Depending on your political leanings and/or the culture in which you were raised, you might feel many of the world’s problems are caused either by (a) Islamic fundamentalists, (b) black/Latinx gang members, and/or (c) toxic white incel (or “involuntarily celibate”) alt-right trolls. But what if the true answer is (d) that systemic world problems are largely the cause of such demonized groups (and not in entirely dissimilar ways)?
Though never stated directly, that general question is implicit in “Tfw No Gf,” a new feature-length documentary by Alex Lee Moyer (screened digitally for reviewers after the cancellation of the 2020 SXSW festival) focused specifically on group (c).
Moyer, a first-time (and, crucially, female) director dives into a layered, fascinating exploration of a subculture primarily composed of young, white, rural men whose dead-end career prospects and alienated sense of hopelessness in the modern global economy too often leads to anti-social, nihilistic, and sometimes dangerously violent behavior.
Yet, as one of Moyer’s subjects asserts, “Nobody chose this…” Indeed, many of the young men profiled in “Tfw No Gf”(an online abbreviation for the phrase ” that feeling [I get] when [I have] no girlfriend”) grew up in broken families and communities with few opportunities for advancement or healthy socialization, leading to downward spirals of isolation, depression, anger, self-loathing, and substance abuse.
In such cases, the double-edged sword of social media (including the notorious message board 4chan.org) offers connection and expression for young males who “feel pressured not to say things they think about” in public, providing both solace and a “super toxic” environment, especially for those who stay too long (or, worse, start too young) as participants in a boundary-shattering, intentionally offensive collective digital Id — users like “Charels,” a one-time latchkey kid who grew up on the site and later admits (after his online “joke” about bringing automatic rifles to a screening of “Joker” is taken very seriously by local authorities), “A 12-year-old should probably not be exposed to a constant stream of gore and extreme pornography.”
On the other hand, one political provocateur in the doc known as Kantbot argues, “You have to make the space you want in the world” by connecting with like-minded individuals in an ever more stratified society. Yet in a follow-up interview late in the film, after advising certain of his tens of thousands of followers to evolve and mature beyond the comfort of their misanthropic, often misogynistic and self-pitying online bubbles by reading books and developing real world interests and relationships, he also acknowledges, “I can’t say I’m the bitter incel anymore,”
Or, in the words of Kyle, another of Moyer’s subjects who likewise says he eventually grew tired of wallowing in misery with a bunch of other miserable guys, “You can either try to get your shit together or you’ll die.”