Incels and the Search for Posthuman Heroes

“The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and the shift to nerdy posthuman heroism

Image by Michael Prewett, from Unsplash.com

As postindustrial economies replace strong, competent men with machines, emasculating our traditional heroes, can story-tellers cope by refashioning losers as the heroes we’ve needed all along? This question gets at the subtextual burden of movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

The Irony of the Boyish Saint

The movie’s a comedy featuring Andy, a salesman at an electronics store, and his coworkers who discover he’s a virgin at 40 and who try to rectify his sexual situation. But the movie’s a curious one because instead of heaping ridicule on the titular character, it turns the tables on the coworkers.

To be sure, the film ridicules Andy, comparing him to the many unopened toys and comic books he still collects. Taking them out of their package ruins their value, says Andy, the double meaning being that Andy prizes his virginity or at least doesn’t want to have cheap sex. The film suggests that Andy’s virginity is the result of his arrested development. Although he’s emotionally stable and indeed in some ways mentally healthier than his sexually-active coworkers, Andy’s hobbies are depicted as being those of a teenager. His house is a man cave, complete with video games, toys, and comics — everything except the porn.

It’s at that latter point that the movie’s superficial explanation of Andy’s predicament breaks down, since if Andy really were stuck in a teenaged boy’s mindset, he’d be raging with hormones and spending much more of his time with pornography than with the more innocent youthful entertainments. On the contrary, Andy is disgusted when his coworker David brings him an enormous box of old porn movies.

Rather than just mocking Andy with the usual jokes you’d expect anyone to make at the expense of an involuntary, middle-aged virgin, the movie casts Andy as something of a boyish saint. Without being overtly religious, Andy shares the Catholic priest’s contempt for fornication. Instead of just sex, Andy says, he’s looking for “a connection.”

This is the lesson Andy teaches his coworkers who initially boast about their sexual prowess, but whose sex lives are eventually revealed to be empty because they, too, lack what Andy lacks: an emotional connection with their partners. Ironically, the virgin establishes a deep connection with a woman named Trish, by dating and getting to know her for weeks without sex, beating his nonvirginal coworkers to the punch.

The ironic moral is that having meaningless sex with strangers is less adult an activity than the naïve man-child’s quest to build a rapport with a life partner. Of course, Andy has sex at the end of the movie and that act is celebrated as an epiphany for him — but only because he’d already established an emotional connection with Trish.

All Hail the Omega Male!

By taking Andy as its protagonist, The 40-Year-Old Virgin raises the larger question of how to account for the surge of incels or so-called “omega males” in the United States, Japan, and the Middle East with its large numbers of jobless, repressed young men. An omega male is defined as a loser in a conventional competition for resources such as money, fame, honour, sex, and happiness. That is, the omega has fewer of these goods than the majority of the population.

The incels who flock to the dark web and who cheer movies such as Joker or who in extreme cases crack and go on killing sprees because they blame feminism and misled women for the incel’s inability to get laid are part of the underclass you’d expect to find in any free society. Liberty is the freedom to succeed or to fail, and different kinds of competitors won’t do equally well in any genuine competition.

As to why their numbers may be surging or why Millennials are having less sex than previous generations, there are likely numerous causes, including the dehumanizing impact of social media and the declining confidence in open societies.

But perhaps the most relevant cause is the tarnishing of the reputation of these competitions’ winners who are sometimes known, by similar analogy with the ethological categories, as “alpha males.” The men who used to dominate in old-fashioned patriarchies have lost much of their power because of women’s liberation, globalization, and automation in the workplace. Jobs in manufacturing that used to provide for a stable middle class lifestyle are being outsourced to poor countries where an underclass accomplishes the same work for a fraction of the pay.

Neither the jobless factory worker in a postindustrial society nor the wage slave in Mexico, India, or China can be characterized as a winner or as a dominant male. The great winners in a postindustrial, “knowledge” economy are increasingly nerds such as the lords of tech in Silicon Valley, billionaire nerds such as Zuckerberg or Bezos, men who are materially alphas but psychologically omegas.

Perhaps this is one reason The 40-Year-Old Virgin doesn’t mock its unmanly protagonist with the same one-sided gusto that ’80s comedies such as Revenge of the Nerds did or that benighted, jingoistic Michael Bay movies still would. The nerds come out on top in Revenge of the Nerds, but largely because they form an unlikely alliance with the African-American fraternity, the Tri-Lambs who prevent the villains (the Alpha Betas) from stopping the nerdy Gilbert’s rousing speech at the end.

The alpha-male caricatures of the Alpha Betas fraternity or of the Cobra Kai dojo in The Karate Kid represent the complacent rulers of the burgeoning American patriarchy, the white, young, healthy, rich men and their trophy white girlfriends. By contrast, The 40-Year-Old Virgin leads its director Judd Apatow’s half-hearted assault on the late-modern American male. The “alphas” in that Apatow movie are the more well-rounded, flawed coworkers, at least two of whom (David and Jay but perhaps not Cal) are shown up by Andy, by the omega male who’s supposed to be the lowest of the low according to older Hollywood codes.

Andy is almost revered as a diamond in the rough because America of 2005 was no longer perceived as booming whereas the country had been under Reagan. The cadre of dominant men who would have had very little to learn from Andy are missing in action in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, because computers, social media, and the information economy have taken over manufacturing as the American hallmarks, and the former are quintessential provinces of socially-awkward men like Andy.

So while the ’80s American movies had to avoid insulting the Aryan-like white male masters, in the new economy which is led by nerds and in which the traditional dominators are being replaced by machines, conservative movies are now put in the awkward position of having to be truly radical in questioning the social dominance hierarchy, in deriding the traditional heroes and elevating the omega male.

The Prospects of Posthuman Heroism

Andy as the boyish, largely asexual saint may foreshadow a posthuman protagonist, one that transcends biological norms and merges with technology to become superhuman. Instead of gaining superpowers from technology, though, Andy’s superpower is his withdrawal from the biological game of mating. His wisdom is almost inexplicable since it’s found not in obsolete religion, nor in any technological ability, but just in his freedom from hook-up culture. Not having been poisoned by the consumerist imperative to find meaning in possessions and by that culture’s cooptation of sex, Andy is free to discover that love is the solution.

Of course, Andy also succumbs to consumerism since he collects his toys and comics, but he eventually sells these off for the more adult pursuit of starting his own business. Unlike his coworkers, though, Andy doesn’t objectify and collect people.

The biological function, after all, is only to sexually reproduce and to form a love bond just to stay together long enough to raise the helpless offspring. With birth control, we’re free from that imperative and can treat our animal attractions as games. We can hook up for the fun of it, swiping left or right on Tinder as the case may be. The cynical business strategy of planned obsolescence thus infiltrates the age-old practice of mating.

Elevating the omega male as a posthuman hero is no easy task, since we’re genetically inclined to look up to alpha males and to healthy, alluring females. The 40-Year-Old Virgin isn’t exactly ambivalent about celebrating the omega male, but the movie’s unclear about its justification for doing so.

Perhaps Andy wants to fall in love because he’s lonely or he wants to grow up. But loneliness can be alleviated without sex; indeed, Andy befriends his coworkers. As for growing up, that would amount to an appeal to a biological function or life cycle, which would threaten life with underlying meaninglessness rather than justifying a sentimental glorification of love or “connection.”

If we’re forced to seek heroism from the omega male, because the rise of machines and the new economy make religious values anachronistic and emasculate traditional heroes, we’ll need some narrative that explains why the erstwhile loser is worthy of admiration.

Why trust that the nerds of Silicon Valley feel obliged to benefit society rather than just their shareholders? Why think globalization and automation are progressive and ennobling in the long run? And why would a boyish saint want to fall in love?

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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