A Twisted Band of Brothers: From the Imagined World of Fight Club to White Incel Organizing Online

Markus Spiske
Photo by Markus Spiske and Image from Unsplash

The November Midterm elections—namely, the spread of misinformation and rise in election tampering allegations—provide a timely opportunity for observing the relationship between culture and white supremacy in the United States. This piece situates this in context of “incel” culture online alongside fictional imaginaries of masculinity in Fight Club as vessels for understanding how patterns of violent behavior, motivated by misogyny and white supremacy, are reinforced and cultivated in the imagined world and subsequently externalized through violence in the real world. These imagined patterns, though very real, manufacture their material contexts through a type of “incel” world-building which grants validation to violent impulses that facilitate actualization.

In many ways, this subset culture found its way into the real-world space through the popular novel, and later film, Fight Club. Fight Club replicates the nuanced contradictions of masculinity as an apparatus of both institutional and individual power(s). In Fight Club, despite the main character’s compliance with the dominant notions that define masculinity, these ideologies failed to empower or provide the happiness assured by this belief system. This fictional experience with the instability of power provides crucial context for examining the digital behavior of reactionary online hate communities. Fight Club demonstrated how socially prescripted power dynamics and performative expectations pushed individuals to engage in risk-taking and violent behaviors, or reactionary misogyny in hopes of (re)connecting with a ‘self’ dispossessed by institutional power. This image has motivated a digital enterprise towards power expressed in online (white supremacist) communities—situated within popular cultural iconography like Fight Club.

Fight Club is a tale of one man’s unfulfilled working class life alongside his charismatic, womanizing counterpart who invites audiences into a secret underworld of fight clubs- gatherings that invite men to participate in and/or observe a fistfight between two (consenting) members at local bars after closing hours.[1] The climax of the novel reveals that Durden is not actually a real person, but rather Jack’s somnambulated alter ego—produced as a surrogate to embody a masculinity from which he feels alienated.

Durden, as a projection of Jack, concretizes the crisis in masculinity as one between an institutionally proffered masculinity qualified by labor value, wealth, and completeness versus a socially defined one, characterized by participation in parlous behavior, intra-communal (quasi-fraternal) loyalty, physical strength, integrity, and chaos as a mechanism for contending with a crisis of masculinity engendered by its institutional counterpart.

This dualism is far from fiction. Digital communities built on misogyny and white supremacy, namely the manosphere, have constructed their own fight clubs. These spaces offer men the option of either choosing the “Red Pill” or the “Black Pill,” a symbolic choice that can unveil an enlightened realization that men cannot hold systemic power because women, empowered by feminism, have rejected them.[2]

The manosphere is characterized by four subcategories: incel (involuntary celibate communities), pick-up artists (not celibate), men’s rights activists, and Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW; voluntarily celibate). Incel communities, popularized on forums such as Incel.me, Reddit’s (now banned) r/Braincels, and 4chan, have cultivated a deeply ideological lore describing how men are organized hierarchically to represent their level of social power corresponding to criteria such as: fictive evolutionary biology that measures attractiveness by bone structure and size, level of sexual satisfaction, financial security, or race.[3] 

In similar form, Jack’s crisis in “Fight Club,” is critical in exposing masculinity as a site of social and cultural production(s) which operates clandestinely to reassert social roles. That is, incels have couched their project within a discrete and exclusive lexicon; they proliferate labels from Alpha and Beta Males to Chads, Stacys, and Normies, culminating as a niche glossary that inspires men to join a community that validates their lifelong struggles with rejection, jealously, and powerlessness, while also emboldening them to seize vindication from the women and unenlightened men who facilitate their injustice.

For incels, attributing social failures to supposedly fixed phenomena like bone structure or women’s innate hypergamy becomes a way to rationalize their experiences in a community setting—when confronted with institutional failures and a lifetime of rejection over which they hold no control or power, they resort to individualized violence. That is not to deflect responsibility from incels who commit violence either physically or otherwise, but is rather a commentary on the ways that masculinity has engineered a particularly insidious canon in which: (1) men unfulfilled by virtue of institutional failures (in mental health, labor rights, or dating, for instance); (2) institutional emphasis on individualism has manipulated those failures to be understood as both self-inflicted and situational; (3) in search of reconciling those experiences, men turn to violence to regain a sense of autonomy and the empowerment to exercise power independently.[4] 

Much like taking the “Red Pill,” and accepting the notion that men are fixed into positions of being unattractive and unlovable, Jack turns towards “self-destruction” as “the answer;” a desperate attempt to escape the fictive narratives of individual success and upward mobility concocted by capitalism’s promises.[5] The surge of white supremacist and misogynistic digital communities has revealed the reactionary operationalizations of masculine power and exposed the foundations for its emergence in the public sphere. This formula for masculinity imbues men—namely white, wealthy, cis-gendered, and heterosexual ones—with innate power which is ideologically, sometimes violently, enforced in the quotidian lifeways of patriarchal familial structures, capitalism, and/or political power. These masculinity ideas not only animate these online ideologies, but also are valuable for exploring how it has transitioned into the larger political space, as reflected in the recent intimidation tactics around ballot boxes

Still, online incel communities continue to grow and adapt across a variety of platforms despite efforts from popular sites like Reddit to crack down and moderate them.[6] Their resilience demands urgent attention to de-radicalizing men who have already become immersed in the community and preventatively acting to ensure young men do not acquiesce to the ideological trance pedaled by the manosphere. The seduction of this ideological project is situated both institutionally and interpersonally, and demands action in both. As such, its liquidation demands a commitment to radical institutional changes in the social and political sphere to deconstruct the philosophies of misogyny and white supremacy which empower incel communities online. Failure to do so will only fuel its ascent into the real world, and harken more political confrontations in the future.

[1] Palahniuk, Chuck. 1992. Fight Club. London, England: Vintage.

[2] “Misogynist Incels And Male Supremacism”. 2022. New America. https://www.newamerica.org/political-reform/reports/misogynist-incels-and-male-supremacism/red-pill-to-black-pill/.

[3] ContraPoints. “Incels | ContraPoints.” YouTube video. August 17, 2018. https://youtu.be/fD2briZ6fB0

[4] Edgework: A Social Psychological Analysis of Voluntary Risk Taking, p. 879

[5] Palahniuk, pp. 49.

[6] “Reddit Bans ‘Incel’ Group For Inciting Violence Against Women (Published 2017)”. 2017. Nytimes.Com. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/09/technology/incels-reddit-banned.html

Maddie Pieropan is a third-year American Studies student at the University of Kansas. Their research interests include studies of American Popular Culture and Digital Humanities with a focus on contemporary media advertising, algorithm development, and digital culture.

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