Kit de survie en milieu masculiniste
The web is a vast, bizarre, useful, dangerous, reassuring and paradoxical world. It reflects the image of our reality while being a place where everyone can create their own personal or collective universe. In these intertwined universes, groups are created; individuals gather around common interests, discuss, debate, find a platform for personal expression, sometimes even creating real online subcultures. However, some groups draw attention to their activities or the issues they address, and what was once a territory of expression can become a shadow of menace for a part of society. This is the case for the incels (INvoluntary CELibates). Marion Thomas sought to understand the phenomenon; her play “kit de survie en milieu masculiniste” (guide to surviving masculinist territory) puts their story into perspective with the place of women in the public space. Between sound theatre, feminist narratives and benevolence, she tells the story.
It is 2012. Marion, as usual, spends time on her computer playing or browsing Reddit forums. The discussion site is at the height of its popularity because of the diversity of topics (categorized in “subreddits”) and for its ability to strengthen community ties between Internet users. It is in this context that she discovers the incels, a circle composed mainly of young men, who confess their suffering and frustrations of being still virgins and single. Out of a sense of the bizarre and curiosity, Marion begins to follow these groups, wondering why they feel that their problems are typically male. They give each other advice, and their talk, though laced with misogyny, is harmless. Over time, she grows fond of them, because to her, they are just suffering teenagers who come together to share their neuroses and loneliness in a society in which they do not fit.
Soon enough, the incels take on the characteristics of a subculture, adopting their own behaviour and norms. Some groups admit members after an integration rite in which the newcomer is flogged by his peers, others have a motto. They categorise themselves according to their physical attributes (“fatcel”, “shortcel”, etc.), and their favourite subject remains the rejection of women, whom they hold responsible for their suffering. The term “incel” was first coined by an American journalist to describe her situation, a paradox that few people are aware of. The vision they have of women is very similar to the image conveyed in the mass media: she is only there to be beautiful and serve men.
Invisible, Marion acts as an observer and gets to know these people from a distance. But a first shocking event pushes her out of her silence; when one of the incels publishes a message suggesting that he is ready to end his life, the community pours out its insults tinged with masculinism. Marion speaks up, reassuring everyone by pretending to be an older man who was also “late” but who eventually found his partner with whom he now lives happily. She will step in several times when she feels her intervention is necessary.
Then the violence becomes more and more visible; on 23 May 2014 a text file called my twisted world turns up on the forums, it is in fact the intimate and autobiographical diary of the American incel Elliot Rodger. In it, he recounts his parents’ difficult divorce, his anger towards his mother, his obsession with bodybuilding and expensive clothes. Above all, he shares his hatred of women, and of certain men; for him, the feminist movements of the 1960s advocating sexual liberation are the root of the despair of the incels. Their financial and professional emancipation gave them more freedom in choosing their partners, which they would not have had before. So men who are attractive are also a problem, since women select men only on the basis of their looks and material situation. Elliot calls them “chad”, referring to the stereotype of the quarterback, the tall, muscular blond, prom king. He also recounts how he approaches women who walk down the street with their windows open while driving his luxury car, and his indignation at the silences or refusals, which he sees as affronts to his kindness. He does not understand the lack of recognition from women for all the efforts he makes to become the perfect “gentleman”.
That day in Isla Vista, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger goes on the rampage. He stabs his roommates to death before going out for coffee while sharing his manifesto on the internet, and then goes to the Alpha Phi sorority house, where the members refuse to open the door in fear. He turns around and opens fire on people in the street before getting back in his car and continuing to shoot at passers-by. The police catch up with him but before they can arrest him, Elliot kills himself. His manifesto shows the premeditation of these murders, including his own.
Marion manages to download the manifesto and the videos from Elliot’s YouTube channel before they disappear completely from the internet, they will be used as a support for her future project. When she reads the documents, her questions take a new turn: economic and social status aside, games and the internet were a common refuge in their lonely adolescence, so why did she evolve and blossom while he crystallized his frustrations and amplified his obsession? Without formalising an artistic project, this first problematic marks the beginning of Marion’s research.
In 2018, she begins to write. In four years, the movements have become more radical; while Elliot now embodies a martyr, a “supreme gentleman” to whom incels pledge allegiance, the women become treacherous and the rhetoric increasingly disturbing. Some groups objectify women to the point of advocating the legalisation of rape, and normalise violence online and in real life. Tips are lent to scare and hack their target’s computers or phones, and in the worst cases, commit masculinist attacks. But Marion doesn’t want to provide answers, she observes and puts their experience into perspective with her own.
In 2020, things are taking shape. The artist responds to a call for projects dedicated to innovative theatre pieces issued by Les Subsistances in Lyon, and the Grütli centre in Geneva. These opportunities allow her to reflect on how to parallel the female experience of the public space with Elliot Rodger’s feeling of rejection. In the midst of the Covid lockdown, she falls into an obsessive spiral in which she seeks out his victims on social networks, the women targeted by the incels, to the point of receiving a wake-up call from those closest to her. So she refocuses and writes a text based on the story of the “gentleman” while recounting her own anecdotes or those of her friends of their urban experience, these micro-aggressions that women live in everyday life. In her story, she manages to bring out the tenderness she first had for incels, and at the same time the sense of over-vigilance of a woman walking down the street. And it is precisely the street that becomes the stage, in which she invites the audience to follow her while listening to the recording of her text during a sound ballad. She calls it kit de survie en milieu masculiniste.
To set it up, Marion collaborates with artist researcher and director Maxine Reys, and sound designer Audrey Bersier. Using a binaural microphone, they recorded urban sounds to recreate specific moments, such as a van driving by, with the aim of creating a feeling of insecurity in the listener, which brings them closer to the reality of women in the street. With the help of an urban architect, they set out on a sensory urban journey that lasts 45 minutes.
At the beginning of the piece, the spectators are given an mp3 and headphones and are invited to follow one of the actresses. They start in an open space, the actress turns around, smiles at them, gives them a feeling of security. They listen to the recording and feel as if she is talking to them. As the play progresses, she speeds up, loses them in narrower alleys, makes them believe that they are following her and that she doesn’t want to, to accentuate the feeling of insecurity and highlight the shared responsibility for our behaviour in public space. They end up in an open space where everyone is free to move around and where Marion’s voice closes the play with a description and list of incel attacks. Then the actresses invite the audience to share a moment of exchange in a theatre room, offering them a drink, chocolates in the shape of penises and a sticker of Ada Lovelace, mother of the very first computer program without which incels could not meet.
They also hand out three booklets; the first contains excerpts from incel forums, the second excerpts from feminist blogs about incels, and the third a photo of Elliot Rodger’s face. Marion did not want to take the responsibility of showing his face to the viewers and preferred to let them choose to open it. In her opinion, this contributes to the process of heroising the criminals instead of focusing on the victims whose names are always forgotten. The audience can then discuss their feelings, ask questions to the artist and put the puzzle together. She preferred to let everyone make up their own mind by giving them the opportunity to understand each side.
To this day, the audience for the survival guide has included many feminists, a few men who don’t find the story incisive enough, but also two incels. The first was familiar with Elliot Rodger’s story, understood that Marion was opening the door to empathy by trying to understand the mythology behind their mentality, and had no particular criticism. The second who came with a sense of frustration, was moved by the stories, realised that there was an extremist side to the movement, and went away leaving the incel label behind, a priceless victory for Art.
For each series of performances in a new city, the artists recreate a new route. So far, they have performed the play in Zurich, Bern, Lausanne, Nantes, Lyon, as well as for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2022, and will be back in France at the Avignon Festival this year before flying to Estonia. For travel purposes, the recording is translated into English and German.
Kit de survie en milieu masculiniste is a powerful project. It proves that artistic creation can play a determining role in our perception of society, and succeed in changing human relationships.
Through her sensitivity and empathy, Marion Thomas has created a caring environment in which she has been able to pay tribute to all women.
Credit photo : Maxime Devige
“As an artist I feel that the work should take the path of subjectivity, of history, it’s a place of activism without imposing a way of thinking either.” Artists have always tackled universal subjects such as emotions and identity, as well as the contemporary challenges of their time. Yet the works of art are not designed to provide an answer, but rather to create and make visible a certain perspective linked to the subject being addressed. In her “kit de survive en milieu masculiniste”, Marion Thomas has chosen to touch on complex and sensitive societal themes, simply by drawing parallels between other people’s stories and her own. Her projects are in fact the result of long reflection over the years, combined with her own introspection.
Born into a working-class family, Marion grew up in Évry. From the age of five, she takes up the theatre to compensate for her difficulties in expressing herself, but loses interest in it when she reaches adolescence. Solitary and withdrawn, she takes refuge in literature and video games, which she is still passionate about today. She receives her first console at the age of six and spends a lot of time on the internet reading and entertaining herself as soon as she gets her first computer. Around the age of thirteen, her brother introduces her to online games. With her headset and microphone, she plays Counter Strike, but in the face of violent misogynistic insults from other players, she quickly gives up. Girls are clearly not accepted simply for being girls, so every time she appears in the game, Marion is repeatedly eliminated, leaving her with only a few seconds to live. She continues to play, but locally, with no interaction with the virtual community.
Higher education enables Marion to break out of her social milieu and open up culturally to a world that had previously seemed inaccessible to her. She leaves the Paris region for the first time to study at the Faculté de Lettres in Nantes, graduating with a Master’s degree in theatrical research. Through specialised literature on the theatre of the 14th century fair, she reconnects with her field. For a long time, she had not allowed herself to return to what she had given up when she was younger, and she gets back into acting. After her studies, she joins theatre companies and takes on a number of projects, including an interactive play in which the only character is a woman torn between the need to adopt a sustainable, autonomous lifestyle and her passion for video games. We learn that video games can be used to organise groups and create shared imaginary worlds. The audience is connected to a screen from which they can choose a scenario and thus influence the narrative. The play obviously echoes Marion’s own experience, and she quickly realises that writing about subjects interests her, as does acting in her own plays.
She still spends a lot of time on the internet, which has become an essential part of her creative process and her main source of inspiration. She becomes interested in T.A.Z: Temporary Anonymous Zone, a book by Hakim Bey in which he describes a utopian internet in which civil society organises itself to fight and emancipate itself from capitalism. She then begins to follow the development of alternative groups such as the famous hacktivists Anonymous on the 4chan platform, or the body hackers known for implanting foreign bodies in theirs on an experimental basis and with an open source vocation, in particular Sapiens Anonym. It is whilst discovering all these subcultures that she comes across the incels, the group she spends the most time with.
After this period of small-scale projects, she moves to Lausanne, where she takes up a master’s degree in directing, and spends four years there. Her experience of the public space is different from that in France, and she feels that Swiss civil society is more proactive when it comes to defending women. On completing her master’s degree, she begins writing her very first play, Kit de survie en milieu masculiniste. As we know, it’s 2018, and Marion has been following the evolution of incels through Reddit forums. She looks back on her traumatic experience of online video games and compares herself to Elliot Rodger, who became part of a large virtual community thanks to World of Warcraft. If their only differences were socio-economic background and gender, their respective experiences of social life seemed rather similar.
Marion thinks a lot about violence and mental disorders; women are more likely to internalise, resorting to self-harm for example, whereas men externalise. The writer and activist Rebecca Solnit, from whom she draws her inspiration, points out that although Elliot Rodger had psychological problems that drove him to the edge of his thoughts, it would be wrong to believe that his act is isolated. Others before and after him took the plunge for the same reasons. Because we all share a culture in which it is deeply rooted that men mobilise their physical strength, and because the patriarchy that pervades our society divides women and men between the status of victim and executioner. In a way, legitimising the systemic dimension of Elliot’s gesture makes it possible to move the boundaries of the global problem.
So misogyny is everywhere, but the internet is special in the sense that it has made it possible to propagate and give a special place to extreme rhetoric, and Marion has had a good experience of this. Although women are increasingly asserting themselves in gamer communities, they are still subject to masculinist raids. The Covid period helped to accentuate this phenomenon and radicalise worrying behaviour, cyber-bullying has taken over and women are still the first victims of online hate speech. But there are 50% men on the planet, so Marion knows that we must all make the effort to work together to ensure greater inclusiveness. She also knows that forcing an idea on an individual is not the key to changing mentalities, so she strives to create a welcoming space through her pieces where empathy is the order of the day, and where everyone can leave with their own idea of the subject. On a personal level, writing this project has allowed her to exorcise herself and finally move on.
Back in Nantes, she revisits the subject of masculinity, this time through musk, an ingredient so coveted for centuries for making perfumes and for its supposedly powerful aphrodisiac properties. It is in fact the gland of the musk deer, an animal classified as ‘vulnerable’ because of poaching. This project takes the form of an escape game that she is designing for the Nantes School of Architecture. The main theme is the preservation of biodiversity, which she has taken up more recently in a new project on hake. Although we don’t know much about this fish, it is one of the most widely consumed in France. To give an idea of the scale of the situation, it is difficult to find them older than 5 years, when they can live for 20.
Marion was contacted by a group of scientists for this project. They are creating algorithms to monitor variations in the fish population in the oceans, but to do this they need the help of fishermen. The data is then sent to the European Council, which adjusts its fishing policy to prevent overfishing. This inevitably has a negative impact on fishermen, who in turn are reluctant to communicate with scientists. That’s where Marion comes in; she’s going to keep a diary of the meetings between fishermen and scientists, which will later be the subject of a play about hake, for which she has become very fond in the meantime. Hake is one of the ‘non-charismatic’ species of biodiversity, meaning that it is not sufficiently popular in our imaginations, like the dolphin or the tiger, to encourage subsidies for conservation activities. In a way, hake and incels have this in common: they lack the charisma needed to live in peace, and Marion feels affection for them.
Credit photo : Maxime Devige
Marion Thomas chooses complex and delicate contemporary themes that are open to debate, and always approaches them in an introspective way.
By sharing her kindly eye, she conveys powerful messages and manages to move the boundaries of the preconceptions with which we live.