Don’t dismiss incels

The “incel” subjects of TFW No GF are not actually especially unattractive or unintelligent—what they lack above all is charm and an ability to motivate themselves”

Louise Perry

If nothing else, the controversial new documentary TFW No GF does a beautiful job of representing sadness. In an opening scene, one of the subjects of the film speaks in a voiceover about the pattern of his endlessly lonely days. An ugly cartoon figure known online as “Wojak” acts out the life of this unhappy young man, who does nothing but eat, sleep, cry, masturbate, and post angry messages on the infamous online forum 4chan. Who would envy such a person?

“TFW No GF” is internet slang for “that feeling when you have no girlfriend”—a feeling that the five subjects of the documentary know only too well. Though they are never actually referred to as “incels”, they are all involved in the incel subculture, an online community focused around the experience of being “involuntarily celibate”, typically defined as not having had sex for six months or more. Many self-defined incels have been celibate for much longer than that, usually as a result of some combination of physical unattractiveness and social anxiety. They are mostly—but not exclusively—white and male. They are also mostly young. The documentary TFW No GF offers an unusually sympathetic and intimate insight into the lives of five young, white, male incels, and as a result it has been flamed.

The film critic Eric Langberg described the film as “one of the most irresponsible docs I’ve ever seen” and Variety accused it of “giving five incendiary attention seekers exactly what they want”. A more positive review in Jacobin was denounced by the American feminist Jill Filipovic, who tweeted that “[t]here is apparently no bottom to making excuses for violent, racist, misogynist men who fantasise about killing women, and sometimes follow through”. These critics of TFW No GF condemn as dangerous the decision to foreground the voices of the film’s subjects, exclude commentary from family members or cultural commentators, and underemphasise the violent acts committed by some incels.

Incel subculture became the subject of media attention in 2014, when 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 14 before committing suicide in Isla Vista, California. Rodger claimed that the act was part of a “war on women”, and that he was motivated by his inability to attract a sexual partner. In 2015, another young man, Christopher Harper-Mercer, killed nine people, apparently in imitation of Rodger, and in 2018, Alek Minassian killed ten, writing on Facebook before his attack: “the incel rebellion has already begun!”

As a consequence of these atrocities, incels have been represented as dangerous extremists, and in some cases that characterisation is accurate. There is plenty of misogyny within incel subculture: since these men are brought together by their inability to attract a sexual partner, resentment towards women is not infrequently whipped up into outright hatred. Critics of TFW No GF have suggested that this theme is not explored nearly enough, quite fairly pointing out that, although the director, Alex Lee Moyer, is a woman, the film itself doesn’t feature any women, except for a few pornographic shots of female bodies that briefly pass across the subjects’ computer screens.

Critics are also right to point out that one of the producers of TFW No GF, a crypto-anarchist and gun rights activist called Cody Wilson, has an extremely dubious history. Wilson was described by Wired magazine in 2017 as one of the ten “Most Dangerous People on the Internet”, by virtue of the fact that he is the founder of a group, Defence Distributed, that sells DIY firearm blueprints, enabling anyone to 3-D print their own firearm components or even entire guns at home. Wilson is also a convicted sex offender, following an incident in which he paid a 16-year-old girl $500 for sex in a hotel room in Austin, Texas, in August 2018. Alex Lee Moyer acknowledges that Wilson helped her to gain access to the film’s subjects, but otherwise downplays his involvement with the film. Nevertheless, his association with the project does its reputation no favours. 

Despite all of this, the film is nevertheless valuable in that it provides a sensitive perspective on the lives of young men who are not dangerous extremists, even if they live in worrying proximity to other men who definitely are. Thus the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino misses the mark when she writes of the subculture as a whole: “Incels aren’t really looking for sex; they’re looking for absolute male supremacy. Sex, defined to them as dominion over female bodies, is just their preferred sort of proof.”

“Dominion over female bodies” isn’t quite right, at least for most incels. The esteem of their peers is closer to the truth, and incels’ inability to attract a romantic partner is strong and painful proof of the lack of that esteem. A non-existent sex life is only the most obvious sign of a deeper problem that incels face, which is that they are constantly rejected by other people, male and female alike. Jordan Peterson, no fan of the incel subculture, puts it bluntly: “If you’re a young man and all the women are rejecting you, who’s got the problem? . . . If all the women are rejecting you, it’s you.” There is no sugarcoating that distressing self-realisation.

While there is no doubt that some incels are misogynistic and aggressive and bring their unhappiness upon themselves, that’s not true of all of them. The hard truth is that some people are ugly, and some are ugly and also have trouble with social interaction. These people struggle to find sexual partners because, sadly, scientific research reveals that beauty isn’t really in the eye of the beholder. Sexual attractiveness is both objective and brutally hierarchical: some people win only because others lose. And if (as I do) you insist that no one should ever be pressured into unwanted sex, and if no one wants to have sex with incels—well, then, here lies the problem. Some people will forever be unlucky in love, and they will probably be miserable about it.

Blaming incels for their own misfortune is a lot easier than thinking hard about their conundrum. Because their conundrum is sad and difficult, which means that thinking about it is sad and difficult. What TFW No GF does very well is encourage viewers to engage with a topic that is often easier to ignore: what is it like to be one of life’s losers?

Many on the Left are so concerned by inequality linked to race, class, and sex, that they are unable or unwilling to think about how other forms of inequality might have just as much impact on a person’s life. So they look at the young white men in TFW No GF and see only privilege and entitlement, forgetting that traits like intelligence, charm, and beauty are also very important in determining an individual’s outcomes, even if they are less often spoken about. 

The impact of “lookism”, in particular, deserves far more attention than it typically receives. The academic Francesca Minerva has found, for instance, that in the United States, physical attractiveness has more impact than race on male income. People who experience lookism suffer all kinds of adversity at disproportionate rates: they are passed over for promotion, struggle to make friends, are sometimes abused in the street, and of course struggle to attract romantic partners. Being born ugly is not a trivial misfortune.

But the subjects of TFW No GF are not actually especially unattractive or unintelligent—what they lack above all is charm and an ability to motivate themselves. Deprived of any externally-imposed structure, they drift from one temporary source of dopamine release to another. This may partly be a result of a tendency towards self-indulgence—perhaps aggravated by incel ideology—but there is also a graver political problem that TFW No GF brings into the spotlight.

In a would-be meritocracy like ours, the personality trait that is financially and socially rewarded above all others is a kind of “on your bike” vim that most incels conspicuously lack. Watching TFW No GF, I was reminded of a piece by the Guardian journalist  John Harris in which he described watching the 2005 Labour Party Conference speech given by Tony Blair: 

“Change is marching on again,” he announced, in that messianic tone that had begun to emerge in his speeches around the time of 9/11 . . . “The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.”

I watched that speech on a huge screen in the conference exhibition area. And I recall thinking: “Most people are not like that.” The words rattled around my head: “Swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.” And I wondered that if these were the qualities now demanded of millions of Britons, what would happen if they failed the test?

Set this beside a quote from “Kantbot”, one of the subjects of TFW No GF:

People used to graduate and go get a job, and that used to work pretty well for them. But now that’s impossible, you have no experience in anything, you’re from a small-town background and you don’t have any connections, so you end up living back at home, and your parents are telling you to apply to McDonald’s or something because it’s better than you staying at home.

While of course it is possible for highly motivated people from humble, small-town backgrounds to make it big (that’s the promise of the American Dream, after all), the truth is that, as Harris puts it, “most people are not like that”. And a society in which any-one not blessed with unusual talent is condemned to misery is not a healthy one. More and more commentators are now starting to think about the suffering of meritocracy’s losers, with two new books by David Goodhart (see page 20) and Michael Sandel published on the subject only last month. TFW No GF is an addition to this emerging genre.

Most responses to the film have asked us to either sympathise with or condemn incels, but I don’t think we have to limit ourselves to either. Like it or not, there is a group of people (mostly male, mostly white) who are disaffected and angry, and they’re not going away. Their suffering is real, and a consequence of societal problems as well as individual ones. They may be bigoted, obnoxious, and self-pitying, but they shouldn’t be dismissed.

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