A documentary from filmmaker Alex Lee Moyer called TFW NO GF (that feeling when [you have] no girlfriend) gets under the surface of the young, male, disaffected, outsider culture in the US and online. Interviews with guys that are derided as alt-right incel trolls reveal a sympathetic group of isolated young men who use the internet for their only real expressive outlet.
The film tracks a few young men who had large followings online, and participated in online forums like 4chan. These are the young men who media loves to hate. They're not particularly formally educated, from working-class families, and don't feel a connection to the broader culture. Why should they? They are hated by it, and when they lash out and say inappropriate things, they do it specifically to piss people off.
"It's a full-time job to fight the effects of modernity, and the atrophy, and all that," said Sean, who went by the Twitter handle @kierkebard. Over the course of the documentary, he went from a man who was taking care of his dying mother and being angry online to an aspiring competitive body-builder in the wake of his mother's death.
Sean said "Yeah, I would identify as part of a subculture. It's very vague, where it's just a bunch of young guys who have been raised with complete anonymity like their whole lives, and they've made some use of it. A lot of people have made a lot of use of it, myself included. But it's just kind of people who are existing between the cracks."
Media has tried to quantify and explain these guys, to try to understand this new breed of radicals, but according to TFW NO GF, they have missed the point entirely. The men in this film are not white supremacists, and they don't appear to be particularly anti-female, they just want to mess with mainstream culture, which they see as something of a bullshit construct.
New York-based Kantbot, who has a head for philosophy and literature, said that "the reason Trump won is that you had the media hegemony of interpreting like reality, right, and people just like, rejected that and realized that they could do whatever they want, and that like, there's no monopoly on truth that's held by like CNN, MSNBC, and like there's like, the establishment in terms of like creating a narrative has lost all of its power. It's not really about taking anything over so to speak, it's just like about defining reality for yourself."
In describing what Twitter, social media, and being online is about, Kantbot said "Each tweet is a moment of consciousness and they're all connected by your brand."
After decades of asking our men to get more in touch with their emotions, they did not, and we told them that they're feeling the wrong things. Their pain, we tell them, is their fault because they are looking at the world and their place in it the wrong way. When they express themselves, their pain, sadness, the difficulties they face, we tell them they're not thinking about it the right way.
"A lot of people will compare and say like stuff online versus stuff in real life—it is real life. You can't really decouple the two anymore. They're so intertwined, especially in the formative experiences of people growing up nowadays. And I feel like for kids that are going to be young than us, they won't even understand the difference between the two," said Viddy, one of a pair of brothers interviewed in Washington state.
His brother Charels was investigated for comments he made online, and was eventually exonerated, having been found to have been sarcastic, and not actually calling for any violence at all.
The men in the film talk about their experiences of finding online outlets, where they could connect with one another even just to share their profound loneliness and feelings of being thoroughly outside culture and with no way to get inside of it even if they wanted to.
Kantbot was filmed at a bookstore in New York, an iconic downtown bookseller, talking about the tweet as a form of literature and a means to express philosophical ideas. "If you're going to do it you should try to elevate in somehow into something more interesting, funny, observant, insightful, and there is a lot of potential there." He talks about how he wanted to be a writer but there were so many gatekeepers involved that he didn't even see a way that he could get into that industry.
"I just want to be controversial," he said, "and do whatever the fuck I want to do in life. I have to find something else. I have to find a different way. I don't even think I found it, I think I made it, and other people made it… you have to make the space that you want in the world, it's not going to be given to you." He's not wrong at all.
In talking about the others he was friends with online, he said "I'm not that close with my family, so the idea of belonging to this little community, and you all work together, to create this like historical moment, which can transcend the limitations of like your era, and create like a new way of thinking about things, you can create a new form of consciousness. And that's like what I've always wanted to feel with other people."
Rolling Stone took a less-than-charitable view, saying that the film is "a deeply uncomfortable portrayal of incel culture, in which director Alex Lee Moyer explores the world of young, disaffected white men — from their perspective." Reviewer EJ Dickson clearly doesn't think this is merited.
He writes: "Pity the poor young white man. They are unemployed. They're living at home in record numbers. They're not having sex (or at least, they're not having particularly good sex). And they are unhappy—sometimes miserably, aggressively so—with a portion of them turning to the darkest abysses of the internet to find solace and to commiserate about their anger and resentment toward women, people of color, and more generally, the fabric of society itself." In so doing, however, doesn't Dickson just prove the point of the film?
Charels and Viddy talk about a post that, when it surfaced, I had problems with as well. It was the one about how online culture is striving to turn white boys into alt-right white supremacists. On the thread, this clueless parent who fears for the radicalization of her white, male, sons, suggests a bonding slash awareness exercise where you watch woke comedy talk show hosts with your kids and analyze the jokes for who is being joked about. "Are they punching up or down?"
The brothers say "I can't imagine anything that would be less interesting to like a teenager than to be sitting with your mom watching like a comedy show and having to write an essay on why it's funny and why it's acceptable. If you try to do something like that, they're going to be so turned off by that entire spectrum that you're doing way more harm than good, if that's your goal."
They speak about broken homes, childhoods where adults, caretakers, authority figures, teachers, took no interest in them or their interests. Culture has told men to open up and be more in touch with their authentic selves, and then when they've done it, culture says what they're feeling is not worthwhile. These are the men our obsessively normative culture, that dictates anew what the norms should be, would rather vilify than understand. TFW NO GF is a film that addresses them as actual human beings, with hearts, minds, and bodies, worthy of respect, dignity, and consideration.