The concept of the incel – a community of men embittered by their perception of rejection at the hands of women – has haunted the popular imagination since Elliot Rodger’s mass shooting ten years ago. The conventional view is that incels resent feminism for disempowering men – here, Filipa Melo Lopes argues that incels are instead motivated by a thwarted craving for feminine approval better understood by Simone de Beauvoir than contemporary feminist discourse.
Nearly a decade ago, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed 7 people, including himself, in Isla Vista, California. In his lengthy manifesto, “My Twisted World”, Rodger laid out an epic tale of rejection, isolation, resentment, and vitriolic misogyny which started a public conversation about ‘incel’ extremism — violence connected to online communities of self-proclaimed ‘involuntary celibate’ men.
Feminists have typically insisted that incel attacks should be understood as backlash against feminism and gender equality. Some have argued that what incels want is a world where women can be treated as sex objects, rather than full humans with preferences and desires. Others have claimed incels feel entitled to women’s loving attention and want to put them back in their place as loyal servants. On both views, what is bothering men like Rodger is not being single or sexless, but seeing that women today have independent lives of their own.
However, these feminist explanations don’t really work. First, saying that incels see women as sex objects misses the fact that men like Rodger want admiration and love, not just a woman’s body. It also does not make sense of their aggrieved resentment towards women and of the way they feel wronged by them as moral actors. Second, the idea that incels want women to be obedient servants doesn’t explain why Rodger claims “all women must be quarantined like the plague they are”. He ends his manifesto with the dream of a “fair and pure world” where women have no place at all: sex is outlawed, and only a few women are “kept and bred” in secret labs.
But perhaps the biggest problem with these feminist explanations is that they do not make sense of incels’ ambivalence towards women. If incel attacks were a form of backlash, you might think they would target feminists, women in male-dominated professions, or women perceived as bucking patriarchal norms. On the contrary, they have targeted college sororities, yoga studios, and erotic massage parlors. These are places associated with the hyperfemininity that incels are obsessed with and that they encapsulate in the Stacy meme.
The Stacy is a curvy, hypersexualized character with long blonde hair and full make-up that lets Chad (her alpha-male counterpart) control and abuse her. The Stacy is the ideal woman, and yet she is reviled. According to incels, she is unintelligent, vain, fake, sociopathic, and lazy. When Rodger declares “War on Women”, it is the Stacys he targets: “hot, beautiful, blonde”, “model-like girls” who are also “vicious, stupid, cruel animals”. Incels seem then to hate what they love and love what they hate.
We can understand this paradox by thinking differently about what incels want. What they are after is not a real woman, but what philosopher Simone de Beauvoir called a feminine “Other” — an impossible and ambiguous creature, closer to a nymph or mermaid than to a sex-doll or a loyal wife. An “Other” is a device through which men can achieve a certain sense of themselves. She is a repository of their brightest dreams, but also of their worst nightmares.
For de Beauvoir, all human beings are caught in a bind between the need to act and the risk of action. We all want to do things in the world that will make us feel proud, whether it is getting a degree, painting a room, or rebuilding a car. But there is an unavoidable danger of failure that comes with striving to achieve anything. Success requires taking risks. This is something everyone must learn to live with, but that we all would like to avoid. Men are often culturally encouraged to avoid these risks by adopting a distorted view of themselves as uncriticizable — as always able to control anything, even the uncertain judgement of others. Think of little boys taught to identify with lonesome heroes, or of online masculinity gurus peddling magical shortcuts to becoming a billionaire. Elliot Rodger, for example, saw himself as “a living god” and thought life was a competition he would obviously, somehow, win. But this does not make sense. What men like Rodger want is to be heroes, regardless of their actions. This means that Rodger ends up insisting he is “destined for great things”, even while he drops out of school, refuses to get a job or to even leave his room.
Woman as “Other” becomes the only way to feel recognized as this special being in the absence of any actual accomplishment. To fulfil this function, this dream girlfriend must be another human who can praise Rodger, but not a full human who can spontaneously criticize him. Her approval must be fully conquerable. She must be an entity that can be picked up like a piece of fruit or a flower, but who can then genuinely smile back at you like a person. This is why, for Beauvoir, nymphs and mermaids are perfect “Others”. They are natural objects animated by a human consciousness. They are miraculous, supernatural beings that can finally establish Rodger as godlike.
But nymphs and mermaids are not real. The more men pursue this impossible fantasy, the more they doom themselves to a bitter disenchantment. Just like you cannot be a hero without doing heroic deeds, you cannot expect someone to worship you without the possibility of criticism. The risk of negative judgment always creeps back in. And if her regard can bestow ultimate triumph, this “Other” can also bestow ultimate failure. When his feminine saviours fail to anoint him as a hero, Rodger’s fear grows. Beautiful women become hateful enemies and violence becomes the only answer: “on the Day of Retribution, I will truly be a powerful god”, he said.
So, even though incels talk obsessively about women, looking closely at murderers like Rodger reveals that their struggle is mainly with themselves. Their anger at their ‘celibacy’ is often an anger at being just part of the crowd. Violence becomes a desperate attempt to gain control over the world and to achieve the recognition that they feel they naturally deserve. Countering incel radicalization requires men to stop thinking of themselves as living gods and instead cultivate a healthy sense of competition, personal responsibility, and humility. It also requires all of us to reject the idea that women are the answer to men’s problems. In the words of de Beauvoir, “only man can be an enemy for man; only he can rob him of the meaning of his acts and his life.”
Rodger, Elliot. 2014. My twisted world: The story of Elliot Rodger.https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/1173619/rodger-manifesto.pdf
Beauvoir, Simone de. 2011. The second sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. New York: Vintage Books