There’s nothing unusual about film and television with cult followings – but are young men idolising these characters for the wrong reasons?
We’ve all heard of them in one way or another. Strange pockets and dark corners of the internet. “4chan trolls”, “incels”, “alt-right extremists” are a few choice words that get thrown around here, but whether these communities are heartless reactionaries or misunderstood brotherhoods is a conversation for another day. What I’m interested in is the culture that has emerged from these groups – having permeated its way into the mainstream through memes and media, and holding the online world in an almost invisible grip. One aspect of this that has become near-famous in its own right has been the entertainment subculture that’s spawned from this so-called “Manosphere”.
Films and shows like Fight Club, Mad Men, Taxi Driver, American Psycho, Joker, The Sopranos, and Drive, amongst others, have been inexplicably tied to the worldview of these movements. To find out why, I spoke to filmmaker Dominic Crannis, who described how, as he calls them, “psychologically maladjusted, young right-wing men” have come to identify with the media in such a way. According to him, these men see these stories as ways of “documenting” their experiences, from the “stagnation” they see in society, to their “boredom with normality”. He also says that the “charisma” and “hyper-masculinity” of the characters brings with it a great appeal to young men where those qualities might be lacking. I can’t argue that at a glance it would be very easy to idolise or empathise with the characters of these stories, but any amount of scrutiny would reveal the flaws under their shiny veneers.
Take, for example, Don Draper, the star of AMC’s Mad Men – a period piece drama set in 1960s New York. The character has become synonymous with charisma and a glamorous lifestyle – searching only his name into YouTube will yield dozens of bunk tutorials on confidence and dating advice from washed up pick-up artists. He’s heralded as the archetypal “alpha male” with his never-ending reserves of charm, sharp dress sense, fancy job and picture perfect family – something we should all strive to return to according to these men.
Yet, on inspection it becomes abundantly clear that his life is less a conservative one than an unashamedly hedonistic one. While it’s rare to see anyone without a glass of whiskey in their hand on this show, Don drinks to a point where he no longer functions, and yes, the men at the Sterling-Cooper advertising agency are no strangers to affairs, but you couldn’t count on both hands how many women Draper seduces over the course of the series. Under that beguiling exterior, he’s cold, manipulative, and self-centered, and doesn’t care who he hurts as long as he gets what he wants. Where most other characters come to the realisation that this kind of lifestyle is not sustainable, and ultimately end up happier for it, Don embraces it in spite of all the destruction it has brought him, leaving him twice-divorced, estranged from his children, and unemployed by the end of the series. Don Draper is no model traditionalist by any stretch of the imagination, and yet he’s placed on a pedestal all the same.
Possibly the most famous example of a film that has become entwined with this culture is David Fincher’s 1999 dark comedy, Fight Club. Edward Norton stars as the anonymous protagonist of the story, alongside Brad Pitt as the rebellious soap salesman Tyler Durden. The premise of the story strikes at the feelings of a wider audience, not just it’s male cult following, as we find the Narrator lost in a black hole of vapid consumerism, where his only source of fulfilment outside of his obscure, boring day job is buying catalogue furniture for his luxury apartment.
However, the illusion of contentment begins to fade, and he turns to ever increasing acts of violence as an outlet for his emotions, helped along by the radical non-conformist ideology of his newfound friend Tyler. It’s not hard to relate to the Narrator’s situation when we first meet him, as the walls of modern society close in on him, and the ability to identify with that is only exacerbated by his anonymity, allowing the viewer to project themselves onto this blank slate.
On the other hand, Tyler Durden is an idealised version of the Narrator, brought to life through his mental illness. He’s cool, charismatic and stylish, compared to the meek and modest protagonist. Combined with his air of mystery and dissident worldview, it’s hard not to become captivated by him. However, the view of the general audience and that of these young men starts to diverge when you consider what the film is truly showing you. What starts as consensual punch-ups in the basement of a bar quickly snowballs into acts of full-blown terrorism, as “Tyler” becomes more dominant and the Narrator loses control, and is unable to stop the violence until it is too late.
While the film offers sympathy for the Narrator and his struggle against modernity, it also warns against being sucked into a doctrine like Tyler’s, and all the chaos it entails. Despite this, many in these communities still idolise the character and his ideology – feeling that they too have been emasculated and brought down by society, and longing for a return to a more primitive state – ironically placing them in the Narrator’s shoes.
The last, and perhaps darkest story I want to examine is Martin Scorscese’s Taxi Driver, starring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle – a Vietnam War veteran who’s trauma has largely alienated him from the rest of society. He travels the streets of 1960s New York as he picks up fares, and struggles to connect with others, especially a young woman called Betsy who rejects his advances. This sets him on a dark path, and he starts to turn his anger towards others, killing criminals and even attempting to assassinate a senator. As his mental health unravels, Travis delivers a particularly infamous dialogue about the way he sees society; “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets” – exposing his feelings of disgust at the world around him.
Despite being nearly 50 years old, a lot of parallels have been drawn between Taxi Driver and the “incel” (involuntary celibate) community of today. Travis is a lonely, socially inept man who’s failure to create meaningful relationships leads him down a path of anger and violence, for which he blames wider society. Although the primary issue incels see in their life is the absence of sex, the issue still stems largely from their inability to connect with women in a romantic way. However, they too tend to absolve themselves of any blame – if they’re not complaining about unfair genetics making them short or ugly, they’re turning their anger towards society, and blaming modern dating/hookup culture for their romantic failures. It seems that as a result of these parallels Taxi Driver has achieved somewhat of a revered status amongst this movement, despite its depiction of violence and mental illness, and one might even argue because of it.
There’s many more films and shows I could look at here, but I think the trend has become explicit – these young men are making idols out of these characters, flaws be damned. But the question still remains as to why. What are they seeing in these stories that the broader audience are not? Well, John Currie – director of the Beeston Film Festival – offered me one perspective. At the core of what we discussed was the idea that “people are coming to a piece of art from different places and different experiences”, which I think rings true especially when you are looking at these stories in an artistic light. He went on to say how there is that relatable feeling of “breaking out” and “finding yourself” in Fight Club’s Narrator, or in the “nihilism” that permeates Travis Bickle’s view of the world, especially as a young man. He argues that the reason that someone may gravitate towards these characters is because “they are capable because of their life experience to approach that film and feel sympathy with it”.
A very careful and considerate viewpoint, but that doesn’t come without an antithetical one. I spoke with film writer Matt Glasby, who agreed that everyone will have their own reading of a story, but thinks “you need to look at what the intention of the filmmaker was”, in order to understand it fully. He also put forward that “somebody watching on just a visceral level might miss the overall message”, especially when they’re absorbed in the “disaffection” of Travis Bickle or the “idealised version of manhood” brought to the table by Tyler Durden.
I think both arguments have a streak of truth to them – everyone will have a different interpretation of the stories to a degree, but it’s hard to ignore what is so clearly being portrayed on the screen. Despite their more redeeming qualities, it’s not hard to see what’s being shown – Don Draper is a dirtbag, Tyler Durden is a terrorist, and Travis Bickle is a murderer. So perhaps these men do fully realise this, and perhaps that is why they like these characters. In a world that they believe is hurting them and treating them unfairly, perhaps deep down they identify with people who hurt the world back. It’s obviously not a brand new line of thought – there have been concerns in the past over films like Joker translating into real world violence, with media hysteria over some sort of “incel uprising”, and discussions over pulling it from cinemas.
Thankfully nothing ever came of it, but as Glasby says regardless – “you can’t legislate against people misunderstanding film”. It’s a complex problem without a clear solution – do we need characters with these relatable struggles but without the tragic flaws? Would they be as popular, or even interesting? Or is the silent demand for these cynical, broken protagonists too strong? These are questions yet to be answered, but what I have come to realise is these young men love these characters regardless of their faults. Their misreading of what is being shown to them isn’t a fault of the stories and the character writing, rather it’s a reflection of their life and worldview. We all have our heroes, and for better or worse, these young men have theirs.