Back at the height of the Trump era, I tried to analyze a pattern of politics and art that had become unignorable: Whenever a right-winger brought up a movie, they got its entire premise — and often the basic details of plot and character — dead wrong. This appeared to be the case for the simple reason that, if you’re bent on waging a culture war, you start seeing even the most innocuous entertainment as propaganda. Next thing you know, you’re railing to Time magazine that Frozen is nothing more than destructive feminist dogma. Bro, it’s a musical about snow.
To a certain extent, of course, films do manipulate their audience. You’re made to feel sad, elated, scared or thrilled by way of story and visual artifice. But some viewers are trapped in a mindset that has them believing every last popcorn flick holds a serious moral or message, when in reality, Hollywood is a competitive business, not an institution built to affect change — the dominance of multibillion-dollar franchises is evidence of that. If anything, the industry is more conservative than Republicans realize, glorifying war and patriotism, enshrining the values of the nuclear family and approaching topics of race, class and gender with easy platitudes.
Curiously, the guys who identify with Red Pill or MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) communities, staunchly anti-feminist and hostile to concepts of social justice, are far better at identifying the reactionary elements of popular movies. Although also right-wing, they split from the GOP establishment on the questions of marriage and procreation, viewing these as distractions from their individual potential. That could be why, rather than reading the latest blockbuster as an attack on American traditionalism, they choose to identify with male leads who seem to express their ideology, often ripping favorite monologues from narrative context.
Here’s a telling example, drawn from the best-forgotten 2009 rom-com Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and included in a YouTube playlist of “MGTOW Movies.” The scene shows an unrepentant womanizer, played by Matthew McConaughey, ruining a wedding rehearsal dinner by explaining that matrimony is “oppressive” and romance an illusion, all while swilling Scotch. In the comment section, men proudly agree with this sentiment and mock the character of the bride-to-be for taking offense at it. “Typical women [sic], didn’t hear any part of this guy’s logical argument. All she heard was something to do about her weight. Pathetic,” writes one. To which another dude replies, “She listens with her emotions not thoughts! Meaning she isn’t listening at all but rather waiting for something to react to!! Welcome to the ‘real world.’”
The scare quotes are apropos, because no, this is not the real world; it’s a screenplay brought to life by actors.
It’s also a lazy adaptation of A Christmas Carol, meaning that McConaughey will be visited by three spirits who convince him to amend his ways. Some 90 minutes later, he’s back together with his true love (Jennifer Garner) in a predictable happy ending that affirms the very tropes our masculine philosophers claim to hate. But the arc doesn’t matter. The MGTOWs only care about the Red Pill potential of the moment where an attractive male movie star coolly destroys a few sacred targets, unafraid to speak the hard truth. This makes him a role model in their world, and it inspires them to disseminate the content in hopes of radicalizing or “waking up” fellow men.
It gets even weirder when you track the praise of antiheroes who come to a grisly fate. Above is an approving homage to so-called “sigma males” in films — the term lacks a viable definition but is a clear contrivance of the MGTOW perspective on men’s need for ultimate, “lone wolf”-style independence, most of all from women — and it names, among others, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) in the crime noir Heat and Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) from the period epic There Will Be Blood. If you’ve seen these movies, you’re probably aware that neither endorses radical male separatism: Plainview is a monstrous, reclusive oil baron whose vast fortune can’t save him from succumbing to drink and rage, while McCauley, a master thief, endures a ghostly, lonesome existence until he meets the woman of his dreams, then is killed in the act of abandoning her (as a “proper” MGTOW or sigma might do). Neither figure is shown as content or fulfilled — rather, the films dramatize the idea that men who remove themselves from society are engaged in an act of self-destruction. How on earth can misery be spun as aspirational?
Elsewhere, the Red Pill boys are keen to elevate the cinema in which women are largely or entirely absent (The Shawshank Redemption, old westerns and war movies, Fight Club and the survival feature Castaway, although, as one fan admitted, the Tom Hanks character “didn’t choose a MGTOW lifestyle himself”). On the flip side are films that spotlight female villains and their erotic treachery: Disclosure, Fatal Attraction, Gone Girl and, hilariously, Forrest Gump, whose love interest, Jenny, is regarded as a selfish, conniving slut. Then you have the violent flicks where a man is “pushed too far” and goes on a rampage, as with the John Wick trilogy, Falling Down and the unexpected Bob Odenkirk action vehicle Nobody. In recent years, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was commended for its Brad Pitt character (implied to have killed his nagging wife), and even The Irishman has been cited for MGTOW themes, despite it concluding with Robert De Niro forsaken and alone, haunted by regret and fear of hell.
Across the board, you find the manosphere values movies not as complete works of art with complex meaning, but for standalone scenes that resonate, the lines they can quote in their own diatribes, the rogue male killers with whom they identify and the female manipulators they love to hate. From chosen bits and pieces, and while ignoring the consequences for men who “go their own way” in these stories, they stitch together a crude mosaic that better represents their worldview than any of the actual films do. If nothing else, they can prove cinematic merit with a negative: A movie is good so long as there’s “no SJW nonsense” in it.
On that score, they’re way ahead of the traditionalist Republicans saying that Hollywood exclusively churns out media for liberal indoctrination: They take what they want and leave the rest on the cutting room floor.