In reacting to a photoshoot featuring Harry Styles, the conservative commentator and conspiracy theorist Candace Owens tweeted:
There is no society that can survive without strong men. The East knows this. In the west, the steady feminization of our men at the same time that Marxism is being taught to our children is not a coincidence. It is an outright attack. Bring back manly men.
Her tweet did not appear in isolation – there is an entire conspiratory world around the idea that men are being deliberately and systematically feminised by a secret group.
The key points in this narrative are that men – either across the entire world, or at least in a specific country or society – are being feminised, undermined, weakened or are losing key ‘masculine characteristics’. The claim goes that this has been happening for years, but it is only now possible to see these ‘changes’. Often the claim is accompanied by ‘evidence’, such as a graph showing testosterone levels declining over time, a photo comparison of a masculine stereotype (perhaps an actor in an action movie) with someone deemed to be less than masculine, a repurposing of a transphobic trope, or an image of men in clothing traditionally perceived as feminine. Each piece of ‘evidence’ is presented with the objective to argue that men are becoming more feminine, and therefore (in the mind of the conspiracist) weaker.
So who do these conspiracy theorists claim is responsible for this? As always, there are the classics: George Soros, the Illuminati, New World Order, The Jews – the greatest hits of the conspiracy world. Alongside these trusty scapegoats sit other perpetrators: Marxists, Feminists, Postmodernists, The LGBTQ+ community, progressives, and what some lump together as ‘The Left’. Each of these groups – or perhaps all of them – are said to be working in secrecy with the explicit agenda of destroying masculinity… but with what purpose?
According to Candace Owens and many of those who share her narrative, the objective is to destroy Western society via the destruction of masculinity, by subverting it with femininity. The conspiracy theorists posit that society can only survive with natural and strict gender roles that are biologically (or even Biblically) derived and immutable, and therefore any deviation from those roles will lead to total ruin and societal collapse. Thus all the evil groups need to do is achieve the mass feminisation of men, and the West will fall. That society is rarely claimed to be under threat due to women taking on more stereotypically male characteristics only serves to underline the misogyny inherent in this worldview: society will only crumble if men can be ‘weakened’ by being more feminine; they don’t believe women are ‘weakened’ by acting more classically masculine.
You may be wondering why this coalition of scapegoats is so intent on the destruction of our society. For some believers, the answer is obvious: these evil-doers seek to put a new society in place, allowing them to take over the world, control all the finances, et cetra, et cetra, the usual stuff. However, not all conspiracy theorists go quite so far, and their alternative explanations usually depend on who the conspiracists want to attack. For example, some argue that the feminisation of men runs hand in hand with the (they would claim) false notion of toxic masculinity – arguments that are most often used by the groups most intent on attacking feminism and feminists.
For the anti-feminists, the feminisation conspiracy theory exists to limit and challenge any attempt to consider and reflect on toxic masculinity. It is often driven by a misunderstanding – sometimes accidental, sometimes deliberate – of what the term ‘toxic masculinity’ means; these conspiracy theorists interpret it as meaning that all masculinity is toxic, and as such it is an attack on all men. From that starting point, they assume any attempt to challenge toxic masculinity is actually an effort to change supposedly male characteristics for female ones. They then claim this enforced change causes all sorts of problems for society, giving license to reactions like those of the Mens Rights’ Activist, Alt-Right or far right wing movements, who claim they’re in the right because they’re pushing back against the evil forces trying to change and destroy men.
This conspiracy theory isn’t limited to anti-feminist positions. Some believers claim the feminisation of men is just part of the ‘trans agenda’, or, prior to this most recent moral panic, the ‘gay agenda’. These agenda in part posit that LGBTQ+ communities want to corrupt children and society, in order to persuade more people that they are gay or trans. The assumption, of course, is that those communities in particular would be happy to force people to live as a sexuality or gender contrary to who they really are – which seems unlikely, given that in all of society, the LGBTQ+ community understand that particular pain better than anyone.
For decades, LGBTQ+ people have been fighting for rights and recognition, and the movement has had some significant and long-overdue progress in many places. As a result, the visibility of the LGBTQ+ community has increased in the media and in public spaces – especially on the internet, where people feel more comfortable expressing themselves and who they are. As a result, some people find their worldview challenged, and some of those people find the challenge too much to cope with, leaving them open to narratives that offer an alternative explanation – which is where the forced-feminisation conspiracy theories come in.
Most – if not all – of the adherents to this conspiracy theory have the unshakeable belief that gender is defined by sex, that it is binary, and that those two genders have strict and immutable characteristics. This worldview doesn’t allow for anything beyond that limited scope, so when they encounter (in the case of Harry Styles) a man wearing a dress, or someone expressing that their gender isn’t a binary, or when they encounter a trans person, that worldview comes under threat. For some, the only way to resolve that tension is to subscribe to the belief that someone must be distorting things and subverting the natural order of things, presumably with malintent.
For adherents to this conspiracy theory, it’s vital for society that men adhere to a very specific stereotype: strong, assertive, and silent, men don’t cry or show any demonstration of feelings. The idea that someone could be removing those characteristics, making men ‘weaker’ and ‘more like women’ is fear-inducing. This obviously demonstrates the sheer contempt believers in this conspiracy theory must have for women, if society is doomed to crumble should men become feminine.
While proponents of this conspiracy theory will argue their concern is about upsetting the natural order of society, at its heart this belief has more to do with an inability to deal with reality as it is – complex, varied and nuanced. Instead of addressing their own assumptions and biases, believers turn to a fanciful narrative involving shadowy forces, for which they have no factual evidence. As society evolves in ways they may dislike, disapprove of, or even fear, their only explanation is that there is a conspiracy – and one that becomes even more personal, as it posits that someone is coming to steal the believer’s masculinity and identity, and that of everyone else. From that position, anything can be justified: the problems of the world are not because of the believer or their ideas, but because They pushed the believer to it.
In the end, the feminisation conspiracy theory – like many other conspiracy theories – ends up as something to hide the fear of the believer, and to help them to cope with a world that is, finally, starting to leave old prejudices behind.