TFW NO GF—Angela Nagle
A film essay
In early 2016, in the serene and simple times before Donald Trump, I wrote a piece for The Baffler called The New Man of 4chan which would be the inspiration for my book Kill All Normies. It was about the cross-pollinating world of incels and 4chan and anti-feminism of various kinds. By the time the subject of the essay had gone mainstream, I desperately wanted to drop it, and stopped answering the neverending requests to comment on incels from newspapers, documentarists, radio and television, which continue to arrive in my inbox to this day. My reason was simply that no matter how honest or thoughtful you try to be on this topic, the medium will always frustratingly turn whatever you have said into propaganda and one or other (or both) of the warring factions on the incel question will attack you, usually for a distorted version of what you said.
If you are in the rare position of having control over your own work, and you try against pressure from all sides to be neutral but as empathetic as an observer should be to any subject, you will then be accused of creating sinister propaganda. If you observe something these online communities themselves don’t like, the backlash is also bad from the other side. When I heard a woman named Alex Lee Moyer had made a documentary called TFW No GF I thought: I admire her bravery, but I’m glad it’s not me.
Hailed as "one of the most irresponsible docs I’ve ever seen” (Eric Langberg), the film is not the standard hit piece permitted by the mainstream. In it, Moyer uses the visual culture of message boards and direct, one-on-one interviews with the subjects to successfully translate an online world into film. It is a time capsule of the culture and the Internet in a particular moment that changed us all. It is also a vision of life at the final loneliest stop on the journey of western individualism—the friendless, childless, sexless individual with little direct human contact, checked out of society.
The Gnostics believed that we are imprisoned in an illusion created by a demon which can only be pierced by personal access to the transcendent and the divine. This is the sense of the world I get through the eyes of Moyer, a sense of being doomed to an isolated digital prison with a faint hope that rare transcendence may be out there.
In addition to portraying despair head-on, Moyer also took a radical approach to tackling the stylistic or practical problem the Internet creates for cinema by allowing the Internet to swallow up and become the whole of reality.
The problem I’m referring to is that the Internet has created a fundamental and possibly fatal dilemma for cinema: namely, if real people today live their lives in an entirely internal way, scrolling on phones and staring at screens, where little to no observable physical action is taking place, what is there for cinema to do? Like all forms of cyberutopianism, early claims that the Internet would revitalize art and culture don’t seem to have aged well. The Internet has caused a decline in art in general but particularly in cinema, which makes experimental forms of adaptation to this new reality all the more important. Cinema is technologically advanced theater. If it were to portray much of the younger generation accurately today, the viewer would be watching a world largely without expository sound or physical movement, with a stream of text appearing awkwardly on screen. By embracing the online in such a visual and ubiquitous way, Moyer is attempting to adapt this challenge to the form.
In what was probably my last event speaking on this online world, I described to a horrified audience some of the most extreme things that I had seen researching 4chan. An audience member asked a question at the end: “Do you think they’re traumatized from seeing these things?” I still believe the answer to that is yes, in many cases, but the question I wondered back then was why? Why were already alienated people subjecting themselves to the most extreme dehumanizing horrors of the Internet? And how did they square indulging in this virtual Sadean underworld with often self-defining as right wing? 4chan and other similar message board cultures helped produce a generational backlash against liberalism which you can now, years later, see manifesting slowly but surely.
It was a generation-defining vanguard culture, and these kinds of young men were the early explorers, the first ones to reach the very nadir, only to witness the horror of where our own nihilistic libertine individualism is ultimately taking us. The truth really can destroy you. And some of us are not going to make it.
I love Angela's work so much.