hell they want so long as their politics are nominally socialist. Think Matt Breunig Election Team.

    If we truly are talking about men sending rape threats to bourgeois white women, then what that’s really about is looking for women who it’s politically acceptable to abuse. Once that precedent has been set and it’s proven to be an entertaining, effective means of generating instant solidarity these men will increasingly choose leftist women as targets. It’s gotten to the point in the US where radical women of color are now go-to punching bags on account of their dastardly “identity politics.” Make no mistake: this behavior ultimately is about men getting to intimidate women, retain control of movements and tell us what our politics ought to be.

    Any man who sends a woman rape threats isn’t really a socialist and ought to be denounced–no matter how odious his female target may be. He’s a misogynist looking for a cause that justifies his hatred of women. You need to tell him to keep looking. I can’t go anywhere near the Bernie Sanders campaign right now because of how normal misogynist abuse has become among his supporters.

    1. Oh, believe me, we’ve got pigs like that on the British left, too. The beauty of it is they run out of places to stick to, because their grip slips. As you rightly say, they’re not actual socialists, and they’re just looking for a ruck. I suspect with your current sitch in the US, as soon as Bernie definitely doesn’t get the nom, they’ll defect to Trump like flies to shit.

      The “identity politics” thing is drastically irritating, and sadly a thing with which they are absolutely fucking ~~obsessed~~. Ultimately, it was with these ghastly fucks in mind that I wrote this piece–because it’s *them* who need to shut the goddamn hell up.

  3. Three reasons this is a great piece (in order of appearance):

    1. twatbanana: Thank you for this wonderful term, I endeavour to bring it into common usage

    2. If you’re not already familiar with the No Agenda podcast I think you might enjoy it, http://www.noagendashow.com/

    3. You’re a cat person

  4. I have more than a sneaking suspicion that some of the misogynistic remarks about Kuenssberg were left by her supporters in order to sabotage the campaign. They knew this was something the campaign couldn’t withstand — being made to look like a rabble of misogynists who just hated her because she was a woman — and the petition system gave them no way of moderating or removing the comments. This is a tactic anyone in a powerful position uses when there is a group which is hurt by their activities; they or their friends fabricate death threats and pollute commentary about themselves with violence and whichever prejudice may be relevant. A few years ago I was involved in ME campaigning and every time ME was in the news, it was about threats to people like Simon Wessely, Trudy Chalder, Esther Crawley — doctors known for being sceptical about physical causes and supportive of psychological explanations — yet I never saw comments on Facebook groups or forums advocating violence against them. This was despite several deaths of severely affected sufferers who had a long list of symptoms that couldn’t possibly be psychological in nature.

    As for the “Bernie bros”, I accept that he has some supporters who want a “strongman” and they warm to Trump’s outsider status as much as to his, despite their being polar opposites, but I also know people (including women) who support him because he promises real change and isn’t a machine Democrat whose whole career is founded on family connections, and connections to a thinly-veiled racist, reactionary Arkansas Dixiecrat at that, and who is a friend of tyrants around the world. That said, these people wouldn’t vote for Trump if Hilary Clinton got the Democratic nomination.

    1. Sadly, I don’t doubt that some of the misogyny DID come from misogynists, rather than being “false flag”, and it’s not constructive to pretend like misogyny isn’t an actual problem.

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