Abigail Kelly wonders whether the phrase ‘men are trash’ actually perpetuates the misogyny it tries to fight.
For years now, the statement ‘men are trash’ has whipped up a frenzy of online controversy. Sparking extensive debates, it has been seen substantially online and in the ripple effects of movements like ‘Me Too’. The phrase is commonly understood to be an attack on misogynistic behaviour, including anything from toxic masculinity to harassment and abuse. It has also attracted a lot of opposition prompting unproductive cries of ‘not all men’ and claims of unfairness. My argument against this phrase, however, centers on the removal of individual responsibility this saying provokes, and the dangers of this.
I once saw a tweet where a woman claimed that the phrases, ‘men are trash’ and ‘boys will be boys’ were the same thing said by different people. This stuck with me, partly because I’ve indulged in a cathartic ‘men are trash’ on many occasions, often when feeling the weight of my own or my friends’ personal experiences. Unpacking this comparison brought a lot of interesting revelations I’d never thought of before to the forefront of my mind. Thinking about the phrase in context; when do we claim that ‘men are trash’? We may say it to friends who have been talked over in a seminar, or when their tinder date is exceptionally rude, or perhaps when we experience harassment or catcalling on the street. It comes to mind when news articles detail instances of abuse, or when the latest report comes out signalling shockingly high numbers of women having these experiences. Online, it is often used as a response to cases of rape or murder. As a woman I had always believed that statements of ‘men are trash’ were fully warranted.
However, while it may have originated with good intentions, in an attempt to vilify toxic masculine behaviour, ‘men are trash’ has now become so frequently used that its worth is questionable. The problem with the use of a blanket statement such as this one, when it is our automatic response to any misogynistic behaviour, is that it removes the blame from the individual who has caused the offence. Instead, it is branded as an uncontrollable result of gender, a result of being a man, which diminishes the need for individual accountability. Misogyny and toxic behaviour is controllable, however, and removing accountability also removes potential for growth. This is where the comparison to ‘boys will be boys’ comes in: ‘men are trash’ has become the go-to response when we see something wrong, and it begins to sound just as dismissive and unhelpful in its excessive use. The message we should be promoting is that men shouldn’t be trash.
It is, of course, easy to understand the overuse of this phrase. We are all guilty now and then of venting our anger, and it is perhaps less harmful in a venting context. It is emotionally exhausting to have the same intense, shocked reaction to every bit of news or word-of-mouth stories concerning misogynistic behaviour, especially as this is a lived reality for most women. Only last week did a survey from UN Women UK report that 97% of women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment. Tragically, the survey also reported that most of these incidents go unreported, demonstrating a complete lack of faith in the system for dealing with this kind of behaviour. Removing the phrase ‘men are trash’ from our vocabulary is not a way to completely dismantle patriarchal structures and make everything magically better, but there are definite gains to be made in evaluating the ways in which we use language and understanding the harmful effects it sometimes has on others, however unintentional.
Using gender-essentialist language, and attributing fixed, intrinsic qualities to a particular gender can be damaging in a number of different ways. Conversations about misogyny and patriarchal oppression that centre around the idea that all men are toxic, predatory or abusive can lead to victim blaming for people attracted to men who have these experiences. It harms trans men who are lumped in under the same category, yet suffer under similar patriarchal oppressions. It makes it harder for abusive women to be held accountable, by the consequent underlying suggestion that if all men are trash, all women are good. It is possible to have these discussions surrounding misogyny, male privilege, and personal experiences without invoking language that may harm the very people you are trying to protect.
The issues explored are ones that desperately need more action and attention. We should be able to recognise and address the structural and educational changes that need to take place while also shifting the focus to individual responsibility. In doing so, we won’t accidentally excuse misogynistic behaviour by branding it as a side effect of being male, and instead create more room for the necessary improvements and personal growth that can, and need, to happen.
Artwork by Laura Cook.