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‘Victims of Feminism’: Exploring Networked Misogyny and #MeToo in the Manosphere

‘Victims of Feminism’: Exploring Networked Misogyny and #MeToo in the Manosphere
8th June 2022 Valerie Dickel
In Insights

The creation and circulation of online misogynist narratives can have dreadful consequences. For example, in 2014 Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen by running amok in an attempt to ‘punish’ women for rejecting him. The intense social media use of Rodger and his participation in anti-feminist online groups shed light on the negative potential of the Internet to spread misogynist ideologies. They are connected to the ‘manosphere’, a detached set of websites and social media groups united by the belief that men are oppressed victims of feminism.

While the Internet provides fertile ground for different forms of hate speech, it also gives rise to female-driven social movements like #MeToo and its global discourse on sexual harassment. Because women increasingly use the #MeToo hashtag to denounce men’s behaviour, it provoked paranoia among certain groups whose members fear being accused by feminist activists. Opposing views often portray men as victims, insisting on the alleged negative impact of feminism on men’s self-esteem and masculinity. Hence, they act as a counterforce to feminism; while feminism seeks social change, they constitute a reactionary force to maintain the patriarchal status quo.

Exploring Networked Misogyny

The manosphere is rooted in misogyny, a term that indicates extreme views against women. Misogyny is deeply embedded in patriarchal norms and social structures of power that create everyday instances of sexism. Linking this to the affordances of the Internet that can kindle the spread of anti-feminist discourses; ‘networked misogyny’ is used to describe the proliferation of groups connected to the manosphere with a focus on its opposition to popular feminism. As networked feminism seeks mutual support and creates online connections, networked misogyny similarly tries to create a toxic support system for men to spread sexist narratives in online and offline settings.

To examine this contention, 12 articles and 614 comments on two popular websites in the manosphere, Return of Kings (ROK) and A Voice for Men (AVfM) provided the data to understand how #MeToo is framed and discussed.

Employing the framework of networked misogyny, the networked character of the manosphere needs to be considered in its heterogeneity. Exactly as networked feminism is a global phenomenon that includes different types of activism, online misogyny may target various social groups, rather than simply being an anti-feminist force.

The websites ROK and AVfM have been explored using qualitative textual analysis which generated six overarching themes, as illustrated in Table 1.

Table 1: categories and themes as created after a thematic analysis of the data

 

ThemesCategories
Networked misogyny and the description of women Portrayal of womenNature of women

Appearance of women

Rational examination of #MeTooBalanced perspective

Explanations for abuse

Sexual violence and consequences for menCultural impact of #MeTooCultural differences 

Minorities benefit from #MeToo

Hollywood

Feminist propagandaCredibility of accusations

Legal system

Double standard
Effects of feminism

Media

Superficiality of #MeToo

Power struggle

Political agenda

Conspiracy theories

Changes over time

Bringing back patriarchal roles: the portrayal of the “ideal” man Reestablishing the patriarchyEnd the oppression

Coping

Protective measures

Justifications for misogyny

Intolerance

Role of menExclusion of men

Men as victims of feminism

Male supporters

Differences between men

Self-reflection

 

Results and Discussion

Networked misogyny and the description of women 

The results suggest that the websites ROK and AVfM discuss similar topics and that their articles predominantly focus on the role of men and women within society, as well as on the criticism of feminism and movements such as #MeToo.

Users often criticise women both for their physical appearance and for their behaviours and ideas. The analysis of posts shows how the discussion of #MeToo is closely connected to a general criticism of women and feminism. Women who are supposedly ‘desirable’ are distinguished from those who are not, often in narratives charged with racist and sexual stereotypes. The desirability then is often made evident by judging women for their physical appearance. In particular, #MeToo is associated with women who are feminists because they are supposedly unattractive, following a common anti-feminist trope. The #MeToo movement is described as a ploy by unattractive women to gain attention and ‘deal with rejection issues’. This categorises feminist women and women who denounce sexual violence as undesirable and frustrated, while at the same time refusing to consider the experience of sexual violence. Together with comments that mock #MeToo activists and shame them for their physical appearance, women are portrayed as intellectually inferior or mentally unstable.

However, this does not necessarily render female actions naïve. It is also implied that women abuse men, and young boys in particular, because they are supposedly not held accountable for their actions. Most women commit ‘evil’ acts, but the legal system allegedly protects them. While these types of comments rarely include references or sources, the two websites, and AVfM in particular, often present women’s paedophilic behaviour and abuse against men as a factual and structural problem. In discussing such issues about #MeToo, these narratives not only ridicule feminism and minimise rape, but change the terms of the conversation: women are perpetrators against men, and men need to protect each other against women. Following this line of reasoning, #MeToo is part of a conspiracy to protect women who commit evil acts, and men are the actual victims of the legal and social system.

Although narratives about the #MeToo movement tend to criticise all women, women of colour are more subject to verbal violence, demonstrating the entanglement of the manosphere with white supremacy. While these two websites’ users are openly racist towards black women, they also belittle white women in so-called Western countries by describing them as aggressive feminists. This may also be because white women in North America and Western Europe create visible online feminist networks, which provoke greater anti-feminist backlashes in the manosphere. Many, indeed, claim that the most desirable women are those who are submissive and not feminist. 

Sexual violence and consequences for men

Discussions about #MeToo on ROK and AVfM tend to focus on two main points. First, they dismiss denouncements of sexual violence, minimising or confuting them. Second, they lament the possible negative consequences of the #MeToo movement for men. 

The general perception of #MeToo is that women’s stories and accounts are untrustworthy; discussions criticise the visibility of the movement and women’s decisions to share their stories instead of remaining silent. Men denounce the fact that they can also be victims of violence, but their stories are often overlooked. Instead of demanding justice for both male and female victims, users engaging in these discourses claim that women do not have the right to talk until the problem of violence against men is addressed and resolved. These different approaches to sexual violence often lead to descriptions of rape as not harmful.

A common misogynist trope repeatedly found on ROK and AVfM is that of victim-shaming. On the one hand, there is the idea that women who have many partners ‘deserve’ to be raped. On the other hand, users suggest that women enjoy being sexually assaulted if they do not fight back. In some other comments, users claim that the notion of consent is confusing and that women should be blamed if they are not able to clearly say no and stand up for themselves when sexually attacked. Minimising sexual abuse and framing rape as the victim’s fault does not deny that men are sexual predators and perpetrators, but excuses their behaviour as seemingly innocuous. It is interesting to notice how, as described earlier, women are often blamed as abusers of young boys, but sexual violence against women is considered legitimate.

These narratives about sexual abuse and rape lead to a second point on the possible consequences of #MeToo for men. Disregarding that the difficulty of providing hard evidence to prove rape accusations is why many women in the past did not share their experiences, several users point out that #MeToo only emerged recently as a conspiracy to destroy the lives of men. Hence, #MeToo seems to cause a moral panic among men who fear they might suffer consequences.

Describing #MeToo as exaggerating the nature of sexual violence and trying to destroy men’s lives also implies that it is a ploy by women to reject men. In addition, men lament the fact that the visibility of #MeToo complicates their likelihood of approaching women. Nonetheless, they suggest a view of masculinity that refuses to consider the severity of rape allegations and sees #MeToo as primarily damaging to men instead of giving women a voice.

Bringing back patriarchal roles: the portrayal of the “ideal” man 

The criticism of women and feminism and the discussion of the consequences of #MeToo for men result in narratives that seek to re-establish a type of hegemonic masculinity that confers social power exclusively to men. 

Some claim that feminists not only try to undermine white men, but are also changing power hierarchies within society. Others imply that #MeToo is a ploy to ‘eliminate’ straight white men by depriving them of their privileges. The ‘superiority’ of white men is motivated by their historical achievements, and by the perceived need of maintaining existing power balances and the social status quo.

Both ROK and AVfM, indeed, perpetuate the idea that members of the manosphere need to unite and create a counter-revolution. The manosphere is often described as a network, but these websites’ users lament the inability of men to unite for a common goal, instead of fighting against each other. While the manosphere counteracts online feminism, here it mirrors activist movements and networked feminism in trying to mobilise members and create concrete social change. 

Consequently, there is a strong sense of victimisation in describing white straight men as allegedly superior but also under the threat of feminism. This type of victimisation can assume various forms: women’s rejection of sexual advances, allegations of sexual harassment and rape, and the overall ploy to make white men lose their social privileges and power. Discourses that address practical actions against #MeToo activism point to the role of these websites in potentially fomenting violence and promoting radicalisation, as happened with Rodger’s attempt to ‘punish’ women for being sexually unavailable. The description of masculine and feminine roles and the criticism of female activism show that the manosphere supports a specific view of masculinity, but at the same time hosts heterogeneous narratives about contemporary society.  

Online misogyny seems to mirror networked feminism in trying to connect and mobilise members of different groups, for example, by encouraging comments that reinforce and legitimise existing opinions of the members. Besides, both websites present some narratives that resemble those of other groups, such as the incels, in blaming women for rejecting men. Hence, the Internet is used to exchange opinions and create a network of ideas.

However, these ideas are not always coherent. To give an example, opinions on sexual violence span from men who condemn rape to those openly advocating for murder and physical aggression. This suggests that the manosphere is an interconnected spectrum of misogyny that groups different opinions and voices. Therefore, it is important to consider the heterogeneity of the manosphere and not describe it as a confined network. It may be useful to consider it as a cluster of networks where individuals maintain their identities and interact with each other without necessarily agreeing on a common purpose. At the same time, this cluster includes connections with far-right and white supremacist groups, highlighting an entanglement of different ideologies beyond misogyny. This plethora of overlapping anti-feminist discourses is facilitated by the affordances of the Internet, which allows websites like ROK and AVfM to attract members and give them a voice. However, it is important to consider their potential offline impacts, and their influence on society at large.

For further information on the study in general and additional findings, I invite you to read the complete article published in Feminist Media Studies.