Inside the ‘manosphere’ that inspired Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger

Elliot Rodger will forever be known as the 22-year-old who murdered six people in Santa Barbara on May 23. But Rodger’s extensive digital footprint, as well as his stomach-turning YouTube send-off and 137-page manifesto, suggest that he may have identified himself differently: as an “incel,” or involuntary virgin; as an aspirational, if frustrated, pick-up artist; and as an adherent of the so-called “manosphere” — that corner of the Internet where boys will be boys, girls will be objects, and critics will be “feminists,” “misandrists” or “enemies.”

If you’re not familiar with these terms, you’re not alone: The manosphere and its various components tend to only make mainstream news over tragedies (like this one) and controversies (like one “activist’s” opposition to date-rape seminars on college campuses). But to thousands of men across the Internet — including, apparently, Rodger — they’re home.

Rodger has personally been linked to an account on the pick-up site PUAhate.com, where he advocated an overthrow of “this oppressive feminist system” and envisioned “a world where WOMEN FEAR YOU.” On YouTube, he followed a number of accounts that claimed to teach pick-up artistry — a skill that’s equal parts pseudoscience, manipulation and objectification. In his last YouTube video, in which he chillingly announces the start of his killing spree, Rodger even cops some classic pick-up lingo: “You will finally see that I am, in truth, the superior one. The true alpha male.” (Emphasis mine.)

Let’s be clear: None of this suggests that (a) the manosphere is somehow to blame for Rodger’s killing spree, (b) that other factors like mental health or gun laws are less critical, or (c) that every would-be “pick-up artist,” or PUA, is one rejection away from mass murder. Making those kinds of sweeping conclusions would be, as critics have pointed out, really irresponsible and dumb.

That said, Rodger’s misogynistic rhetoric seems undeniably influenced by the manosphere, and his manifesto has kicked off a loud debate about how modern society treats women, online and off. If there was ever a time to take a closer look at online misogyny, it’s now.

Alas, even from a distance, it doesn’t look too pretty.

Mapping the manosphere

When people talk about the “manosphere,” they’re basically talking about a vast, diverse network of blogs and forums that take a certain antagonistic stance toward women and dating. Not all branches of the manosphere are overtly appalling; not all of them are even run by men. That said, their core philosophy basically boils down to this: (1) feminism has overrun/corrupted modern culture, in violation of nature/biology/inherent gender differences, and (2) men can best seduce women (slash, save society in general) by embracing a super-dominant, uber-masculine gender role, forcing ladies to fall into step behind them.

This philosophy plays out differently in different places. Hundreds of Web sites are dedicated to teaching “game” to hapless daters. But often, if not always, “game” involves reducing women to sexual targets, rating their attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10, and deploying techniques like “negging” to get a girl to notice you. (“Negging” = insulting a woman to throw off her confidence. For instance: “Your hair is hideous. Is that a wig?”)

The blog Chateau Heartiste, one of the forerunners in the manosphere/PUA scene, even publishes quizzes for men and women to determine their “dating market value.” The questions for men include, “What is your occupation?” and “Have people besides your family called you funny?” The questions for women include, “How long are your legs in relation to your height?” (Long: +1 point; average: 0 points; short: -1 point.)

It’s rude, of course. And it’s a painfully cynical way to interpret interpersonal relationships. But taken to extremes, that belief in retro gender roles has fueled a whole system of sites that denigrate women and advocate for a socio-cultural regression that puts ladies back in the kitchen and bedroom. Sometimes these sites brand themselves as dating sites; others proudly fly the “Men’s Rights” flag, in solidarity with a movement that essentially claims guys have it rough, too. (Important note: MRA sometimes, though not always, describes a push to reform divorce, visitation and alimony laws — clearly separate issues from what we’re addressing here.)

In either case, the “manosphere” is frequently enough to make any progressive lady — or guy! — choke back bile. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which identifies hate groups, even went so far as to publish a report on it in 2012. (“Although some of the sites make an attempt at civility and try to back their arguments with facts,” the report read, “they are almost all thick with misogynistic attacks that can be astounding for the guttural hatred they express.”) The very next year, the comically named Return of Kings — which has, among other things, talked up eating disorders and hitting women — topped our list of the most-hated sites on the Web.

Manosphere doctrine, in a nutshell

To most people, it’s probably not difficult to see why the manosphere offends. At the most basic level, much of that community advocates for inequality between men and women, a problem called out by the SPLC report. In the U.S., at least, that’s not generally a value that the mainstream rallies around.

The manosphere doesn’t just preach inequality between men and women, however. I’ve spent more than a year observing several large sites within this community, and its ideology regarding the “right” kinds of men and women is pretty inflexible, too. Gay, lesbian or transgendered people are, needless to say, completely out. “Masculine” women (i.e. women with short hair, women with high-powered jobs, women with outspoken opinions) also earn the manosphere’s derision. But the community reserves a special kind of disdain for “effeminate” or “beta” men — men who either do not have “game” or who are still taking what believers call the “blue pill.”

Per the blog Red Pill Room — where, needless to say, betas aren’t welcome — the blue pill is like a metaphor for the mainstream mindset:

The subconscious pattern of behaviors, often informed by feminism, feminists  and mainstream society, that encourages men to forego traditionally and truly masculine behavior and attitudes in favor of those in which capitulation to female whimsy.

In other words, red-pilled men are alphas who have seen the light and seized the sex/power/glory owed to them by their biology. Blue-pilled guys are the hapless, sexless dummies still treating women as equals and asking them out in conventional, non-pushy ways.

This distinction, while it sounds ridiculous, is actually pretty critical to understanding Rodger and his place in the manosphere … such as it was. While Rodger evidently followed a number of pick-up sites and YouTube channels, his most notable postings were on a site called PUAhate — a forum for malcontents complaining that the “game” didn’t work. There, and on other forums, Rodger identified as an “incel, or “involuntary celibate” — a virgin who couldn’t get girls, even after taking “the red pill.” On the manosphere totem pole, there’s nothing quite so pathetic. Besides women, anyway.

The manosphere reacts to Rodger

And so, while some of Rodger’s companions on PUAhate have praised his gruesome spree — Josh Glasstetter at SPLC points out that he was almost seen as some kind of “incel revolutionary” — the rest of the manosphere has worked hard to distance themselves from him.

“Rodger pings some operational gaydars,” mocks Heartiste.

“A lot of loneyy beta males will identify with him,” Roosh followed up. (Notice that he calls Rodger a beta, despite Rodger’s videotaped insistence that he was “an alpha male.”)

Rodger blames women. Women blame misogyny. Misogynists blame feminists. This is a fascinating, weird cycle — and it actually repeats after most national tragedies  in which a man kills a woman or women. In 2009, when George Sodini killed three women at an L.A. Fitness outside of Pittsburgh, Heartiste was quick to postulate that, had Sodini “learned game,” he never would have developed negative feelings toward women or become violent.

Meanwhile, a guest blogger on Return of Kings theorized in December that 18-year-old Karl Halverson Pierson killed a girl at his school because he was “sexually frustrated.” Another post on the site, published about the same time, blamed a “lack of game” for brutal murders everywhere from Baltimore to Southern California.

But Return of Kings’ latest post really takes the cake. “No one would have died if PUAHate killer Elliot Rodger learned game,” promises the ever-aggrandizing Roosh V, who then goes on to promise that “if Rodger came to me, he would have received actionable and effective advice.” (A sampling of recent advice from the site, presented without comment: “all women are nymphomaniacs who crave rough sex”; “if your girlfriend insists on a big wedding, dump her.”)

A moment of awakening for the manosphere, this incident is not. And in some ways, that should be just as disturbing as Rodger’s videotaped rant.

Related:

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey | May 24