In Martin Scorsese’s movie Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle is a man shunned by the opposite sex, pushed to extreme violence. In the age of the incel, the parallels are obvious.
Earlier this year, a white van was the vehicle that transported the “incel” [which stands for “involuntarily celibate”—a self-titled, co-opted phrase by an online community of angry men] to the greater consciousness, a bloodletting that thrust a figure only known in the shadowy corners of the internet into the light of greater examination.
In April this year, a man rammed a van into a crowd of pedestrians in Toronto, killing eight women and two men. The suspect, 25-year-old Alek Minassian, wrote a post on Facebook shortly before the massacre, declaring the “Incel Rebellion has already begun!” pic.twitter.com/oEih89YHNO
— HuffPost (@HuffPost) July 24, 2018
Vox describes the incel as: “… have developed an elaborate sociopolitical explanation for their sexual failures, one that centers on the idea that women are shallow, vicious, and only attracted to hyper-muscular men. They see this as a profound injustice against men like them, who suffer an inherent genetic disadvantage through no fault of their own. A small radical fringe believes that violence is an appropriate response — that an ‘Incel Rebellion’ or ‘Beta [Male] Uprising’ will eventually overturn the sexual status quo.”
The 2018 streets of Toronto echo the streets of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 New York. Taxi Driver tells the story of Travis Bickle, the eponymous cabbie who tumbles down New York’s societal trapdoor before being born anew, creating his own purpose through the application of extreme violence.
I bring up Travis as there is an opportunity for his story to serve as an inspiration. In his words, “Here is a man who would not take it anymore.” I’ll be honest, Taxi Driver has a great power, even over myself. It possesses a strange magic; the worse I feel, the better it gets. It validates my feelings of exclusion, my angst. Everyone else is the problem, not me.
I raise this point, as the incel community has a history of elevating examples to follow. The hands behind the Toronto attack, Alek Minassian, evoked the figure of noted incel Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who killed six people in 2014. Rodger is deified in these circles as “the supreme gentleman,” replete with purchasable merch and a wave of fan-made tribute movies.
Taking a quick scope of incel message boards, Rodger remains a holy figure of reference. The Patron Saint of Incels. “Here is a man who would not take it anymore.”
Back to Travis. The early part of the narrative has the insomniac Travis attempting to find love in terrible places. His vibrant romantic optimism lighting the dire tableaus he looks in on. He is hopeful for love, but love has no use for him. He attempts to pick up the attendant in the porno theater he frequents, but she dismisses him. However, it is his connection with Betsy that is most telling.
From the outset, she is an object. A shining example of difference. In the words of Travis, “… she appeared like an angel, out of this filthy mass, she is alone, they cannot touch her.” He sees her as “the most beautiful woman that he’s ever seen” and stalks her at work until he has the nerve to approach her. In explaining his motivations, Martin Scorsese says of Travis, “You’re raised to worship women…but you don’t know how to approach them on a human level, on a sexual level. That’s the thing with Travis.”
The objectification of Betsy is obvious, and the courtship fails after Travis foolishly takes her to a porno theater. The romantic pursuit of a dead relationship is the telling point. Through montage, we see that Travis has attempted to mend fences by overloading her with woo, the returned bouquets of flowers just as telling as Betsy’s unreturned phone calls. We’re left with a solitary frame of the outside world carrying on over Travis’ clueless rejection, the camera pans away to hint that the moment was too difficult to bear.
The duality with inceldom is obvious, with the comment section of the above clip awash with familiar sentiment.
The above follows one of the core tenets of inceldom: the Virgin versus the Chad. Explained through the medium of meme, it is ostensibly the diffusion of blame. It is not the fault of the incel (the virgin), or indeed the Travis, it’s the fault of them. Either the woman they covet or the hyper-masculine chads of the world that warped the dating scene. Through the prism of Taxi Driver, Travis could be viewed as the nice guy, the one who did everything right, the one who was rebuffed by the unfair romantic standards he didn’t make.
After the rejection, Travis plants, “I realize now how much that she’s like the others, cold and distant.”
According to an interview in Scraps from the Loft, the film’s writer, Paul Schrader, sees the erosion of Betsy and Travis thusly:
Which is where the narrative truly drives the incel roadmap, because after Travis is rebuffed from sex and connection, he chooses violence. First, in his loose plot to eliminate Betsy’s employer, Charles Palantine. It’s not a politically-motivated crime as the two have an earnest exchange in his cab, you could argue that it is to make Betsy feel his pain. That, or it is just the kernel of the new Travis, outside of sex.
In his own words, “true force.”
His path of violent rebirth takes him to Iris, the underage prostitute that he chooses to save from her employer, a pimp named Sport. Using the modern example, he’s a proto-Chad. Muscular, confident, and according to the gospel of the meme “… hands always prepared to grab nearby fertile pussy.”
Through the application of violence, Travis frees Iris from a life of sex. Due to the warped values of the narrative, he’s lauded as a “hero cabbie.” The viciousness of a .44 Magnum is fine, as long as you aim it at the right people. This is magnified by the ethereal re-appearance of Betsy who, through Travis’ actions (and the media furor surrounding it), now values him.
It reads in her face: from abject fear to open respect. Through violence, there is change. He chooses not to pursue her, but he does so on his terms. He doesn’t accept Betsy’s money and drives off into the night.
Travis wins, and is free to repeat when the same opportunity arises.
The fantasy of Bickle is catnip. A tale where the ends forever justify the means. Much like Elliot Rodger, Travis Bickle grants power to the disempowered. The reason why Taxi Driver has resonance four decades on is that the themes are nothing new. In the modern realm, however, those themes are magnified and validated, not through the solitary exclusion of “God’s lonely man,” but by a whole community of God’s lonely men.