Love And Death In The Incel World

When incels started shooting women, it seemed to me that I had read an analysis of something similar. It took me a while, but I recalled Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, from the early 1960s. Seems like now might be a good time to look at that book.

In the early 1960s, second-wave feminism was just getting started in the United States. Birth control pills were new. The civil rights movement was ramping up. AIDS and public recognition of gay issues were in the future. I wondered whether Love and Death could still be relevant. I hadn’t read it in a long time and didn’t remember much of it.

I looked it up and bought a copy of the revised edition from 1966. The original was 1960, before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, although after Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex. I skimmed the sections about earlier literature, but the critique of 19th century literature, particularly James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Henry James, and Mark Twain was clearly relevant.

My recall of the general themes was correct. Fiedler’s treatment of race and gender issues was careful and, I think, acceptable in today’s environment. A bit heavy on Freudianism, perhaps.

What I recalled was that Fiedler showed that male friendship was at the center of much American literature, often with a man of color as sidekick to the main character. Relationships with women were onerous, but few if any adult sexual relationships with either gender. Fiedler also notes that these novels do not contain well-written female characters. The female characters are a few poorly written stereotypes.

We see the same themes in today’s buddy films. But how do we go from a largely asexual plot line to the sense of injury incels feel at their lack of sexual partners?

Fiedler finds in 19th century literature a simple division of women into two types, as are non-white males: Good and Evil. The Fair Maiden is slender, virginal, very white-skinned (often milk-white!), blonde and blue-eyed. The Dark Lady is a sexy brunette, representating poison and danger, sex and death.

Somewhere between Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Fair Maiden and Dark Lady are merged into one character. In Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, the snow maiden becomes the gold-digger. During the 20’s, another shift takes place. The Good Bad Girl is the assertive one who gets ahead; the passive Good Good Girl is likely to be raped.

Fiedler’s analysis of the novels written in the 1950s is, not surprisingly, more limited. We’ve had a little more than 50 years since that revised version of Love and Death. Let me outline how those themes have continued through novels and popular media.

Fiedler barely mentions Norman Mailer, who both wrote and lived these themes, having stabbed his wife and almost killed her. John Updike wrote of the men of suburbia and their appended wives. Johnathan Franzen continues to write of suburban male malaise.

Buddy films are a popular genre, with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” blending into the western genre in a way that would have made James Fenimore Cooper proud.

Computer games, coming out of a masculine-identified computer culture, perpetuate the negatively dichotomous view of women. Gamergate, in which male gamers vilified and attacked women criticizing and trying to change the game culture, was a direct predecessor to the incel phenomenon.

Becky Stacy

Incels posit two kinds of woman: Stacy, who is buxom and fertile, and Becky, who is skinny and wears yoga pants. This illustration, including commentary (and spelling errors), seems to come from an incel website, but I let Vox do the looking for me. The commentary seems to see both women as undesirable. Stacy lines up in many ways with Fiedler’s Dark Lady stereotype.

Stacy is unavailable to incels; she prefers the more aggressive and masculine Chad. Evolutionary psychology in the form of sexual just-so stories is part of incel thought. The sexual revolution, which was only beginning in 1966, allowed men to expect unlimited access to women for sex. It is the thwarting of those expectations that the incel shootings act out. Fiedler points out with respect to Hemingway’s Catherine in Farewell to Arms that “Only the dead woman becomes neither a bore nor a mother”.

There’s a book to be written about why these themes are so attractive to Americans. Fiedler didn’t say much about that; it’s sociological rather than literary criticism. But his analysis shows a historical misogyny that long precedes the incel movement.


Cross-posted to Balloon Juice.