A new series of memes are being shared on social media platforms, including 4Chan and the 8Chan replacement EndChan. These memes visually connect violent Incel culture – an offshoot of Pick Up Artist culture from the ‘Manosphere’ – to violent radical right culture using gendered logics of masculine shame and redemption. Ultimately the visual rhetoric of these memes poses violent mass murder within a frame of sanctified dominance as a pathway for disaffected young (white) men to recover their “proper” masculinity.
This series of memes presents a volatile and disturbing development since the 2019 attacks in Christchurch, California, Texas, Dayton, and Norway. (It is important to note that the Dayton attacker, as far as we know, did not espouse radical right ideology, nor do these memes specifically include him. I include Dayton because of its temporal relationship to the other attacks, and because of the attacker’s clear participation in misogynist culture.) This power of visual argumentation, particularly in digital media, is well noted in the field of communication studies. The meme format for visual argument is particularly useful for propaganda because as rhetorical scholar Davi Johnson notes, “[m]emes persuade, or rather memes infect, because they ‘program’ people to respond in particular ways”.
Radical right attackers as Chads: Meme series
On August 25, 2019, The Independent published an article by journalist Lizzie Dearden titled, “Revered as a saint by online extremists, how Christchurch shooter inspired copycat terrorists around the world.” Dearden describes how recent manifestos of radical right attackers have been distributed online with effects, including acting as triggers for potential attackers, “copying each other’s ideas,” and forming “a loose format for their atrocities.” Embedded in the article are a series of videos and images, including a meme from this new series. Yet, no discussion is included about the appropriation of Incel visuals into the service of radical right ideology. It is, however, perhaps one of the most important aspects of the circulation of manifestos after these recent mass attacks.
The meme, “The Chad Saint Brenton and his loyal Chad disciples John and Patrick” included in the article was shared by the Norway attacker prior to his attack. It uses the visual style of “Chad” memes – a drawn image of a strong-jawed, beefy and well-endowed man, full figure in profile – taken from Incel culture to pose the New Zealand, Poway, and Norway Mosque attackers in a triptych image framing them as “Saints” (another term from Incel culture.) Interspersed around the figures are brief statements and phrases describing the capacities and desirable features of these “Chad-ly saints.”
This visual framing presents these attackers as “strong” men, glorifying their violence as a sanctification of their inherent masculinity. The image poses the New Zealand attacker as an originary “saint” and the subsequent two attackers as his “disciples,” earning their own sanctification by taking up his call to arms. The clear message in the logics of the “Chad” meme culture is that radical right mass attacks – those aimed at protecting the white race and European cultures – are the pathway to becoming a man.
Other related memes on the 4Chan /pol/ thread make this visual argument clear. The series includes a meme devoted to Incel mass attackers’ failure as “real men.” In this meme, the Isla Vista attacker – one of the first attackers identified as an Incel – is posed on the left and described in disparaging terms. He is clearly not a “Chad” and worse he is labelled as “The Virgin ‘Gentleman’” drawing on Incel culture’s use of the chivalric moniker. It is juxtaposed with the image of the New Zealand attacker labeled as “The Chad Kebab Remover” clearly drawing on “Kebab” as a slur for Middle Eastern migrants. The overall visual story is that the Incel is a failure who carried out a useless attack that didn’t redeem him or sanctify his masculinity because it was rooted in the wrong ideological system.
Another meme in the series makes a similar claim of masculine failure by posing a jihadist mass attacker as “The Virgin Terrorist” opposite “The Chad NZ Shooter.” The imagery of the “terrorist” uses a grotesquerie of enlarged features that indicates non-whiteness – fitting within a genre of white supremacist representations of Jewish and African features – as a visual marker of sub-human difference. Here the assertion is racialized as well as gendered because the meme visually asserts the strength and rightness of white male dominance:
The final meme associated with this series is a poster style menu of various radical right mass attackers depicted primarily as “Chads” based on their successful actions. This meme extends the saintly logic backward to the Norway shooting in 2011 increasing the visual sense of the global interconnection of radical right violence through the nationality of the attackers and their victims:
This poster style meme, inclusive of multiple figures, highlights the “trading card”-like aesthetic of these particular memes through which stats, capabilities, and “heroic” acts are shared. By tying together a pantheon of “saints” with a visual frame reminiscent of a competitive sports culture (similar to online and offline cultures such as fantasy sports leagues), this works to reinforce immersion in radical right mass violence. Ultimately, this meme and the related memes in the series provide a multi-modal form of reverential discourse about the violent murder committed by these radical right terrorists.
This series of memes is both highly concerning and revealing. It presents a visual argument equating masculinity with violence through its redemptive and sanctifying capacity. It further makes crystal clear the utility of gendered logics – the foundational claim of lost and endangered masculinity – at the heart of this recruiting narrative.
White male violence as gendered agency
Importantly, these memes are shared on threads and pages within a context of calls for “real world” action including calls for violent attacks and repeated shares of the story of a young Swedish girl, Ebba Ackerlund, who was killed by a jihadist vehicular attack in April 2017 in Stockholm. The girl’s death was mentioned in the Christchurch manifesto and her image and story are now included – against her mother’s wishes – as part of the propagandistic base logic for calls to action to protect whiteness.
Such instrumentalization of white women’s and girls’ bodies is a common trope of white supremacist extremism since the era of slavery, and particularly under the regime of “Jim Crow” legislation in the US. It is a trope that has been extended to European logics around migration and demographic shifts and makes up a hallmark feature of the Grand Replacement theory.
This is a narrative rooted in longstanding, Christian gendered logics of the West that assert men’s proper dominance and control as natural. Thus, men’s responsibility to protect “their” women transmutes women’s bodies (especially reproductive capacity) into objects belonging to men. An attack on a white woman is really an attack on white masculinity and white social order that must be stopped at all costs.
Similarly, Incel culture is another group of young men primed to believe women are at the root of all social problems because they believe it is women’s capriciousness and shallowness that causes their own masculine precarity; their inability to engage women in (predominantly sexual) relationships. Thus, the convergence of radical right logics with Incel visual rhetorics although disturbing, makes sense within the larger context of misogyny and anti-feminism as a recruiting logic for the radical right.
What is clear from the series of memes is that they present a complex visual-textual interweaving of male sexual prowess (Chads) with dominance enacted through violence (descriptions of attackers) that trades on anxieties of failure and the possibility of redemption and sanctification (saint logic).
This set of memes presents a highly volatile and dangerous form of visual rhetoric that marries radical right racial animus and Incel shame and self-loathing through articulating violence as a path to “real masculinity.” The communicative power of these memes – particularly for young men immersed in online image-based cultures – should not be underestimated.