‘Man-Bashing’ Is the New, Trending Double Standard
The internet has rebelled against man-bashing on social media — which brings us right back to the woman-bashing status quo
Men of the world, rejoice: The time when women could make jokes about you without being bullied off the internet is over. This is particularly true if you are a beloved white male author, but then, that’s hardly surprising.
On October 6, David Foster Wallace’s 25-year-old novel Infinite Jest became a trending topic on Twitter, as seemingly the entire internet rose up to defend it from… TikTok user @kel.drigo, I guess, who had 13.8K followers and listed it as a book frequently owned by “straight millennial men who make fun of women for reading diverse female authors.”
Making fun of dudes for overhyping Infinite Jest has been a meme for a long while now, as Rachel Pick noted in her Vice article about the fracas. It was also a demonstration of a dynamic recently covered by Madeline Holden in her Mel article “Everyone’s Getting Tired of Shitty Viral Tweets About Men.” Whereas making fun of stereotypical dude behavior like overquoting Judd Apatow comedies or reading Infinite Jest was “edgy” in the prehistoric era of the 2010s, Holden writes, now “male-bashing dunks are routinely subject to so much backlash that the original gets deleted, and only the mocking quote-retweets and screenshots remain (some users are piled on so relentlessly that they make their Twitter accounts private until the storm blows over).” This internet harassment of women is, evidently, proof that our culture is developing “a more protective and gentle attitude toward men.” That gentleness was demonstrated upon @kel.drigo, who now, indeed, seems to have deleted her account.
David Foster Wallace “died by suicide in 2008 and surely does not deserve all of this,” Pick wrote. “To make [him] the poster boy of white male pretension is unfair,” given that his writing was “insightful and drily hilarious,” and that he wrote “endlessly entertaining and nuanced pieces of first-person journalism.”
I agree with Pick’s assessment of Wallace’s writing, and I loved Infinite Jest. I read the entire thing on a cross-country bus trip because I couldn’t put it down. I also stopped publicly defending David Foster Wallace from jokes about Infinite Jest in 2018, when I learned he tried to throw his girlfriend out of a moving car.
The girlfriend, poet Mary Karr, has also said that after she moved on, Wallace stalked her for years, that he threatened to shoot her husband and followed her five-year-old son home from school, and that he once threw a coffee table at her. For female writers or readers to defend him is a strange choice; according to his biographer, he referred to the women who came to his readings as “audience pussy.” In point of fact, David Foster Wallace seems like a perfect poster boy for this internet phenomenon: Women are hounded, mocked, and driven into silence for making fun of men, but men can commit acts of brutal violence against women and still go on to become beloved icons. We defend the dead against the living, the powerful against the powerless, canonized geniuses against ordinary TikTok users, and men against women, because our culture teaches us to see the wrong person as the victim.
Reasonable people have argued that women who dunk on bro-ish habits are just laundering gender stereotypes, pushing sexism in a friendlier-seeming form. Yes, stereotypes are harmful and can hurt boys who internalize them. Yet women are not the primary upholders of toxic masculinity. The people most invested in enforcing stereotypical masculinity are men: It’s fathers who bully their sons for seeming “soft” or expressing too many “feminine” interests. It’s men who beat other men to death for being queer and trans. It’s men who ice each other out emotionally, teaching each other that tenderness and emotional support can only be achieved in secret, with women, and that reaching out to another guy is weak. It’s men who bond through shared hostility toward women — hostility expressed from everything through sexist jokes to gang rape — and shame men who refuse to participate for being “pussies.” Women and/or nonbinary people are just trying to survive, and some part of that survival depends on calling dudes out. If they occasionally roll their eyes at dudely aesthetics, it’s a response to a world where they are constantly told that only traditionally masculine men have value. Corny Twitter jokes are hardly the cruelest possible response.
On top of all that, pushback against “man-bashing” requires quite a lot of woman-bashing. Rather than encouraging men to change their behavior and challenge other men who hold them back, it puts the onus on women to watch what they say. Weaponized dogpiles aimed at mouthy women are the weapon of choice for far-right men’s rights groups; so is the idea that men are a persecuted group, who need protection from women’s indifference or distrust. Yet they’ve been unselfconsciously adopted by “leftists” and progressives, without any thought as to how framing women as the enemies of men’s self-realization puts us right back in a dynamic where masculinity depends on keeping women in their place.
Men’s rights activists are open about the fact that they consider any feminist progress to be an erosion of men’s birthright. Woke woman-bashing more often argues that feminism has already accomplished its goals and is therefore tiresome and played out: “Even your most offline coworker or uncle is likely to have heard the term ‘toxic masculinity’ and feeling the ramifications of the #MeToo movement,” Holden wrote. “[C]ritics of masculinity can hardly claim to be on the fringe anymore.”
Yet both arguments put a cap on progress by presenting it as a form of injustice. They draw a line in the sand, declaring feminism to have already reached its logical end point, therefore marking any additional erosion of men’s privilege as unnecessary and selfish. The people who dunk women into oblivion for mocking men’s bookshelves in 2020 probably don’t believe they have any common ground with the MRAs who organized to make stores discontinue a “Boys Are Stupid, Throw Rocks at Them” T-shirt in 2003, but both treat minor rhetorical slights against men as more important than the physical, sexual, and economic violence men inflict on everybody, including other men.
We don’t need to ask how this might empower misogynists to co-opt social justice movements. It’s already happened. Last weekend, on SNL, the comedian Bill Burr was greeted as a social-justice truth-teller for lampooning “white women” with jokes about how they love to play the victim. In fact, Burr did utter a quick, accurate sentence to the effect that white women are complicit in racism, but it was unclear as to whether anyone applauding him knew the history of his gender politics: He’s an outspoken #MeToo opponent whose comedy routines have traditionally revolved around “jokes” about how women invite rape (“No means no? No, it doesn’t”) and domestic abuse (“They’re like, ‘There’s no reason to hit a woman, there’s no reason to hit a woman.’ I was like, really? I could give you 17 right off the top of my head”). In that last routine, Burr specified one of the women he thinks should have been hit: Rihanna, who “was screaming in [Chris Brown’s] ear some crazy female shit.” Like David Foster Wallace, Burr’s long and well-documented history of misogyny was forgotten in the glow of the spotlight, allowing him to be celebrated without ever having to live up to his words.
Making jokes about women did not render Burr suspect because it’s never been out of style to mock women. We listen to podcasts dunking on “wine moms” (too old!) and hate-watch shows about vain influencers (too young!). We shame prominent women for being attractive (slept her way to the top!) or for not being conventionally attractive enough (grotesque!). We call women who are angry at men bitter, rather than asking why they’re hurt; when a woman says men should read more non-male authors, we assume she’s too stupid to enjoy anything other than “a WHOLE SHELF of YA lit”; we make a public sport of finding women whose opinions we dislike and bullying them online. Making fun of women isn’t a subject of debate or trend pieces, because it happens every day, and has always happened, and will keep happening; it’s something women are simply expected to tolerate. In fact, it’s something women are often eager to join in on, thinking that being in on the joke will save them when their time comes around.
For straight, cis men, manhood works like a suit of armor. It’s heavy and uncomfortable, but it also protects them from the damage that gets meted out to everyone else. David Foster Wallace is the great, canonical genius of his generation; his work — like his fans — will survive any jokes we make about it. Men, I am told, are famously a tough gender and should be able to handle a few tweets about their taste. It’s the women we keep hounding into silence that bother me. When it’s dangerous to say anything men might not like hearing, the voices we need most go unheard.