“Men are trash”: the surprisingly philosophical story behind an internet punchline

The revelations of MeToo and the rise of strongman leaders has turned the internet in-joke into a foundation for political movement

August 19, 2019
Before we say 'men are trash', it may be helpful to define our terms. Image: Prospect Composite
Before we say 'men are trash', it may be helpful to define our terms. Image: Prospect Composite
Outdated notions of masculinity are hurting us all. Image: Prospect Composite
Are men trash? 

Every few minutes for the last few years, it feels like someone has tweeted “men are trash” only to be met the wrath of those more indignant at its divisiveness than the sexism that keeps it viral. Earlier this year, Brazilian gaming influencer Gabriela Cattuzzo was dropped by her sponsor for responding to sexual harassment on Twitter with the retort “this is why men are trash.” Similarly, Facebook censors “men are trash” posts as instances of hate speech. Meanwhile, women on social media use the phrase to respond to everything from rude comments about their appearances to online abuse. What does the generalisation mean, and can we justify its use? 

News of two mass shootings in the US rolled in as I drafted this article. Grimly, I predicted that white supremacy would be implicated, but I had taken it as given that the killers would be men. They were. The recent attacks bring the US total for the last thirty-seven years to 111. 96 per cent of the shooters have been men, 86 per cent of whom had previously abused a partner. Even in places where guns don’t outnumber people, a similar picture emerges. In the UK, 50 per cent of murdered women are killed by a partner or ex-partner (compared to 3 per cent of murdered men), amounting to two women every week. In South Africa, where the #Menaretrash hashtag first went viral, a woman is murdered every four hours

The harmful effects of masculinity also manifest in less extreme cases, too. Studies have shown that if a woman earns more than a man within a relationship, he’s liable to cheat and do fewer chores as a way of protecting his masculinity. Threats to a man’s gender identity also tend to increase his support for war, male supremacy, and homophobia, and reduce his willingness to recycle

Only 3 per cent of UK adults associate masculinity with kindness or care, and just 1 per cent with respectfulness, supportiveness, and honesty. More than half of young men feel they must not ask for emotional support even in times of need, and two-thirds feel compelled to display hyper-masculine behaviours. Little wonder that masculinity is now rarely seen without its adjectives: toxic and fragile. Men are hurting and killing women, other men, and themselves. Is it reasonable to conclude that men are trash? 

Sex versus gender

It’s helpful to define our terms, and that requires an understanding of the difference between sex and gender. “Man” is a gender term, while “male” is a sex term. Sex refers to differences in chromosomes, genitals, hormones, and secondary sexual characteristics, while gender is a feature of our social world, a social construct that assigns certain roles, behaviours, and clothing are mandated for some and forbids them to others. Going off script is strictly punished by exclusion, derision, and violence. While nothing about a male body makes it harder for a man to cry, men are less likely to cry than women and more likely to be judged for it. Yet there are some signs that society is changing. Men are now typically cry twice as much as their fathers, thus indicating that social, rather than biological, limitations are at work; masculinity is slowly becoming more permissive of men’s emotional expression. When people say that men are trash, it may be helpful to take the statement to mean that those who are gendered as men are trash. 

Not all men?

But surely not all men are trash? This objection is as illuminating as it is common. First, note that people rarely object by saying “men aren't trash.” Instead, they say “not all men are trash.” The implication is that it is widely accepted that many men are trash. Regardless, it’s troubling to have to tackle the “not all men” objection every time we try to critique masculinity. It puts the spotlight on men who aren’t a problem, rather than men who are, and serves as a distraction tactic which derails and trivialises the original grievance. 

Imagine we are talking about a spate of road traffic accidents, and it is noted that “people are driving too fast.” It would be strange and unhelpful to respond with “not all people are driving too fast!” It misses the point. Yet why not instead say “some men are trash”? 

First, because it doesn't preserve the meaning of “men are trash.” Some people are trash, that goes without saying, from which it follows that some men are trash, some women are trash, and some non-binary people are trash. “Men are trash” is more informative: it picks out a particular correlation between masculinity and trashness. More importantly, complaining that “not all men are trash” isn’t a real challenge, because “men are trash” doesn’t mean “all men are trash.” Philosophers call the former a “generic” and the second a “universally quantified statement,” and they express different things. (A related mistake is made by those who choose to interpret “Black Lives Matter” as implying that no other lives matter. In both cases, the “error” seems wilful and malevolent.) 

Generics are generalisations where the number of cases isn’t specified, but the correlation is important. Consider the uncontroversial statement: “ticks carry Lyme disease.” Only around 1 per cent of ticks are in fact carriers, but we accept this generalisation because it's helpful in reminding us to be careful of ticks. In this way, generics can act as warnings. 

When I cross cities alone at night or run in areas where my shouts might not be heard, I wear headphones to avoid verbal harassment. But when I sense that the risk of physical assault looms, I remove them. The findings of a recent government committee into street sexual harassment in the UK, which concludes that a culture of harassment against women has been “normalised”, indicate that I am not alone in taking such measures. The thing with men, as with ticks, is you don’t know which ones to look out for, so better to keep the generalisation to hand. 

It combats hate

The moral basis for outlawing hate speech is that it causes harm, but in a patriarchal system, it’s hard to see how “men are trash” could gather the power or pervasiveness to harm men. Further, the things “men are trash” tends to criticise—entitlement, forcefulness, failures of empathy—have not held men back. Contrast this with “women are irrational,” which feeds a baseless stereotype that continues to limit women. 

On the contrary, “men are trash” combats hate; its target is misogyny. And if we cry “hate speech” every time an oppressed group condemns the ways in which a privileged group treats them, we will miss vital opportunities to disrupt harmful power dynamics. Though the phrase has a range of uses, from serious retaliations by those who have been wronged by men to light-hearted invectives, its hashtag collects these incidents in a constellation of online solidarity which serves as a case against harmful masculinity. It can also act as an expression of sympathy or validation. Responding to cases of sexual harassment or assault with “men are trash” wards off victim-blaming by attributing the wrong to a man’s actions in an enabling culture of misogyny. 

Taking out the trash

Not everyone will accept these arguments, but to the men who claim not to be trash and resent the generalisation: what are you doing to stop the men around you from trashing your reputation? Are you calling out misogyny when you hear it? Are you raising your sons to be sensitive to the needs of others? Are you offering compassion to the other men in your life? As we confront the revelations of MeToo, and witness the rise of strongman leaders who brandish normative masculinity in their personal and political lives, “men are trash” may be just the provocation that’s needed to start the process of imagining something better. Importantly, trashness is not the biological destiny of men, it’s a social expectation, and recognising its contingency gives reason for optimism.