Incels don’t just exist in basements – they’re migrating into the mainstream
Illustration by Alex Francis @alexefrancis
Don’t Worry Darling is a film that dominated headlines long before its release. Rumours of sexually explicit content burgeoned by a risqué trailer, alongside the allure of off-screen cast friction, has made it a 2022 must-watch. It’s why I decided to go and see what all the hype was about for myself.
And in many ways, I wasn’t disappointed.
The movie is beautifully shot and, in some instances, incredibly well acted. Director Olivia Wilde has managed to create an aesthetically pleasing 1950s alternate reality, and while some incongruous aspects ultimately make for a slightly confused plot line, I would still definitely recommend it.
One thing which really stayed with me as I left the cinema was the portrayal of Jack (played by Harry Styles) and his radicalisation into a – spoiler alert – violent incel cult.
What is an incel?
While incel (short for ‘involuntary celibate’) groups don’t all think the same, and indeed often spout contradictory theories, the general ideology centres around ‘the blackpill’.
This is the fatalistic idea amongst the community, which primarily exist online, that they are unable to enter into sexual and romantic relationships through the fault of genetics and/or wider society. This is often associated with hostile and misogynistic ideals towards women, as they are often blamed for this perceived lack of sexual contact.
Public knowledge of the incel underworld has increased in recent years, especially in the UK after the string of Plymouth murders in 2021 which were linked to the ideology. However, while the term may now be more commonplace, there is still a distinct lack of understanding surrounding the community.
I got in touch with Lisa Sugiura, author of The Incel Rebellion: The Rise of the Manosphere and the Virtual War Against Women, who agrees. “People don’t really understand what the community is about. Media representation lacks nuance and we’re therefore presented with the narrative that incels are a group of weirdos existing on the fringe of society – that they’re deviant men and very different to normal men.”
I think this representation is dangerous. The prevalence to see incels as extremist, underground loners works to undercut how this movement is increasingly being absorbed into the mainstream. This is why Wilde’s decision (purposeful or not) to cast popular heartthrob Harry Styles in this role is poignant when it comes to mainstream media representation of incel culture.
This is supported by the decision to make Jack’s character married to – and by all means, outwardly very besotted with – Alice (Florence Pugh), rather than making them strangers.
The inclusion of loving scenes between the couple prior to their entry into the fabricated incel-topia also deviates from the traditional incel narrative. By doing so, the film highlights that incels aren’t exclusively neckbeards operating from their mother’s basements. People subscribing to this rhetoric can also be your friends, relatives and co-workers.
Difficulties with defining an incel
We need to be careful when discussing incels as a group, because the reality is that incels aren’t homogeneous.
Nevertheless it’s vital to discuss. The power of this rhetoric can transform someone who is sexually frustrated looking for community, into someone subscribing to dangerous ideologies to explain why they’re not getting any action.
This has manifested into multiple violent acts, from the 2014 Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodger “exacting retribution” after being rejected by multiple women to the case of Alek Minassian, a self-identifying incel found guilty of murdering 10 people in Toronto.
However, these acts didn’t occur in a vacuum. Instead of dismissing incels as ‘fringe’ and assuming they’re already ostracised from general society, we need to critically address why the number of men and boys subscribing to incel rhetoric is growing.
Researchers also identified that the largest dedicated incel forum receives an average of 2.6 million visits a month – and their visitors are becoming more extreme. A 2022 report which studied over a million posts has also found an increase of 59% in violent language.
But why? It seems that incel forums are becoming increasingly attractive to young men who are often initially seeking relationship advice or searching for community. We can assume that a majority of these men have a level of pre-existing toxic masculinity, manifesting in a resistance to seek therapy that they clearly need – and instead they follow pages which are often masked as self-help sites and fall down the sinister rabbit hole.
Lisa elaborates on this: “Imagine you’re someone who is vulnerable and depressed or anxious and wondering why things aren’t going right in your world, and then you’re presented with the idea that everything is external. For some people that’s really appealing, as you can blame all your problems on others.”
This pipeline to radicalisation is something often described as an ‘awakening’ and taking ‘the red pill’, an allegory ironically stolen from a film written by two trans women: The Matrix.
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Laura Bates presents unemployment as another factor that can lead some people to incel sites. In her book Men Who Hate Women she explains thatincel groups are quick to jump to alt-right solutions for their problems and blame perceived white male unemployment rates as the fault of women and migrants.
This specific pathway has been identified by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate report and is something we see explicitly as a motivator in Don’t Worry Darling. It is only after Jack loses his job that he starts subscribing to outdated masculine ideals about being ‘the provider’ and resenting Alice for her own job. He then spends his new-found free time online listening to disturbing incel-like podcasts voiced by Chris Pine.
Statistics and memeification
Both Lisa and Bates discuss how incel forums often espouse fake statistics to add legitimacy to their arguments, such as the 80/20 theory, which argues that 20% of men have monopolised 80% of women.
Lisa believes that it’s this inclusion of ideas which predate the ‘manisphere’ (the wider name for the online misogynist space) which make them so appealing.
“Ideas like hypergamy, [having sexual/romantic relations above your social class] and the ‘halo effect’ [the privilege of the ‘good-looking’] have provenance, or even a bit of truth. People resonate with them because they’re not brand-new ideas.”
The efficacy of this, as Bates notes, can be seen through George Sandi’s skewed mathematics which states that he was rejected by 30 million women as part of his justification for the Bridgeville LA Fitness mass shooting.
Other facets of incel forums which attract youth, as outlined by Bates, are the use of irony, satire and memes in online spaces, such as this one displaying a woman in a cage with a message underneath reading: “do not feed the thots.”
It seems then, what starts off as ironic can quickly slide into genuine belief, utilising the appeal of counter-culture and painting those which rail against it as boring liberals who can’t take a joke. We can even see evidence of this in regards to Don’t Worry Darling, with an article in The American Conservative labelling the film as “alt-left propaganda”.
The rise of the alt-right
Another reason why this movement has been growing can be linked to the rise of the alt-right, a provocative (read: sexist and racist) right wing movement which is largely online and characterised by a rejection of mainstream politics.
As Bates explores, politicians who are moving this type of politics into the mainstream are very careful not to directly associate themselves with incel groups. However, they mimic themes and often use specific incel type language to ensure that they appeal to, and in some cases, mobilise incels.
The largest example of far-right politicians pandering to incels has to be the swearing in of vocal misogynist Donald Trump, whose election was simultaneously celebrated across incel boards and caused deep-seated fear amongst feminists in the country.
Trump is certainly not alone in his appropriation of incel language, this is occurring across the board and has most recently been seen in South Korea. This veneer of legitimacy that politicians give incel arguments have also been replicated amongst pseudo-intellectuals who are heroes in the incel space like Jordan Peterson, Milo Yiannopoulos, Roosh V and Paul Elam, the first of which Olivia Wilde actually based her Chris Pine character on.
They also have very similar recruitment tactics which encourage a crossover in their followings. Just like men who stumble across incel forums while looking for community, as journalist Aja Romano states: “Most white men who become radicalised into the alt-right start out in search of some like-minded friends.” This is not to take agency away from those who are effectively radicalised into either or both ideologies, rather just to understand how and why this occurs.
Sexism is then almost used as a gateway to indoctrinate men into other alt-right ideologies. This has been exacerbated by the ease at which new recruits can be accessed through online spheres like the gaming community.
Incels in the mainstream
Once language is used by politicians, it can easily spread into the mainstream, with people not aligned with incels groups mimicking their language, like this tweet referencing the ‘chad’ [an incel term for a ‘hot’ guy that women want to sleep with] and virgin meme.
I contacted Aja for a comment on this. They explain, “Mainstream creative media now unironically references things like getting ‘cucked’ [cuckolded] for example. On one hand, decontextualising MRA (Men’s Rights Activist) language arguably weakens the power of those ideas to shock and impact us and weakens the connective tissue of inceldom as a subculture. On the other hand, the mainstreaming of this culture helps shift the overton window on what is acceptable behaviour and thought. And when we’re talking about extremist misogyny, that’s of course very dangerous.”
Speaking to Aja reinforces how important it is for us to remember that incel ideals and rhetoric are not only found on hard to reach subreddits. They’re all over Facebook, YouTube and TikTok. And as Aja points out, this isn’t a sign that this language is harmless and should be accepted, but rather it points to how widespread this issue is already and how it should be treated as such.
The impact on younger generations
So, with evidence showing how incel culture is now growing in the mainstream, I’m left questioning if and how we can combat it?
Lisa points to education. “Societally, we need to be educating people at a far younger age about sex, consent, and gender equality. Many kids are already engaging in this culture and language through things like gaming – they’ll already know terms like ‘cucked’ in primary school.”
It seems that lack of proper sex education however is only part of the problem. Breaking outdated masculine stereotypes that incel ideology thrives on is also something which should be addressed early, as well as giving caregivers and educators the tools to discuss and recognise stigmas surrounding mental health.
As outlined by Moonshot, an organisation that provides solutions on digital violent extremism, it’s also important not to demonise; to create both on and offline referral systems, safe spaces and practitioner networks for knowledge sharing and intervention support.
Aside from care and intervention tactics, Lisa also speaks to the responsibility of service providers.“We know that platforms can take content down, we see it when it comes to things like copyright for example. You put up anything with IP, you get a message to take it down immediately,” she explains. “It’s almost as if misogyny is the last taboo when it comes to tracking discriminatory behaviours.”
Speaking to Lisa and Aja has reinforced the need to understand that this issue is complex, does not only exist online and is having disastrous real-life consequences.
Whatever you think of Don’t Worry Darling, it’s important to not completely disregard it. And while the film does currently seem to be causing more outrage over Harry Styles’s hair than its socio-political message, it is opening up conversations around incels and wider misogyny, which can only be a good thing.