This essay has been peer-reviewed by “The New Extremism” special issue editors (Adrienne Massanari and David Golumbia), and the b2o: An Online Journal editorial board.
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.
—Morpheus, The Matrix (Wachowski and Wachowski 1999)
In the 1999 film The Matrix, Morpheus presents the protagonist, Neo, with the option of taking one of two pills: taking the blue pill would close off Neo’s burgeoning consciousness of the constructed nature of his life in the Matrix; taking the red pill would allow Neo to remain in Wonderland, meaning he would remain conscious of the real world around him. In The Matrix, human beings who have not taken the red pill exist in a type of virtual reality. Thus, to “take the red pill” means to be awakened—to become conscious—to see the world for what it truly is.
The phrase entered popular vernacular in ways that the transgender Wachowski siblings undoubtedly never intended. In the context of The Matrix, taking the Red Pill means awakening to the oppressive mechanisms of control. But the phrase has been taken up by the far right to mean waking up to the oppressive mechanisms of feminism, progressive politics, and multiculturalism (Read 2019). Notably, on the popular content aggregator and forum website Reddit, the prominent men’s rights/pick up artist subreddit r/TheRedPill takes its name from this famous scene. However, instead of giving the user insight to see the world as one where robots have enslaved humanity, the Reddit “red pill” awakens men to the realization that they have been enslaved by women and feminism (Baker 2017; Ging 2019; Van Valkenburgh 2018).
This rhetoric may feel familiar to those who have been following the rhetoric of the alt right, who often point to the need to “wake people up” to a constructed reality where white people— particularly white men—have been oppressed by feminism and multiculturalism. Discussions surrounding the Manosphere, (a loosely connected online network of men’s rights activists, pick up artists, Incels [so-called Involuntary Celibates], and other male-focused social movements) in both popular media as well as academic scholarship point to the ways the Manosphere functions as a gateway ideology for the alt right (Futrelle 2017b). Often, the broad connection that links these two groups together is misogyny and anti-feminist sentiments that they use as a way to ground their group identity and the political goals of the various factions within them. These affective dimensions that appeal to the frustration and anger of men who flock to these groups then create a new cultural practice (Ahmed, 2004). Although what these men pride themselves is their ability to think logically about the “reality of the sexual marketplace,” what we see emerging is a stronger appeal to emotion that then shapes their relationship with the group itself, and is performed through misogyny.
The ways misogyny is performed on r/TheRedPill is under the guise of providing a “positive identity for men” by highlighting mechanisms by which Manosphere discourse and ideology can set up a foundation for further radicalization into more extremist thought. The ways the group strategizes in facilitating this radicalization as well as how it indoctrinates its members warrants further exploration, particularly to understand how such processes may occur. Particularly, the ways that the Manosphere’s ideology may set up a foundation for further indoctrination is important to highlight the radicalization process, since the Manosphere’s “pill” may be easier to swallow at first than outright white supremacy (Futrelle 2017b). Since the Manosphere and its many groups lure members into their communities by playing on their frustrations regarding sexual and romantic relationships, the ways that this radicalization occurs may be subtle at first but become more pronounced as time goes on.
r/TheRedPill is both a prominent community in the Manosphere as well as a sizable Reddit community on its own. With over 400,000 members scattered across a variety of affiliated subreddits (i.e., r/RedPillWomen and r/RedPillParenting), the subreddit is not just a notable case study for its sheer size and popularity within the Manosphere but also for the ways the community has expanded its boundaries to appeal to a larger group of people—including women. By positioning itself as a social movement, the radicalization happening within the Manosphere first attracts men by appealing to their sexual or romantic frustrations, and then promises to give them the tools to alleviate this frustration and become “better men” for it. Unlike MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way), whose members voluntarily abstain from romantic or sexual relationships to reclaim their “power” (Futrelle 2017a), and unlike Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), who do not focus on pursuing sexual and romantic relationships, r/TheRedPill packages itself as a group that helps men successfully engage in sexual or romantic relationships with the added benefit of reclaiming one’s manhood.
To “Red Pillers” (what r/TheRedPill members call themselves and are referred to as outside of the community), feminism and society in general promote “sexual strategies” that favor women, thus giving women power in relationships, whereas The Red Pill community teaches men sexual strategies to take back the power in sexual or romantic relationships. Focusing on only heterosexual relationships, to “Red Pill” in this context means to invoke heteronormative gender roles that benefit the man in the relationship and subjugate the woman, a dynamic achieved by becoming what they call an “Alpha Male.” On the surface, r/TheRedPill is mostly aligned with the Pick-Up Artist (PUA) community, which teaches men strategies to seduce women, but cultivates a more intense focus on men’s rights activism.
Importantly, men who adhere to the teachings promulgated by r/TheRedPill view it as much more than sexual strategy—they view it as an identity, a community, and an ideology in which they base their realities upon. Recently, and particularly after the 2016 election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, studies have emerged in both academia and within journalistic sources that attempt to lump together MRAs with Red Pillers and Incels as similar groups that belong in the Manosphere (Ging 2019). However, it is critical to understand that they are different and distinct from one another within the larger Manosphere ecosystem, particularly in terms of how they define themselves. Yet the common thread running through these communities that connects them to the larger alt right movement is misogyny. Misogyny, and the rejection of feminism, which many men in these groups view as a “cancer” inflicted upon “Western civilization,” are the glue that keep these groups within the same extremist networks.
“How Women Destroy Western Civilization”
The discourse in the forum focusing on the ways “Western civilization is doomed,” especially in so far as feminism and/or women can be blamed for it, is perhaps one of the clearest indications of the links between the Manosphere and the alt right. It is this misogyny that helps bind together these affective networks of rage (Ahmed, 2004), which drives the movements to attempt to subvert and replace a perceived dominant culture they feel is oppressive to [white] men. Although there are many Red Pillers who explicitly reject the association of the group with white supremacy, for there are indeed non-white Red Pillers, the rhetoric that both movements espouse is constructed based on three central claims: 1. That Western Civilization has been ruined by feminism; 2. That men are oppressed, and only by fixing this “imbalance” will Western Civilization be saved; and 3. That women who reject feminism and instead embrace “traditional” roles as wives and mothers, subservient to their husbands, are happier. Accordingly, men in the r/TheRedPill community do not necessarily reject women who are not virgins (unlike Incels, who insist on the virginity of women that they aspire to be with), but do believe that women are morally, intellectually, and physically inferior to men, thus providing the basis of the argument for why feminism has violated the “natural order” of things by giving women power (Manne 2017).
The violation of a “natural order” based in biological determinism in regard to race and sex is a core argument used in far-right circles, including the Manosphere, to justify their beliefs. And although they share many similarities in regard to the superiority of men over women, grouping the Manosphere and the alt right under the same umbrella is insufficient to understand the crux of their ideologies and the arguments they use to support them. The Manosphere often invokes a nostalgic remembrance of a past before feminism “tainted” women, just as white supremacist rhetoric in other parts of the alt-right also invokes this kind of nostalgic remembrance of a past that was white and patriarchal. However, in terms of how directly connected the Manosphere is to white supremacy, one piece of “literature” that r/TheRedPill uses to support their ideological beliefs about women and “hypergamy” comes directly from The Occidental Quarterly, a known white nationalist/white supremacist academic journal funded by the Charles Martel society (Southern Poverty Law Center n.d.). The Occidental Quarterly helps to blast open a gateway from r/TheRedPill to white supremacy and/or white nationalism. What r/TheRedPill and its affiliated subreddits and websites has demonstrated through publications like these is that the rabbit hole goes deeper than sexual strategy.
Hypergamy, in particular, is a concept that highlights the ways the misogynistic discourse of the Manosphere and the white supremacist movement (in particular, the alt right) are connected. Devlin, the author of the piece, begins an article by stating that “white birthrates worldwide have suffered a catastrophic decline in recent decades,” (see figure 1), and goes on to explain why hypergamy is the reason why. Specifically, hypergamy is defined as a sexual and romantic drive to be with the “Alpha Male,” regardless of current relationship status. In other words, women will instinctively seek out the most attractive, successful, or powerful man in a group to have sexual or romantic relations with, and this “hypergamy” drives women to only “mate at the top.” Devlin goes on to say that the sexual revolution of the 1960s shifted culture to be a “female sexual utopia,” and that this brought upon a new cultural norm where women had sexual rights, leading to the downfall of “white birthrates” and “Western civilization.” In sum, the article states that it is not only hypergamy that is responsible for this downfall, but that women having sexual and reproductive freedom is the cause of all of the modern day white man’s woes—sexually, romantically, economically, and culturally. Pointing to all of these collapses of a patriarchal, white, masculine world as the reason for the discontent of “Western civilization”, the concept of hypergamy is easily transportable across these extremist groups and easily embraced.
The reclamation of power is the fundamental motivation that drives these communities. This article, as well as many of the other readings that serve as the foundation of r/TheRedPill and Manosphere thought, are about reclaiming masculinity, reclaiming power, and reclaiming truth and reality in general. They not only give the men who flock to these communities an answer; they also completely disassemble the world the person knew before (thus the phrase “being Red Pilled”). The postmodern era is most notably significant for the collapse of the “grand narratives” that held societies together, and in particular in Western contexts these grand narratives were based in hegemonic masculinity, patriarchy, Christian religion, and whiteness. The ideologies of r/TheRedPill and the Manosphere promise a return to this grand narrative to ground one’s reality. This collapsing—and ultimate rebuilding—of a grand narrative and purpose that privileges male power over all else, then, helps develop a mind to accept more extremist thoughts and to act on them. Not unlike the tactics used by cults, who often exploit people who are seeking meaning, The Manosphere and the alt right provide meaning in the form of misogyny and white supremacy, creating an “affective fabric” that binds them together (Kuntsman, 2012).
It is worth mentioning that the material consequences of the extremist ideologies of the Manosphere have often resulted in mass violence. Elliott Rodger, the Isla Vista shooter, was a member of PUA communities online (McGuire 2014) and is often venerated in communities like r/Incels, where they refer to him as “Saint Elliott.” James Jackson stabbed an elderly black man to death in New York with a sword and was also a member of MGTOW. Indeed, MGTOW is the more extreme faction of the Manosphere and is often not concerned with the advancement of men’s rights. It thus lends itself easily to other extremist beliefs.
Along with r/Incels, MGTOW may be the most severe and extreme of all of the groups of the Manosphere. This does not, however, mean that r/TheRedPill and other Manosphere groups are not extreme or severe in their misogyny, but rather that their packaging of their misogynistic beliefs may be easier to swallow at first and lead men who flock to their groups down the rabbit hole even farther. By positioning themselves as advocating for the interests of men, and as groups that foster “positive identities” for them, they are able to recruit members who feel as though they are lost and without community—providing them with a sense of belonging and a group identity to subscribe to gives these groups their long-term sustainability (Hogg & Williams 2000). The acknowledgement of the ideologies of the Manosphere and its connections to the alt right has been established; however, understanding of how each group within the Manosphere recruits and indoctrinates its members will lead to further insight as to how they ensure their sustained existence in and outside of this ideological web.
Although there are distinctive differences among the groups in the Manosphere in terms of the levels of violence they advocate for, and what their activism and membership focus on, the common underlying thread among them is rage toward modern society and women. These differences, however, are important to understand in order to identify what draws men (and even women) to these groups. In particular, it is crucial to comprehend these differences to better strategize around the prevention of further radicalization. Thus, the underlying base ideology that fuels these movements, connects them to the alt right, and results in mass violence is one that warrants further investigation, particularly regarding the role of platforms in connecting them all together through algorithmically generated recommendations and the ease of navigating the digital communities that make them home (Massanari 2015; Noble 2018).
Rather than aimlessly wandering the digital wilderness searching for meaning, meaning is being given to them through these Manosphere groups who exploit the frustrations of men who desire romantic and sexual relationships. But these frustrations are manifestations of unfulfilled desires, and these communities are where these desires and frustrations are validated and strengthened. And as we have seen too often with the rise of hate crimes and mass murders, these violent desires result in violent ends.
Julia R. DeCook is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago. She is currently working on publishing her dissertation which examined how various extremist groups responded to censorship and bans to understand how digital infrastructure sustains these movements. She is also a fellow with the newly formed Institute for Research on Male Supremacism.
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