Red pill. Incels. Pickup artists. The manosphere. If any of these terms ring a bell, then you’re likely already aware of this week’s topic: an upswell of communities dedicated to asserting, promoting, defending, and recruiting for their own idealized concept of masculinity.

The kids may be all right, but the young men are not.

When the term “red pill” first came to our attention, the sheer nastiness that travels under that name—posted in dark corners of the internet but still quite searchable—kept us from writing on it. Now that we’ve decided to, two disclaimers are in order.

First: Readers are advised that this week’s articles contain coarse and demeaning language, and if your experience is anything like ours, venturing down the rabbit hole on this topic will be both disturbing and depressing. Our purpose in highlighting these pieces is to draw attention to an important cultural development, not to encourage a deep dive into its various online expressions. Second: A trend as complex as this one can only be seen from multiple angles, which are certain to include commentary on its causes and effects that strike a given reader as inappropriate or overreaching. It’s not our intention here to endorse any one commentator’s perspective. What’s important is that there is a widespread and heated debate on the nature of masculinity, that it’s taking place in a particular cultural climate with features we can name, and that it has real-world consequences that demand our attention.

With that said, we’ll approach this topic in two parts: this week we’ll identify, turning a spotlight on major expressions of toxic masculinity; next week we’ll contextualize, naming features of the cultural climate in which these expressions emerge.

 

The online wilderness known as The Red Pill exists as a collection of forums on anonymous message-board sites like Reddit and 4chan. Stephen Marche’s essay for The Guardian explains its essence well (and for those who choose to read the whole piece, we’ll repeat our obscenity warning here):

The name derives from a scene in the 1999 film The Matrix, in which Laurence Fishburne offers Keanu Reeves a choice: “You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

The rabbit hole, in this case, is the “reality” that women run the world without taking responsibility for it, and that their male victims are not permitted to complain. This makes The Red Pill a continuous, multi-voiced, up-to-the-minute male complaint nestled at the heart of the so-called manosphere – a network of websites preoccupied with both the men’s rights movement and how to pick up women.

After many hours of lurking in Red Pill forums and a chatroom interview with its chief Reddit moderator, Marche traces its thematic contours and tries to discern what’s new about this communal expression of masculine angst. For one thing, anonymity provides the cover under which stifled resentment can bubble up as unfiltered (and sometimes violent) rage. For another, message-boards tend to develop idiosyncratic “glossaries” of abbreviations and inside-jokes that create a sense of camaraderie and belonging. But mostly what strikes Marche is the “humourlessness” of what he reads. Among his many memorable lines is the assessment that Red Pill forums are populated by “feral boys wandering the digital ruins of exploded masculinity, howling their misery, concocting vast nonsense about women, and craving the tiniest crumb of self-confidence and fellow-feeling.”

The moderators of Red Pill forums believe they’re creating space for men to harmlessly “blow off steam”—and for many of us, online forums function just this way. As Marche makes clear, the Red Pill community is asking questions all men ask—how to earn respect from their employers, how to develop better habits, how to stick up for themselves in conflict, how to raise their children, and, undergirding it all, how to earn the affection of the women they desire. These questions (and many like them) are timeless, the kind that are discussed on long walks and barstools, with fathers and father-figures, pastors and peers. They’re part of growing up.

When those discussions are confined to internet message-boards, however, something changes. Virtual conversations between strangers cloaked in usernames do little to build real relationships of trust and care; and, as Marche makes plain, they’re often shot through with the kind of obscenity that only emerges under the cover of anonymity. To make matters worse, virtual communities have little to no ability to rein in those members who are teetering on the edge of extremism. Take, for example, 2014’s “Gamergate” scandal, in which graphic and detailed death threats by misogynist videogamers drew FBI investigations and forced multiple women to flee their homes. The perpetrators of deadly attacks in Santa Barbara in 2014 and Toronto last month both identified as “Incels” (short for “involuntary celibate”), “an online community of men united by their inability to convince women to have sex with them.” As the latter article explains, “a small radical fringe [of Incels] believes that violence, especially against women, is an appropriate response—that an “Incel Rebellion” or “Beta [Male] Uprising” will eventually overturn the sexual status quo.”

Equally concerning is the link, documented in a December Atlantic feature by Andrea Nagle, as well as this Vox explainer, between online communities incubating toxic ideals of masculinity and those promoting racism and far-right extremism. Online groups for conspiracy theorists and white nationalist, fascist, and neo-Nazi sympathizers—like the ones who showed up at last summer’s infamous rally in Charlottesville—are deeply entangled with Red Pill forums, so much so that “being red pilled” has become a kind of umbrella term, now used to refer to any number of toxic and twisted so-called “awakenings”—about (for example) “liberalism’s nefarious anti-white agenda,” or “the true stakes of the Jewish problem.” As Nagle’s piece shows, online radicalization happens in silence, but can have real and deadly consequences. (Podcast enthusiasts: Though unrelated to the world of Red Pill, the current NYT audio series Caliphate is a gripping and tragic account of a young Canadian man’s online radicalization).

Online forums aren’t the only place where masculinity is being debated. Emerging contemporaneously are a new wave of masculinity gurus who are anything but anonymous. Many readers will have heard, for example, of Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychology professor whose bestselling book 12 Rules for Life has landed him squarely in the spotlight of the culture wars. One way to understand why, short of reading the 400-page book, is to listen to his interviews, like this one for Vox, or this longer one for Britain’s Channel 4 News. Peterson is inescapably divisive (as numerous profiles, critical, sympathetic, and mixed, demonstrate), but his message is very different from the violent obscenity that emerges on Red Pill forums. Nevertheless, his current notoriety appears, to our eyes, to be another consequence of the cultural vacuum left by a lack of consensus about what it means to be a good man. In that vacuum, a figure with Peterson’s confidence and articulacy will attract devoted followers, strident critics, and a whole lot of press.

The current eruption of debate about masculinity emerges at the convergence of multiple cultural currents, many of which we have been tracking for several years here at Culture Briefing. In next week’s volume, we’ll name a few of these currents, point you to insightful commentary on them, and offer some thoughts about the kind of response they invite from each of us.

continue to Vol. 110: On Toxic Masculinity (Part 2)