Anthony “Dream” Johnson, the self-described president of the manosphere, declared war on Rollo Tomassi in the summer of 2019. On Twitter, Johnson called Tomassi a “TRAITOR, fraud, and SELL OUT.” Virtual armies were gathered and battle lines were drawn between the two leading figures: Johnson, a thirty-something with a Trump-inspired red hat that reads, “MAKE WOMEN GREAT AGAIN,” and Tomassi, the fifty-something “godfather” of the internet of men. What seemed at first a petty fight over a personal falling out turned into a reckoning for the sprawling network of antifeminist online communities. In response to the fight, Jack Murphy, who runs an “exclusive men’s organization” focused on “positive masculinity,” declared on Twitter: “The ‘manosphere’ is dead.”
Reports of the manosphere’s death are greatly exaggerated. In fact, it’s thriving, as evidenced by bustling message boards, and hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers. It is, however, in the midst of an existential crisis.
Decades ago, the manosphere first began to emerge as a loose array of groups with variable approaches to challenging women’s liberation—from men’s rights activists (MRAs) who proclaimed themselves to be the real victims of sexism to pickup artists (PUAs) who designed strategies meant to manipulate women into bed. These groups were frequently hostile toward each other but shared the fundamental belief that cisgender men had been wronged by feminism and modern society. Over the years, that shared perspective has expanded into a subtly unifying ideology and the manosphere’s various subsets have proven to function less as distinct communities than stepping stones leading men toward newer, more radical factions. Research suggests these groups are only growing.
Alongside this movement toward radicalism, the manosphere’s ideas have successfully infiltrated the mainstream. The manosphere has never been more influential in popular culture, nor so extremist and politicized. All of this has fomented a rupture in the ‘sphere, one evidenced by the rift between Johnson and Tomassi. The latter’s supporters characterize it as a divide between rationalist, apolitical adherents of “the red pill”—which, within the manosphere, is essentially a conspiracy theory about feminism—and traditional conservatives, or “TradCons,” with retro, moralistic patriarchal fantasies. From their perspective, the integrity of the manosphere is in peril precisely because of its success. Its ideologies have spread so far and wide, its audience grown so big, that its core identity is in crisis.
Its audience [has] grown so big, that its core identity is in crisis
These groups share fundamental beliefs while harboring divergent ideals, as reflected in Johnson’s 21 Convention, a “masculine self-improvement event” which recently took place at an undisclosed location in Orlando, Florida. According to the event’s website, Johnson’s convention featured a special “patriarch” session on “fatherhood, masculinity, fathers, aspiring fathers, marriage, family, relationships, and all the issues facing fathers today in Western Culture.” The speakers included George Bruno, a man who evangelizes about women’s modest dress (“Breasts are most beautiful… in the bedroom,” he tweeted) and popular fitness YouTuber Elliott Hulse, who rants about “degeneracy,” exalts marriage, and appears to question whether women should be allowed to vote. Another speaker’s Twitter bio identifies him as a “patriarch” and a member of the Mormon Church. Recent 21 Convention events featured the racist alt-right figure Stefan Molyneux, who promotes “race realism,” and the anti-feminist and Pizzagate conspiracy theory promoter Mike Cernovich.
While Johnson’s speakers reinforce patriarchal norms around everything from women’s modesty to the glorification of father-as-protector, Tomassi rejects much of that traditionalism. He got his start in the pickup artist community and calls modern marriage “a menagerie of horrors for today’s men” that he “cannot condone.” He associates with flashy dating coaches who are devoted to what he calls the “game,” including Troy Francis, who recently characterized the current manosphere divide as, “Dullards v decadents.” Within this framework, Tomassi is a decadent and Johnson is a dullard.
The “decadents” don’t just define themselves in opposition to the “dullards,” who have been buoyed by a Trump presidency. So-called decadents like Tomassi say the manosphere has seen an influx of imitators and opportunists who are motivated by politics, fame, money, or all of the above. There is a whole new crop of mainstream-leaning figures who fall outside the manosphere’s longstanding tribes, including woo-woo spiritual influencers and feel-good self-help gurus. This includes the wildly popular Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor and author famed for defending human hierarchies on the basis of lobster biology, and whose work appears heavily influenced by the manosphere.
For some within it, the fracture threatens the manosphere’s existence: as a writer using the pseudonym Black Label Logic wrote in the wake of Johnson’s battle cry, “The truth is, this space is in trouble.” But there are high stakes too for those outside the realm of MRAs and PUAs. Silly as it may seem, the outcome of this dullards-decadents battle stands to influence the future of antifeminism—not just in pockets online but in mainstream culture and politics, where the manosphere already has a stronghold. It isn’t just a question of whether Johnson or Tomassi “wins,” or which personal brand and belief system triumphs. It’s possible these divisions only strengthen the manosphere’s most militant and dangerous facets, those lacking self-described “presidents” yet still have the power of influence.
Whatever the result of this clash of identities, the effects are likely to be felt for years to come, and far beyond the boundaries of the manosphere. The future of the far-right is being decided, quietly, online.
In truth, this reckoning is decades in the making. In the 1970s, William Farrell, a man now widely credited with popularizing some of the manosphere’s foundational arguments, joined the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, ran men’s consciousness groups, organized a task force on the “Masculine Mystique,” and wrote critically of the constraints of gendered expectation in his 1973 book The Liberated Man. Farrell became the subject of rapt media attention, including a People magazine photo-spread featuring him cooking breakfast for his wife, an IBM executive, as Mother Jones’ Mariah Blake reported. As the 1970s brought divorce and custody disputes to the cultural fore, though, Farrell became more concerned with men’s rights.
In 1993, shortly after Farrell and his wife divorced, he wrote The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex, a book that regards men as the truly aggrieved. It’s been called “something of a Bible to the Men’s Rights followers.” With the internet boom, those followers began to emerge online. The early inklings of what would become known much later as the manosphere was “littered not only with anti-feminist diatribes but also with racism, homophobia, and far-right conspiracy theories,” as Blake reported. “One early site, Fathers Manifesto, interspersed excerpts of Farrell’s writing with calls to exile blacks from America and claims that Catholic priests were sexually abusing children as part of a plot to spread AIDS,” she writes.
Pickup artist communities cropped up online around the same time, but just as with MRAs, PUAs had an offline history. In 1992, Ross Jeffries, the so-called “godfather” of pickup, published How to Get the Women You Desire into Bed. Jeffries held seminars on his “speed seduction” technique, which was inspired by neuro-linguistic programming, a pseudoscientific theory for influencing human behavior using hypnotic techniques. Hitting the daytime talk show circuit to promote his book, Jeffries portrayed himself as a fed-up man finally standing up to women, delivering such bromides as, “When you accommodate, you get what the commode gets. You get the crapola. You have to learn to say ‘no’ to a woman.”
By the end of the nineties, Jeffries had inspired Tom Cruise’s character in the film Magnolia, an over-the-top, headset-wearing self-help guru who shouted onstage about “respect[ting] the cock” and “[taming] the cunt.” In the 2000s, these online networks grew, as did their IRL counterparts: group meet-ups, called “seduction lairs,” and pricey in-person workshops run by ostentatious characters. Take Mystery, a PUA who adorned himself with eyeliner, a fuzzy top hat, and platform shoes. From these booming PUA communities emerged a dictionary’s worth of terminology like “negging,” a technique of subtly insulting a woman to generate sexual interest driven by insecurity, and “peacocking,” dressing flashily to attract attention and convey confidence.
Just as PUAs were gaining steam and a lexicon, MRAs began to splinter. The divide emerged over the “unwillingness of some to cooperate with female MRAs and a belief that MRAs should not work as a collective,” according to a report by the UK advocacy group Hope not Hate. This spawned a separate community of “men going their own way” (or MGTOW). In 2001, as Donna Zuckerberg reports, the blog No Ma’am published a “MGTOW Manifesto” with the stated aim of instilling “masculinity in men, femininity in women, and work[ing] toward limited government!” Its political message was ostensibly libertarian, but it was clearly gendered: women were meant to return to their “feminine qualities,” the manifesto explained. On the other hand, the post detailed a strategy for men of “living independent lives” and “fighting chivalry.”
It was PUAs, not MGTOWs, who would soon get mainstream validation. In 2005, journalist Neil Strauss published The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, which was framed as expose but functioned as a how-to. Two years later, in 2007, Mystery got his own VH1 reality-TV show, guiding hapless men through the art of the pickup. He may have made for amusing television, what with his rocker-meets-magician aesthetic, but this was the same man quoted in The Game as advising how a man can persist through women’s “last-minute resistance” to sex (or “LMR”) by “just [taking] your cock out.” The following year, the notorious Roosh V launched his pickup blog and made explicit what was often implicit in PUA technique by writing things like, “No means no—until it means yes” and “Make rape legal if done on private property.”
It was following Roosh’s ratcheting of violent rhetoric in the manosphere that Paul Elam, a devoted fan of William Farrell, launched A Voice for Men (AVFM). It was, purportedly, a site organized around advocating for men’s rights, and yet often directed its ire at women. Within a year of launching, Elam had pronounced October “Bash-A-Violent-Bitch Month” in a post illustrated with a photo of a woman with a black eye and a caption reading, “Maybe she DID have it coming.” (Elam later called the post a satirical response to a blog on this site.) He once wrote in a post, which has since been removed, that some women “walk through life with the equivalent of a I’M A STUPID, CONNIVING BITCH—PLEASE RAPE ME neon sign glowing above their empty little narcissistic heads.” In 2011, AVFM created Register-Her, which named, shamed, and led to the doxing and harassment of women the site “deemed to have falsely accused men of rape or domestic violence,” or for “having protested men’s rights activist gatherings, or those Elam simply disagreed with,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Then, in 2012, came the Red Pill subreddit, which centered on a concept already in circulation online and within the manosphere, which was pulled from the 1999 movie The Matrix. In /r/TheRedPill, which defines itself as a site for “discussion of sexual strategy,” users have woken up to the lies of feminism and the truth of men’s oppression. Much of the Red Pill ideology, just as with PUA techniques, centers around creative interpretations of the controversial field of evolutionary psychology, including the popular bromide “alpha fux, beta bux,” which holds that women sleep with “alphas” to secure “good genes” for their offspring while ensnaring “betas” as financial providers. As the subreddit’s introduction to the Red Pill philosophy argues, “Feminism is a sexual strategy. It puts women into the best position they can find, to select mates, to determine when they want to switch mates, to locate the best dna possible, and to garner the most resources they can individually achieve.”
The subreddit gathered the various resentments of the manosphere into a grand unifying theory of feminist conspiracy.
Years later, the identity of the subreddit’s creator was revealed by The Daily Beast: New Hampshire Rep. Robert Fisher, a Republican who promptly resigned following the expose. Shortly before starting /r/TheRedPill, Fisher had launched a “seduction” blog analyzing his own dating life and “the motivations of women as we interact in the grand chess game of life.” Journalist Bonnie Bacarisse reported that it was the “plight of navigating a post-feminist sexual marketplace, one where ‘the entirety of the male experience [is] wrought with rejection and ego-destroying experiences,’ that led Fisher to establish The Red Pill. That, and a soul-crushing breakup.” Here, the lineage is clear: It was pickup artistry, infused with many straight men’s senses of sexual and romantic entitlement and disenfranchisement, that gave birth to the Red Pill on Reddit, which in 2018 was “quarantined” behind a content warning and barred from collecting ad revenue due to its dedication “to shocking or highly offensive content.” It was a half-measure that allowed Reddit to respond to Red Pill controversy without damaging the company’s reputation as a protector of free speech.
Unsurprisingly, a study this year observed that upon its initial creation, the subreddit had “high overlap” with other manosphere communities, including PUAs and MRAs. The subreddit gathered the various resentments of the manosphere into a grand unifying theory of feminist conspiracy. The Red Pill shows, as the scholar Debbie Ging puts it, “how a compelling cultural motif has succeeded in balancing emotion and ideology to generate consensus and belonging among the manosphere’s divergent elements.”
This big-tent appeal gave the Red Pill its power, but also diffused its message. Its influence reached so wide, and its utility to extremist recruitment proved so effective, as to spark an identity crisis.
In its early years, despite vicious harassment campaigns, the manosphere was often minimized as a bunch of sexist cliquish clowns, rather than apprehended as a movement that could be formidable by virtue of its superficially fractured nature. The wrongness of this perspective was made tragically clear with the 2014 shooting rampage by Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista, California. Rodger belonged to PUA Hate, a forum dedicated to decrying pickup artistry as a scam. It was frequented by self-identified “involuntary celibates,” or incels, many of whom felt burned by PUA advice books and seminars, yet chiefly directed their anger at women. Shortly before killing seven people, including himself, Rodger posted a YouTube video in which he said, “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice, a crime.” He also published a manifesto that shifted effortlessly between manosphere-inspired lingo, including talk of alphas and betas, and blatant racism (“How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me?”).
Rodger’s mass shooting brought greater mainstream awareness to incels, an online community heavily influenced by the ideas and terminology of MRAs, PUAs, and the Red Pill. It set the stage for Alek Minassian, who four years later drove his van into a crowd, killing ten people, after posting to Facebook, “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” But Rodger’s attack did more than just expose the realm of incels: it showed how the overlap of the manosphere’s various groups facilitates hateful radicalization. It was also a sign of the manosphere’s fast-approaching existential crisis. Four years later, the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled Rodger the first in a series of “alt-right killers.”
The use of the “red pill” as an analogy for waking up to conspiracy is not unique to the manosphere. As the researchers Rebecca Lewis and Alice Marwick explain, far-right circles use the term to describe people who “begin believing in a truth that is counterfactual to mainstream belief, which may include white supremacy, Holocaust denial, the danger that immigration posits for white Americans, the oppression of men by feminists, and so forth.” Online men’s rights activism, in particular, frequently “serves as an entry point for disaffected young men into white nationalism,” they write. The Southern Poverty Law Center has sketched out the many links between these worlds—for example, the neo-Nazi Christopher Cantwell formerly wrote for A Voice for Men and Return of Kings’ Matt Forney went on to write for alt-right.com.
The aftermath of the Isla Vista killings further strengthened the manosphere’s connection to the alt-right, pushing it closer to the current-day fracture. Programmer Eron Gjoni wrote a blog post falsely alleging that his ex-girlfriend, game designer Zoe Quinn, had secured positive coverage by sleeping with a journalist. The post tapped into fury around the encroachment of “social justice warriors” on a gaming culture dominated by men and set off a flood of threats and doxing targeting Quinn, as well as fellow game developer Brianna Wu and feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, under the hashtag #Gamergate. Marwick and fellow researcher Robyn Caplan write that the online harassment techniques first “pioneered” by the manosphere were then “refined by men’s rights activists and anti-feminist gamers” during Gamergate. Leaked chat transcripts show users of the anonymous message board 4chan strategizing on how to best promote Gamergate while heavily relying on the manosphere’s discrete lingo, including talk of “alphas,” “betas,” and the “red pill.”
It was through their support of Gamergate that the anti-feminist Mike Cernovich and Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos rose to prominence as leading alt-right figures. Steve Bannon, chief executive of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and former chairman of Breitbart News, recognized the harassment blitz as a political opportunity, as he explained in an interview with USA Today: “They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.”
For years, the popular Red Pill subreddit had resisted engagement with mainstream politics. Real-world activism was spurned in favor of the pursuit of personal betterment—in this case, developing the tools for “red-pilled” men to win at the “grand chess game of life,” as Fisher put it. All that changed ahead of the 2016 election. “Leaders and elite users of the forum heralded Trump’s candidacy as an opportunity to push back against feminism and get a ‘real man’ into the White House,” explain scholars Pierce Alexander Dignam and Deana A. Rohlinger. Trump’s rise was an opportunity to seize tangible political power.
On the Red Pill forum, the election was framed as “a political ‘war on men,’ specifically focusing on the threat [Hillary] Clinton posed to the Red Pill community and exalting Trump as an alpha male who would fight for men’s political fortune,” they write. As audio emerged of Trump bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy,” he became an even more potent symbol for the Red Pill community, which is perennially focused on the idea of men being ruined by false rape accusations. One commenter wrote that if the media succeeded in framing this captured audio as the presidential candidate admitting to sexual assault, “there will be paralyzing fear in all men at the mere thought of approaching a woman.”
The manosphere made it to the White House.
In the end, of course, Trump was elected president—the Red Pill candidate won. The manosphere made it to the White House. Gamergate may have brought the ‘sphere’s ideas, terminology, and even attack style to the masses, but Trump’s presidency injected its conspiratorial, dispossessed mindset into mainstream politics with everything from rants about the media to full-throated attacks on political correctness.
Trump’s own family members have acted as ambassadors of the subreddit’s rhetoric: Last year, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., decried the supposed censorship by tech companies of terms such as “SJW” and “red pill.” Earlier this year, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser, enthusiastically tweeted that she had “taken” the red pill. Wired declared that the apparent red-pilling of a Trump-supporting Kanye West was “the end of our ability to think of those ideas as fringe in the first place.” The red pill was edging toward the symbolic mainstream of its counterpart: the blue pill.
After the falling out between Anthony “Dream” Johnson and Rollo Tomassi, the dating coach Troy Francis worried during a podcast about how the politicization of the red pill could undermine the manosphere. He attempted to explain how it had come to this: “People were saying, ‘Alright, look, now we know the truth about what’s happening in the sexual marketplace, what about the truth about what’s happening in politics?’ And, of course, what they tend to be talking about is some pretty grubby right-wing type conspiracy theories.” Francis appeared to acknowledge what has already been well-noted by researchers: the manosphere acts as a recruiting ground for radicalization.
In explaining this link, however, Francis proceeded to put on his own tinfoil hat and suggest that red pill politicization might be the result of a “cyber campaign” or “some infiltration of the manosphere” by right-wing groups. “It seems very strange how, years and years ago, there was no discussion at all of things like ‘race realism’ of things like anti-Semitic tropes,” he said. “Suddenly you started seeing [it] pouring into the comments.”
Researchers studying the manosphere don’t see any evidence of outside infiltration. Earlier this year, a study found that the manosphere has seen “significant growth over the past years” with “milder” communities, including PUAs and MRAs, “giving way to more extremist ones,” including incels and MGTOW, where researchers have found “more toxic and misogynistic” language. This makes intuitive sense: There is a direct line between Mystery’s technique of pushing through women’s “last-minute resistance” to sex and Roger’s wish to punish women who wouldn’t sleep with him.
Sometimes extremism seems to have burbled beneath the surface for years: Earlier this year, Roy Den Hollander, a longtime MRA lawyer who called on men to “fight for their rights before they have no rights left,” is suspected to have murdered both the son of federal judge Esther Salas, who had presided over a case he brought challenging male-only military draft, and a rival men’s rights lawyer. (A list of at least ten other presumable targets was discovered in Den Hollander’s car.) Often, extremism finds its ultimate expression in supposed traditionalism: Roosh of Return of Kings has now renounced pickup artistry and identifies as an Orthodox Christian. As the religion journalist Tara Isabella Burton pointed out last year in the Washington Post, this is “representative of a broader trend within far-right Internet-based groups: Some of their members come to embrace a highly conservative, traditionalist version of Christianity as a bulwark against what they see as the decadent, liberal modern world.” That brings us right back to the dullard-decadent divide.
The current state of things appears less a case of infiltration than a natural unfolding. As a reaction to feminism, the manosphere has always been political. In a sense, it’s always been religious, too. Burton argues that the manosphere, like the alt-right, is a “quasi-religion” in that it gains followers by tapping “into young men’s existential hunger for the kind of things that also underpin religious observance: a narrative of meaningfulness in the world, a sense of purpose within that narrative, a community to share that narrative with, and rituals to both demonstrate and intensify commitment to that narrative.” From the start, the manosphere’s narrative was beset with a sense of entitlement and dispossession, hatred and bigotry, so it’s unsurprising that the community has now, in some circles, linked arms with the likes of Stefan Molyneux, who promotes “race realism,” eugenics, and white supremacy, and who once said of the Holocaust, “the Germans were in danger of being taken over by what they perceived as Jewish-led Communism.”
Johnson himself recently spoke out against Black Lives Matter, calling it “feminism for black people,” and trumpeted his transphobia. Where once it was chiefly women’s liberation that was to blame in the manosphere, now it’s globalization, immigration, affirmative action, political correctness—the list goes on. On this front, the division of “decadents” and “dullards,” red pill and TradCon, can seem awfully superficial—for example, Tomassi himself has tweeted transphobic remarks. He was also previously involved with the 21 Convention alongside Jack Donovan, who New York Magazine called a “skinhead icon and right-wing extremist.” It’s no accident that these men end up in the same rooms. Meanwhile, incel and MGTOW communities are growing in number.
It’s one of the great tragedies of the manosphere: young men seek it out looking for meaning and community, but instead of finding a realm of nurturance and expansion, they are ensnared by philosophies of restrictive, aggrieved masculinity. The current battle for “president” of the manosphere is being waged between two men, and two groups, who are different by only degree. Perhaps more significant than who “wins” is the fact of newly established group identities which seem likely to endure, regardless. In the manosphere, another division is just another stepping stone toward extremism.