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Green line theory and the rise of misogynistic pseudoscience

On the internet, members of manosphere communities often use evolutionary psychology and genetic determinism to justify their misogyny

If you’ve been on Twitter recently, it’s possible you’ve heard of ‘green line theory’. It’s a simple idea, mainly purported by a Twitter user known as Rivelino, which suggests that ‘real’ men don’t lean in towards their female partners. Apparently, you can sort the alphas from the betas by taking photos of heterosexual couples and drawing green lines down their middles: so, Pete Davidson leaning in to give Kim a cuddle is a sign of his weakness; Donald Trump, meanwhile, is a prime example of a strong man who stands straight and lets women lean into him.

Obviously, it’s bullshit. According to Vincent Denault, an expert in nonverbal communication, green line theory is a “nonsensical” idea. “Similar claims are widely disseminated by ‘body language experts’, associating specific facial and body positions to specific meanings, all with a single photo,” he explains. “These claims go against decades of scientific research. Anyone remotely familiar with nonverbal behaviour research would recognise the nonsense.”

Any rational person knows this, and it’s been suggested that Rivelino is a committed troll anyway. Instead, it’s more worthwhile to examine why this mishmash of pop psychology and pseudoscience keeps popping up in the manosphere. Take the belief that men, like animals, can be divided into alphas and betas (they can’t), with most incels self-identifying as ‘betas’ who are doomed to a life of being overlooked by women. Or the insistence that all women are naturally hypergamous and hardwired to choose a strong and successful mate to protect their offspring, while men are supposedly inclined to have sex with as many people as possible to spread their genes (this also isn’t true). Or the way self-professed alphas disparagingly call liberal (and usually vegan) men “soy boys”, and argue that soy products reduce men’s testosterone levels (again, they don’t), all while advocating for the consumption of raw, red meat instead.

Simon Copland is a PhD candidate in sociology at the Australian National University, whose research focuses on manosphere communities. He explains that men in these communities often use scientific language – usually invoking evolutionary psychology and genetic determinism – to lend “a sense of legitimacy” to their ideas and justify their misogyny. “Through this pseudoscience, men formulate a belief that there are lots of inherent differences between men and women – differences that, coincidentally, position them as superior to women,” he says. “Science gives a ‘rational’ basis to their ideology, making them feel as though it is impossible to argue against. This gives them a real sense of legitimacy, which I think is a very powerful feeling.”

The idea that women are biologically ‘lesser’ than men has been around for centuries. Hippocrates was one of the first writers to argue this, when in the 5th century BC, he argued that women were more prone to ‘hysteria’ due to the womb ‘wandering’ around the body; Darwin once wrote that “man has ultimately become superior to woman”; Freud suggested in the early 20th century that women’s behaviour could be explained by their experience of ‘penis envy’.

You’d hope that we would have left these sexist, outdated ideas in the past, but now we’re in the midst of what feminist academic Deborah Cameron has termed “the new biologism”, which describes a shift away from socio-cultural explanations for human behaviour and towards a more totalising, biological approach. This way of thinking generally positions men as natural leaders with high sex drives, and women as more submissive and with lower sex drives. According to Cameron, this new iteration of sexist pseudoscience and pop psychology began to gain traction in the 1990s following the publication of John Gray’s hugely popular self-help book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, which argued that most relationship issues arise from immutable psychological differences between the sexes.

It’s often impossible to find any evidence which backs up these kinds of ideas. If anything, the theory that men and women are fundamentally psychologically different has been disproved – a study by Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis involving over 13,000 individuals found that there was not a taxonomic difference between men and women on the vast majority of personality traits and preferences. But, Copland says, it’s unproductive to just lambast the people who buy into these theories – instead, it’s more worthwhile to question how we got to this stage. “It is easy to mock these ideas, and I think the green line theory is one of the stupider ones,” Copland says. “However, they also arrive from very real feelings a lot of men have about their changing position in this world.”

Dr Kaitlyn Regehr is associate professor of digital humanities at UCL with expertise in online misogyny, and she reiterates Copland’s sentiments. She explains that using scientific language is primarily a way for disenfranchised young men to “articulate a fear of loss of control” in our rapidly-changing world. “The key is not to focus on topics like the green line theory or other theories like it. These are just symptoms of a much bigger phenomenon,” she says.

“Many men do really feel that their lives are pretty shit, and they are looking for people to blame for this,” Copland continues. “We’ve seen real changes in our society in the past decades, and I do believe a lot of men are feeling disenfranchised and alienated. A lot of people in the world are feeling this way in general.” It’s true: research shows that there are rising numbers of single and lonely straight men.

“Ultimately, what [manosphere] culture – and subsequently the pseudoscience that operates within it – does is offer a way for young men to articulate a fear of loss of control” – Dr Kaitlyn Regehr

“Then what has happened is that a lot of influencers such as Andrew Tate, Jordan Peterson and other members of the manosphere have created a really convenient narrative that blames feminism and women for this disenfranchisement and alienation,” Copland adds. While any radical movement which seeks to dramatically change the status quo will naturally face intense backlash, Copland stresses the belief held by red- and black-pilled men that feminism is somehow ‘disrupting the natural order’ is wrong. “Red pill ideology is a simple story that creates a really easy-to-target enemy, and the manosphere gives men a community where they can feel empowered again. The story is wrong,” he says. “But it is convincing, at least to some men.”

It’s easy to see why alienated men are attracted to such totalising, simple conclusions, when the real reasons for their feelings are myriad and complex – the idea of ‘masculinity’ evolving, women raising their standards, social media’s role in pushing extreme content onto its users, economic and social disenfranchisement. It’s so much simpler to think of the ‘issue’ as something immutable. But obviously, it isn’t – so where do we go from here? “We should take their pain seriously,” Copland says. “And we should be working with these men to provide alternative stories about why their lives have changed in the way they have.”