Not Serious Enough: How We Approach Misogyny in 2019

From the release of Toronto van attacker’s police interview, to the U.S. Army warning of the potential for violence at Joker screenings, to Reddit’s decision to ban r/braincels for violating the platform’s new anti-harassment policy, the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism (IRMS) launches during a period of increased attention to the misogynist “involuntarily celibate,” or “incel,” movement. “Incel” is a term of self-identification used by men who believe that they have been unjustly denied sexual intercourse by women, a perspective that has fed acts of mass violence, as in the Toronto attack.

On a note closer to home, the launch of the institute comes two weeks after I was personally attacked online in a post on the neo-Nazi, white supremacist website The Daily Stormer. Founder Andrew Anglin, a well-known neo-Nazi and virulent misogynist, targeted me after I was featured in an NPR piece about the toll studying extremist movements has on researchers. In the post, Anglin referred to himself as the “self-appointed spiritual successor to Elliot Rodger,” a 2014 incel mass killer who has been cited by multiple perpetrators of mass violence in the past five years, including the Toronto van attacker.

In the police interview released on Friday, the Toronto van attacker mimicked the Santa Barbara perpetrator’s language in referring to himself as a “supreme gentleman.” The two mass killers shared a sense of aggrieved male sexual entitlement and superiority, expressing resentment and anger toward women for rejecting them in favor of “obnoxious brutes” and setting out for “retribution.” The Toronto van attacker, like the Santa Barbara perpetrator in his manifesto, identified his hope of inspiring other incels or “betas” to rise up, and referred to a revenge fantasy promoted in the incel community of killing all the “Chads” (sexually attractive men) so that the “Stacys” (sexually attractive women) would have no other options.

Given the seemingly derogatory language used by incels to describe themselves and their perceived social status, including referring to themselves as “betas,” some researchers have been misled into viewing incels as not male supremacist. However, their frame reflects more of a Revenge of the Nerds scenario: despite the embrace of an identity that appears self-disparaging, incels subscribing to these violent fantasies and resentments believe that they are in reality superior. This is reflected in the Santa Barbara perpetrator and the Toronto van attacker’s anger at women for selecting who they saw as the wrong men and their desire to claim what they believe to be their rightful place in the social hierarchy above women and sexually attractive men.

Joker, released on October 4th, has been criticized for its sympathetic portrayal of a fictional mass killer whose biography presents similar tropes of isolation and sexual rejection to those used by incels to justify their own resentment and violence. Both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Army have issued warnings about the potential for incel-related violence at screenings of Joker. The military email warned, “Incel extremists idolize violent individuals like the [2012] Aurora movie theater shooter.” The Daily Stormer has updated its website to feature a banner with an image of the Joker and the phrase, “You get what you fucking deserve.”

The warnings issued by the FBI and U.S. Army, planned responses by law enforcement, and the banning of another incel subreddit demonstrate the increased seriousness with which misogynist violence has begun to be approached over the past two years. Yet the framing of the Joker movie also illustrates how male sexual entitlement and resentment continue to receive widespread cultural acceptance well beyond their glorification in the incel fringes. As IRMS fellow Erin Spampinato writes of the literary canon, our entertainment “treats the frustration of male desire as if it merits exploration time and again,” contributing to the acceptance of “he was a lonely virgin” as an understandable justification for mass killing.

The Institute for Research on Male Supremacism exists not only to research and expose male supremacist mobilizations and potential violence, but also to confront deeply entrenched societal misogyny. Misogynist incels do not arise from nowhere; they occupy one extreme along a wide spectrum of misogyny, a spectrum that reaches into mainstream media. Please consider supporting our ability to research and challenge misogyny in all its manifestations by contributing to our launch fundraiser.

This article has been edited from its original version to meet the No Notoriety campaign’s recommendation not to give a spotlight to perpetrators of mass violence.