Alexander Cohen details the research and inspiration that has gone into Blue Room, a new play based in the story of serial killer Elliot Rodger.

‘Incel’ culture was brought to my attention in 2014, after Elliot Rodger killed 7 and injured 14 people in a shooting spree in Isla Vista. A few years later I was fascinated by a documentary that explored the way that so-called ‘incels’ had reacted to his crime. Many in online communities viewed Rodger as a martyr for masculinity: he has inspired multiple mass killings in America perpetrated by men, who like Rodger, saw themselves as alienated from an uncaring society. Others relentlessly trolled him with videos and memes cruelly mocking him. ‘Incels’ are often viewed as a joke: social outcasts who can’t get laid and play video games all day. However, many suffer mental health issues and have undergone severe bullying from childhood. There are some who are far more sinister harbouring extremist views that have tragically expressed themselves through horrific acts of violence, usually targeted against women.

As a philosophy student I cannot help but think about this through a (pretentious word alert) Hegelian lens. Without delving too much into Hegel’s philosophy (which I will be the first to admit I don’t fully understand), I explain why I think ‘incel’ culture is a fascinating reflection modern society as well as the concept of gender and why both deserve to be explored on stage.

I believe ‘incel’ culture is the antithesis of our current society, one that promotes the highly sexualised and materialistic values. Take Love Island (you read that right); love it or hate it, Love Island is the cultural zeitgeist, for one month every summer our cultural consciousness is possessed by images of scantily clad men and women, gossiping and playing moronic games with the pretence of finding their soul mate. It’s about as convincing as the humanoid cat-monsters from the film version of Cats, yet people adore the show: the first episode alone drew 3.3 million viewers, primally aged between 16 and 24.

What values does Love Island promote? Primarily sex and materialism. Viewers are subjected to a strange world where men and women are literally walking sex objects. The show’s creative director Richard Cowles has come under fire for defending the lack of body positivity on the show, bluntly claiming that “we want people to be attracted to them.” In other words, they are being marketed at walking fetish objects, nothing more. I admit I have a strange fascination with watching behind the scenes clips from the show where ex-islanders reveal how they are constantly under Orwellian level surveillance from the producers who do everything they can to provoke and spark drama. Whether it be introducing Ex’s or putting islanders in deliberately sexualised situations, they will ruthlessly pursue their goal of creating a narrative to keep viewers hooked so as to boost ratings, boost advertising fees, and receive a bigger pay check.

The ‘incel’ is the total opposite of such an ideology: Love Island promotes the public – we know everything about the islanders who share every mundane aspect of their vapid existence through their social media feeds, whereas the ‘incel’ is private living in isolation and rarely interacting with the outside world unless it is through a screen. Love Islandpromotes endorsing capitalist values – buying and consuming almost useless products, some ‘incels’ on the other hand want to tear the system that they believe has failed them resorting to extremist views and violence. I understand that this is the case with last year’s film version of Joker, which saw the eponymous villain spark an anti-capitalist-anti-1%-Occupy Wall Street uprising. Whilst I have not seen that film and started writing Blue Room before it was released, it is interesting to see that how mainstream Hollywood film makers have reacted to figures such as Elliot Rodger.

I am not arguing that Love Island is causing this kind of violence. What I am saying is that it is one of many mediums by which these late capitalist values are promoted. I only give it as an example because it is the probably the most unapologetic about its values and probably the most annoying.

Commodification and objectification is nothing new: Walk into any western art gallery and you will be confronted with the classical female nude who was until the modern period the subject of many artists: she is passive, sexualised, and objectified to fit what is known as the male gaze (a term coined by Laura Mulvey to describe the scopophilic power relation between men and women). Yet, sexualising commodities and objectifying women has become far public given mass advertising and even more intrusive because of smart phones where you cannot scroll through your Facebook feed without someone trying to sell you something.

In Blue Room, M dehumanises women seeing them as commodities or sex objects whose only purpose is to serve men. This is shocking and indeed morally repulsive when we are directly confronted with it on stage, yet it is viewed as mere entertainment when we see in in Love Island. In the aftermath of Elliot Rodger’s murder spree, many news reporters questioned whether popular highly-sexualised ‘frat boy’ comedies were to blame for propagating such values and expectations towards women. These Bechdel test failing films almost always portray women as sex objects that cater to the male gaze. I believe a powerful question arises from this discussion: as consumers of this type of culture, to what extent are we promoting the propagation of such values, which clearly can have dangerous side effects on mentally vulnerable individuals?

This leads to the question of modern masculinity which is also central Blue Room. Whilst many contemporary plays and productions celebrate femininity in a post #MeToo world (female empowerment is overdue analysis in all many art forms), I thought it would be interesting to explore some ways in which men have responded to the movement.

I have just seen the RSC’s production of Measure for Measure, a play that is namedropped by many in refence to recent sexual harassment cases. Many in the audience gave an audible gasp of shock during the infamous scene where Angelo gives a cruel ultimatum upon Isabella. The couple in front of me best summed it up during the interval where the man turned to who I presume was his wife and said: “He’s a bit like that Weinstein bloke.”

But there are men who have would not audibly gasped because they feel that #MeToo and feminism are not forces for good and are not a steps towards a better society. I recognise that that not all anti-feminists are violent or misogynists, but there are a small minority who are both hate women and are drawn to violence as a means to express that hatred. These are the types of people I want to explore on stage in Blue Room because in trying to understand why these individuals form such views we can, perhaps, gage a better understanding of ourselves as well as the ideologies that we stand by.

The figures in Blue Room are, in this sense, the ugly reaction to the modern world where everything is artificial and masquerading some hidden ideology, where sex is commercialised and promoted as the highest value in order to sell products and boost revenues. The fact that M is played by a woman draws attention to this: the character’s fragile perception of their own masculinity is central to their sense of alienation and eventual withdrawal from society.

This directorial choice was inspired by Judith Butler’s 1990 Gender Trouble, a fascinating text that deconstructs what she calls the “performance” of gender by arguing that masculinity and femininity are nothing more than actions that we are taught to perform from a young age. M being played as woman highlights this performance of masculinity: an audience would not notice a man portraying ‘masculine’ actions and movements as they would be accustomed to it: that is how we are taught to act on a daily basis. A woman taking on those actions should hopefully draw the audience’s attention to them, recognising they as somehow “unnatural” or at least uncommon. As a result, the performance of masculinity is brought to the forefront of the production; it is what I believe is the centre of the conflict that drives the play. Returning to Love Island, the contestants are in a sense performers convincing the audience of their performance in the way I might wear black to convince the audience of my melancholy when playing the role of Hamlet.

I understand that this note (which has become more of an essay) may be controversial: you may disagree with every word. You may see my play and despise every second of it but, I believe that the nature of theatre is to start dialogues, to not just present the audience with a cookie-cutter opinion that they want to hear, but rather to challenge preconceived ideas and in doing so learn more about ourselves and the world around us.

Whilst it may not entertain you, I should hope that it makes you think.

I would also like to take this opportunity to share the resources I used to write and direct the play. For all its issues, the internet is a wonderful place where any and all information is accessible. There are many websites explaining ‘incel’ culture including many wikis and guides. I have explored ‘manopshere’ forums on Reddit and seen the misogyny and racism described in the play myself. I highly recommend a BBC Three documentary called Inside the Secret World of Incels which is as eye-opening as it is disturbing. There is an interesting response to that documentary made by a YouTuber called Just James who was featured as part of the programme. He highlights how manipulative documentary film making can be, so perhaps watch the documentary with a pinch of salt. As mentioned, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble is a fascinating yet challenging read as is Elizabeth Garber’s essay Feminism, Aesthetics, and Art Education which elucidates the concept of the male gaze. I would also recommend anything by Slavoj Zizek if you can understand it – I know I don’t.


Blue Room will be playing at Bede Chapel, The College of St Hild and St Bede, on 17th and 18th January at 7:30pm. This performance contains content which may be uncomfortable for some audience members.