A Portrait of the Breakdown of Hope and Meaning in America
Even a glance at the "incel" subculture reveals vile misogyny, reactionary politics of all kinds, and multiple acts of horrific violence. The documentary TFW No GF also emphasizes that, in part, that subculture is a product of the breakdown of institutions, the disappearance of decent economic opportunities, and a broader loss of meaning in America.
Earlier this spring, it was reported that the online community of involuntary celibates (“incels”) were celebrating the dawn of COVID-19 lockdown, rejoicing on message boards like Reddit and 4chan as a large chunk of society became, for a brief glimmer in time, housebound, lonely, and sexless.
The subculture — which has existed online since the early ’90s — is a loose amalgamation of online groups and (mainly angry) sensibilities drawn together by rejection and sexual frustration. In recent years, a number of mass shootings committed by incels, as well as the subculture’s tendency toward a particularly resentful form of misogyny, have drawn headlines.
Those celebrating lockdown took an ironic glee in the fact that single women in particular would be stopped from having casual sex. But as a number of high-profile arrests seemed to suggest, this was not a zero-sum game: the fact that we’d all temporarily become incels didn’t mean the subculture was ready to dissolve itself. Plans for a neo-Nazi “incel hit squad” were unearthed by police, and then later an alleged plan to attack “hot cheerleaders” before a homemade bomb that a guy was making blew off one of his hands. For these incels, the spite that drives the movement froths and shudders just as it had before we were all forced inside.
The Left tends to have a difficult time talking about incels. The often-reactionary rhetoric that can tend to real violence means that the subculture more broadly is readily dismissed rather than constructively engaged with. Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies is a notable contribution to the debate, although it tended to overdetermine the role of political correctness in producing a set of violent and reactionary online groups. A new documentary, TFW No GF (which stands for “that feel when no girlfriend”), is poised to become another touchpoint, cautiously taken up by critics as definitive cinema of the incel.
Inside the Incel Bedroom
TFW No GF’s director Alex Lee Moyer is, it’s worth noting, a woman — and therefore something of an outsider to the incel world. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the film gains close access to its subject matter. It follows five disaffected young men connected by the incel subculture and the adjacent “Frogtwitter,” the irony-laden online community best known for its associations with the trolling icon Pepe, as they struggle with their own feelings of withdrawal, as well as the toxic community they encounter online.
Viddy and Charels are brothers who have been caught up in a national news story after Charels posted a photo of himself posing with a gun in the run-up to the release of the Joker movie. Sean is a shy and soft-spoken bodybuilder who lives with his mom in a cramped apartment. Kyle pours his heart out in a cowboy hat and an all-denim outfit. The final interviewee to be introduced, who goes only by the screen name Kantbot, is a bookish guide to the internet netherworld, who went viral in 2016 when he appeared at a rally declaring that Donald Trump “would complete the system of German Idealism.”
The film’s sympathetic gaze shows them as surprisingly likable and often charismatic interview subjects. We follow them on walks through empty suburban streets and see inside the bedrooms where they spend most of their time, playing video games, trolling the internet, and dealing with lengthy depressive episodes.
The film also shows us the larger world they inhabit: dramatic scenes of Viddy and Charels shooting assault rifles in the wintry backwoods of the Pacific Northwest, a drone shot of Sean wasting time in a mulchy neighborhood park, Kyle strutting past live-in motels around the outskirts of El Paso, Texas, solemnly smoking a cigarette while a mariachi band plays in front of him.
Rather than focus on the most notorious aspects of incel life, Moyer looks toward some of the more intimate and altogether less angry parts of the incel world, seeking to understand rather than to cast out. The title of the film refers to a meme that originated on the 4chan messageboard /r9k/, a highly confessional space where posters share anonymous “greentext” — personal moments that usually fall into the categories of humiliation, general suffering, and strange, everyday beauty. The depiction of the film’s subjects is similarly tender and compassionate, a compelling look at alienated men trying, and ultimately succeeding, to overcome the resentment and aimlessness of inceldom.
But TFW No GF is at points a difficult film to watch, knowing what we do about the reprehensible acts these groups have inspired. Although Moyer steers clear of the darkest parts of inceldom, there’s still plenty to make us feel uncomfortable. Her film follows men who crack jokes about Elliot Rodger, the incel mass shooter who murdered seven people before killing himself near UC Santa Barbara in 2014, and Alek Minassian, a Canadian ex-soldier responsible for the Toronto van attack in 2018. They hold resentments and often flirt with fascist aesthetics.
Another unsavory part of the subculture that’s avoided by Moyer is the movement’s complicated relationship to race. For example, there is a sizable non-white population of incels, many of whom often express self-loathing over not being able to achieve a Western idealized male form. Trolling and humor are presented as the dominant forces of the community; misogyny and violence are shown to be ancillary, often discounting real-world instances of aggression, whether direct or diffuse, that have emerged from these online communities.
The film’s spotlight on the emotional fabric of incel life online and off is a welcome contribution, even if it too quickly glosses over the deep-rooted hatred and violence of the 4chan universe, which should be harshly condemned.
What makes Moyer’s documentary stand out is her effort to situate her subjects within a broader socioeconomic context. Incels, in TFW No GF, are not just woman-hating “shitposters,” they are also complex subjects born out of a post-economic crash United States, steeped in a culture of resentment. While this contextualization doesn’t explain away the worst of incel culture, it contributes to a much richer portrait, and Moyer’s interviewees are shown to have some self-reflexivity on this account as well, analyzing their own cultural and socioeconomic identities.
Moyer places the acronym “NEET” front and center in her presentation of the incel. A demographic classification first used by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the late 1980s, NEET (“Not in Education, Employment, or Training”) has since found purchase in the international development world, and, oddly, as a self-categorizing device within the incel community. Sean tells the camera: “I failed ninth grade. I kind of just dropped off the map. I dropped out, I was going through my own shit. Since then, I’ve just been a fucking NEET.”
In all this, the 2008 financial crisis and the failing neoliberal order are essential hallmarks for Moyer. Amid the crosshatch of issues at play for the film’s subjects — childhood traumas, ailing mental health, awkward and often fragile masculinity — TFW No GF makes it impossible to ignore the broader dynamics caused by economic crisis.
“The future that was sold to me is a complete lie, so I’m just going to do nothing instead,” explains Kyle, one of the film’s subjects.
TFW No GF is a portrait of young men who are facing a future with no long-term economic opportunity and little in the way of meaningful democratic engagement or collective civic life. In particular, Moyer’s exploration of the American landscape draws our attention to the effects of the 2007–8 housing-market collapse and the subsequent austerity politics that so devastated public-sector institutions like education. As Kantbot puts it:
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.
One of the film’s best shots is a lingering view of military vehicles being carried across the Texas desert on a freight train — overlaid with Kyle’s musings about the fact that his aging parents own neither their house nor their car, and his own limited economic options. The sequence plays like a perfectly hammed-up version of Marilyn Manson’s tirade in Bowling for Columbine, where Manson, backstage at a show, clad in makeup and platform boots, calmly suggests that goth music may have little influence on the action of school shooters when compared to the pervasiveness of reactionary American jingoism.
Manson stood up for teen goths in the face of mainstream media representation that wanted to demonize them. In a similar move, Moyer wants to challenge the idea that incels are nothing more than a violent threat to society. Moyer is careful not to simply diagnose the men as part of a “loneliness epidemic” — the cohort of incels tells us about friends who have died from overdoses and suicide, about dropping out of school and moving back in with their parents. To its detriment, the film has a tendency to leave out the crueler elements of inceldom. Nonetheless, what Moyer is saying is worth listening to: the incel story is, at least in part, about the breakdown of institutions and a broader loss of meaning.
“A Public Works Project”
TFW No GF is not a Netflix true-crime reflection on the irresistible charisma of a cult leader, and it doesn’t have a Louis Theroux–type host gleefully playing dumb. Nor is it a self-congratulatory podcast looking to swim into controversial territory. In a somewhat combative interview with Rolling Stone, Moyer described TFW No GF as “a public works project” — an attempt to understand a subsection of society that’s been left behind.
Moyer resists a portrait of the incel that would have them as a simple, nefarious product of internet culture, opting instead to contextualize incels within the broader failures of the liberal social contract. The NEETs possess insights into the structural forces that have produced their own fatalism, economic collapse that has disinvested them from the ideology of decorum and upward progress, from Hillary Clinton’s oft-quoted declaration that “America is already great.”
In part, then, the men in TFW No GF point toward the failures of a market-based logic of individual freedoms and responsibility. The film looks beyond the bareness of the “greentext” personal writing in order to draw it out as a political and existential response to a system in which collective life has been stripped away, professionalized, or rendered entirely ineffective.
Moyer’s film attempts to show us how corners of contemporary culture deal with dwindling prospects in the face of vastly unequal progress. Inceldom is shown to be an inflammatory, impotent dissent to match the gilded self-righteousness of “moral capitalism” and the market logic that drives technocratic liberal policymaking. If it appears at times too forgiving of a nihilistic and even violent cultural movement, Moyer’s contribution is nonetheless to show how structural miseries help lead the way to 4chan. In the near absence of a relevant left to address these miseries, subcultures like the incel may only proliferate.
Ultimately, the best moments in TFW No GF are when someone comes up for air. In full cowboy attire, Kyle recounts the late-night Greyhound bus trip he took to get to the interview, “everyone tired and miserable,” and finding communion with the passenger sitting next to him over how bad the bus trip is — a metaphor that extends nicely to the camaraderie of the incel community, who find solace with one another in the miserable bus trip of American life post-crash.