On April 19, a 25-year-old man plowed a rented van into a crowd of bystanders in the middle of downtown Toronto, killing 10 and seriously wounding many more. Initially many assumed it had been another attack inspired by the radical Islamist ideology of ISIS or al-Qaeda, as these groups had pioneered the new terrorist method of vehicle ramming attacks. The truth, as it turned out, was far stranger.
The man behind the wheel apparently carried out his horrific and monstrous attack, not due to political, racial, or religious motivations but rather due to the simple fact that he was unable to form romantic and sexual connections with women.
In a bizarre Facebook post that, understandably, caused many to question its authenticity when it was first reported, the killer declared he was beginning an “incel rebellion” against the “Chads” and “Stacys.” He then went on to praise the “supreme gentleman” who in 2014 killed six and wounded 14 others in Isla Vista, California. That shooter had justified his rampage on the misogynistic pretext of avenging his fragile ego against the women who had sexually rejected him.
Since the Toronto attack, the word “incel” (short for “involuntary celibate”) has gone from being a niche term used on Reddit forums that promote pickup artist ideologies and on some of the darker and more obscure corners of Twitter to being discussed in detail by mainstream media outlets like CNN, the BBC, and Fox News.
While many analyses have focused solely on the toxic online “manosphere” subculture that apparently coined the term, with its open hatred and contempt for women, in an attempt to understand this new phenomenon of “radical incel terrorism,” these tend to be both reductive and superficial. The actual origins of the new and very real phenomenon of incel terrorism are far older and far stranger than most people realize. These origins are best understood, not by scrolling through the archives of toxic message boards, but, like most things in life, through art. In particular: cinema.
In fact, the real origins of incel terror predate not only the term “incel” but also the Internet itself. In 1989, a 25-year-old man in Montreal used a Mini-14 rifle (the same weapon used years later by a notorious Norwegian mass-shooter) to kill 14 female students. In his suicide note, he claimed he had committed the massacre as an act of revenge against “the feminists” whom he claimed had “ruined his life.” But while the perpetrator of the École Polytechnique massacre himself seems to have been the first attacker employing terroristic methods to openly proclaim the misogynistic motivations for his crimes, the real godfather of incel terrorism may be older and stranger still. None other than the notorious Unabomber himself: Ted Kaczynski.
While the enigmatic and brilliant (if evil may be said sometimes to be “brilliant”) Kaczynski is best known for his manifesto “Industrial Society and its Future” in which he argues, not entirely unconvincingly, that: “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race” his real motivation may have been, at least in part, more similar to that of “incel terrorists” than is commonly understood.
Though possessing a genius-level intellect, Kaczynski was emotionally detached, socially awkward and seemed to find great difficulty managing relationships with other people, especially women. Kaczynski, though now in his 70s, according to everything we know, is still technically a virgin. One of the main events, according to his brother, that preceded him taking up occupancy at the remote cabin in which he would build his mailbombs was a rejection by a woman for whom he had expressed romantic interest. This rejection, apparently, was so traumatic for him that he flew into a rage and posted obscene and misogynist post-it notes defaming the woman in question all over their shared workplace. Still, even if misogyny itself was not the direct motivation for Kaczynski’s bombings, his life of romantic frustration and social humiliation punctuated by an outburst of terroristic violence bears all the hallmarks of the “incel” condition that seems to have motivated men like the Toronto van driver.
And it is these very lives of social and romantic frustration, not the bombastic and misogynistic rants found in online message boards, which are the real root of our so-called “incel” crisis. Lives that come into sharper focus when we observe them through the lens of a film projector and, ironically enough, many of the films of Ryan Gosling.
“Blue Valentine” Sets the Stage
On the face of it Gosling—a handsome, famous, and successful movie star—may seem an odd avatar to represent the face of a movement preoccupied with misogyny and embodied by personal failure. Yet Gosling’s film roles are a catalog of characters who exhibit all of the trademark characteristics of the socially isolated, alienated and emotionally stunted young men who comprise incel culture.
The films “Lars and the Real Girl,” “Blue Valentine,” “Drive,” and “Blade Runner 2049”—in particular—stand out as films in which Gosling’s character is, if not a literal incel, then at the very least a spiritual one. It is surely also no coincidence that these films happen to represent some of Gosling’s most impressive performances. The last three, in particular, symbolize a kind of apotheosis of what we can perhaps describe as an emergent “incel cinema.”
“Blue Valentine” the 2010 romantic drama in which Gosling starred opposite Michelle Williams in a hyper-realistic and genuinely heartbreaking portrayal of the slow death of the protagonists’ marriage, is the first of these three. Gosling’s character, Dean Pereira, is an ambitionless but uber romantic high school dropout who becomes infatuated with the beautiful and career driven med-student, Cindy, who is presently in a relationship with a fellow student named Bobby. Bobby is a confident and arrogant college wrestler who treats Cindy with contempt, illustrated by his cavalier decision to have unprotected sex with her without her consent while she is submissively braced against a wall. Thus, he is the quintessential embodiment of what the Toronto van terrorist would describe as a “Chad” which, in the incel lexicon, is a term used to describe socially confident and sexually successful “alpha males.”
To make matters worse, at least from the incel perspective, although Cindy breaks up with Bobby after this mistreatment she later discovers, while she has begun dating the charming loser Dean, that she has become pregnant with Bobby’s child. But upon receiving this news Dean, naive romantic that he is, tells Cindy that this doesn’t matter and that he will be happy to marry her and raise Cindy’s unborn child as his own. Dean, therefore, becomes quite literally, a “cuck”—a slang term for “cuckold” popularized as an insult during the 2016 presidential campaign in reference to anti-Trump conservatives who, in the estimation of their critics, appeared to be happy losers. “Cuck” is also a term used commonly by the incel community as it serves to highlight some of their deepest anxieties about women. In particular, they fear being manipulated into supporting a child that has been fathered by another man—a man who the woman in question, presumably (at least in the strange world of incel logic,) would vastly prefer to the submissive and low-status “beta male” with whom she has “settled” most likely for financial reasons.
The film then transports us five years into the future, Dean and Cindy are married and are busy raising Cindy’s daughter, whom Dean loves deeply and treats as if she were his own. Dean works as a house painter and nurses a beer gut while Cindy has a well-paying job as a nurse in a local doctor’s office. Though Dean seems more than happy with his current situation and also seems to love his wife as much as ever, Cindy is obviously profoundly unhappy with Dean’s lack of achievement and ambition. Their relationship, in spite of Dean’s best if pitiful efforts, proceeds to fall apart. In the end, Dean is forced to leave in a heartrending sequence as his young daughter trails behind, urging him to come back.
“Blue Valentine’s” brutally realistic portrayal of a failing relationship serves as the perfect vehicle to illustrate the anxieties and paranoia of the men who view themselves as incels. It is a portrayal which earned it a glowing and characteristically merciless review from the notorious manosphere blogger “Heartiste” who praised it in the following terms:
Blue Valentine does the best job to date of any movie at illuminating the crass functioning of the mating market and the competing, and mutually alien, desires that animate men and women. It’s a dark and claustrophobic reminder of the fragile contingencies which sustain love. If the movie makes the phalanx of women leaving the theater uncomfortable, it’s only because it hits a little too close to home.
“Drive” and the Real (Sexless) Hero
A year after “Blue Valentine” was released to unsuspecting audiences who probably expected a conventional romance story, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” hit theatres. Although each of the films possesses plots and settings that are superficially dissimilar from each other, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to view “Drive” as a kind of esoteric sequel to “Blue Valentine.”
Set in an anonymous Los Angeles, “Drive” chronicles Gosling’s protagonist, a part-time stunt driver who manages to remain nameless throughout the entire length of the film, as he fights to save a woman and her son from a vicious crew of mobsters.
Gosling’s character, known only as “The Driver” is an emotionless and solitary individual without any real family or friends, save his mechanic. He is a man whose only real interest is driving, whether behind the wheel of a stunt vehicle, a race car, or while moonlighting as a getaway wheelman for criminal heists. This is his only real interest, that is, until he encounters his beautiful neighbor Irene and her young son, with whom he proceeds to develop a close and affectionate yet notably platonic relationship. This relationship is cut short, however, when Irene’s ex-convict husband Benicio is released from prison.
Her husband then finds himself under pressure to hold up a pawn shop in order to repay a debt he owes. Out of sympathy for the family’s plight and his obvious romantic infatuation with Irene, Gosling’s character magnanimously offers to help, by manning a getaway car. The heist goes south though and Benicio is killed, leading to a car chase which reveals a web of intrigue involving a million dollars in cash, a network of angry mobsters who want it back, and a plot to kill Irene and her son lest they become potential witnesses. The rest of the film then evolves into a hyper-violent chronicle of the Driver’s quest to save Irene and her son.
The most interesting, and for our purposes relevant, aspect of the film’s story, however, is the relationship between Gosling’s seemingly emotionless Driver and the object of his affection, Irene. In contrast to the character he portrayed in “Blue Valentine”—an individual who was passive, almost contemptibly desperate for his wife’s love, and who wore his emotions on his sleeve—Gosling’s Driver is painted in entirely opposite colors. The Driver is mostly silent (aside from the occasional, savage explosions of physical violence), possesses seemingly unflappable confidence, and is almost wholly emotionally vacant.
If one wishes to indulge in an apocryphal reading of “Drive” as the esoteric sequel to “Blue Valentine,” it makes sense to interpret the character of the Driver as merely an evolved form of the very same character Gosling played in “Blue Valentine.” They are separated chronologically by perhaps only a few years. With the good-natured and naïve Dean, having had his heart broken and family destroyed by a divorce he didn’t want, heading out West in search of a fresh start, emotional solitude and perhaps the pursuit of a kind of unconscious death wish. With nothing left to lose he is able to reinvent himself as a stunt driver and part-time criminal who spends his free time either alone or seeking out new and creative ways to flirt with the death he secretly desires. Until, of course, he meets Irene. Another pretty blonde damsel in distress who, like Michelle Williams’ character in “Blue Valentine,” is also a troubled single mom who seems to prefer, or at least formerly preferred, the company of cruel or unreliable men. Nevertheless, after her ex-con husband is killed in the botched robbery attempt there would seem to be an opening to a potentially redemptive romance for both of them as it becomes evident that the romantic feelings are now mutual.
If “Drive” had been merely a standard Hollywood film and not one of the finest existing examples of contemporary “incel cinema” this would be the place in the story arc to begin the romantic relationship which would eventually blossom into a satisfying, climatic emotional payoff for the audience. But, of course, this doesn’t happen. Instead, although the emotional connection and romantic chemistry felt between the two protagonists only continues to grow, it is never actually realized. This is a true-to-life “incel” romantic endeavor. The closest the protagonists come to expressing their love for one another is in a memorable and, strangely dreamlike, elevator scene. In which Irene and the Driver share a tender kiss right before he beats a mafia hitman to death with a hammer.
Even after the climax of the film, in which the Driver liberates Irene from the threat of assassination once and for all by finally killing off the nefarious mafia boss, no romantic resolution is to be found. Instead of claiming the just reward for his heroism, which potentially included both a new life of love and happiness with Irene as well as the million dollars contained in the suitcase, the Driver, wounded and bleeding, simply gets into his car, pauses, and then drives off into the distance while the mournful synthpop sounds of Electric Youth’s “A Real Hero” plays in the background.
“Blade Runner 2049”: The Apotheosis of Incel Cinema
What separates Gosling’s portrayal of the modern incel condition—with its alienation, lovelessness and deep loneliness—from the reality of the same is the utter lack of misogyny contained in his performances. Even “Blue Valentine,” the film that comes the closest to presenting a potentially negative view of the female lead refuses to indulge in the simplistic and juvenile cheap-shots which would come naturally to the frequently pathologically resentful denizens of online incel forums. Instead, these films present the female lead, in spite of the obvious anguish her actions inflict on Gosling’s character, as a deeply conflicted and ultimately sympathetic figure.
Understanding Gosling’s performances as non-misogynistic depictions of the incel condition is a bit misleading, however. A better way to understand them, perhaps, are as post-misogynistic performances. It is an almost zen-like condition most acutely displayed in the Driver’s strange, detached confidence. It is the kind of confidence that can only be acquired when one has ceased to desire; a thousand yard stare of the heart, if you will. This kind of detached heroism doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of love and empathy, however. In fact, it seems somehow to heighten them, but not necessarily in the traditionally romantic way, as we can observe in Gosling’s most recent, and most complex film, “Blade Runner 2049.”
“Blade Runner 2049,” is the story of a replicant (cyborg) played by Gosling called K, who is assigned to hunt down and destroy renegade members of his own synthetic race. It is truly the apotheosis of incel cinema. Though it was lambasted by various feminist critics, most of these critiques unfairly relied on an uncharitable hermeneutic of suspicion in which the film’s complexities were reduced to some kind of latent and simplistic misogyny. Although the film does address uncomfortable truths about the reality of modern sexual relations, ultimately—like Gosling’s other work—it is a profoundly post-misogynistic film.
Gosling’s K, much like the Driver, is seemingly detached, socially alienated, and alone. The only emotional connection K seems able to form is with a holographic female companion named “Joi” who seems to love him unconditionally and is also able perfectly to embody traditional male ideals of femininity. Joi, of course, only exists as a digital file, while the film’s other female lead, and main antagonist, “Luv” is all too real.
Luv, like K, is also a replicant. Although there is a potentially telling bit of sexual tension between Luv and K upon their initial meeting, this quickly devolves into a mutual antagonism and competition as the film’s plot progresses. One of the more interesting, and frequently underappreciated aspects of Luv’s character is her preoccupation, which was obviously quite personal for her, with helping the Wallace corporation discover a method by which replicants could somehow “naturally” reproduce.
Thus, it is difficult not to interpret Luv as a kind of obvious avatar for the modern career woman, locked in brutal competition with her male peers, represented by K but still desiring natural female ends. Peers who in times past would have been obvious candidates for romantic partnership have now been transformed by cutthroat professional competition and by the new requirements of the global neoliberal marketplace into rivals. This competition is exacerbated by the naturally unfair biological clock to which Luv, and by extension, the class of modern career women she represents, are subject. Hence Luv’s obsession with discovering the key to a natural method of replicant reproduction.
During the rising action of their conflict, Luv defeats K and then proceeds to crush under her heel the device to which K had downloaded his beloved Joi’s personality. Thus, for K the only woman he could genuinely love in a physical sense crushes the only feminine ideal that could ever bring him joy. She literally crushes his Joi. It is evident that much of Luv’s contempt for K stems from his obvious preference for pursuing a romantic relationship with a hologram over her. This is a transparent allusion to modern female disgust with male consumption of pornography, a common complaint of which being that it frequently leads men to develop bizarre and unrealistic expectations for their relationships with women in the real world.
A better reading of Joi, however, is as a representation of the male desire for a traditional femininity which has now been rendered archaic by neoliberal market forces as well as having been deconstructed and revealed to be oppressive under the lens of contemporary feminist theory. K, in strikingly incel fashion, is thus revealed to be incapable of developing romantic emotions unless he is confronted with a reality (or, in this case: an illusion) which approximates traditional ideals of femininity—ideals which simply no longer correspond with the real world. This has the result of rendering both K, and the modern incel which he represents, unable to love women as he finds them in the post-industrial societies produced by neoliberal economic conditions and progressive ideologies. This is illustrated clearly in a remarkable and disquieting scene in which Joi hires a prostitute for K who is then able to have sex with her, but only once Joi’s own ideal image is overlaid onto the prostitute’s body.
Lest one be tempted to read a superficial right-wing subtext into the film’s storyline, it is later revealed that K’s fixation with traditional feminine ideals has a profound dark side which is traumatically revealed to him after his initial defeat by Luv and the resulting death of Joi. In perhaps the film’s most iconic scene, a battered K is seen walking across an abandoned walkway when he encounters a giant holographic advertisement featuring a sexually alluring Joi who tells him that he “looks like a good Joe” the very same name K’s Joi had formerly insisted was his real name when it was revealed that K might not be a lab-born replicant after all, but instead the miraculous offspring of a human and replicant pairing. This revelation is crushing to K, calling into question, as it did, the authenticity of Joi herself and, also, the traditional feminine ideal she represented.
The climax of the film’s battle of the sexes between K and Luv takes places on a dark abandoned beach on which they engage in a brutal fight to the death and during which Luv declares triumphantly: “I’m the best one” after giving K a final, violent kiss. K, though severely wounded by the encounter, ultimately triumphs, however, drowning Luv in the rising tide.
The film ends with K safely delivering Deckard, the original Blade Runner played by Harrison Ford, to the daughter he had been separated from since her birth—a daughter he was forced to abandon in order to save. While Deckard hurries inside to reunite with the family he thought he had lost, K, though it was his own selfless heroism that had reunited Deckard’s family, must wait outside, finally at peace with the reality that he will never be able to enter this realm of interpersonal love for which he had so long been pining.
This morose ending is what truly unites “Blue Valentine,” “Drive,” and “Blade Runner 2049,” all of which end in a similar fashion: with the protagonist, whether due to his own decisions or those of others, unable to enter into the promised land of domestic life and love their protagonists seemed so much to desire. These endings, of course, are a direct echo of the end of the classic 1956 John Wayne film “The Searchers,” in which a grizzled and world-weary John Wayne is unable to enter through the doorway separating him from the civilized, domestic harmony his heroism helped to make possible.
Gosling’s performances prophetically illuminate the spiritual struggle of so many lonely, loveless young men living in the shadow of neo-liberal society, many of whom have given themselves over to poisonous, self-destructive forms of resentment which can, in rare but high profile cases, manifest themselves in brutal, misogynistic violence and terrorism. Perhaps Gosling’s characters can offer these young men an alternative narrative that, while recognizing the suffering caused by their social isolation, rejects their misogyny and self-loathing in favor of heroism and love. It is not a sentimental or romantic love, however.
The hard truth may be that many of these young men may, for one reason or another, like Gosling’s characters, simply be too personally damaged ever to be reconciled to a healthy romantic and domestic life. Life is, after all, a tragedy and not a morality play. In the end, the truth may be, for many of the troubled young men of the early 21st century, that, as Deckard tells K in “Blade Runner 2049”: “Sometimes, to love someone . . . you gotta be a stranger.”