This article appears in our 2017 Winter issue, Chaos. Subscribe today!
Catherine Young is the 2016 Bitch Media Writing Fellow in Pop Culture Criticism.
For as long as feminism has existed, feminists have been accused of hating men. Pleas for equal rights, franchise, and financial independence have been met with not just ardent and sometimes violent opposition, but the persistent, insidious untruth that feminists desire nothing more than to emasculate and eradicate the male sex and “take over.”
While hating men isn’t a core tenet of feminist ideology, a curious trend has taken hold online over the past couple years: ironic misandry. Women attach #KillAllMen and #BanMen hashtags to news stories of male-perpetrated violence against women or legislation sponsored by male politicians designed to cut back on women’s rights. From the celebration of “Gleeful Mobs of Women Murdering Men in Western Art History” by the Toast to the bracelets proclaiming that “All Men Must Die” and mugs filled with “Male Tears” for sale on Etsy, the idea of telegraphing male hatred in public as a performance has really caught on. The thinking seems to be this: If men continue to insist that striving for gender equality is the same as hating them, why not lean into it?
In a Vice essay titled “The Year in Male Tears,” writer Chelsea Summers defined modern misandry not as a hatred of men, but as “a seething rage against patriarchal power” and declared 2014 “the year misandry became chic.” It was the year feminists agreed that “dick is abundant and low value” and that male tears made the best moisturizer. In 2015, #GiveYourMoneyToWomen emerged and grew in strength and visibility. In a piece titled “Give Your Money to Women: The End Game of Capitalism,” feminist activists Lauren Chief Elk, Yoeshin Lourdes, and Bardot Smith described the radical hashtag and movement as a “theory and practical framework of gender justice.” In short, gymtw is centered around the idea that women deserve to be directly compensated by men for the emotional labor they provide. “gymtw is a decolonial effort,” Chief Elk said in a 2016 tweet, and “Friday is payday.”
Even celebrities got in on the fun. Gifs of Nicki Minaj cutting a banana in half in her “Anaconda” video were remixed with glitter “misandry” signs, and in her music video for “Bitch Better Have My Money,” Rihanna kidnapped and dismembered the trifling accountant who stole her money, then bathed in his blood. Misandry has gone mainstream, and unfortunately the irony seems to be lost on men. For the first time, the primary drivers of conversations around misandry are, in fact, the very feminists long-accused of not-so-secretly wanting to do away with men.
It’s no secret that the digital space is often unsafe for women. Mobs of online trolls lead targeted harassment campaigns against women who dare to have a voice, fighting hard to silence dissent and maintain the misogynistic status quo. More than one high-profile feminist critic has been driven from their home, stalked, or doxxed. But women are using performative misandry as both comedy and coping mechanism; a way to bond with each other and commiserate about the seeming inevitability of their oppression. In a way, it’s the logical alternative to the real violence we might have enacted if we had decided to actually revolt.
According to Jess Zimmerman, editor of The Archipelago, performative misandry is a way of “inhabiting the most exaggerated, implausible distortion of your position, in order to show that it’s ridiculous.” Even if feminists sincerely did want to kill all men, ban all men, or bathe in male tears, it would be a logistically difficult and absurd proposition. Civil liberties and the criminal justice system still exist. But it doesn’t mean the thought has never crossed our minds.
Valerie Solanas’s 1967 SCUM Manifesto existed as a satirical manuscript meant to critique the patriarchal order, but after her attempt on Andy Warhol’s life, it was held up as evidence of the danger of radical feminism; she had written about eliminating men, and then she had attempted to do so. In the 1990s, Rush Limbaugh popularized the word “feminazi” in his book, The Way Things Ought to Be, and credited Tom Hazlett, a professor of economics at the University of California at Davis, with coining the term. “Feminazi” quickly became a pejorative for women deemed too radical, too feminist, or too anti-men. The patriarchy finally had a slur it could lob at women seeking equality, and a false equivalence it could exploit. It made young women eager to distance themselves from the radical feminists who “burned their bras” and “didn’t shave” and would never find a man to take care of them.
But in 2016, “feminist” is the buzzword du jour. Rather than lobbing it as an accusation against women, we use it as a measuring stick against which to judge them. Is Beyoncé allowed to be a feminist? Is Lena Dunham a good enough feminist? Do we give men too much credit for being feminists? Politically, we’re closer than ever before to accepting feminism as a mainstream ideology that doesn’t need to be challenged, but the culture war hasn’t been won yet and the backlash has been significant.
In a 2013 essay in Jezebel titled “If I Admit That ‘Hating Men’ Is a Thing, Will You Stop Turning It Into a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?” Lindy West argued that if feminists hate men, it’s because of men’s own bad behavior:
“[The] most powerful proponent of misandry in modern internet discourse is you— specifically, your dogged insistence that misandry is a genuine, systemic, oppressive force on par with misogyny. This is specious, it hurts women, and it is hurting you. Most feminists don’t hate men, as a group (we hate the system that disproportionately favors men at the expense of women), but—congratulations!—we are starting to hate you. You, the person. Your obsession with misandry has turned misandry into a self-fulfilling prophecy. (I mean, sort of. Hating individual men is not the same as hating all men. But more on that in a minute.)”
Essentially, part of the surge in performative misandry is the acknowledgement that men should face consequences for the unjust ways in which they treat women. The other part is recognizing that there’s little we can do on an individual level to overhaul an institution, except make fun of those who uphold it.
Zimmerman wrote in an essay in Medium:
“…JOIN THE FUCKING CLUB. We’ve been listening to rape jokes and wife-beating jokes and smiling and gritting our teeth since forever. I’m not going to stop with the misandry jokes, because they make women laugh and feel united and if they make you squirm a little, well, not everything is about men’s comfort, not anymore. And I won’t lie: Making you uncomfortable — not afraid or hurt, but just a little bit discomfited — is part of the point.”
Performative misandry is, in a way, a clever catch-22. If these are “just jokes that don’t mean anything,” as men have been claiming about their taboo comedy for decades, then why are they so bothered by jokes that exist at their expense? And if the argument against such humor is that it influences the way people think about whole groups of people, then why doesn’t the same logic apply to rape jokes, and fat jokes, and jokes at the expense of trans people? Performative misandry forces men to reckon with their own hypocrisy in a world they’ve built to coddle and support their own egos.
Of course, as with all groups of people, women aren’t a monolith, and not all women are convinced of the benefits of out-and-proud misandry. In a 2014 piece for Time titled “Ironic Misandry: Why Feminists Pretending to Hate Men Isn’t Funny,” writer Sarah Begley argued that not enough people are in on the joke to make ironic misandry a useful tool against the patriarchy, calling it “terrible PR for feminism.”
“Telling half the population that we hate them, even in jest, is not the way to do that. Feminism is still very much engaged in the battle for hearts and minds; appealing to the sense of humor of a very small minority of the population can be a good way to alienate the rest. That’s not to say that feminists should water down their true demands and complaints to appeal to broader swaths of the population. Nevertheless, to get folks on your side, you need an appealing message. Humor can help. But ironic misandry is just bad PR.”
But what Begley’s argument misses is that performative misandry isn’t about men at all. It isn’t meant to be a recruiting tool for the movement or a panacea for the ills of the patriarchy. Feminist misandry is an act of reclamation. It’s a way to defang the accusations that at worst get women killed and at best get them ostracized. It is an extended exercise in harmless trolling.
In a piece for Matter titled “The Memeification of Misandry,” writer Charlotte Shane pointed out that “the most worthwhile and instructive aspect of misandry is its rejection of male approval. It flouts the notion that women should be deferential to men, that we should prioritize their comfort and pander to their egos.” She further explains that according to Sarah Jeong, contributing editor at Motherboard, misandry is nothing more than “radical indifference to men.” Not every aspect of the feminist movement needs to be about acquiescing to male egos, however tempting and necessary avoiding male anger often becomes. But, justified critiques of ironic misandry do arise when viewed intersectionally. In the same piece for Matter, feminist writer Zoé Samudzi is quoted as saying:
“‘[K]ill all men’ — even in jest — is a reminder of the historical role white women play in white masculine violence against men of color. Black men are targets of institutional violence — a truth that’s acutely impossible to ignore in light of the rampant police murders of Black Americans. And when Dylann Roof murdered nine Black church congregants in South Carolina, reportedly attributing his brutality to ‘you rape our women,’ white women’s tacit and active participation in white supremacy was brought even further to the fore.”
In other words, not all men are equal under a white supremacist patriarchy, and ignoring the racialized struggles of men of color collapses systems of power in favor of easy and ahistorical binaries that don’t hold up to intersectional scrutiny.
But in the end, what angry men’s rights activists fail to acknowledge in their sincere fight against performative misandry is that the balance of power between men and women has always been unequal. Both individually and institutionally, men have had more opportunity, more wealth, more access, and more opportunity than women since the dawn of time, and a few mocking t-shirts and mugs isn’t going to change that.
Over the years, research has shown that a culture of casual misogyny can and has contributed to actual violence against women. The same isn’t true of misandry. The prevalence of jokes about women’s looks, fuckability, and disposability are reflected in the way men treat women. Women are passed over for promotions because they’re assumed to be unserious. They’re punished both for having children and being child-free, each coming with a different but equally toxic set of cultural baggage. They are threatened with violence and rape for kindly turning down dates and killed in the street for rejecting sexual advances. These things happen to women every day, regardless of whether or not they “drink male tears” for breakfast. The world is actively hostile to women in a way that it isn’t to men. The threat of male violence is an ever-present part of women’s lives and the pressure can be too much to handle.
At the time of writing this article the Republican nominee for President of the United States is currently under fire for joking about sexual assault. A man whose public misogyny has been well-documented and fact-checked is one step from the White House and he refuses to concede to his continued legacy of bigotry. Is there any wonder that a woman living in this world might opine that men are the problem?
Performative misandry has allowed women a way to voice their displeasure with the patriarchy in a manner that is relatively safe and harmless. Hurt feelings suck, but they pale in comparison to large-scale institutional slights. Displaying misandrist tendencies as a badge of pride seems to be an easy and compelling method for Western feminists to signal to one another that they understand the crushing reality that is womanhood in a patriarchal society. It harms no one, and gives us a brief respite in a world where serious contemplation of the harm that women face daily can overwhelm us with despair.
The rising prominence of feminism in mainstream discourse does mean that fewer men will automatically have access to unearned privilege. But the key word is “unearned.” In a fair and just world, men never would have been privy to those benefits in the first place. That is, after all, the goal: To convert our society into the meritocracy we have long claimed already existed. But until we get there, women can have fun reciting writer Mallory Ortberg’s misandrist lullaby:
It’s raining, it’s pouring;
The old man is snoring
Now is our chance.