Much has been said about Fight Club’s relationship to toxic masculinity, as well as how the movie promotes the violence and antisociality that is co-constitutive with the ascendency of the Alt-Right. The movie’s emphasis on masculinity and violence certainly raises red flags. But good art is often ambiguous, making any work’s political influence uncertain. It could just as easily have been the case that Leftists adopted the anti-capitalist, pro-social agenda in Fight Club; after all, its characters form bonds based on authenticity in order to enact liberating social change. While people can make positive or negative arguments about the film, the truth is that Fight Club is not even the most radioactively toxic film of 1999. Instead, The Matrix engendered the worldview of the Alt-Right white supremacists who terrorize their communities. Its glorification of detachment promotes hateful, antisocial attitudes; its central metaphor provides clear-cut distinctions between in-groups and out-groups, and the movie provides a language with which to justify toxicity to others— thereby creating a symbolic and linguistic network conducive to hate group formation.
What is Toxic Masculinity and Why it Leads to Violence
The Matrix mobilizes the same late-20th century technologies that indoctrinate people into Alt-Right extremism. In the film, technology is a springboard for its isolated protagonist to become radicalized by promising to wipe-away the world of lies and present a true vision of reality.
The movie introduces us to Thomas Anderson, a man who lives by himself and lives entrenched in the reality of his computer. When a man visits him to buy drugs, he tells Thomas that he looks paler than usual— suggesting that Thomas’ techno-seclusion is his way of life. He works as a computer programmer and, after work, in the dark solitude his room provides, he delves into a murky cyber world.
This antisociality is a hallmark of toxic masculinity. Society demands that men perform acts of ‘psychic mutilation,’ as bell hooks phrases it, in order to convince themselves that they do not need loving, nurturing social bonds— that they do not need the warmth of others, be it through touch or sound. This lie enables, causes, and justifies men’s alienated work/life balance and labor/love lifestyle. When others drag Thomas Anderson to a party, he stands by himself and refuses to engage with the world around him.
Sadly, many of us can identify with this. Thirty-five percent of us report being chronically lonely. Such persistent loneliness can shorten a person’s life by 15 years, which is approximately the same effect as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Hence the fact that the Surgeon General declared a loneliness epidemic. But levels of loneliness are much higher among people who commit mass violence; one study showed that nearly 75% of school shooters experience loneliness or social exclusion. People who feel marginalized are more likely to become radicalized.
The film uses computers to simultaneously assuage the protagonist’s loneliness and to radicalize him. After he receives mysterious messages telling him what to do, the young man acts according to what he reads on the screen; he follows the ‘white rabbit,’ as it commands, which leads him to meet the people behind the screen. When Thomas interacts with them, he is no longer alienated, confused, or socially desperate. He is self-assured. Furthermore, his new community allows him to use his internet alias, Neo, as his first name, thereby catalyzing his development into a man ready to create a new subjecthood for himself. As the movie’s abundant violence suggests, this subjectivity is willing to kill for its beliefs.
This wrinkle — that technology saves people from isolation and radicalizes them— is critical because it has real-life corollaries. When the media characterizes mass-shooters as lone wolves, they ignore the fact that these young white men participate in vast online social networks. A few of recent history’s Mass Shooters have posted their hateful manifestos onto 8chan, an online message board. Their manifestos are not aberrations, but, instead, reflect the hateful, racist, and sexist that these websites breed. It reached such an extent that the website’s network provider terminated service for the domain, citing it as a contributing factor to domestic terrorism across the globe. These issues are systemic and related to network theory, thereby proving that these violent actors are not loners; they participate in vast online social networks that foment hatred and violence.
But 8chan will surely find a new home. And such toxic hatred exists in myriad places online and offline. After all, The Matrix’s storyline reveals that people who are desperately lonely are most easily preyed upon for ideological manipulation; in fact, lonely skeptics are likely to join cults, meaning that people who try hardest to avoid falling into a simple worldview are precisely the people who fall into radical worldviews. Even apparently benign online spaces, like YouTube, prey on such lonely men; they condone, promote, and evangelize toxic worldviews. Other hallmarks of hate-groups, such as ‘us vs. them’ mentalities, are present in the film.
The clearest link between The Matrix’s insidiously hate-mongering aesthetics and the Alt-Right is that a person only has to search ‘Red Pill’ into YouTube in order to leap into toxic online spaces. As we’ve already discussed, both the film and irl shooters are socially isolated in their daily lives, but they find opportunities for online socialization. The initial isolation requires a social severance. The movie depicts this in Neo’s previous loneliness as Thomas. In our world, as one toxic vlogger notes, men in these communities often “find the Red Pill community after heartbreak;” another person says his fall into a sexist, racist community began with simply Googling “How do I get my girlfriend back?” While this provides the springboard for the communities’ sexist psychology, since people can infinitely procure blame and hate for their ex’s, it also proves that they, like Neo in The Matrix, become radicalized first by initiating a social severance. Because men struggle to establish mutually caring relationships with friends and family — even when they do have friends— they often end up pouring their hearts entirely into their romantic partner(s). So when the relationship ends, they lose their entire support system. The Red Pill community then seizes on their distraught mind state; “as soon as they see a vulnerability, they take it.” Additionally, it enables them to avoid doing reflexive emotional work, and, instead, allows them to convert their inner emotional pain into rage towards others.
In the film, Neo is taught that, “If you’re not one of us,” a.k.a. people who have taken the Red Pill, “you’re one of them. Anyone who hasn’t been unplugged is potentially an agent.” This establishes an in-group and out-group. The relationship between the groups in entirely combative and violent— as anyone who has seen the movie knows. It is not a coincidence that the first thing Neo learns after taking the Red Pill is learning how to fight. The same red/blue pill divide exists on today’s internet, and it is just as violent. Similarly to how Neo and his crew feel constantly under threat by the social order, thereby justifying their violence, the white men on the internet claim victimhood: they say that hypergamy, feminism, diversity, etc. makes them socially worthless. They argue that their hateful speech and violence are acts of self-defense.
A sad, innocent man can enter the community and quickly become a racist, sexist drone. After accepting that the social world — and not their behavior or mentality— is the problem, they shed the basic human impulses to trust, love, and share. Unfortunately, people who have dehumanized themselves in such a manner feel justified in dehumanizing others. Hence their affinity to racist and sexist ideologies. The Red Pill community is simply one point in a vast network of right-wing online spaces, ranging from 8chan to Men Going Their Own Way to NoFap to QAnon to Men’s Rights Activists, which stoke the fears and anxieties of mostly white men. While these groups vary in their complaints, ranging from women at large to modern feminism to socialism to media elites — all of which threatens their egos— these groups congeal around Donald Trump, who they saw as a threat to ‘the establishment;’ the establishment is synonymous with blue pill ideology. In that sense, Trump embodied the Red Pill dream of destroying the Matrix.
These groups comprise The Intellectual Dark Web, which is just a name that gives undue respect and authority to a bunch of hateful, shallow men — ranging from Sam Harris to Jordan Peterson to Ben Shapiro to Maajid Nawaz. They advocate various positions, but they all monger hatred for the ideas and people that embody progressive politics; for example, they hate multiculturalism, which they perceive as a threat to Western Civilization, and they also hate the brown folks that challenge white hegemony. In Ben’s words, there is a “racial power hierarchy,” that we need to maintain. Such hateful statements are within a few clicks of even the most generic, vanilla ‘Red Pill’ videos.
In sum, we have (1) chronic offline loneliness, which carrals people into (2) online communities that find reasons to justify their seclusion. The psychological motive is to avoid confronting their own pain, loneliness, and inner despair. As a consequence of dehumanizing themselves, (3) they are willing to dehumanize others— which they do by creating in-groups and out-groups. These in-groups (4) consist of myriad racist, sexist, and xenophobic that seize on men’s vulnerabilities and evangelize their hatred. These factors naturally produce a social body of alienated white men who are willing to kill minorities and women.
The fact that a movie written and directed by a transwoman created the worldview of right-wing radicals is profoundly ironic. Certainly, their adoption is based on a very limited view of the movie; it ignores that Trinity kisses Neo in order to bring him back to life, which gives the film a metaphysical hue in which love inspires life. This transcendental romance is incompatible with the Alt-right. Nonetheless, the Alt-right weaponizes the film’s emphasis on antisociality, group-thinking, and violence in such a way that enables hate networks to form. Neo-Fascists know this, and they prey upon peoples’ vulnerabilities in order to push racist, sexist, and xenophobic language. In a bizarre twist, most of the online alt-right communities are slaves to the talking heads, vloggers, and hate mongers that structure their thoughts. The frenzy of such hatred and alienation, as we all know, leads to explosions of racist violence.
Much of the discourse around mass shooters ignores that the phenomena arises out of a trio of factors: racism, online communities, and guns. The fight against mass shootings must be fought on all three fronts. By implicating The Matrix in this, I wanted to show that artists must be mindful of how their stories and aesthetics can be weaponized by fascists— even when they had no intention of contributing to fascism.