According to the troubling tenets of gender essentialism, a person’s toxic traits can be directly attributed to their gender. I, for example, am a woman. By some accounts, that’s why I’m overly emotional. That’s why I’m an anxious driver. That’s why I have a general air of bitchiness — I’m a woman, so of course I do.
Increasingly, though, we’ve gained the social awareness that these beliefs are constructs. And rather than simply dismantling them, many of us have continued not to hold onto them ironically, but to construct them further, often into increasingly absurd territories, a la the “masculine and feminine urge” memes.
In this meme, even the most minor of habits and inclinations is the direct result of something inherent to gender. There’s the “feminine urge” to buy a new journal when you already have 10 empty ones at home, the “masculine urge” to carry all the groceries inside in one trip and the non-binary urge to “rip your fucking skin off” — anything can be an “urge,” so long as it communicates some base, reptilian-brain desire. And while the meme format has quickly degraded into a catchall way to universalize our experiences, it still points largely to the reductionist ways we interpret gender.
According to Know Your Meme, the first example of someone ironically labelling something as a “feminine urge” occured in a 2009 tweet that received zero likes: “the feminine urge to be passive aggressive until I get what I want.” A trend emerged a decade-plus later following an April 2021 post on Tumblr that discussed “the feminine urge to stab, #pegging instinct.” Then, in August, Twitter user @fringeffect tweeted, “the feminine urge to hunt and gather (steal),” kicking off the format as we know it. Women and femmes are primarily the authors of these tweets, but the meme has since expanded to include all genders.
At its best, the meme labels something completely bizarre or niche as the result of feminine norms. Often, they relate the desire to commit violence against oneself or others, and to the fantasy of vanishing completely. But rather than identifying these desires as the consequence of oppressive constructs, the meme labels them satirically as inherent to the gender itself. In doing so, it allows those who engage in it to be metaphorically free of responsibility. Their desire to say, pull a Gone Girl and fake their own murder in order to punish a man actually has nothing to do with them — it’s simply a biological instinct.
In the last several days, the meme has become inflated to the point where anything is labelled a feminine or masculine urge, often in ways that don’t question or challenge the norms of gender at all. “The feminine urge to buy vanilla-scented body products,” for example, tells us nothing about the state of femininity in a broader sense. Meanwhile, the opposite seems to be true with the “masculine” forms of the meme, the majority of which appear to be written by women. One woman tweeted, “the masculine urge to never express my feelings,” while another said, “the masculine urge to speak with authority on something I just learned about yesterday.”
But while these tweets tell us something about the societal perceptions of masculinity, they do little to challenge them or demonstrate how men reflect upon it themselves. They aren’t fun or ironic observations, but expressions of the disappointment some feel toward the current state of men.
Of course, with tweets like, “the masculine urge to put your dick in an empty Gatorade bottle,” there are plenty of men riffing on the meme in a non-serious way. The strength of the format is that it truly has endless applications — anything can be labelled as a gendered urge without the need for explanation. The more outlandish, the more it underscores the pointlessness of attempting to prescribe traits according to biological gender norms writ large.
But even in the cases that don’t seem satirical, there is a core truth being highlighted here: Gender may be a construct, but for many of us, it’s still hard to escape.