On Wednesday, May 23rd 2018, a 25-year old man allegedly killed ten people and injured sixteen others by driving a van down a crowded sidewalk in Toronto, Canada. Following his arrest, a post purportedly written by the accused on his own Facebook profile made references to the “Incel Revolution” as well as to another individual who, in May 2014, killed six people and injured ten others in Isla Vista, California, during a shooting attack he described as “retribution” for his consistent failure to lose his virginity.
In the time that has passed since then, a lot of column inches have been dedicated to unpacking the Incel movement that the Toronto attacker pledged allegiance to, and to whom the latter attacker is commonly heralded as a hero and icon.
I’m sure anyone reading this will be fairly familiar with what the Incel movement is by now, but if not, here’s a quick recap. Incel is an abbreviation of “Involuntary Celibate”, a term which describes adult men (and some women) who have not ever had or are currently not having sex, not by choice. In other words; ‘I can’t get laid, but not for lack of trying.’
At this level, the Incel movement arguably has potential to be quite positive; a space for lonely or unlucky-in-love individuals to come together and discuss their problems, lift each other up and find ways out of their situation, or at least create new frameworks for their lives that don’t revolve around an arena in which they feel they have failed. Sadly, however, at the core of many incels’ mindsets is an insidious entitlement; an angry and violent belief that they are being deliberately cast out, isolated and maligned by society, and denied something to which they are entitled.
The mindset’s pernicious nature can be seen in the long list of slang terms and phrases the Incel community has created to articulate their views; attractive men and women who have regular sex are referred to as “Chads & Stacys”; a woman who has had multiple sexual partners is referred to as a “Roastie”, in reference to a belief that a woman’s labia become gradually disfigured with each sexual encounter until they resemble a roast beef sandwich.
Much of the movement’s terminology crosses over with alt-right and neo-fascist movements, most notably “redpill”, used to describe individuals who have “awakened” to the incel plight, as well as acts that Incels believe will awaken others, and “blackpill”, Incels who have absorbed the ideology to the point of nihilism, believing there is nothing that will help or save them, and that the only remaining option is to inflict their rage upon the world. In recent months, the Incel movement has become increasingly supportive of acid attacks as a means of inflicting their pain upon innocent people, and in their own vernacular, the two attackers described in the opening of this piece fall right into the “blackpill” category.
At its most recognisable, Incel culture is a mindset that manifests in bitter platitudes about the “friendzone”, and how women always reject the good guys in their lives (Incels) and instead choose to date unpleasant men who will mistreat and abuse them (everyone else).
But at its most extreme, you see forum posts by Incels who believe they are victims of a planned genocide against unattractive, short or “genetically inferior” men, covertly enacted by women through their dating choices, swipe-lefts and spurned advances. The consequence of the propagation of this view is a growing belief, promoted most enthusiastically by blackpillers, that urgent action is needed to “fight back” against society. During one afternoon of browsing I came across posts proposing a number of violent and terroristic acts, such as visiting a music festival with a fire extinguisher filled with acid and spraying it over the crowd, leaving attendees permanently scarred and disfigured so that they might understand the pain that Incels believe they experience.
I’ve been listening to a lot of early-2000s pop punk at the moment, and it caused me to start thinking more about what different media tells us about the politics of the time in which it was produced. If we look at the character of mainstream punk rock in the early years of the millennium, and contrast it with the popular mainstream music today, it brings to fore an interesting area for discussion.
Before moving forward, it’s important to clarify something regarding the interplay of art and politics. When discussing art and politics, it can often feel like a bit of a “chicken and egg” situation. Some people believe that art creates the politics of its time, and others believe that politics informs the art that people create.
While there is certainly truth to both positions, I personally lean more heavily toward the latter. Art, particularly mainstream art, is largely influenced by the political climate in which it was created. Consider how the periods during and immediately after the Vietnam and Iraq Wars were filled with Hollywood blockbusters about the horrors of war such as Apocalypse Now and The Hurt Locker, or how many of the most successful superhero movies of the Obama presidency revolved around characters like Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne, ultra-rich capitalists with hearts of gold who would swoop in and save us from ourselves using the power of hope.
Returning to the early 2000s, it makes me think about a particular vein of pop punk that was bouncing around on digital TV channels and radio stations. Specifically, I’m thinking of songs like Fat Lip by Sum 41, Girl All the Bad Guys Want by Bowling for Soup, Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus, Stacy’s Mom by Fountains of Wayne, dozens of songs by Blink-182 and, pushing the clock back a little further, Green Day’s 1997 single Nice Guys Finish Last.
During this era, one of pop punk’s most popular tropes was the story about the hapless-but-well-intentioned guy who has no luck with the ladies. For all the powerchords and ¾ length Berny jeans, there’s a lot of quite toxic male entitlement nestled within the lyrics; in Girl All the Bad Guys Want, Jared Rettick laments how ‘She’ll never know I’ll be the best she’ll never have […] All I wanted was to see her naked!'; likewise, there’s something very friendzone-y about the “I never knew you were such a funny guy” line in Nice Guys Finish Last.
However, there was also, arguably, a level of self-awareness to many of these songs that put some of those desperate and melodramatic sentiments into perspective. Fat Lip might be a song about struggling to make friends and fit in with the “in-crowd” at school, but for every line about non-conformity, there’s a playful acknowledgement that at least some of the problem might be that Derryck Whibley is a bit of a dick. As for Blink-182, virtually their entire oeuvre is defined by stories about the hapless guy with a dozen crushes who, frankly, just needs to fucking grow up.
Even Fountains of Wayne’s hit single Stacy’s Mom, a song in which a teenage boy confesses his undying love for the mother of a girl in his neighborhood, can be interpreted as displaying the particular adolescent impotence of a young man trying to get to grips with his emotions without sacrificing his pride – consider the hook of, ‘Stacy, can’t you see, you’re just not the girl for me’, even though it’s never suggested that either Stacy, nor her mother, have any interest in the singer whatsoever. I also feel like there’s something we could say about how the titular character has the same name that Incels use to talk derogatively about attractive women (Stacy) but that’s probably coincidental, so if there’s any Buzzfeed writers reading, hold onto your “Did Fountains of Wayne Inspire the Incel Movement?” headlines until I can do some more research.
It’s a tact that, in some ways, allowed these bands to work two audiences at once. For older listeners, these songs sound almost like parody songs – catchy and well-written enough that they’re not unpleasant to listen to, with enough novelty that you’d buy the single, or at least not switch stations if it came on the radio. Meanwhile, the songs still had a vague and surface-level sentimentality that spoke to the half-formed emotions of their younger audience in a language they could understand; not so much about the hardships of long-term relationships, but the hormone-fueled agony of getting your crush to sleep with you, kiss you or, hell, just look in your general direction.
That paradigm continues into many of the music videos that accompanied the songs. The central character of the video for Girls All the Bad Guys Want has all the visual qualities of the archetypal bad boy, but throughout the video he can be seen poring lovingly over pictures of his terrier, strumming emotively on an acoustic guitar, and crying on the toilet with his trousers around his ankles.
Or take, for example, the chorus for Good Charlotte’s Girls & Boys – ‘Girls don’t like boys, girls like cars and money’ – set to a video in which the neighbourhood hoodlums are played by a bunch of pensioners, features Benji Madden electro-dancing in an adidas tracksuit with a posse of septuagenarian backup dancers, and culminates with a shot of a skunk-bleached hair-clad boy getting handsy with two older ladies. Certainly, the problematic, hyper-masculine attitudes about the opposite sex, their dating preferences and what they’re “really looking for” is as present as it has ever been in mainstream culture, but it’s packaged in a way that encourages you not to place too much currency in it. After all, it’s worth remembering that the “Bad Guy” who always gets the girl in Bowling for Soup’s single is a guy who listens to rap metal, has a season ticket for the racetrack, and has a fucking mullet. Those soppy, melodramatic lyrics were so often couched in subtle lyrics that made clear that the issue was probably either a) in the singer’s head, or b) a consequence of them actually being a pretty shitty person.
And this is before you even get to the fact that so many of the guys in these bands were, at least visually, total man-children. It’s hard not to look back at a time when grown men were wearing skinny jeans with studded belts, bleached and dyed hair, checkerboard Vans slip-ons and lip rings, whilst singing about how the girl at school doesn’t notice them, without seeing a culture that was decidedly puerile – prone, nevertheless, to the same dumb, entitled attitudes as any other male-dominated subculture, but puerile, all the same.
If we were to think about the particular political climate America was living in during many of those years, one can understand how a spirit like this might have been borne out. The election of George W. Bush in the year 2000 and America’s subsequent declaration of the “War on Terror” – spearheaded by the invasion of not one, but two countries – dealt a pretty heavy blow to liberal sentiments stateside and elsewhere, but fears about the destructive intentions of Republican warhawks like Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Bush himself were coupled with a tacit understanding that the second Bush was, ultimately, a fool.
People were justifiably anxious about how much damage a man like that could do to the White House, but Bush’s election equally laid bare many of the myths of the office of the US President. For the most part, the person in the Oval Office is little more than a glorified spokesperson for a political apparatus that operates as intended, regardless of which party is in power.
So perhaps it’s understandable, during a period where the country was being ruled by the archetypal “American Idiot”, that America might have embraced some elements of the absurd bluster of its own bombastic identity. National identities, particularly in militaristic contexts, are often heavily intertwined with an incredibly caustic, patriarchal form of chauvinism – consider the phrase “defending the motherland”, for example, or when soliders are referred to as “our brave boys”. Is it possible that the irreverent, hapless narratives that were propagated on MTV and Kerrang! were, to some extent, a repackaging of a story playing out at the same time on the global stage – one of an entitled, pompous, self-absorbed individual blustering their way about, wondering why they can’t get a grip on the people around them, when instead they should be examining their own behaviour?
With this in mind, fast-forward to the year 2018, where the last few hooks holding up the curtain of the façade of American politics have almost entirely fallen down. The man in the Oval Office is a dim-witted, self-absorbed, reactionary imbecile who will probably end up pushing the big red button because they ran out of Filets-o-Fish at the McDonalds closest to Pennsylvania Avenue. We are almost certainly about to be flung into one or two more deadly conflicts in the Middle East before coming even close to resolving the issues from the last two. Neo-fascist and white nationalist movements are on the rise in the US as well as in countries like Hungary, Poland and the Philippines. Oh, and the planet is absolutely fucked and our leaders, far from doing more to try and save us from eventual environmental genocide, are actually trying to roll most of those regulations back.
And then you take a look at a lot of the music dominating the airwaves right now, and it certainly gives you pause for thought. Over the past few years, many of the most popular artists to emerge create music characterized by a deeply cynical, pessimistic view of the world around them. Again, it’s important to clarify that I am not suggesting these artists are influencing society or politics negatively with their music, rather that their music might reflect broader sentiments in society right now.
Consider, for example, Lil Peep, Lil Uzi Vert and 21 Savage. 21 Savage has built a considerable name for himself with his sedated, downtempo songs full of dark subject matter and unsettling lyrics. Lil Uzi Vert’s most famous single has a chorus that says, “Push me to the edge/all my friends are dead”. As for the sadly-deceased Lil Peep, his output (as well as his ultimately fatal lifestyle) was characterized by a persona that accepted the world was terrible, resigned itself to change and instead chose to close off from the world and self-medicate with sedatives.
Likewise, over the past few years we’ve seen Hollywood throwing itself feet-first into nostalgia with remake after remake of classic films from the past 30 years. Pre- and post-apocalyptic ‘80s blockbusters including Mad Max, Escape from New York and Predator have been subject to reboots (at least prospectively), and multiple critics have pointed out a number of parallels between Thanos, the villain of Marvel’s recently-released Avengers: Infinity War movement and a certain 45th President of the United States.
On the one hand, it’s possible that many of these ‘80s blockbusters are being rebooted because they’re good films. However, there’s also the fact that, sat between a number of bubbling-over conflicts with nations including Iran, Palestine, the DPRK, Syria, Libya and numerous other nations, that the existential dread propagated by films created in the shadow of the Cold War have the perfect flavour profile for the current precarious state we find ourselves in today.
Returning to the topic with which I started this piece, all of this is simply to say, judging from the worldview reflected in popular mainstream media right now, that we appear to be living in a distinctly nihilistic time right now. If we consider that fact – not the nihilistic media, but the deeply nihilistic political landscape that informs it – then we might get closer to understanding the toxic attitudes taking up increasing space in the discourse right now and, in turn, get one step closer to defeating them.
The so-called Alt-Right is scary. Neo-fascist movements are scary. The Incel movement is scary. Redpillers and blackpillers are scary. But if we focus too heavily on individual flashpoints of toxic, dangerous masculine entitlement – something that unquestionably informs all of these movements in their own ways – then I fear we’re going to be playing a game of political whack-a-mole for years to come. This isn’t a question of coddling despicable mindsets, but one of making sure that as we condemn, we also convene and construct.
Each of the aforementioned movements is disgusting, dangerous and right to be condemned. But if we are ever going to defeat them once and for all, our focus needs to be on working toward a unifying worldview that replaces the nihilism and renunciation of society underpinning each of these movements.
Defeating the enemy is objective number one. But the problem with nihilists is that when you’ve embraced your own destruction, nothing matters. The only way is down. The nihilists in our society will continue trying to destroy the world, and we will continue to condemn and combat them. But without uniting behind an overarching social, cultural and political ideology that starves them of their toxic oxygen once and for all, I fear we risk one day waking up on the surface of the moon. So it goes. Pootee-tweet.