From voting to reproductive rights, the feminist movement has made major leaps over the last few decades. But the fight for gender equality is not over. Women continue to face new challenges each day, juggling issues like workplace sexism and the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. These struggles are compounded by social media, which has transformed the landscape of feminism in recent years.
Though an image-based culture has fostered an online environment for feminists to come together and share their stories, art, and messages, it has also allowed others to promote false narratives about feminism. As of late, these ‘anti-feminists’ have been able to propagate their ideas through a unique subsection of social media: memes.
The versatility, simplicity, and wide dispersion of memes causes shifts in popular culture and, therefore, public opinion. As the narrative around gender equality evolves over time, those who benefit from a male-dominated system find ways to undermine the feminist movement, either intentionally or unknowingly. The male hegemony convinces impressionable young men that feminism threatens their place in society, prompting them to create memes that perpetuate a false narrative around the fight for gender equality.
Framing Matters: What and who is a feminist?
Feminism, though simple in its definition, has a controversial reputation. Anti-feminists undermine and frame feminism through an adversarial, us-versus-them perspective. Through this zero-sum game, in which one person’s gain is another’s loss, anti-feminist men cling to their hegemonic male identity in fear of losing social capital or their societal standing. In order to “win” against feminists, anti-feminists antagonize and create caricatures of women that don’t conform to their version of the ideal society.
Anti-feminists use deep-rooted stereotypes as the foundation for their messaging, mocking feminism through content that can be widely recognized and understood. Memes possess the unique ability to pass forward anti-feminist sentiments because they give creators the ultimate excuse: “it’s just a joke.” Anti-feminist creators are able to capitalize on impressionable audiences, by normalizing anti-feminist humor, exploiting others for personal gain and approval. Boys who think that making fun of feminists or bringing others down will lead to social acceptance are especially vulnerable to anti-feminist rhetoric.
Anti-feminist meme creators know that their audiences are typically male-dominated, aided by algorithmic echo-chambers on social media that enable the positive reinforcement of their content. Users receive content that they’re likely to interact with, limiting the dissemination of alternative perspectives and viewpoints. As a direct consequence. most users likely don’t feel the direct negative consequences of female subjugation but rather the indirect positives of it for male-dominated communities. What these users see is the humor of anti-feminist memes; but they fail to understand that they are developing implicit biases against feminism and cementing their positions of power within a male-dominated society.
However, many anti-feminists are not inherently anti-women, but instead pro-conformism or anti-label. Anti-feminists frame feminists as radical, hysterical, and often-privileged women who blame their personal issues on societal faults. In many memes, there exists a clear juxtaposition between feminist and non-feminist women. Non-feminist women are pictured as conventionally attractive, while feminist women are depicted as being undesirable or outside of a eurocentric beauty standard. Because of this, people who want to fit into larger society will exile feminists in seek of self-preservation. By pitting two different appearances of women against each other, anti-feminist creators pressure viewers to choose which side they want to be on: the “weird” feminists or the “normal” women.
Even those who support gender equality fall prey to anti-feminist rhetoric or use anti-feminist humor “ironically.” People don’t look at memes to engage in critical thought and discourse—they look at memes for light-hearted comedy or mindless scrolling. As such, when biased memes pop up, most will likely take them at face value.
But even the simplest of memes have far-reaching implications for women everywhere; meme culture is only a symptom of a larger American plague. It’s obvious when Representative Ted Yoho calls Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “F***ing B*tch” that anti-feminist rhetoric has ingrained itself into the greater public, influencing our government and impacting our daily lives. The frequent circulation of anti-feminist memes feeds into the broader acceptance of anti-feminism as a whole. If we do not keep those around us informed, this anti-feminist attitude will continue to proliferate in American society.