In recent years there has been a proliferation of mass murders in North America often committed by men who become radicalized through online platforms. One example of a community recently charged with spreading violent ideas across several online platforms is that of involuntary celibates or ‘incels’. The incel community consists of predominately white men from western nations, who have constructed a worldview based in pseudo-science and critical views of women’s rights to make sense of their unhappy celibacy.
Many of these forums have been shut down in recent years for the extremely violent, misogynistic, content shared by community members. Furthermore, some incels have taken their anger into the public sphere committing horrific acts of violence. My research analyzed the final vlog of Elliot Rodger, the first known incel to commit a massacre, through a gendered lens informed by Raewyn Connell’s notions of hegemonic masculinity and Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel’s research on school shooters. What I found through an analysis of Rodger’s final vlog was that the subordinated status of his masculinity was at the core of the choice to commit a violent act. The main themes that emerged were his anguish at embodying a subordinate form of masculinity, a sense of entitlement to the bodies of women and even the lives of his peers, and finally the perception of violence as constituting a more hegemonic embodiment of masculinity.
The concepts of masculinity useful in this analysis originate with Raewyn Connell, who defined masculinity as “simultaneously, a place in gender relations, the practices through which men and women engage that place in gender, and the effects of these practices on bodily experience, personality and culture” (Connell, 1995, 71). She also developed the concept of hegemonic masculinity, which is the aspirational norm for men within a given society, that experiences shifts both over time and geographically (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, 832). Kimmel and Mahler elaborate on this notion of hegemonic masculinity, finding that it is dependant on defining itself in opposition to subordinate ‘others’ and that within the west propensity to violence is a big part of hegemonic masculinity (2010). Kimmel and Kalish, in their work on school shooters in the United States – primarily white boys and men – have found a shared sense of ‘aggrieved entitlement,’ as well as notions of violence as constitutive of more hegemonic notions of masculinity. “Aggrieved entitlement is a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back” (Kimmel and Kalish, 2010, 454). Connell and Kimmel’s theories provide a useful way of understanding the violence of incels, who are not driven by religion or politics, but gender.
The incel community had its unlikely beginning as the brainchild of a Canadian woman who created a support group for those who longed to be in a relationship. This supportive community focused more on what individuals could do to create relationships, and has shifted significantly towards an often-misogynistic group of platforms that espouse a complex, worldview, which explains their celibacy. The basis of this worldview is pseudo-scientific, biological, justifications (such as considering thin wrists or forehead shape to be fatal flaws for dating), lamentations of the changing social systems, which allow women more agency, and sociological theories. Many incels break society down into; Chads, those few men who embody the masculine ideal and are extremely successful with women; Staceys, who are beautiful women with their choice of partners; Normies, who are those that are less attractive but still are still successful with the opposite sex; and Incels, who due to various factors are unable to create or maintain relationships with women. What is unique about the incel movement is that subordinated masculinity is at the centre of their worldview and the ensuing violence.
Elliot Rodger was a lonely, troubled, University student who frequented the incel forum PUAHate. He released a series of violent vlogs describing his feelings of loneliness, rage and inadequacy, especially with his inability to take part in ‘normal’ youthful activities like having sex with beautiful girls, who were interested less in his wealth and manners and more in his ‘brutish’ peers. In his final vlog, titled ‘Elliot Rodgers Retribution Video’, he vowed to go to a sorority house and seek retribution directly on those who he felt most deserved it, the women who he perceived as considering themselves above him. Rodger killed his roommate and roommate’s friends, attempted to gain access to a sorority house, and when he was unable to do so began killing people outside of the house and in the streets. Overall he injured 14 and took the lives of 6 people and himself. This research outlines several of the key themes that emerged in this final and disturbing vlog. It is relevant to examine his case because he has become a central figure in this movement, being referred to (sometimes ironically) as the ‘supreme gentleman’ and inspiring at least one fellow incel to commit a violent act.
Recognition of Subordinate Masculinity
“They would have all rejected me and looked down on me as an inferior man if I ever made a sexual advance towards them, while they throw themselves at these obnoxious brutes” (Beyond the Veil, 2014, 2:34)
This quote encapsulates the anger expressed by Rodger in the recognition of his lack of success with women, as well as recognition of those who he calls ‘brutes’, yet are successful with women. As success sexually with women is consistent with hegemonic notions of masculinity, acknowledging a lack of success is acknowledging subordinate masculinity. Rodger feels superior to his peers who are successful with women, but his comparative lack of success is a source of rage.
“Girls, all I’ve ever wanted is to love you, and be loved by you. I wanted a girlfriend, I wanted sex, I wanted love, affection, adoration. You think I’m unworthy of it, that’s a crime that can never be forgiven. If I can’t have you girls, I will destroy you. You denied me a happy life, and in turn I will deny all of you life, (Beyond the Veil, 2014, 5:00)
Rodger gives the impression that it was women and the ‘brutes’ that they chose to be with who deprived him of something that he was owed. This passage indicates Rodger feels entitled to intimacy with women to whom he is attracted, and when this desire goes unmet, he demonstrates the ‘aggrieved entitlement’ Kalish and Kimmel found in perpetrators of school shootings. Aggrieved entitlement “inspires revenge against those who have wronged you; it is the compensation for humiliation. Humiliation is emasculation” (2010, 454).
Restoring Subordinate Masculinity through Violence
“You will finally see that I am in truth the superior one, the true alpha male” (Beyond the Veil, 2014, 3:03)
This passage illustrates the notion that subordinate masculinity can be restored through violence. The scope of revenge Rodger hoped for is evident in the vlog. He discussed ‘mountains of skulls’ and ‘rivers of blood’, and vowed to become like a ‘god,’ while reducing his victims to the status of animals. He described his peers as deserving ‘annihilation’ for the pitiful life they reduced him to. This is consistent with literature produced by Kalish and Kimmel in their work on school shooters, who argue that the act of violence at school is both revenge on those who have made the perpetrator’s life difficult and leads to a more hegemonic embodiment of masculinity. “It was not because they were deviants, but rather because they were over-conformists to a particular normative construction of masculinity, a construction that defines violence as a legitimate response to a perceived humiliation” (Kalish and Kimmel, 2010, 461). Violence is a way of constituting this questioned masculinity while getting revenge on those who humiliated you.
Rodger’s violence emerged from an awareness of his subordinate status, a sense of entitlement, and the use of violence to enact revenge and constitute a more hegemonic embodiment of masculinity. The subordinate status of incel masculinity is defined by an inability to be intimate with women and is much-theorized in online platforms. The reasons for subordination are typically attributed to outside factors, like women choosing brutish ‘chads’, or the unfortunate biology of incels, or changing social norms. The desire to enact violence as revenge and to restore subordinate masculinity extends beyond Rodger into the larger community.
On April 23, 2018 Alek Minassian drove a rented van down a busy Toronto street, killing 10 and injuring 16. The last post he made on social media before committing this crime was “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All Hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” Kimmel and Mahler, in trying to understand why white boys are primarily responsible for school shootings, bring up an insightful point. “Even if they are silenced or lose their voice, subordinates—women, gays and lesbians, students of colour—can tap into a collective narrative repertoire of resistance. They can collectivize their anguish so that the personally painful may be subsumed into readily available political rhetorics (2003, 1453). As there is no narrative of resistance to hold their subordinate masculinity they are more likely to resort to violence. In some ways the incel forums are a community that holds this subordinated masculinity, but rather than supporting the development of alternative masculinities, it reinforces and theorizes the subordinate status.
Connell, R., Messerschmidt, J. (2005) ‘Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept’, Gender and Society, 19(6), 829-859.
Connell, R. W. (1995). Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kalish, R., Kimmel, M. (2010) ‘Suicide by Mass Murder: Masculinity, Aggrieved Entitlement, and Rampage School Shootings’, Health Sociology Review, 19(4), 451-464.
Kimmel, M, Mahler, M. (2003) ‘Adolescent Masculinity, Homophobia, and Violence: Random School Shootings, 1982-2001’, American Behavioural Scientist, 46(10), 1439-1458.
Tessa Prior is a recent graduate from Trinity College with an MPhil in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation. This paper was adapted from one examining the relationship between masculinity and violence in a Gender in War and Peace class. She wrote a dissertation looking at transitional justice arising from the 2016 peace agreement, titled “Indigenous and Afro-Colombian Peoples and Colombian Transitional Justice: Emancipation or Epistemicide.”