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.