How Everyday Misogyny Feeds the Incel Movement

The Toronto van attack shook the world, but the hatred that inspired it isn't just an online phenomenon

The Walrus
The Walrus

If Alek Minassian had a social-media presence before his arrest on April 23, 2018, it does not appear to have been an active one. A LinkedIn profile (now deleted) shows the single online photo of the twenty-five-year-old who, last week, allegedly rammed his white rental van into Toronto pedestrians on a northern stretch of Yonge Street, killing ten and injuring sixteen. In the photo, the Seneca College student from Richmond Hill, Ontario, is dressed in a suit jacket and dress shirt. There is the suggestion of a broad jaw and thinning hair. He looks benign—even friendly. It is the same photo Minassian reportedly uploaded to his now deleted Facebook page on March 10. That page contained only one post, widely circulated in the aftermath of Minassian’s attack. “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” it reads, in part. “We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger.”

When it first began circulating after the attack, many people wondered if the strange post was a hoax. Best early guesses on Minassian’s motives included terrorism and mental illness. No one considered the murky corners of the internet where “incel” is a slang identifier for those who see themselves as “involuntarily celibate.” But, the day after the attack, the CBC tweeted that a representative from Facebook had told a reporter the account belonged to Minassian. Later, a Toronto homicide detective confirmed, once more, that the “cryptic Facebook post” was Minassian’s. On Wednesday, the Toronto Star established that the Canadian Armed Forces service number referenced in another part of the post belonged to Minassian, a former recruit. The seeming veracity of the post only raised more questions about the nature of the incel movement—and what it had to do with Minassian’s behaviour.

It wasn’t the first time incel rhetoric had been linked to mass violence. In 2014, Elliot Rodger shot and killed six University of California, Santa Barbara students and injured fourteen others before taking his own life. He left behind a 137-page “manifesto” in which he obsessed over his involuntarily celibate status. He claimed that “females truly have something mentally wrong with them” and that he wanted to kill both the men for “taking the females” away from him (the Chads), as well as the women for rejecting him (the Stacys). In the manifesto, Rodger called one woman a “foul bitch” for not having the “grace” to say “hi” to him and blamed her for making him feel “worthless.”

By his own account, Rodger took his first step into violence by throwing his drinks at couples who kissed in front of him. He later tried out a gun for target practice and joined several online forums for men who were “starved of sex” and shared his “hatred of women.” He likewise hated (and named) men whom he viewed as more socially successful than him, planning a “Day of Retribution” to punish, torture, and kill women. After the mass shooting, the “Supreme Gentleman” achieved a cultlike status within the incel movement, with certain members later calling him, and others they believe to be like him, a hERo—with intentional emphasis on his initials. Other “ER” homages include “winnER,” “altERnative,” and “bettER.” Recently, the movement adopted Nikolas Cruz as a hERo after discovering an apparent YouTube comment the Florida school shooter had made, promising “Elliot rodger [sic] will not be forgotten.” That Cruz chose Valentine’s Day for the massacre has only added to his mystique.

Even without the link to mass violence, it would be a mistake to underestimate the movement. When Reddit banned its incel subreddit in November 2017, the online community had 40,000 members. Though it claimed to be a “support group” for those navigating a “normie” world, Reddit said the incel community violated its then new policy prohibiting any group that “encourages, glorifies, incites or calls for violence or physical harm against an individual or group of people”—in this case, women. Though many incel members have said they were merely commiserating, not preaching violence, on the Reddit channel, the misogyny threaded through the group’s rhetoric is undeniable. Incels often refer to women as both “femoids” (a portmanteau of female and humanoid) and “roasties” (a term that’s meant to liken a woman’s genitals to a roast beef sandwich). Women are “sluts” by nature, “nothing but trash that use men,” and “genetically hardwired to exchange sex for money, status, power, shelter and material—things that they cannot earn or make for themselves.”

Unsurprisingly, scrubbing the incel subreddit did not succeed in silencing them—on Reddit or elsewhere. A new subreddit, called Braincels, boasts more than 17,000 members. Incels also have a presence on 4Chan, another message-board website. Beyond that, the dedicated website has over 5,000 members. Conversation threads there happen under subject lines such as: “[Serious]Can you talk to a girl knowing that her mouth has been filled with semen?” (answer, from one user, whose profile photo is of Bill Cosby: “They weren’t made to talk. I have no reason to listen to them talk.”), “The END GAME is women losing their rights” (initiated by a user who was later banned), and, in reference to recent events, “Honestly, reading all the comments that people on news articles and Facebook [write] about us only JUSTIFIES what the van killer did.” Doses of presumed “truth” like this are part of an assumed Matrix-style awakening, called taking—or, conversely, dishing out—the “blackpill.” Unlike in the movie, where the main character, Neo, must choose between a red and blue pill, incels contend the blackpill, a third option, shows the real truth: the game is rigged from the start. The game, in this instance, being seduction, by which they mean sex with a woman.

Only time will reveal whether Rodger truly inspired Minassian—though there is no doubt the latter has already become a galvanizing figure in the movement, a hERo. But understanding, and countering, the incel movement and its belief system requires more than an explainer. It requires taking these boiling-pot expressions of male rage, entitlement, and hatred seriously. And that means asking a more urgent question than simply what—why. As in: Why is such a viciously misogynist movement flourishing?

History has often dismissed misogyny as a motivation for killing sprees. Take, for example, one of Canada’s most infamous mass shootings, the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal. On December 6, 1989, Marc Lépine walked into the engineering school, entered a classroom of about sixty students, and separated those inside into two groups: men and women. Then Lépine told the men they could leave. He declared, “I hate feminists!” and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle, killing fourteen women. Mélissa Blais argues in her 2014 book, “I Hate Feminists!”: December 6, 1989 and its Aftermath, that, despite Lepine’s stated intentions, the immediate discourse in the media, and wider public, largely rejected his act as an example of anti-women violence. According to Blais, those reeling from the tragedy wanted to find sense in another answer: mental illness, easy access to firearms, growing violence in Western society. Accepting an impetus of targeted hate against women meant also acknowledging a collective responsibility for the massacre—and also to do something about it.

If we seem readier today to describe Lépine’s rampage as an example of violence against women, let’s not forget that it took us nearly thirty years to get here—and even now, in recent years, media and popular culture cannot quite decide how to frame the massacre. (The 2009 film Polytechnique, for example, invites viewers to consider the male victims of the shooting—the survivors.) And yet it shouldn’t surprise us that some in the incel movement consider Lépine a kind of forerunner—an early hERo. Like today’s frustrated young men, Lépine was navigating an era of amplified professional and social advancement for girls and women—including increased academic success and participation, as well as improved access to abortion services, which are all things that were hotly debated in the public sphere at the time. His deadly actions fit within era’s rising backlash against that gender shift, just as the modern incel culture is blooming under a populist rallying cry for a return to simpler, more wholesome times. If it feels like déjà vu, it should.

This renewed sense of anti-feminism, in other words, is happening precisely because women are surging forward. Men in this corner of the alt-right don’t only crave economic resuscitation but a return to a traditional world—one in which so-called “nice guys” win, and, in that winning, reap the rewards: the girl, the job, order, and happiness. Women who balk at such midcentury fantasies are told they have it wrong: once the natural order of things is reinstated, they’ll be happier too. They’ll no longer be Stacys—greedy women obsessed with jerking men around so they can achieve power, wealth, and status—but redeemed, peaceful wives and mothers. They will have a purpose, and it will not be one defined by the so-called evil feminists and social-justice warriors. Welcome to the angst-ridden identity politics of angry men.

To continue ignoring these movements, or to attribute their actions to something else, only invites their unchecked growth. That shared sense of aimlessness and loneliness is real, and the resulting hunt for community, meaning, and change has not only fuelled the incel movement but the rise of other parallel, and sometimes converging, social phenomena: men’s rights activists, the alt-right, Donald Trump, and, yes, the mass popularity of Canada’s own Jordan Peterson. After all, Peterson’s international bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is marketed not as some alt-right screed, as certain lefty media often portray it, but as a self-help book.

And part of Peterson’s counselling is directed toward men, admonishing them to “toughen up, you weasel.” His “real man” proselytizing pinpoints the feminization of men and the “sexual liberation” of women as key factors behind many presumed societal woes, including declining marriage rates. “Boys are suffering, in the modern world,” he write. He emphasizes that this suffering happens under the pressure to play a “girls’ game.”

“What this means for the future,” he adds, “is that if men are pushed too hard to feminize, they will become more and more interested in harsh, fascist political ideology.” For men to be healthy, happy, and successful, he preaches, they need to be free of feminization, of weakness.

That this advice is coming for a man who once mused to a Vice reporter that he didn’t know whether men and women could ever coexist in the workplace without sexual harassment—but that one way to help would be to ban makeup in the workplace because it’s “sexually provocative”—is exactly the point. To be clear: Peterson does not advocate for violence against women or for the incel movement (and, as a married man, he’s by definition not one of them)—but that hasn’t stopped those with violent views from mimicking and even co-opting his rhetoric, or from seeing him as a champion. For those who want to use his views to justify their own, Peterson, and men presumed to be like him, personify reason, while feminists and their allies are illogical, hysterical fascists.

Yet, for all the talk of individual improvement, to disciples of the new manosphere the answer for fulfillment isn’t found inward but outward: to Peterson’s so-called chaos, to the corruption of traditional roles, and, for some, to women themselves. Incels believe they cannot get ahead because they are “ugly,” yes, but also because women are vapid, hypocritical “whores” who use makeup and internet dating to have sex with men above their “number match”—i.e., a five who dates a ten. These are presented as “blackpill” truths. Or, as one Twitter user suggested after the Toronto van attack: “If the Canadian government implemented a state distributed girlfriend program I GUARANTEE these attacks would stop.”

Among incels, such solutions are not uncommon—even if they’re sometimes played off as being tongue-in-cheek or blunt sarcasm. One incel told Global News that the community’s message boards are often mere venting or “dark humour.” Such a defence is not the unique domain of incels. This idea that we should find it funny when men degrade women, or reduce them to gross characterizations of our body parts, is ubiquitous.

For example, in mid-April, the Ontario NDP disqualified Matt Soprovich from running to be a candidate after finding social-media posts in which he compared “girls” to deer: “if you make any sudden movements they spook easy, and then you might end up hitting them with your car.” Soprovich complained to the CBC that “this was a stupid and juvenile post by a twenty-three-year-old close to a decade ago”—in fact, the comment was posted in 2013—and that he rejected “the accusation that this was a glorification of predatory behaviour on my part, whether real or perceived.” Such men are not incels (as the incels themselves will tell you), and it would be ridiculous to suggest that they are the equivalent of Lépine, Rodger, Cruz, or even Minassian. But they exhibit a misogyny that is no less disturbing for being so casually practiced. A couple of days after Bill Cosby’s recent conviction on three counts of sexual assault, I saw a Facebook photo circulating of a man wearing a shirt that said, in all caps, “Free Bill Cosby Fuck Them Hoes”—the caption, written by a man, included the emoji that’s laughing so hard it’s crying.

So long as women keep pressing for change—and are vocal about it through movements like #MeToo, Time’s Up, and last year’s Women’s March on Washington—the backlash will grow. But this is not a new revelation. I’ve spent the past four years talking to both feminists and anti-feminists for my book F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism. In it, I make the case that the backlash will only grow. Feminists, early on, tipped off the public about the broader societal connections to Lépine’s actions and warned of the potential for mass violence. We first raised the alarm over incel culture after Rodger achieved martyr status four years ago. And we are raising the alarm now as some start to mythologize Minassian’s attack. In recent years, we have also started calling for action on murdered and missing Indigenous women, persistently high rates of domestic violence, violence against sex workers, and violence against transgender women. We have told the world that violence, sexism, and hate have, for too many of us, become far too normal.

In a time like this, one of national tragedy, our shock can act as a buffer against seeing parallels between everyday life and Minassian’s alleged attack. We are searching for meaning in an act that is, to many of us, incomprehensible—an act that, even as we learn more about it, may not become any easier to understand. But, while we do not yet know what Minassian saw in the incel movement, we do know what it sees in him. Already, at least one threat of mass violence has appeared on, reportedly in response to the media’s public scrutiny of the movement. According to Canadaland, a user displaying Minassian’s photo as his profile picture urged a shooting at the CBC headquarters in Toronto, asking that his fellow members “become the hero that incels deserve” and kill as “many of those evil whores and normies reporters as possible.” Legitimate threat or not, it certainly won’t be the last expression of anger toward reporters, particularly female ones, that will appear on incel message boards.

Even as we mourn the Toronto attack, it is taking on a meaning intended to mock our grief. No matter what allegedly motivated Minassian, or the complex reasons that drove him, his actions are seen as a call to arms for a growing number of men who believe that they should be able to do what they want to women. Go on, tell me I’m being hysterical.

Lauren McKeon
Lauren McKeon is deputy editor of Reader's Digest Canada and the author of two books, F-Bomb and No More Nice Girls.