Attack Frames

Framing Processes, Collective Identity, and Emotion in the Men’s Rights Subreddit

in Contention

Abstract

Framing processes concern how movements communicate with members and the public, defining what they stand for and articulating grievances and solutions. I extend the literature on framing processes to include an online-only movement of the Right with no formal movement organization. I performed a content analysis of 435 memes posted on the Men’s Rights subreddit, concluding that three main frames appear in their discourse: men as victims, antifeminism, and denial of gender inequality. Men’s rights activists (MRAs) accomplish a global transformation of the feminist frame using rhetorical strategies to deny gender inequality exists, simultaneously asserting men are victims of inequality and sexism. “Attack frames” provide MRAs with a common definition of feminism. This understanding contributes to building a collective movement identity centered on a narrative of men as victims. The attack frames can be deployed to sustain affective processes such as anger, which motivate a countermovement against feminism.

Building on David Snow and colleagues’ (1986) study of frame alignment processes, this article explores these processes in the Men’s Rights subreddit. While the literature on framing in social movements is robust, frames are generally discussed in terms of face-to-face social movement organizations, mostly on the Left. There are, however, studies of precursors to movement participation outside of formal organizations but within loose community organizations. Such was the case with the role of black churches early in the civil rights movement (Morris 1984). In addition, European scholars have suggested that mass protests can take place in the absence of formal organizations (Melucci 1980). The links between online and offline activism have also been explored in movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring (Nunns and Idle 2011; Vasi and Suh 2016). This work on hybrid movements, however, does not specifically explore the role of framing in online movement participation.

The concern of this article is how frames operate in internet-based movements, using a specific example from the Right, where there is no formal or even loose face-to-face organization. Building on Erving Goffman’s (1974) idea of frames as interpretive schemata, this article looks at attack frames in an online men’s rights forum. By attack frames, I refer to countermovement frames specifically intended to denigrate and ridicule the target movement, in this case, feminism. In this study, I investigate how framing processes operate in an online movement where there is no formal social movement organization. More specifically, I investigate the frames prevalent in the men’s right activists (MRAs) online space. I also consider the role of anger and other emotions in the movement. I first discuss the frames and framing processes themselves, then consider the role of collective identity and emotions, as well as the rhetoric the movement uses to create emotion, and lastly review the implications for mobilization of online movements.

Frame Processes, Collective Identity, and Emotion

The term “frames” as used in this study refers to Goffman’s (1974) articulation of frames as “interpretive schemata.” These schemata can appear as slogans, discourse, or, in the case of this study, internet memes. Frames show how members convey movement participants’ grievances, antagonists, protagonists, and calls to action. Four basic types of frames have been identified in the literature on framing: (1) master frames, which concern the overarching message of what a movement is about; (2) diagnostic framings, which communicate what the problem is perceived to be; (3) prognostic framings, which communicate the proposed solution to the problem; and (4) motivational frames, which tell movement members what action to take (Benford and Snow 2000).

Framing processes are important precursors to mobilization and have been referred to as “micromobilization.” Framing is accomplished through frame alignment processes. In this study, I specifically examine global frame transformation, a frame alignment process in which new framings are created that are different, and often opposite of older framings (Snow et al. 1986). The old frames of the men’s rights movement (MRM) from the 1970s involved ideas of men being feminist allies (Messner 1998). I investigate the current frames of the movement, which have undergone a global transformation to be hostile to feminism.

One reason that frame alignment processes are important is because frames can reinforce and articulate the beliefs that underlie movement members’ solidarity. Beliefs, then, are related to frame alignment processes in that frames express beliefs. Several beliefs are associated with movement participation, as articulated through frames (Snow et al. 1986). Two are of interest to this study. The first are beliefs about the seriousness of the problem. Second are beliefs about causality or blame, which are prominent in the MRA data set, along with stereotypic beliefs about antagonists. Motivational frames may contain beliefs about the necessity for action or beliefs about the possibility of change.

Beliefs can be intensified by frames that elicit emotion. Frames can create positive emotional resonance to strengthen collective identity, as seen in research on a transgender movement organization (Schrock et al. 2004). Emotions can also be engendered by “atrocity tales” that serve to identify victims and villains (Hunt and Benford 1994). Movement participants can also use emotion-laden rituals in ways that inspire activism (Wulff et al. 2015). In summary, emotions can “help or hinder mobilization efforts, ongoing strategies, and the success of social movements” (Jasper 2011: 236).

“Atrocity tales” are common in the MRA data set, suggesting the relevance of another area of the framing process literature concerning identity fields. According to Scott Hunt and colleagues (1994: 185), “identity constructions are inherent in all social movement framing activities.” Collective identities can be affirmed through framing processes. Identity categories include protagonists and sympathizers, antagonists, and audiences or uncommitted observers (Hunt et al. 1994). These categories draw our attention to who is speaking, or spoken for. The frames in the MRA data set express all three categories. According to Stephen Wulff and colleagues (2015), there are three dimensions of collective identity; two are relevant to this study: (1) identity for empowerment, necessary for mobilization; and (2) identity as a movement goal, for example, in reclaiming a stigmatized identity. These dimensions draw our attention to the purpose of the speech. This study finds that identity for empowerment and as a movement goal are prevalent in the online MRA movement.

In summary, in tying these elements of the framing and collective identity literature together, this study examines framing processes and their relationship to emotion and collective identity in the Men’s Rights subreddit. I will be especially concerned with protagonists and antagonists, as the scope of the audience/bystanders is unclear. In terms of the purpose of the speech, I will be concerned with identity for empowerment and identity as a movement goal. It is unclear whether MRA identity is deployed to a larger public via the subreddit, though that potential exists.

Online Movements

While traditional movements have used the internet to garner support and mobilize activists for offline action, less is known about the dynamics of movements that are largely limited to the internet. What we do know is generally based on accounts of hybrid movements, that is, real-world activists who use the internet to publicize their causes and to mobilize people to both online and offline action. The first well-documented case of this type of movement was the Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico, an indigenous land protest that came to global attention through the internet. Another example of a hybrid movement is MoveOn.org, a digital public policy advocacy group. MoveOn.org, however, operates through formal organizations and political action committees to effect offline action (Carty 2015). The literature on these movements tends to focus on mobilization, tactics, and strategy rather than on framing processes and micromobilization (see, e.g., McCaughey and Ayers 2013; Van De Donk et al. 2004).

Movements tend to use the internet to publicize their causes before and during mobilization (see Castells 2012), but offline mobilizations are called for. Another strand of research on online movements concerns “ephemeral action” in which the internet is used as a tool for organizing collective action, often in the forms of electronic petitions and flash mobs (Earl et al. 2015). In their review of current research on online movements, Jennifer Earl and colleagues (2015) note the use of images by Chinese free speech proponents, but do not look at that phenomenon from a framing perspective. More recently, the term “self-directed political consumption” has been posited to describe online organizing that is done outside of formal organizations (Earl et al. 2017). This MRA study is unique because it empirically explores the implications of the framing processes of an organizationless online movement that does not issue calls to offline action.

The Men’s Rights Movement

In the mid-1970s, Warren Farrell, author of The Liberated Man (1975), was the most well-known “male feminist” in the United States. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and was a member of the National Organization for Women (NOW). His workshops, consciousness-raising groups, and writings challenged men to examine how they were part of women’s oppression, and pointed out how masculinity had costs for men. He made a case that appealed to many feminists: that patriarchy was bad for both men and women, although there were feminists who warned that ignoring gender privilege was a dangerous idea (Messner 1998). By 1993, however, Farrell had published The Myth of Male Power, turning toward the modern men’s rights movement (Kimmel 2013). In the book, he developed that idea that men were the oppressed sex and that feminist interpretations of patriarchy were myths.

Another influential early men’s liberation book, Herb Goldberg’s The Hazards of Being Male: Surviving the Myth of Masculine Privilege, was published in 1976. This book also implied that both men and women were hurt by sexism. The emphasis, however, was on male privilege being a myth, and Goldberg asserted that men really are worse off than women because the male sex role was more rigid. It was these strands of men’s liberation that broke off from earlier feminist-allied movements to inspire the modern men’s right’s movement (Messner 1998). Michael Messner points out that the main difference in the discourses of the movement’s two branches was that men’s liberation discourse relied on social science research, while the emerging men’s rights discourse centered on personal anecdotes and questionable studies that “provide an emotionally charged basis for the development of an ideology of male victimization” (1998: 42). The switch from the feminist-inspired men’s rights discourse to the “myth of male privilege” perspective is an example of a global frame transformation. By 1980, the (now defunct) National Congress for Men was formed and claimed that men were the true victims of prostitution, pornography, dating rituals, divorce and custody settlements, false rape accusations, sexual harassment, and domestic violence (Messner 1998).

The men’s rights movement as a whole manifests mostly in online forums, eschewing formal organizations. The internet provides all-male spaces that MRAs say have been destroyed by feminism. In these spaces, MRAs claim gender symmetry in issues like domestic violence and rape, claiming that men are victims just as often as women are. They employ anecdotes and misleading statistics to bolster their claims (Rekai 2013).

Starting in 2009, the website most associated with the men’s rights movement has been A Voice for Men (avoiceformen.com). The site’s founder originally focused on domestic violence against men, male suicide, and child custody issues, but found that the site’s users, who were unmarried white men between the ages 18 and 24, were more concerned with the gender achievement gap in education, “political correctness,” and false rape allegations. The comments and photos on the site are vitriolic, and most of the content is antifeminist (Rekai 2013). Another MRM website is the National Coalition for Men (ncfm.org), which reports on issues of interest to MRAs, including tracking litigation involving men’s rights attorneys who sue in “reverse sexism” cases. Michael Kimmel (2013) describes the men’s rights movement of today as angry associations of middle-class white men, and the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies many of their organizations as hate groups.

Today, a popular site for men’s rights activists to gather is the Men’s Rights subreddit (reddit.com/r/MensRights), where MRAs post links to articles and memes that articulate their antifeminist ideology. Reddit discussion threads are created when someone posts a link or an image in the form of a meme. Threads can include commentary on the meme’s content. In order to be posted to the MRA subreddit, the meme must pertain to men’s rights.

Originally derived from a term about genetics (Dawkins 2006), the word “meme” has come to refer to electronic images and text that replicate over the internet in a manner analogous to how a virus spreads between humans (Aungur 2002). Memes are electronic evidence of worldviews, of ways of interpreting what is going on in society. Another, related definition of meme is “remixed, iterated messages which are rapidly spread by members of participatory digital culture for the purpose of continuing a conversation” (Wiggins and Bowers 2015: 1886). Memes often consist of a simply worded message or a picture with text added above the image. Internet users then “remix” and reinterpret them to reflect and spread their opinions on a subject. Memes can contain social movement messages in the form of collective action frames. Because memes are powerful tools for spreading a message, I decided to do a content analysis of the memes posted in the MRA subreddit. For the purposes of this study, memes are frame vehicles.

Methods

Reddit is a website that allows members to create special interest discussion boards (subreddits), where a link or image is posted to start a thread. My data set was acquired from the Men’s Rights subreddit. I worked with a computer programmer to build custom software for both acquiring the database and analyzing the data. Data gathering was performed using software developed specifically for this study, based on open-source “web scraping” tools. These tools allow content to be extracted from web pages and stored on a local computer. Using this tool, we extracted each image, along with its user-specified title, date of posting, and Reddit discussion URL from the results returned by the Imgur search interface. We then extracted the discussion thread associated with each image from Reddit using the discussion URLs from the previous step. The use of these scraping tools provides two advantages. First, it allowed us to make a complete copy of the data to be analyzed, eliminating the possibility of data being lost or modified. Second, it allowed us to store the data in a structured database. The software downloaded all images from 13 October 2015 to 22 December 2017, when an image from the image hosting site Imgur was used to create a thread in the MRA subreddit. The time frame was determined by the technical limitations of image hosting: images were not retrievable beyond 13 October 2015. This process yielded 435 meme images for coding.1

Memes were coded in an iterative process, using the coding logic of grounded theory (Charmaz 2006; Glaser and Strauss 1967). I coded the images and then had a male coder code the images; this was done to reduce any gender bias in interpreting the images. Intercoder reliability between two coders was 93 percent. On the first pass, images were coded asking. “What is the main idea of this meme?” (metacodes), and the resulting patterns in the data were recorded. On the second pass, images were coded asking, “Within this main idea, what is the specific content about?” (specific codes). Each image is posted with a comment. We used the comment to orient us to the poster’s interpretation of the image; in other words, we coded for the meaning intended by the poster. For example, an image of a starving African man lying on the ground with a blanket and handing someone a check with the words “One more missed payment and we take the blanket” was posted with the orienting comment “The future of western fathers” (see id/600). This gave us clue that the poster’s intent was to comment on child support. In the few cases where the poster’s intent could not be determined from the posting comment, we looked at the discussion thread to see how people in the subreddit interpreted the image. Otherwise, the discussion threads were not systematically coded but used as sensitizing and contextualizing information. For the use of “misleading statistics,” we coded that as such, alongside the user-intended codes, because it provided important information about their group’s rhetorical strategies. Memes with more than one idea were assigned multiple codes. Twenty-five percent of the images had more than one metacode (108 images), and 58 percent of the images had more than one specific code (253 images).

Coding Process and Results

This section discusses the main results alongside the coding process. Overall, 86 percent of the memes contain either an “Antifeminism” or a “Men as Victims” specific code. The metacode groupings are listed in their order of prevalence in the results. The top three specific codes for each metacode are discussed with examples. Percentages do not add up to 100 because images could be coded with more than one code. I use the terms “code” and “frame” interchangeably, as the codes represent frames.

Men as Victims

The “Men as Victims” metacode was used for memes in which men were portrayed as victims in various ways. An example of the coding for this category is the meme mentioned earlier of the starving African man. This meme refers to child support payments, so it was coded “Child Support.” The main idea of the meme is that men are victims of unreasonable child support payments, so this was also coded “Men as Victims of the Legal System.” The metacode assigned to this was “Men as Victims,” which was by far the most common frame in the data set. The results for the specific codes in the data set overall are presented in Table 1.

“Men as Victims of Sexism” appeared in 27.4 percent of the images. Examples included outrage that men were unfairly accused of being sexual predators when present in public parks (see id/679); that straight white men were denied entry to a separate-space feminist event (id/683); and a Father’s Day shirt that read, “It’s really her day” (referring to single mothers) (id/781).

Table 1Descriptive Statistics for Men as Victims and Related Specific Codes
Type of VictimhoodFrequencyPercent
Men as Victims of Sexism11827.4
Men as Victims of Domestic Violence358.1
Men as Victims in Legal System337.7
Men as Victims of Hegemonic Gender Roles235.3
Men as Victims of Rape225.1
Men as Victims of Suicide153.5
Men as Victims of Harassment or Assault153.5
Men as Victims of Disease81.9
Overall Metacode Usage24055.5

The second most common specific code in this area was “Men as Victims of Domestic Violence,” where, in one example, men blame women for making them feel they can’t report domestic violence because their female partner will fabricate a false accusation (id/1074). Related were complaints about the legal system treating men unfairly, comparing a pro-choice women (who doesn’t risk arrest) to a “deadbeat dad” who gets locked up for not paying child support (id/613). The men seem to think that women have committed a crime by being pro-choice. This represents an attack on a core feminist issue as well as an assertion of male victimhood. These top three frames work together to promote an ideology that men are the victims of social institutions that changed to protect women under feminist pressure. This amplifies their master frame of injustice.

Antifeminism

The “Antifeminism” metacode was assigned to various attacks on (what MRAs perceive to be excessive) feminism. An example of the coding for this category is a meme that consisted of a Twitter screenshot (from a woman’s account) with the text: “His card declined. I offered to pay but he said I should have offered to cook for him so we wouldn’t have this issue.” It was posted with the comment, “if i [sic] ever get to go on a date again i would say shit like this” (id/595). Comments gave context to the images posted, and coding took this into account. This posting reasserted traditional gender roles so was coded with the specific code “Reassertion of Patriarchy.” The tone is antifeminist, and the man’s comment can be seen as putting women down for not adhering to traditional gender roles. Feminism questions traditional gender roles, and this post negated that idea. Therefore, this post was assigned the metacode of “Antifeminism.” Many frames blamed feminism for things that a reasonable person would not consider connected to feminism. One example is a meme of a woman from the 1950s in a car with the text, “Ran into my Ex … Put it in reverse & hit him again.” The image was edited to read “Feminists:” above this text and “Also feminists: Blame men for politically incorrect jokes” at the bottom (id/732). Running over men with cars, however, is obviously not a tenet of feminism, so it was also coded “Misrepresentation of Feminism.” The distribution of specific codes across the data set is presented in Table 2.

When images attacked the feminist movement or sought to roll back feminist protections, they were coded as “Backlash against Feminism,” which was the second most frequent frame in the data set (23 percent of images). Backlash against feminism posts had an angry, outraged tone. For example, one ridiculed the idea of affirmative sexual consent (id/656). Another expressed outrage at a celebrity comment that everyone in favor of equality should be feminist (id/777).

Assertions that feminists were hypocrites were common in the data set. Examples include characterizing feminist all-female “safe spaces” as hypocritical (id/887), and commentary about how it is socially acceptable for a woman to reject a man’s request for a date because he is short, yet men aren’t allowed to comment on a woman’s weight (ignoring the fact that women’s bodies are routinely scrutinized, catcalled, and commented on in the media and everyday life) (id/680).

Misrepresentation of feminism was seen in posts like “Is feminism a hate movement?” (id/659), and in posts using the fallacy of dramatic instance—like a tweet that read, “All men are rapists”—and using it to stand in for mainstream feminism (id/854).

These top three specific codes under the “Antifeminism” heading were often used together in the same image to attack feminism (23 percent), assert that feminists are hypocrites (19 percent), and misrepresent feminism (12.3 percent). The rhetorical strategies often employed to accomplish this were the fallacy of dramatic instance (5.8 percent) and the fallacy of false equivalence (4.4 percent). These top three frames, taken alongside the “Men as Victims” frames, represent the attack frames that will be discussed later in this article.

Table 2Descriptive Statistics for Antifeminism and Related Specific Codes
Type of AntifeminismFrequencyPercent
Backlash Against Feminism9923.0
Assertion of Hypocrisy8219.1
Misrepresentation of Feminism5312.3
Fallacy of Dramatic Instance255.8
False Equivalence194.4
Reassertion of Patriarchy122.8
Accusation of Misandry112.6
Misappropriation of Feminist Discourse81.9
Postfeminism (“We are all equal”)71.6
Overall Metacode Usage18041.4
Denial of Inequality

The “Denial of Inequality” metacode refers to the different ways in which posters denied that gender inequalities exist. An example of the coding for this category is a meme that consisted of a seven-panel cartoon of a man talking to a donkey (feminist). The feminist donkey says, “Nope, sorry, sexism against men doesn’t exist,” and the man proceeds to refute gender inequality in several different areas, denying that it exists and asserting that men are the ones who face discrimination (id/599). The cartoon had the main subject of “Inequality Denial” and was coded accordingly. Specific codes for the kinds of equality being denied were also assigned. In context, however, the meme had more than one message. It simultaneously denied inequality and ridiculed feminism. The cartoon is done in such a way as to depict the feminist donkey as stubborn, unreasonable and illogical. By using a donkey to depict the feminist, feminists are being degraded and ridiculed. This was therefore also coded as “Backlash against Feminism” under the “Antifeminist” metacode. The results for the specific codes in the data set as whole are in Table 3.

The “Denial of Inequality” metacode had several specific codes associated with it, and the most common was “Women Are More Privileged Than Men” (8.1 percent of images) Claims included that women live longer than men and are therefore more privileged than men (id/688),

Table 3Descriptive Statistics for Denial of Inequality and Related Specific Codes
Type of Denial of InequalityFrequencyPercent
Denial of Privilege (Women more privileged)358.1
Denial of Rape245.6
Denial of Gendered Crime (False accusations)184.2
Denial of Wage Gap163.7
Denial of Domestic Violence112.6
Denial of Sexism against Women112.6
Overall Metacode Usage8118.6
that women are more privileged than men in the dating scene (id/878), and that women are more privileged in divorce settlements (id/640). This is part of the denial of female gender inequality and assertion of male gender inequality rhetoric that accomplishes the reversal of the feminist injustice frame. These statements might prima facie seem reasonable. However, they are used to demonstrate the more general point that sexism against women doesn’t exist, and that there is no male privilege in society.

The second most prevalent specific code was “Denial of Rape,” which is exemplified by sentiments like “just because you regret your life choices, [sic] doesn’t mean it’s rape,” completely ignoring issues of consent and implicitly denying that rape does occur (id/794). It’s something women “made up after the fact.” This was related to “Women Make False Accusations,” which relied on the fallacy of dramatic instance to post news about false accusations (id/601). Denial of Inequality is used in support of both “Backlash against Feminism” and “Men as Victims” frames. The three frames work together in the data set, reinforcing the master frame of gender injustice.

Pro-Men/Men’s Rights

The “Pro-men/Men’s Rights” metacode refers to images that approvingly draw attention to men’s issues. Several of these images were health education posters, such as those encouraging men to get a prostate exam (id/602). Another example was an image of a public health message poster about men as victims of domestic violence, and it was posted with an approving comment, “Finally some progress” (id/598). That item and items like it were coded as “Pro-men/Men’s Rights.” The prevalence of the specific codes across the data are presented in Table 4.

This metacode category was intended to capture issues that were solely about men’s rights, without victimization or antifeminist messages attached. It was the least used metacode in the data set, at 9 percent of images. The most common specific code was “Recognition of Men’s Problems,” mostly involving health problems like prostate cancer. Where I would have expected to see a positive articulation of the movement’s philosophy, or goals, there was none. Only 1.2 percent of posts were calls to action, which suggests that the subreddit’s purpose is not macromobilization. Rather, the subreddit articulates and amplifies grievances, and may foster a collective identity in doing so. I discuss the role of collective identity formation in the group in the discussion section of the article.

Topical

Topical codes were codes that were present in the data but were not prevalent or did not fit under the other categories. “Child Support” and “Child Custody” sometimes appeared in support of other ideas and were noted as important context. “Misrepresentation of Facts and Statistics” appeared in some memes (see Table 5). For example, one meme ridiculed the idea of gender inequality by asserting that men have higher suicide rates and are therefore disadvantaged, not privileged. Saying that ignores that women attempt suicide more than men, but men succeed more because they use firearms (US HHS 2017). It also ignores every available measure of social inequality, substituting this one fact out of context, as evidence of a lack of gender inequality in society. An example of the dubious use of statistics can be viewed here (id/603).

Table 4Descriptive Statistics for Pro-Men/Men’s Rights and Associated Specific Codes
Type of Pro-Men/Men’s Rights IssuesFrequencyPercent
Recognition of Men’s Problems337.7
Call to Action51.2
Male Socialization40.9
Overall MetaCode Usage399.0

Table 5Descriptive Statistics for Topical/Miscellaneous Specific Codes
Type of Topical/Miscellaneous CodeFrequencyPercent
Child Custody143.3
Child Support112.6
Abortion112.6
Misrepresentation of Facts or Statistics102.3
Circumcision71.6
Overall Topical/Miscellaneous Code Usage4911.3

Interestingly, while these memes represent important men’s issues, they were mostly brought up in a context that accused feminism of hypocrisy, rather than exploring the problems themselves. One of the few examples of calls to action was a call to use Twitter to contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and have them add “female-on-male” to their definition of rape (id/718).

Discussion

In their memes, MRAs stress the seriousness of their grievances by recounting the ways in which men are victims, accounting for most of the frames in the study. They frame feminism as oppressive, and they stereotype feminists as hypocrites and misandrists. The memes are not used for frame extension or bridging, as there are no apparent formal organizations to join. Rather, 86 percent of the frames are either portraying men as victims or explicitly attacking feminism.

This is accomplished by amplifying beliefs and values. MRA frames amplify the belief that feminism has led to a society in which men are oppressed, and amplify the value of “gender-neutral equality.” This idea of “gender-neutral equality” refers to the MRA assertion that no special consideration should be given to women because of their gender or because of social circumstances, including past inequality. For example, MRAs believe that all-female spaces are sexist and that women should be required to register for the military draft. Their frames amplify these values by denigrating what they perceive to be women’s privilege. They deny men’s privilege and assert men’s oppression by women and feminism. Sharing these frames among themselves reinforces their interpretation of the social world.

The sentiment that feminism is not about “real” equality underlies many of the memes in the data set. This sentiment turns the injustice frame of feminism on its head in a global transformation. By “global transformation,” I refer to the change from the original MRA frame of feminist alliance (in the 1970s) to the current frame of antagonism toward feminism. Part of this transformation is the denial of gender inequality’s existence while simultaneously positing gender inequality for men. At the same time, MRAs insist that they are for “real equality.” Paradoxically, being “for gender equality” does not prevent them from attacking feminism, as the feminism they are attacking is understood by them to be third-wave feminism. To explore this in the data set, I searched for all occurrences of the term “wave” in the threaded comments to garner further context. Twenty-six instances were found, echoing sentiments like the following: “This is why we need real gender equality and not bullshit third wave [sic] feminism”; (id/933), and Poster A: “But let’s remember that there is feminism, and there is third wave feminism. Most of the aforementioned bullshit is produced by the latter”; Poster B (in response): “Third wave feminism = feminism” (id/613). This reveals a curious attitude that first- and second-wave feminism are fine, but it’s just since the 1990s and third-wave feminism that feminism became oppressive. Perhaps this is because the MRAs are relatively young, and this is the first feminist movement to challenge them personally. While the participants in the subreddit do not post memes directly about third-wave feminism by name, the comments do provide interesting context for the larger movement and how they see themselves as purveyors of “real” equality. The idea that does get traction in the meme postings is “gender-neutral equality,” which amplifies the injustice frame: feminism is oppressive because it is not gender-neutral, and it hypocritically victimizes men.

Frame Transformation

Frame bridging and extension do not appear in the subreddit, and no formal organizations are discussed. Frame amplification is common, as the memes frame the different ways in which men are victims, completing the picture, as it were. The MRAs do engage in global frame transformation in the subreddit, but specifically transform the frame of their target movement into its opposite in order to denigrate or attack the movement. I call these countermovement global frame transformations “attack frames.” Attack frames are different from adversarial frames (see Gamson 1995) because they are not only countermovement frames, but they also transform the target movement’s frame into its opposite through reinterpretation. It is feminism, a social justice movement, that becomes the oppressive system to resist. These frames simultaneously attack feminism and posit a men’s movement in counter to it, using a subversion of the feminist master frame of gender injustice.

Attack frames globally transform the master frame of gender inequality because of patriarchy, and turn it on its head, into its opposite: a master frame of injustice in which men are victims of feminism. Most of the codes in the data set contribute to this framing. Additionally, “Antifeminist” specific frames account for more than half of the codes in the data set, suggesting that the purpose of the MRA movement is antifeminist, not pro-men. Antifeminism occurred as pure backlash, or insulting feminism, feminists, women, and feminist issues.

Identity Fields

In order to accomplish global frame transformation, protagonist and antagonist identity fields are amplified. While the memes in the MRA subreddit may contain material that can be exported to audiences and bystanders, the online space itself seems to be inhabited exclusively by existing MRAs. The identity fields I am concerned with, then, are the protagonist and antagonist fields. In the protagonist field, MRAs are framed as victims in several areas of life. For example, one image was an advertisement for free housecleaning services for women undergoing chemotherapy (id/719). The threaded comments for the image accuse the company of bigotry toward men. This kind of image frames men, the protagonists, as victims of sexism. It is an example of the most common code in the data set.

In the antagonist field, MRAs frame feminists as sexist, hypocritical, unreasonable, and illogical; this was the second-most frequent metacode in the data set. For example, an announcement for International Women’s Day sparked outrage, being posted with the sarcastic comment “We’re not sexist, we just want equality,” referring to the “we [women] run the world” tagline on the image (id/720). The threaded comments were sarcastic: “but how can they run the world if we live in a global patriarchy,” mocking feminist discourse. Other comments criticize “feminist equality” for not being gender-neutral equality. This was one of many images that operated in the antagonist field, accusing feminists of hypocrisy. Examples of other memes depicted women misspending child support or behaving badly toward men. These are examples of “atrocity tales” that serve to identify victims and villains (Hunt and Benford 1994).

Frame Types

Thinking about memes as devices for framing social movement messages, the master frames of the men’s rights movement are clear: women have too much privilege in society, and men are victims of it. In terms of frame types, the frames in the data set are predominately diagnostic frames, explaining and amplifying the grievances. Motivational frames tell movement members what action to take (Snow and Benford 2000). There were few (about 1 percent) motivational frames in this data set, suggesting that the use of memes is about interpreting collective grievances and building collective identity, not calling for action, at least in the Reddit space. In addition, only 9 percent of the content is associated with men’s rights without antifeminist content. If the movement is not about men’s rights, what is it about? It seems to be about anger, and expressing and maintaining outrage. The data set does not directly present prognostic frames, which tell movement members what a solution to their grievance would be, but a solution may be inferred via attacks on feminism.

Attack frames are the mechanism by which this implicit call to dismantle feminism is accomplished. These frames reinterpret and attack feminism, acting as diagnostic frames, saying what the problem is, while simultaneously globally transforming the injustice frame of feminism into its opposite. The absence of motivational frames is curious. Perhaps this is because what the MRAs are calling for is a return to the prefeminist status quo, so the attack frames may contain an implicit call to action: dismantle feminism and the programs and social norms it changed. In other words, go back to an idealized past, before 1990s feminism. They do not, however, present a plan for doing so.

Framing, Emotion, and Collective Identity

According to Wulff and colleagues (2015), there are three dimensions of collective identity: the one the MRAs are concerned with is boundary maintenance. The memes serve to indicate who is in the victim group (men) and who is the oppressor (feminists). It is clear from the images, comments, and threaded comments that men’s rights memes can create the emotion of outrage surrounding these boundaries. This can be seen especially in the “Backlash against Feminism” frames.

Frames, then, can create a sense of solidarity among movement adherents, or just the opposite if they are not effective. The effect of memes and their issue framings on public opinion is also important, as public opinion can become public policy. It is unclear, however, how widely MRA memes are shared outside the subreddit. As memes evoke heated discussion and convey strong emotion in the current social environment of the “culture wars,” the MRA subreddit begins to resemble a pressure cooker for grievances. Indeed, movements can develop specific emotion cultures and use emotion-laden rituals to engender solidarity (Wulff et al. 2015).

Posting memes in the subreddit can function the same way, as an emotion-laden ritual. In the case of the Men’s Rights subreddit, it seems that members are building a collective identity as victims in the making and sharing of memes.

Creating Emotion with MRA Memes: Logical Fallacies

Emotion was often evoked using logical fallacies, bypassing reasoned explanations of inequality in favor of memes that generate outrage. “Men as Victims of Sexism” occurred in several guises, often involving the fallacy of false equivalence, fallacy of dramatic instance, and confirmation bias fallacy. For example, men asserted false equivalence in the subject of rape. Some memes denied that rape was a women’s issue and asserted it was a men’s issue and that efforts to treat it as a women’s issue were sexist. This ignores that 91 percent of rape/sexual assaults involve women victims, while 9 percent of all rape or sexual assaults involve male victims (Planty et al. 2016). This rhetorical strategy was typical of the memes. The only feminist voices represented on this issue were those asserting that males cannot, by definition, be raped by females; the diversity of feminist discourse on the issue is missing. The MRA activists ignored male perpetrators of male victims. This discursive strategy is meant to demonstrate that feminists are hypocrites, another of the frames that emerged from the data. This is consistent with the actions of those MRAs who oppose the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) because it is sexist (Dragiewicsz 2008) (see e.g., id/797).

MRAs asserted that feminists were hypocritical by using the fallacy of false equivalence and misrepresentation of feminism. For example, one meme asserts that men are egalitarian about Mother’s Day but feminists do not respect Father’s Day (id/628). Often, a meme portrayed a woman, but there was no way of knowing if that woman was a feminist. The MRAs assumed that the woman was representative of feminism by virtue of being a woman. For example, a meme picturing a woman with the caption “I ran into my ex … put it in reverse and hit him again” was seen as being “feminist” (id/732).

The fallacy of dramatic instance was also used, which involved finding an isolated extreme example and using it to generalize about an issue. In one case, this was achieved by the use of memes that showed a female teacher who had raped a male high school student, with comments by men and women that the victim “should be so lucky.” While these comments are unfortunate, they do not represent the feminist view of statutory (or any other kind of) rape.

MRAs also commonly used the fallacy of dramatic instance to portray atypical or not recognizably feminist women in a negative light. The portrayals described stereotypes like the mother who used her child support to buy new shoes and get a manicure, and posted about it on Facebook, with the MRAs blaming feminism for this situation. This squares with Kimmel’s (2013) characterization of the movement’s use of anecdotes to bolster its claims. The way in which participants in the subreddit manufacture feelings of outrage is by using anecdotes with logical fallacies to appeal to emotion rather than logic.

Confirmation bias fallacy was seen in MRAs interpreting ambiguous images as female when, in fact, they could be male. This occurred in complaints about a Google doodle that showed gender ambiguous cartoon workers, where the MRA title for the image claims that it’s sexist because it “shows only women” (id/1078). The effect of these rhetorical strategies is to generate and maintain outrage, a process not uncommon to movements in general.

Conclusions, Implications, and Directions for Future Research

Memes function as framing vehicles in three main ways in the MRA subreddit:

  1. (1)Memes articulate grievances and express outrage and anger. They amplify grievance frames.
  2. (2)Memes construct narratives that build collective identity of men as victims.
  3. (3)Memes attack women and feminism using attack frames.
The MRA movement uses memes to frame its understanding of feminism and the place of men in society. Using the emotion-fueled anecdotes and logical fallacies, they lead the viewer to interpret feminism as oppressive and men as victims of it. They are not, however, framing these issues for a particular organization. There is no frame bridging or other process that depends on a formal organization. Much of the activity in the subreddit, rather, seems to be to develop and amplify the master frame of gender injustice for men.

Attack frames are prevalent, where the master frame of feminism is converted into its opposite and deployed against feminism. Attack frames amplify outrage and attack feminism. For example, 23 percent of the memes represent the specific frame “Backlash against Feminism.” Across the data set, meme images are quite cohesive around the themes of male victimhood and antifeminism. Given the anger that is characteristic of the movement, anger can strengthen the sense of the collectivity, where MRAs are united by a common grievance: feminism. With all this anger, do the MRA frames lead to mobilization? What little calls to mobilization (about 1 percent of memes) appeared in the data set referred to internet mobilization, calling for users to take to Twitter to complain about a perceived injustice. There were no explicit calls for offline mobilization.

It is surprising that there are very few motivational frames or calls to action. More empirical research is needed to determine if today’s men’s rights movement is a social movement at all, having no formal organization and no offline mobilization. It may be that the Men’s Rights Movement as it exists in the subreddit can be theorized as an emergent “New Social Movement,” which aims to create collective identity and to change a culture that it perceives has become too feminist. Its use of attack frames helps it accomplish the collective identity that leads MRAs to post on the internet in an effort to change other people’s minds about feminism and feminist goals. Further research is needed to explore what this MRA identity construction means, where the identity is hegemonic and the group articulating it is not marginalized. The ultimate goal seems to be regressive: to roll back the policy and cultural gains made by feminism and to valorize hegemonic male identity and culture. In this way, the movement could be seen as somewhat similar to rightwing movements like the KKK that want to return to an idealized past.

In terms of calls to action, it could be that they are implicit. For example, a theater in Austin, Texas, recently announced all-female screenings of the film Wonder Woman (2017) and was met with angry comments from men on its Facebook page. An attorney from New York saw the comments and initiated a “reverse sexism” lawsuit (Eustachewich 2017). More research is needed to determine whether mobilization processes like this can begin online through posting in online forums like the MRA subreddit without explicit calls to action. More empirical research is needed to explore these processes and how mobilization works in online movements like the Men’s Rights Movement.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Matthew Kauffman, the editors, and the anonymous reviewers for their comments on this article.

Note
1

The data set is publicly viewable at http://www.wellnamed.org/mra. In-text citations in the form (id/xxx) refer to images viewable at http://www.wellnamed.org/mra/id/xxx, where “xxx” is replaced by the number referenced.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
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Contributor Notes

Chelsea Starr is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Eastern New Mexico University. E-mail: chelsea.starr@enmu.edu

Contention

The Multidisciplinary Journal of Social Protest

  • AungurRobert. 2002. The Electric Meme: A New History of How We Think. New York: Free Press.

  • BenfordRobert D. and David A. Snow. 2000. “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.” Annual Review of Sociology 26 (1): 611639.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CartyVictoria. 2015. Social Movements and the New Technology. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

  • CastellsManuel. 2012. Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in an Internet Age. Malden, MA: Polity.

  • CharmazKathy. 2006. Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide to Qualitative Analysis. London: Sage.

  • DawkinsRichard. 2006. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • DragiewicszMolly. 2008. “Patriarchy Reasserted: Fathers’ Rights and VAWA.” Feminist Criminology 3 (2): 121144.

  • EarlJenniferJayson HuntR. Kelly Garrett and Ayensur Dal .2015. “New Technologies and Social Movements.” In The Oxford Handbook of Social Movements ed. Donatella Della Porta and Mario Diani355366. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • EarlJenniferLauren Copeland and Bruce Bimber 2017. “Routing Around Organizations: Self-Directed Political Consumption.” Mobilization 22 (2): 131153.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • EustachewichLla. 2017. “Movie Theater Sued for Women-Only Screenings of Wonder Woman.” New York Post7 June. http://nypost.com/2017/06/07/movie-theater-sued-for-women-only-wonder-woman-screenings.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FarrellWarren. 1975. The Liberated Man: Beyond Masculinity—Freeing Men and Their Relationships with Women. New York: Bantam.

  • FarrellWarren. 1993. The Myth of Male Power: Why Men are the Disposable Sex. New York: Simon & Schuster.

  • GamsonWilliam A. 1995. “Constructing Social Protest.” In Social Movements and Culture ed. Hank Johnston and Bert Kalndermans85106. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GlaserBarney G. and Anselm L. Strauss. 1967. The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. New York: Aldine.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GoffmanErving. 1974. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • GoldbergHerb. 1976. The Hazards of Being Male: Surviving the Myth of Masculine Privilege. New York: Signet.

  • HuntScott A. and Robert D. Benford. 1994. “Identity Talk in the Peace and Justice Movement.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 22 (4): 488517.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HuntScott A.Robert D. Benford. and David A. Snow. 1994. “Identity Fields: Framing Processes and the Social Construction of Movement Identities.” In New Social Movements from Ideology to Identity ed. Enrique LaranaHank Johnston and Joseph R. Gusfield185208. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • JasperJames M. 2011. “Emotions and Social Movements: Twenty Years of Theory and Research.” Annual Review of Sociology 37: 285303.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • KimmelMichael S. 1987. Changing Men: New Directions in Research on Men and Masculinity. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

  • KimmelMichael S. 2013. Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. New York: Nation Books.

  • McCaugheyMartha and Michael D. Ayers eds. 2013. Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice. London: Routledge.

  • MelucciAlberto. 1980. “The New Social Movements: A Theoretical Approach.” Information: International Social Science Council 19 (2): 199226.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MessnerMichael. 1998. “The Limits of the “Male Sex Role”: An Analysis of the Men’s Liberation and Men’s Rights Movements Discourse.” Gender and Society 12 (3): 255276.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • MorrisAldon. 1984. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York: Free Press.

  • NunnsAlex and Nadia Idle .2011. Tweets from Tahrir: Egypt’s Revolution as It Unfolded in the Words of the People Who Made It. New York: OR Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • PlantyMichaelLynn LangtonChrisopher KrebsMarcus Berzofsky and Hope Smily-McDonald. 2016. Female Victims of Sexual Violence19942010. NCJ 240655. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fvsv9410.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RekaiMika. 2013. “Angry Young Men.” Maclean’s 126 (30–31): 2325.

  • SchrockDouglasDaphne Holden and Lori Reid 2004. “Creating Emotional Resonance: Interpersonal Emotion Work and Motivational Framing in a Transgender Community.” Social Problems 51 (1): 6181.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • SnowDavid A.E. BurkeRochford Jr. StevenK. Worden and RobertD. Benford. 1986. “Frame Alignment Processes, Micromobilization, and Movement Participation.” American Sociological Review 51 (4): 464481.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • US HHS (US Department of Health and Human Services). 2017. “Men’s Health: Suicide.” https://www.womenshealth.gov/mens-health/top-health-concerns-for-men/suicide.html.

    • Export Citation
  • Van DeDonkWimBrianD. LoaderPaulG. Nixon. and Dieter Rucht eds. Cyberprotest: New Media Citizens and Social Movements. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • VasiIon Bogdon and ChanS. Suh. 2016. “Online Activities, Spatial Proximity, and the Diffusion of the Occupy Wall Street Movement in the United States.” Mobilization. 21 (2): 139154.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WigginsBradley E. and G. Bret Bowers. 2015. “Memes as Genre: A Structurational Analysis of the Memescape.” New Media and Society 17 (11): 18861906.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WulffStephenMary Bernstein and Verta Taylor 2015. “New Theoretical Directions from the Study of Gender and Sexuality Movements: Collective Identity, Multi-institutional Politics, and Emotions.” In The Oxford Handbook of Social Movements. ed. Donatella DellaPorta and Mario Diani108130. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation