By Kenneth R. Hanson, C.J. Pascoe, and Ryan Light
This article summarizes a recent paper published in Sex Roles that examines how cultural issues of masculinity, whiteness, and straightness are expressed and valued on the semi-anonymous online forum Reddit.
Today’s world might seem more egalitarian than ever, with legal rights protecting numerous minority populations and more diverse representation in politics and the workforce. Across multiple surveys, many people, men included, express broad support for same-sex marriage and agree that openly anti-gay and sexist remarks are inappropriate. On the surface then, it would seem that significant progress has been made in politics, the workforce, and in the minds of men.
But are these public expressions or cultural shifts representative of what people, especially men, really think? Perhaps you believe gains for social minorities are eroding the foundation of society and that men today aren’t manly enough anymore, but you’re afraid saying so will land you on the wrong end of “cancel culture.” Where do you go to vent your frustrations and foment resistance, or at least some sympathy, for your stance against the encroachment of progress for progress’s sake? When what we “really think” goes against the grain of polite conversation, we may take that opinion elsewhere, perhaps to an online anonymous space.
As one of the largest and most active subreddits on the social media site Reddit, r/unpopularopinion is one of those online anonymous spaces, with hot takes, cancelable views, and bizarre observations of the world posted and discussed every day. Researchers at the University of Wyoming and University of Oregon thought it might be just the sort of place to go and find the opinions people are too afraid to say and see how those opinions are received.
Data and Methods
Using a mixed-methods research design, the team of researchers searched the corpus of posts on r/unpopularopion for masculine coded words (e.g., man, masculinity, brother, boyfriend, gay, incel, etc.) and then sampled 500 threaded conversations from those posts for deeper analysis. The 500 posts were analyzed qualitatively by the researchers who were looking for the following: 1) what the posts were about, 2) how much attention the posts received, and 3) how the posts framed social equality. The posts were also quantitatively analyzed to assess how well the themes “hang together,” or, in other words, how do opinions on particular topics positively or negatively correlate with other topics?
The results of the study revealed three trends. First, posters saw straight white men’s social standing as decreasing primarily as a result of increasing social equality for sexual minorities, women and racial minorities. Second, when posters critiqued examples of increasing social equality, these critiques were often “up voted” which mean that this type of sentiment was amplified. Finally, rarely did a poster critique just one measure of social equality. Instead, posters tended to address several topics simultaneously, a phenomenon the researchers termed “bundled grievances.”
One bundle of grievances, for instance, focused on courtship. Within the bundle, the researchers saw opinions about people’s bodies, what is or is not attractive, what sex practices are morally acceptable or unacceptable, how heterosexual men are disadvantaged in dating markets, and the woes of incels. One representative post that expressed this bundle of grievances said:
How can you have relationships with a girl when you are in a constant competition like this…As an ugly man, women don’t give me the time of day, but my brother is a decent looking guy who’s currently in a relationship and he caught MAJOR flak from his GF and her social circle for telling her she either has to get off the dating apps or it’s over. Like there was real anger directed at him for even *daring* to suggest she not entertain other guys all day long. How can people defend this behavior? Is this really what relationships have become in the modern age? A minimum of light cuckolding?
These grievances reveal how threats to masculinity are embedded within ideas about the presumed advantages and disadvantages of women and men in heterosexual dating markets. In these posts, heterosexual masculinity is constructed as necessarily controlling women because women are believed to be naturally desirable. By simply existing, women’s attractiveness is threatening to men because it attracts other men and therefore threatens the stability of relationships and their partners social status.
Another bundle of grievances coalesced around issues of gender inequality and trans rights. Such grievances prioritized individual rights yet nevertheless dismissed trans people’s lived experiences. One grievance said:
I don’t have any problem with transgender people and I don’t care if they get sex change operations, there’s nothing wrong with that, but genuinely believing you are an opposite sex to the biological sex you were born as is technically a mental illness…You aren’t black or a cat just because you *feel* and *believe* you are, you are whatever your biological makeup indicates you are. If you have the physiology of a white male human, you’re a white male human.
Tellingly, by critiquing trans visibility and asserting the invariability of gender identity, this grievance sets up straight maleness as equally invariable. In doing so, grievances such as these set up an equivalency that supposes the plight of straight white men is no greater or lesser than other minority groups’ disadvantages. According to this logic, social equality measures that target specific groups disadvantage straight white men unfairly, and therefore, identity-blind approaches are the only equitable way for social institutions to handle discrimination.
Taken together, the findings of this study show how social equality measures are viewed as net negative in terms of resource distribution and human rights. Privileged groups believe they are on the losing side of a zero-sum game and do not see social equality measures as capable of elevating everyone’s quality of life. This may suggest that social movements aimed at lessening social inequality will need to highlight how their policy suggestions will not result in gains for some groups at the expense of others and bring attention to how increased social equality benefits everyone.
Kenneth R. Hanson is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wyoming. He studies masculinity, technology, sexualities, new media and culture.
C.J. Pascoe is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon. She studies masculinity, young people, inequality and education.
Ryan Light is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon. He studies social connectivity and social structure using computational text analysis.
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