The Deadly Incel Movement’s Absurd Pop Culture Roots
The idea of a harassment campaign crossed over into the mainstream when the term “incels” did, in 2014. It was only a few months after Rodger’s spree that women on Twitter started experiencing mobs of enraged men demanding “ethics in gaming journalism,” the rallying cry of Gamergate.
The campaign initially stuck to standard anti-feminist grievances. The worst threats centered on feminist-identified media figures like Anita Sarkeesian, who had been intensely harassed for years. Gamergate caught the media’s attention by targeting the advertisers of outlets, like Gawker Media’s Kotaku, it deemed unfriendly. The subsequent scrutiny familiarized the public with threats like doxxing or SWATing (calling an armed SWAT team to invade the target’s house by using a fake bomb threat) that feminists had long experienced.
Gamergate also signaled an ideological shift in the manosphere, personified through its then-rising star Milo Yiannopolous. Though he initially presented his grievances in the language red-pillers were familiar with — one of Yiannopolous’ more famous posts was entitled “Feminism Is Cancer” — he maintained ongoing coordination with neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, ushering his readers from misogyny into alignment with far-right militancy. Watching how Yiannopolous built a platform for genocidal ideologies under the veil of campy “outrageousness,” distracting critics with an ever more ridiculous series of outfits and haircuts — it was clear that he’d learned the right lessons from Mystery.
The alliance between masculinists and white supremacists was a natural one, suggests Charlottesville-based activist Emily Gorcenski. She’s recently been using her social media accounts to draw attention to leaked Discord chats between members of the alt-right, where, she says, individuals use incel lingo about “Chads” and “Stacys.” Gorcenski says both groups have a tendency to transmute their own anxieties into a “a complex scaffold of a belief system.”
“They start from [white supremacy], and then they have to answer questions,” Gorcenski says, “like, are Jewish people white? Or what if someone is 2 percent white? It’s all junk statistics and junk science, but they have this whole framework built up. Incels have that about women.”
The ideological link between the misogynist rage of Gamergate and today’s alt-right isn’t subtle. Plenty of contemporary alt-right figures, like Mike Cernovich and Yiannopolous, initially made their names within Gamergate. Video game developer Zoe Quinn, the movement’s first and primary target, had been talking about the fascism within the movement since the beginning. As early as October 2014, Quinn Tweeted that she was “fightin more nazis than some issues of captain america these days for fuck’s sake.” In 2017, as Trump was about to be inaugurated on the back of substantial alt-right support, Quinn wrote that “[it] just dawned on me that I had a breakup go so badly he got mad and helped usher in a new era of American fascism over it.”
But the manosphere’s turn to fascism was not necessarily a case of embracing a new ideology so much as it was unearthing the subtext that had been there all along.
“There is, and always has been, a racialized dimension to all of this,” says digital sociologist Katherine Cross, whose work on Gamergate made her the target of a campaign to cancel her 2015 SXSW panel on harassment. “Anti-feminism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, it all hangs together. Scratch one and find the other.”
Cross points to one of the most famous passages of Elliott Rodger’s manifesto: “How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me?” he wrote. “I am beautiful, and I am half white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more.”
I wondered if any of this would have played out differently in 2018; whether any of those male journalists or network executives were ashamed of their involvement in mainstreaming the manosphere, or if they felt responsible for the rise of Rodger and Minassian. Strauss, at least, has renounced the PUAs and written a memoir about surviving “sex addiction.” I reached out to several men who had covered these communities in the late ’00s — including Strauss, and even Mystery himself — but none were willing to talk. One let me send him a few questions; when I mentioned the incels, he abruptly told me he would “not be able to participate.”
Nor is the world more inclined to listen to women. When I spoke to writer Alana Massey, who was targeted by Roissy, an influential PUA blogger, following a 2015 article she published about Tinder, the conversation turned — as it often does, among women in my line of work — to which harassers we had in common. She told me that she’d been asked in late 2017 to comment on the recurring harassment allegations surrounding the nominally “leftist” podcast Chapo Trap House.
The podcast’s hosts, to say nothing of their rabid online fanbase, perceived themselves as enemies of the far-right manosphere. Nevertheless, their tactics — and targets — were often disturbingly similar. I’d been a regular punching bag for Chapo throughout 2016 and early 2017, culminating in a graphic death threat being sent to me by a man who was seemingly on friendly terms with Chapo host Felix Biederman. Massey caught Chapo’s attention in November 2016, when she referred to it as a “C+ podcast” in a subtweet. She forwarded me the email she’d sent to the reporter about the resulting deluge; the links and screencaps include men describing Massey as a “geriatric bipolar stripper” and posting her photo and calling it a “meth before and after pic.” Yet, when the reporter ran her quotes back by her, she believed that he planned to blow off the allegations.
“He didn’t quote a single thing that I was sent,” Massey said, “and he had like three sentences about ‘these irksome something-or-others.’ I was like, no, just take it out.”
In 2011, the thought of terrorism organized by a group of sexist men online was laughable.
In the weeks after the Minassian attack, the media published yet another wave of explainers about “incels,” economists mused about “redistributing sex,” and Times columnist Ross Douthat suggested that dateless men might be availed the use of sex workers or robots. (That he considered the two interchangeable is its own issue.) Like the PUAs, the incels were taken at face value, with their formerly unthinkable ideas — “redistributed sex,” despite the euphemism, is a call for legalized sex slavery — absorbed and broadcast uncritically by the mainstream. Between the first draft of this article and the second, a boy in Santa Fe, Texas, went on a shooting spree, after a girl he’d been harassing for months refused to date him and publicly told him to leave her alone.
Once again, women were stuck yelling warnings to a crowd that neither heard nor cared. The cycle that has dominated coverage of the manosphere for 10 years — horror and forgetfulness, mass outrage and instant erasure — continues to this day.
A combined 20 people have died in the Sodini, Rodger, and Minassian attacks. None of it was hard to see coming. The radical misogynist ideology behind the incel attacks was not remotely obscure. “Is it unpredictable that someone who buys into this kind of thinking — about how women owe men sex, about how women are worthless except for their ability to provide sex, about how force and cruelty can get you sex because women are ‘depraved’…actually just killed people?” I wrote in a 2009 blog post responding to the Sodini shooting. “No. No, it’s not.”
This is to say nothing of the role that toxic masculinity plays in mass violence generally — the history of domestic violence that is common among mass shooters, or the countless shootings that begin as crimes of domestic violence. If we’ve failed to take incels’ violence seriously, that is in part because we’ve failed to recognize this broader connection between misogyny and mass killing.
In Rebecca Solnit’s 2014 essay “Cassandra Among the Creeps,” she points out that the mythic Greek prophet Cassandra — who was always right and never believed — met her fate for reasons that would be applauded on any incel board. “[The] disbelief with which her prophecies were met was the result of a curse placed on her by Apollo when she refused to have sex with the god,” Solnit writes. “The idea that loss of credibility is tied to asserting rights over your own body was there all along.”
Reporting this story, multiple women told me they’d told some man the truth, about violence they’d suffered or violence they’d heard men planning, only to be dismissed because they didn’t fit into the story those men had decided to tell. Harassment is downgraded to merely irksome; a story about a brewing terrorist movement is killed because it’s not a fluffy piece about nerds trying to get laid. Misogyny, to quote Mystery, “doesn’t fit into” this reality.
Men own the narrative. Unless that changes, nothing will change. The #MeToo movement has made it a bit trendier to give women an empathetic hearing, but gains like these are easily erased. Even still, women often have to come out in massive numbers to bring down even one predator. If a man has to be accused of more than 50 sexual assaults before we see him as a threat, we are still operating under Cassandra rules.
In addition to the footage of the PUA seminar, LA Fitness shooter George Sodini left behind a YouTube channel and a blog, in which he obsessively fixated on his failure to find a girlfriend. Instead of distancing themselves from Sodini after the 2009 shooting, the manosphere embraced him as the beginning of something new. “Celibacy is walking death and anything is justified in avoiding that miserable fate,” Roissy wrote, in evident commiseration. He predicted that “we are going to see a growing eunuchracy of involuntarily celibate betas and the marginalized men in their ranks decide that exiting in a blaze of hot lead beats living in loveless obscurity.”
I’d like to say it was a pathetic fantasy. But, well, here we are.