Every month, the Misandrist Book Club convenes to further its secret man-hating agenda: Two dozen young professional women around the country read books by exclusively female authors—Judy Blume's Just As Long As We're Together, Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah—then chat about them on an email listserv. Previous generations of women might have referred to this type of group as a "Feminist Book Club." But as one member told me, "It seemed funnier to call it 'misandrist.'"
"Misandry"—literally, the hatred of men—is an accusation that's been flung at feminists since the dawn of the women's movement: By empowering women, critics argue, feminists are really oppressing men. Now, feminists are ironically embracing the man-hating label: The ironic misandrist sips from a mug marked MALE TEARS, frosts her cakes with the phrase KILL ALL MEN, and affixes MISANDRY heart pins to her lapel. Ironic misandry is "a reductio ad absurdum," explains Jess Zimmerman, an editor at Medium and the proud owner of a "MALE TEARS" mug. ("I drink them to increase my strength," she notes.) "It's inhabiting the most exaggerated, implausible distortion of your position, in order to show that it's ridiculous."
On its most basic level, ironic misandry functions like a stuck-out tongue pointed at a playground bully: When men's rights activists hurled insults at feminist writer Jessica Valenti on Twitter last month, she posted a picture of herself grinning in an "I BATHE IN MALE TEARS" T-shirt, and dedicated the message to the "misogynist whiners." But ironic misandry is more than just a sarcastic retort to the haters; it's an in-joke that like-minded feminists tell even when their critics aren't looking, as a way to build solidarity within the group. "A lot of young feminists who I follow on Instagram and love this shit are teenagers," Valenti says. (Search the tag #maletears and you'll find dozens of young women—and a few young men—posed with a novelty mug.) "The feminism they grew up with was the feminism of snarky blog posts, and this is a natural extension of that."
So young feminists have taken to deploying the claim of "misandry" like a parlor game, competing to push the idea of a vast, anti-man conspiracy to its most gleefully absurd limits. When the Atlantic's CityLab reported that "every American killed by lightning so far this year has been male," Twitter feminists joked that institutionalized misandry was to blame. Zimmerman riffed on the meme in a post on the Hairpin, reframing lightning as the misandrist sorcery of a feminist "witch cabal," and imagining future natural disasters that the witches would inflict upon men. (Headlines include "Fedoras Recalled Due to Spontaneous Combustion" and "Mysterious Vocal Cord Stenosis Continues to Afflict Male Pundits"). And on the Toast, co-founder Mallory Ortberg reimagines famous paintings with a man-hating subtext and injects the lyrics of children's nursery rhymes with misandrist lines ("Hush little baby, don't say a word / Ever, your sister is talking"). At its best, the joke is too weird to even explain: "Our misandry, like the wings of the butterfly, is too beautiful to pull apart in order to see its workings," Toast co-founder Nicole Cliffe told me in an email. Attempting to ground it in a real-life political context "might spoil the joke."
But man-hating is not just for fun: It's also a clever tactic for furthering the feminist agenda. As Jillian Horowitz notes in a recent essay at Digital America, ironic misandry is typically paired with expressions of "overt femininity, bordering on the exaggerated": Think of the mild-mannered ladies' book club, the domestic misandrist cross-stitch, or this "misandry makeup tutorial." The exaggerated femininity works in two directions: On one level, pairing misandry with the trappings of girlish innocence helps puncture the image of feminists as man-hating monsters. But at the same time, lining feminine spaces with images of weaponry is a sly recognition that female solidarity can still pose a powerful threat to the status quo. Advocating for women's rights won't lead to the castration and extermination of all men, of course, but it will require the deflation of male power: Putting more women in the Senate will mean fewer male Senators; elevating more women's voices to the op-ed page will require silencing some men. Ironic misandry, then, allows feminist to contest the idea that they are radical man-haters, while simultaneously owning the fact that full equality between men and women remains a radical notion.
Men's activists, for the record, are not exactly amused: Paul Elam, founder of A Voice for Men, told me he considers jokey misandry "scummy" and "yet another public display of how fucked in the head [feminists] really are." That reaction is part of the point: "I enjoy that it bothers the men who don't get it," one Misandrist Book Club member told me. "It's a good way to weed out cool dudes from the dumb bros." As Zimmerman puts it: "The men who get annoyed by misandry jokes are in my experience universally brittle, insecure, humorless weenies with victim complexes," while the "many intelligent, warm, confident feminist men in my life ... mostly get the joke immediately and play along. They're not worried I actually want to milk them for their tears."
There's another reason that the once-ubiquitous "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like" t-shirt has officially been usurped by a cheeky "Ban Men." Sincere feminist identification can sometimes feel like more trouble than it's worth. When women don't identify as feminists, they're scolded that feminism simply means equality between men and women, and they'd have to be ignorant to reject the label. But women who do embrace the term find that feminist identification is not so simple: They stand to see every little personal choice dissected and critiqued from a feminist perspective, from the color of their wedding dresses to the filters on their selfies. It can be freeing, then, to instead adopt an ironic stance that allows women to identify against what they clearly are not: A cartoonish man-hater bent on total male destruction. And by squarely targeting anti-feminists, ironic misandry avoids dwelling on what feminists themselves are doing right or wrong. As Zimmerman puts it, it allows women to criticize "patriarchal ideals without also shitting on your fellow gal-identified types."
I'm not a card-carrying misandrist myself—I'm a little too shy for message T-shirts and too square for Instagram memes—but I'm still grateful to have ironic misandry in my arsenal of tools for dealing with being a woman in the world. Some sexist provocations are too tiresome to counter with a full-throated feminist argument. Sometimes, all you need is a GIF.