Memeing Masculinity: Promoting Consent Culture by Exposing Toxic Masculinity on Digital Platforms in a #MeToo World
Philip A. Sharp1 and Jay F. Cafferata2
The #MeToo movement brought into sharp focus the prevalence of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault in America and around the globe. In addition to creating a number of important changes, these discussions highlighted historical attempts to address sexual assault that focused on avoiding the risk of it happening to you. This survivor/victim-centered approach avoided focusing on the perpetrator.
In the wake of this phenomenon, rhetoric is now shifting to emphasize the causes of rape through consent education. The centering of these concepts within educational programs and broader conversations attempts to shift our emphasis and to address our pervasive Rape Culture.
In recent years marketing campaigns, like Gillette’s “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” ads, have drawn attention to the role of toxic masculinity in promoting sexual aggression and negative perceptions. This sparked an important conversation about societal attitudes, hypermasculinity, and male accountability on social media and in the United States. Efforts are now being made to acknowledge and address the socialization of young boys that results in damaging thoughts and behaviors in adulthood.
In a world in which proliferating social media platforms create a constant flow of information and have replaced more traditional texts like books and television, the meme has become a preferred means of communication. Memes combine visual images with short text, in order to succinctly send a message. Through memes we rant, complain, instruct, challenge, and relay social mores.
There are 1000s of memes that articulate consent culture and examine the definition of masculinity. One classic viral-video seeks to clarify confusion about perceived “gray” areas in sexual consent. Building off of the popularity of this internet sensation, more traditional single-panel memes are presenting new messages to users.
This curation provides a cross-section of this conversation through memes. It highlights the use of socially significant icons and celebrities to discuss appropriate behavior, socially-acceptable attitudes, and healthy ways of expressing masculinity that respect other people and seek active, positive consent from others. Through the memes we have selected, we lead you through our interpretation of the specific messaging for each meme and how it relates to consent. The conversation is ongoing and evolving as our nation continues to address this pressing societal issue.
Further Academic Readings:
Drakett, J., Rickett, B., Day, K., & Milnes, K. (2018). Old jokes, new media – Online sexism and constructions of gender in internet memes. Feminism and Psychology, 28(1), 109–127.
Hahner, L.A. (2013). “The riot kiss: Framing memes as visual argument.” Argumentation and Advocacy, 49(3), 151-166.
Monaghan, P. (2017). The fight against ‘toxic masculinity’. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Neff, J. (2019). Gillette’s “the best a man can be” and the war on toxic masculinity: Despite backlash from conservative critics, P&G’s shaving brand doubles down on progressive campaign. Advertising Age, 90(19), 24.
Pugh, B., & Becker, P. (2018). Exploring definitions and prevalence of verbal sexual coercion and its relationship to consent to unwanted sex: Implications for affirmative consent standards on college campuses. Behavioral Sciences, 8(8), 69.
Shafer, A.; Ortiz, R.R.; Thompson, B.; Huemmer, J. (2018). The role of hypermasculinity, token resistance, rape myth, and assertive sexual consent communication among college men. Journal of Adolescent Health, 62, S44–S50.
Smith, P., & Welchans, S. (2000). Peer education: Does focusing on male responsibility change sexual assault attitudes? Violence Against Women, 6, 1255 – 1268.
Tindale, Christopher W. 2017. Replicating reasons: Arguments, memes, and the cognitive environment. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 50, 566–588.
Villadsen, L. S. 2020. Progress, but Slow Going: Public Argument in the Forging of Collective Norms. Argumentation, 34, 325-337.
1Philip Sharp is the Director of Forensics (Debate) and an Instructor in the Department of Communication Studies within the School of Social Research and Justice Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.
2Jay Cafferata is a Public Health Diversity Advisor with the Nevada Public Health Training Center within the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno's Nevada Public Health Training Center.