The problem with men — according to Twitter — is that they sneeze too loudly. They keep their private lives off social media, which is a bad thing, and they treat lines from blockbuster comedies as though they’re in-jokes among their friends, which is clearly dumb and embarrassing. They have loud keyboards, plan to move to Colorado and love the movie Step Brothers — ughhhhhhhh! And if you spot one with a dog-eared copy of Goethe’s Faust on his bookshelf, you’d be amiss to think that’s a good thing. In fact, it’s a warning sign that he’s the worst kind of guy.
These sorts of gender-essentialist takes about men — or just “cishet” men, as users sometimes clarify — have become notorious. Homing in on some personality flaw that men as a group are assumed to share, these tweets often go enormously viral. As writer Lincoln Michel joked recently, “I swear every day there’s a tweet like ‘cis straight men STOP putting so much jelly on your PB&J sandwiches challenge’ and it gets 50k likes.” They’re such a reliable content stream that BuzzFeed seems to round them up monthly, with headlines like “25 Tweets That Absolutely Obliterated Men This Month,” and “28 Tweets About Men From This Month That Made Me Laugh So Hard a Little Pee Pee Came Out.”
But the tide is turning, and everyone’s getting tired of these tweets. Now, such 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). It seems we’ve reached saturation point for #MenAreTrash-style missives, and a more protective and gentle attitude toward men is emerging in its wake; see, for example, the dudes rock movement, described by Chapo Trap House’s Matt Christman as “essentially a way of laundering the toxins out of masculinity,” or the dad reflexes community.
For the benefit of anyone who isn’t terminally online, the mid-2010s were the heyday of “Ugh, MEN!” culture on the internet. Originating within Tumblr’s social justice community and migrating over to Twitter, at its crescendo catch phrases like “kill all men” and “ban men” trended and women paraded their male tears mugs and “misandry” name-plate necklaces online. It was a “parlor game,” writer Amanda Hess explained at the time, “an in-joke [among] like-minded feminists … to build solidarity within the group.” But it was also, she said, “a clever tactic for furthering the feminist agenda.”
It’s hard to imagine now that it’s been completely run into the ground, but this style of misandrist humor felt edgy and subversive at the time, at least to its proponents. (At this point, a mea culpa from me is probably appropriate, as the originator of the “dick is abundant and low value” mantra.) It was only five years ago, but the climate was totally different: Toxic masculinity was still a fringe concept, Bill Cosby was a free man and Harvey Weinstein’s monstrous behavior was being discussed only in whisper networks. Alyssa Milano wouldn’t popularize the #MeToo movement for another couple of years, and this “Ugh, MEN!” sentiment tapped into a feeling among some feminists that shitty male behavior wasn’t only rampant, but going unchecked.
Fast forward to 2020, and now even your most offline coworker or uncle is likely to have heard the term “toxic masculinity” and feeling the ramifications of the #MeToo movement. Even though men in power continue to behave badly, there has been a worldwide reckoning with problems like sexual violence and harassment, so critics of masculinity can hardly claim to be on the fringe anymore, which helps to explain why “Ugh, MEN!” humor has come to feel stale.
But instead of retiring the bit, some liberal feminists on Twitter continue to beat a dead horse. And now there’s a strange new twist, which is that the male behavior being mocked doesn’t even have to be harmful anymore. Once, these jokes challenged men’s shitty treatment of their partners or their inability to express their emotions (and, in my opinion, the funniest ones still do), but now they increasingly target totally innocuous behavior like sneezing loudly or watching Step Brothers for the 20th time. Whether or not you ever found “Ugh, MEN!” humor funny or a useful form of social critique, it falls completely flat when it mocks men for doing nothing wrong.
And sometimes this style of humor comes full circle, too, and ends up reinforcing sexist stereotypes about women. A good example is the now-ubiquitous “X is just astrology for men” format, in which X is something like Myers-Briggs types, libertarianism, the stock market or even economics. It started as an attempt to point out male hypocrisy — you mock women for being into star signs, but you’re into equally fantastical shit — but it rests on some classically sexist foundations, like that economics and political philosophy is guy stuff, whereas women as a class are into unscientific fluff like astrology. (In fact, 72 percent of American women don’t believe in it at all.) In other words, it’s the old “women are emotional, not rational” chestnut, in a joke format that’s meant to be at men’s expense.
It’s one thing to criticize socialized gender differences and harmful behavior mostly perpetuated by men (like, say, sexual violence), and gender-based jokes still have their place in that regard. But after a good half-decade run, “Ugh, MEN!” humor is finally singing its swan song. A widespread exhaustion with Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus-style generalizations has set in, and that’s especially true when these jokes take aim at trivial stuff like men quoting Borat too much (50k retweets, 120k likes).
Besides, as writer Joe Nunweek pointed out recently, there’s often a lot to like about the type of guy who is the punchline of these jokes. “These dudes are usually not very online, plainspoken and haven’t manifested personality disorders through overt use of social media for 10 years,” he wrote in response to a tweet dragging men for quoting blockbuster comedies. “I honestly feel pretty ashamed of myself and my worldview whenever I interact with one.”