The men-are-trash narrative is back. But what if women are also trash?

·4-min read

My millennial friend was explaining the trajectory of the men-are-trash narrative. It fell out of fashion for a bit, but now it’s very much back. The proposition, in a nutshell, is that men are trash. It’s a narrative because it’s 2023, and everything is. There were boomers round the table as well. I know, I know: it sounds like an event I’ve made up, but what can I say, I run a very broad friend church, generation-wise. “Well, obviously,” said one, “that’s because men are trash.” “No, no,” said another 60-plus, who is known for her interjections of nuance. “Men aren’t trash. It’s just that women are more interesting.”

Tiny point of clarification: all these people are married and their husbands were right there. “Shhh, shhh, ladies, they can hear you!” I said, like a true gen X. “No, it’s true,” said a millennial guy. “We probably don’t do as much work on ourselves.”

“Well, I’m not trash,” said a boomer man, mildly, “but her first husband was absolute garbage.”

All my intel on the ways in which men might be trash is passé, dating from the earliest days of online romance, when men invented ghosting and diffidence and talking too much about transport and not enough about their feelings. Now, apparently, their crimes are love-bombing, and calling too often, and treating dates like unpaid therapists. “But what’s a therapist, but a paid friend?” I wanted to know. “Isn’t that just being treated like a friend?” No, I have misunderstood therapy, friendship, men and dating, it transpires. It’s true that I’ve done very little work on myself.

What if neither gender is the victim of the other, and emancipation means being able to step away from essentialism?

Feminism has known its rifts, and whether they’re about sex work or porn or trans rights, they all trace back to the same root: is there some trait of violence that is innate to all men, or is that a bit of a dicey extrapolation to make from the fact of male violence? Sorry, I could have put that a bit more simply: this is the all-men-are-rapists narrative. It reminds me a bit of the English civil war, and how you can still guess whether a constituency will go Labour or Conservative if you know whether it was Roundhead or Cavalier. I can say with relative certainty that every feminist who was sex-positive in the 90s is a trans ally now; why we’re all so quiet about it is a question for another day.

But women talking is a different story, not interchangeable with “feminism”. This is just shooting the breeze. It’s not about the patriarchy or structural violence; it’s just about men and whether they’re trash or not. I remember the 80s, my mum sitting in clouds of Silk Cut smoke with her single-mother friends, describing the sheer uselessness of men – bad at fidelity, bad at sex, bad at washing up, bad at communicating – and some of those women weren’t even single. They had husbands, who may have been bad at almost everything, but they were incredibly good at hiding.

Related: Feminist solidarity empowers everyone. The movement must be trans-inclusive | Zoe Williams

I really thought we’d created something beautiful in the 90s, something like a revolution. What if neither gender is the victim of the other, and true emancipation means being able to step out of the confines of essentialism? What if men are great? What if women are also trash? What if nobody’s any good at fidelity or washing up? I thought we’d turned the world on its head, and it would never be the same. That lasted about five minutes.

I missed all the women-talking memos in the 00s and I have no idea whether men were trash then; I had two small children, and the ideal domestic scenario for that is a five-way partnership of completely self-sacrificing adults who are never tired. Maybe two are robots? Failing that, one man is definitely better than none. By the 10s, mainly because of Tinder, it seems, men were trash again: the most sought-after 10% were all acting like James Bond, and the other 90% were watching pay-gap truthers on YouTube.

Truthfully, the men-are-not-trash narrative is just better for everyone concerned, but someone else will have to remake the 90s revolution. I have a son now, and mothers of sons are notoriously untrustworthy on this terrain.

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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