The Meme-ification of Misandry
Why ironic hatred of men isn’t enough
By Charlotte Shane
By 2014, I’d been a sex worker for a decade, without any substantial break in the work. The constant exposure to male entitlement, as well as the financial incentive to accommodate it, left me angry and bored. I was embittered by the predictable, arrogant obliviousness most men evinced in their engagement with me. I complained about them regularly, both in private conversations with friends and in public. For years, one of the best outlets for releasing my male-provoked frustration was to talk about it with fellow sex workers online.
But it was around this time that our Twitter community grew to encompass many non-sex working women who related their own cynicism and exhaustion. These exchanges weren’t solely about male social cluelessness or even outright aggression but the gestalt of bad behavior, from the irritating to the evil, the rude to the criminal. All manner of women were fed up with men not getting “it”: how obnoxious it was to have our own jokes repeated back to us in less funny language; how demoralizing (and impoverishing) it was to be excluded from prestige lists, publications, awards, and promotions; how numbingly pervasive the practice and acceptance of sexual violence. Many of us were at a place in our lives in which we took our full personhood as self-evident, and to be surrounded by men who struggled with recognizing that in both macro and micro contexts, was maddening. “I vent my ‘misandry’ on Twitter so I don’t have to carry it in the rest of my life,” wrote Lori Adorable, in late 2013. Many of us, particularly those whose livelihood relied upon satisfying a variety of men, had a lot to vent.
Across the Internet, it was a time of peak misandry. Know Your Meme attributes the popularization of the term to various cultural artifacts few enthusiastic current misandrists will recognize. But, hilariously, the word (and the attendant attitude) seems to have gained visibility thanks to anti-feminists treating the concept as a real, widespread ideology, and therefore a personal threat. When feminists noticed the notion was a useful tool for poking the buttons of an especially nasty brand of sexist, a meme was born.
According to Google search results, November of last year saw more people looking up “misandry” than ever before or since. Time and Slate ran articles on the subject, and “misandrist” became a semi-common identification in social media bios. Tumblrs with misandrist gifs flourished as Twitter personality Moscaddie’s mantra “dick is abundant and low value” gained considerable traction. Satirist Mallory Ortberg continued to write hugely popular, gently misandrist posts on The Toast, the #banmen hashtag flourished, and misandrist merchandise — the “male tears” coffee mug, the “misandry” necklace or needlepoint — became Etsy (and now Amazon) staples.
The meme-ification of misandry supports the reading of anti-maleness as ironic and funny: a prolonged, collective exercise in trolling. “Misandry exists only as an exaggerated Internet joke and as a way in which women who have been directly or indirectly hurt by men express their frustration and anger,” Madeline Alpert wrote about anti-man memes. Denying that misandry is anything other than a gag is a recurring exercise, partially because of the ludicrously self-serious men’s rights activists who point to the catchphrase “kill all men” as proof that men are an oppressed, endangered demographic. As Jess Zimmerman wrote in response to men’s discomfort with jokes about violence against men: “we’ve been listening to rape jokes and wife-beating jokes and gritting our teeth since forever. At least you get to feel mildly wrong-footed by jokes about something that is not happening literally every day.”
It’s true there’s no institutionalized violence against all men due to their gender, and women as a group aren’t regarded as a threat to their physical well being. But women of color have repeatedly pointed out that “kill all men” takes on a grotesque dimension when put in the context of our country’s racial reality. Black feminist Zoé Samudzi agrees that “misandry — like reverse racism — isn’t possible,” but “‘kill 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 Dylan 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
Ariel Lebeau, a biracial cis woman, subscribed to misandry when she first encountered it online, but became increasingly critical of the limited thinking it belied: “Adopting cavalier misandry as part of your feminism strikes me as a disregard for the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality and class.” White feminists have such a poor track record of intersectional activism, it’s no wonder women of color don’t trust them to be sensitive in their casual comedy. “My people, families, friends of families, and so on, are already dying,” says Soha Kareem, a queer Palestinian-Iraqi woman. “It’s a joke that I can no longer support because I see death happen everywhere, with whiteness centered and protected.”
Some women are now careful to specify “white men” and/or “cis men” when they join in misandrist teasing. Lori Adorable, a 26-year-old feminist and sex worker, explains that while men of all races and classes have gendered privilege over women, white women have racial privilege that’s equally weighty: “I prefer talking about killing white men, because they’re never going to be systemically punished for what they do to women, and they truly do the most.”
Narrowing misandry’s exaggerated aggression to only address white cis men can entail serious consequences for women of color, though. Earlier this year, Bahar Mustafa, a student diversity officer in London, became a target of students angry that she’d asked white people and men to refrain from attending an event about diversity. The petition to fire her included a picture of her near a handwritten sign reading “no white cis men pls” above a drawing of a mug labeled “male tears.” It’s hard to imagine a white woman coming under similar fire.
“It doesn’t feel funny or light-hearted to me anymore when I see women say ‘kill all men,’” adds Lebeau. “I understand the frustration because that shit frustrates me too — but I can’t act like my frustration matters more than the lives of men of color or LGBTQ men who are also harmed by oppressive systems.”
Cissexism and gender essentialism are other failures of popular misandry memes. “Many misandrist jokes are inherently transphobic,” says Sarah Jeong, a genius at crafting overtly anti-men tweets that cleverly inflame the humorless. “Lazy misandrist jokes can be really hurtful. I mean, hurtful to people other than whiny cis men.” Madeleine Holden, who coined the aforementioned “dick is abundant and low value” mantra later apologized, and said, “I wish I could get people to reconsider its use.” These common problems beg the question: is there even anything politically valuable in (carefully worded) misandry? Or is merely a short-term balm for the souls of a subset of frustrated feminists, too plagued by intersectional obliviousness to be defensible?
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. “Misandry is radical indifference to men,” explains Sarah Jeong, pointing to Mallory Ortberg’s definition. “It is radical because women are socialized to pay attention to all of those things, and to center men in their lives.” Beatrice, sex worker and mother of two boys, agrees: “It’s not man-hating as much as it is man-shrewdness: limiting relationships and interactions to things that nourish you. The twin pillars of misandry are not laughing at unfunny jokes, and walking out of bad sex. It’s made women’s standards higher, and created a new baseline of what deserves women’s attention.”
Yet some think misandrist stances do center on men. “The self-identified misandrists I know do not hate men as much as they are fed up with endlessly discussing trivial ‘feminist issues,’” Alpert wrote in 2013, positioning misandry as a way of re-centering male behavior as an object of criticism in a movement otherwise concerned with “whether or not wearing makeup is a ‘feminist act.’” And that exchange may be a trade worth making. But sometimes, misandrist jokes create a cycle of sisterly confirmation in which discussions about women’s rights begin and end with how we’re wronged by individual men — which may never turn into an analysis of the larger power structures supporting sexism. Janette K. Park’s first impression of misandry was that it’s “a kind of merit badge or signifier of being ‘cool’ for (largely) young, mostly privileged white women. Many online misandrists are merely engaging in a form of self-aggrandizement, presenting the narrow set of issues between white het women and white het men as the totality of the struggles of feminism.”
Jasmine, a 20-yeard old queer feminist, feels the same way: “I am pro-women and other gender-oppressed people and honestly I feel like misandry is centering our feminism on men.” She too sees its use on social media as dominated by “hot straight white women. Queer/genderqueer folk, people of colour, disabled people — we have other shit to worry about. I support people using it to express their frustrations, but for me, it’s a distraction.”
Misandry’s cathartic power is easily its most appealing feature, and why some women feel so invested in it. “It’s a very in-community thing,” Gretchen Felker-Martin, a queer, trans woman told me. “Something to let off steam and riff on how absurd misogyny looks when you examine it from the outside.” It’s a “relief valve,” in the words of Sarah M., a 34-year-old white feminist. “Misandry is entirely not a joke for me,” she adds. “Men have caused me a lot more hurt and damage than anything else. So, rather than feeling angry or frustrated about [it,] it’s fun to laugh at misandry jokes.”
Lori Adorable puts it this way:
Most women have very little opportunity or ability to respond to the systemic sexism and misogyny we encounter in our daily lives. We have even less ability to push back against the constant micro-aggressions — and sometimes straight-up aggressions — individual men hurl at us. As a sex worker, I feel like I have zero room to do that. If I didn’t release that anger and frustration and fear somewhere, I wouldn’t be a functional human being.
Such venting though, is not necessarily inherently feminist.
My enthusiasm for misandry waned at the end of 2014, in part because of the mistakes listed above but also because my despair regarding the state of men became too draining to be sustained. For me, the insistence that misandry is mostly only a joke undermined its most potentially subversive quality: women’s unequivocal assertion of their own rage, which is otherwise so often suppressed, apathologized, and dismissed. The more I saw misandrist discourse fail to incorporate legitimate criticisms, and fall back on being only “a joke,” the more contentedly impotent it seemed. My laughs were fewer and the sexism-derived bitterness remained.
Self-care and community building through humor are valuable and powerful endeavors, but what primarily nourished me in my original anti-men commiserations with other sex workers was the shared recognition of how much our exposure to male entitlement hurt — like, really hurt. Permanently. In the way that may take us — any woman — our lifetimes to manage. We laughed about how ridiculous our clients could be, but more than that, we affirmed and reaffirmed the mounting anguish when faced with what men got away with, how meticulously structured the world was to accommodate their inadequacies and selfishness. While that affirmation may be implicit in the bonds women form online over man-hating jokes, I grew to want something more concrete. Something declarative and free of irony that wouldn’t reenact white feminism’s worst failures.
I still enjoy and participate in misandrist jokes; I don’t think they should be verboten. But my larger hope is that we find a way of engaging with each other that uses misandry’s cathartic power, condemnation of masculinity, and emphasis on female strength towards a more long-term restorative end. I want us to put our energies toward affecting change instead of letting that energy build into a pressure that can only be blown off instead of acted upon.
I don’t want any of us to become mired in anger to the point where we break. But nor do I want us to lose our connection to it, because it is entirely valid. We can temper that anger with an understanding that many men are our allies in objecting to the criminalization of poverty, the expansion of the carceral state, and all forms of human rights violations. Inarguably, men are valuable to us both in our movement and personally, as individuals whom we love. But we’re still so far from even fully acknowledging the ways in which women in this country are oppressed, and men’s well established, often violent resistance to assertions of our rights is the main reason why.
In 1967, Valerie Solanas — the woman who shot Andy Warhol — released her now-infamous SCUM Manifesto, a tract outlining the priorities of an imagined society with the dual priorities of eliminating money and (most) men. In it, she writes “the male is an incomplete female” and “the male is, by his very nature, a leech, an emotional parasite,” among even less charitable claims. Such statements are a direct flip of the centuries-long script men have written about women with complete sincerity. (Aristotle: “The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities; we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.”) But these lines are recognized as parody because they’ll never have the social and political traction to be anything other than parody. We’ll never live in the matriarchal society required to propagate and enforce the misandrist equivalent of the bald sexism and gender-based oppression that’s ruled all of Western civilization’s patriarchal past. Yet plenty of contemporary men still seriously deride women’s general mental and emotional mettle; our socio-political climate allows them to do so without being painted as monsters or lunatics.
Expressions of extreme contempt for men and everything masculinity stands for have long been treated as meaningless at best and hysterical at worst because women have little power to codify that contempt into sexist laws and social norms. But my god, how pure and true that contempt sometimes feels. In The Will To Change, bell hooks writes “women and children all over the world want men to die so they can live,” and she is not being hyperbolic. When patriarchs are abusive and oppressive — which, by definition, they are — those under them dream of escape however they can get it.
Contemporary misandry, in its current self-effacing form, is not enough for me because righteous female anger is not a joke to me. Female pain is not a joke. And the failures of men individually, and as a group, to correct or resist their instincts towards aggression, abuse, cruelty, social irresponsibility, and sexism are not a joke. This doesn’t mean the situation should be or even could be resolved in violence. But it does mean we need much more than a laugh.