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If you’re scrolling through comedy on TikTok right now, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported back to the 1970s. You will see men making jokes about menstrual cycles. Perhaps some snarky belittling of women’s hobbies. Maybe one or two domestic violence gags. This, though, isn’t the stand-up comedy of another era. This is merely a glimpse into the material of 2023’s young male internet comics – where mocking, dismissing and belittling women is standard. And the leader of the pack is Matt Rife.
The 28-year-old standup comedian from Ohio made a name for himself on social media as a hot, inclusive comic with cheekbones. His jokes, mostly shared via short clips across Instagram and TikTok, have traditionally been aimed at a female audience, full of self-deprecating cracks at his own good looks, or making fun of other people’s bad boyfriends. Now, though, people will be hearing his name for the first time in an entirely different context.
In his new Netflix special, Natural Selection, Rife begins with an anecdote about going to a restaurant in Baltimore where “the hostess who seats you had a black eye”. He continues: “A full black eye. It wasn’t like, ‘What happened?’ It was pretty obvious what happened. But we couldn’t get over, like, this is the face of the company? This is who you have greeting people? And my boy, who I was with, was like, ‘Yeah, I feel bad for her, man, I feel like they should put her in the kitchen or something where nobody has to see her face.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, but I feel like if she could cook, she wouldn’t have that black eye’.”
Rife’s crowd might have laughed, but the internet did not. “The girls and gays were Matt Rife’s biggest demographic and he used his Netflix special to pander to toxic masculinity,” one person commented on Twitter/X. “Not Matt Rife building his platform on catering to his female audience and then opening his Netflix special with a domestic violence joke,” another added.
To make matters worse, Rife responded to the criticism with an Instagram story aimed at those “offended by a joke I told”: “Tap to solve your issue,” read a URL link, which directed his followers to a website selling helmets for people with special needs.
Rife’s comments might seem shocking, but to anyone who’s au fait with a particular corner of the internet – one that champions quick, flash-in-the-pan content from male comedians – it’s merely par for the course. There were other moments of misogyny in his set, too. Such as the segment where he delivered on women interested in the spiritual power of crystals. “Fellas, we gotta put our foot down,” he began. “This crystal s*** is getting out of control. Ladies, put the f***ing pebbles down, okay?”
He later laments that these women “won’t shut up about” their crystals, before impersonating said women in a tone of voice that can only be described as psychotically high. When you consider that Rife, whose audience is predominantly female, recently told Variety that this special was “way more for guys”, you have to wonder about his intentions. Is he aiming to popularise himself among men through brazen misogyny? To crack jokes that belittle women and make them look stupid? To reduce them to sexual objects designed for male consumption? Because, as it happens, there are a lot of other men online doing just that – and gaining millions of views in the process.
Search “brunch women” on TikTok and you’ll immediately find countless videos of men impersonating groups of women at bottomless brunches. Their voices are high, they’re drinking rosé, and often satirising a particular accent; they’re usually either very posh, or from Essex. Cringeworthy poses are made towards the camera, and they love to bitch about one another. Because all women want to do is gossip, get drunk and take embarrassing selfies, apparently. Sometimes they wear wigs and dance on tables. Other times they flirt with waiters and get increasingly drunk and delirious.
None of that, of course, is on a par with making a gag about domestic violence. But it’s all part of the same culture, isn’t it? One that undermines and devalues women, reducing them to memeable tropes with vapid pastimes and meaningless lives, one whiny, insufferable voice at a time.
We see it a lot elsewhere, too. The popular British comedian Josh Berry has a series where he regularly impersonates ridiculously posh women, donning scruffy wigs and furiously puffing away on vapes while pontificating about the “beguiling” culture in Brixton. One of his most-viewed videos sees him impersonating a woman working in PR who has a raging cocaine habit, who says: “I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing, but I have taken enough coke to think that no one else has noticed.”
Matt Rife may not have cracked jokes about rape, or making women’s eyes water through oral sex, but that doesn’t make him exempt from the wider problem at hand
Berry does regularly post videos mocking men, but they don’t seem to carry quite the same tenor as the ones where he mocks women. His male characters have a little more variety to them: gamblers, LinkedIn “thought leaders”, middle-aged, lycra-clad road warriors. There’s more of a mix; the humour has depth. All of his women are simply morons. That’s it. That’s the joke.
Many other online comedians do the same thing. In one popular TikTok clip, American comic Bill Burr is seen poking fun at women who are “always bitching” about their lives. “What happened to you today, sweetheart?” he asks. “Did they not chill your rosé?”
Then there are the litany of viral clips poking fun at “drunk girls” (note: it’s always “girls” and never “women”). One sees comedian Chris D’Elia – who has denied multiple allegations of sexual harassment – talk incoherently at the crowd and state that “nothing matters to a drunk girl at all”. The audio has since been reused multiple times by other male comedians to riff off the idea that… erm… drunk women are… idiots? I think?
This specific breed of male comedian sexism had a further viral moment earlier this year, when musician Matty Healy of The 1975 and comedian Adam Friedland made a number of derogatory remarks about women on Friedland’s namesake podcast. At one point, Healy told Friedland that he would “f***” Friedland’s sister because “she’s hot”. They later joked about women’s periods and suggested that the moon controls menstrual cycles. “It’s so funny that woman get f***ed up by the moon,” Friedland said, adding: “Meanwhile we went there – men!” Healy laughed along with the comments and added: “F*** yeah, f***ing too right!” They also made a series of racist remarks about the rapper Ice Spice – Healy has since apologised.
Individually, some of these videos can be funny. And I’m sure I’d laugh at a few of them if I heard the jokes live, particularly if they reminded me of my own behaviour. But it’s hard not to smell the lingering scent of misogyny once you glimpse the sheer volume of these videos. You also can’t help but wonder how helpful all of this is, particularly when you consider it within the wider context of how men talk about women online – think men’s influencer Andrew Tate – and the litany of male comedians who’ve made jokes about sexual violence, among them Michael Che, Daniel Tosh, and Jim Jefferies.
Then there’s Russell Brand, who, among a lot of other misogynist material, famously joked on stage about women giving him oral sex, saying: “I like them blow jobs, right, where it goes in their neck a little bit... Them blowjobs where mascara runs a little bit”. The comedian has since been accused of multiple counts of sexual assault, which he has denied.
So, where does that leave Rife? He may not have cracked jokes about rape, or making women’s eyes water through oral sex, but that doesn’t make him exempt from the wider problem at hand. Perhaps the point of all this is to recognise how one joke about “crystal girls” leads to another about “drunk girls”, then another about their ethnicity, then their body, and so on.
It’s all part of the same culture of misogyny. And it’s within this framework that we need to think carefully about the way male comedians are talking about women. Because you can only poke fun at a certain type of behaviour so often before normalising the poking. Then, before you know it, you’ve become a part of the problem you were trying to satirise.