The internet’s cast of characters always has room for one more. The newest is Doomer Girl, a quickly sketched cartoon woman with black hair, black clothes, and sad eyes ringed with red makeup. Visually, there’s not much to Doomer Girl beyond that. She has a lightly sad expression and a permanent blush that give the impression she is bummed, but not dysfunctionally so. She’s aspirational-gloomy, like Billie Eilish with a bob and no hands.
Doomer Girl is also almost unaccountably popular. People started sharing the original sketch of her on social media less than a month ago, clearing and refilling the thought bubble above her head each time. Fans have since flooded Twitter with art depicting the character’s imagined friendships or romantic relationships with other internet-famous cartoon women. Some people post pictures of themselves dressed up as her. Already, Doomer Girl’s image has become flexible. Her eyes are canonically dark, but new drawings of her sometimes make them green; her black sweater has been replaced with a muscle tank. “Her aesthetic looks similar to mine and, well, I’m a depressed 21-year-old just trying to survive HAHAHA,” Luna, a cosplayer from the Philippines, wrote to me on Twitter.
To Doomer Girl’s fans, who are mostly young women, her appeal is simple enough: If Doomer Girl were real, she’d be a cool girl, dark and sad in a stylish way. Who hasn’t cosplayed as one of those? But Doomer Girl’s past is as twisted as her implied outlook on life. She came out of 4chan, the infamous hotbed of frequently racist and misogynistic internet culture. She was created as the female counterpart to another cartoon character called Doomer, a ragged-looking guy with three-day scruff, a black beanie, and a cigarette perpetually dangling from his mouth. In Doomer comics, the joke is that Doomer Girl should realize she is Doomer’s perfect match, but she rejects him instead because she’s a woman, and women live only to withhold. (A classic!)
Doomer Girl could have waxed and waned and died there, but she was plucked from 4chan and moved to Reddit, then onto Tumblr and Twitter and Instagram in a matter of days. The viral spread was driven largely by women who were removing her from a context in which she was a mechanism of male self-mythologizing and remaking her into something joyful.
In the history of memes, the familiar story is one of harmless images accruing sinister meanings that turn them into weapons—the most famous example being Pepe the Frog, an innocuous web-comic character that was co-opted by various extremist groups leading up to the 2016 election. But Doomer Girl shows how the reverse can happen too: A cruel idea gets whittled down and recirculated without context, because its origin is less interesting than the creative possibilities.
For the past year and a half, crudely drawn internet characters named with the -oomer suffix have been getting odder and more specific. The original was a “30-year-old Boomer,” created on 4chan to make fun of Millennials who espouse ideas associated with Baby Boomers. “Zoomers” are teenagers whose entire personalities were molded by the algorithms of SoundCloud and YouTube. Doomers, meanwhile, are the nihilistic cousins of “Bloomers” and “Gloomers,” all three gradients of the same 20-something. Whereas Bloomers are well adjusted and Gloomers are depressed because they are not, Doomers have simply stopped trying. They are no longer pursuing friendships or relationships, and get no joy from anything because they know that the world is coming to an end. As one of the many iterations of the meme goes, a Doomer “pays for his phone but only use [sic] it to know what time it is.”
The -oomer family extends even further, into dozens of oddly specific and niche types—an entire visual vocabulary for young people who want to make fun of happy idiots and stereotype themselves as particular shades of down-and-out. The Doomer character was first posted in September 2018, on 4chan’s business-and-finance board, and reposted the next day on the /r9k/ board, which is one of the more repugnant places on the internet. To an outsider, the average post will read either as garbled nonsense or almost parodically misogynistic and racist vitriol. The board is probably best known for its frequent calls for a “beta uprising,” in which neglected cerebral men take revenge against women and “alphas”—including a September 2015 post that the FBI investigated for its possible connection to a mass shooting.
[Read: It’s Not Easy Being Meme]
Many Doomer memes, as Mel magazine’s Miles Klee reported last spring, nod at anti-Semitism and other alt-right extremist views. Among all the usual sad stuff, several incarnations of the original 4chan Doomer template include phrases like “Redpilled on Jews, but bored of discussing it,” and “The West is gone and genuinely I fear for the future generations.” When the question of whether a girl could identify as a Doomer first came up—several months before Doomer Girl herself was born—Doomer fans bickered. Maybe, but she’d have to be exceptionally messed up or “unusually intelligent.” More likely, she would be vapid and amoral: “No clue who the Smiths are,” “Not actually depressed,” “Cheats on bf all the time,” and so forth. Another batch of early Doomer Girl memes were vaguely transphobic, positing that Doomer Girl was just Doomer after he’d eaten a meatless Impossible Burger.
Shortly after she appeared, however, Doomer Girl was reposted into r/transitiongoals and r/traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns—two large communities organized around memes and in-jokes about transitioning. Members commented on one post that Doomer Girl had a “nice face shape” and a “cute haircut.” The commenters were fully aware of her origins: Reddit’s thriving network of trans-specific spaces tend to be deeply versed in meme culture and the language of 4chan. One commenter summed up r/Doomer, the subreddit dedicated to Doomer memes, as “extreme nihilistic depression with a dollop of toxic masculinity.” But the original poster of Doomer Girl in r/traaaaaaannnnnnnnnns, a 16-year-old from Germany named Siobhan, told me it was “kinda fun” to take the Doomer idea out of its original context—where she saw it being used to express anti-Semitism—and make it into something positive. Doomer Girl “presents herself as a goth, which I also want to be,” Siobhan added. (She asked to be identified only by her first name for privacy reasons.)
As Doomer Girl became more popular, her connection to her origins became far less clear. According to Tumblr, searches for Doomer Girl increased by 558 percent from January 7 to January 15. Most of what they turned up weren’t memes, but people dressed up as Doomer Girl or images of her redrawn in more detail. Within a few days, versions of Doomer Girl that were actually human faces or borderline-unrecognizable overhauls were more visible on the platform than the original.
Doomer Girl is, a month into her young life, a generalized prompt. She’s the basic idea of a melancholy girl with an elegant bob—neutral to some, inspirational to others. The term context collapse is often used to refer to the potential danger of pulling an idea out of a specific social network and placing it in front of a much larger and diffuse one. But context collapse isn’t always dangerous; it’s only inherently chaotic. As Forrest Wilkins, a 26-year-old U.S.-based developer who posted a meta remix of the Doomer Girl meme to Tumblr, sees it, so much online culture starts out harmless and spirals into something toxic. “It’s nice to see it go in the other direction,” he told me.
The people who claim ownership of Doomer, meanwhile, are pissed. Two weeks after the first Doomer Girl cartoon hit 4chan, the moderators of the r/Doomer subreddit banned her. “Anyone posting doomerette memes will get his post removed and his account will be banned for 3 days,” the announcement read. Once Doomer Girl was added to the mix, the moderators told me, the subreddit had blown up, adding 6,000 new members in a matter of two weeks.
The moderators criticized the new members as a bunch of “normies” who didn’t understand the Doomer lifestyle, or as self-obsessed women eager to get attention by playing dress up. “We don’t want our forum to be invaded and taken over by a bunch of snapchat addicted zoomers, e-girl worshipping simps, and histrionic e-thots looking to expand their collection of orbiters,” one moderator posted. On 4chan, an anonymous user shared a copypasta—a punchy paragraph meant to be copied and pasted wherever relevant—that began, “The doomer girl meme is destroying the whole point of doomerism,” and ended with a reference to Fight Club.
This is the type of internet conflict that reflexively admits its own silliness. While some members of r/Doomer are freaking out, others are mocking them for their inability to relax. But many members do appear to consider this a matter of gravity: The memes that define social identities and shape the borders of a subculture are also the memes that can trigger the most severe defensiveness. “A good part of meme-ing, especially at this level, is gatekeeping and keeping people out,” Matt Schimkowitz, an editor of the internet encyclopedia Know Your Meme told me. “The more spread they see, the more they want to tighten up the ship.”
In the past week or so, there has been some pushback against the moderators’ gatekeeping. The comment section on a recent post making fun of a “cute” and “wholesome” Doomer Girl meme is mixed. Some Doomers share in the original poster’s ire, while others respond flatly: “You cannot copyright a meme.” The question of whether you can copyright a meme, though, has been haunting the internet for years. Matt Furie, the illustrator behind Pepe the Frog, issued dozens of takedown requests under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and successfully sued Alex Jones, the founder of Infowars, for using it in promotional materials. It was an understandable move that fair-use proponents still found “troubling” because it set a precedent for stifling the internet’s fundamental remix culture.
The openness that allows art to be remixed toward detestable political ends is also what allows something hateful to be redeemed. (In a world with strict copyright for images that circulate online, Doomer Girl would have stayed what she was: a mechanism for a bad joke.) The argument going on in r/Doomers is mostly about whether young women have any right to remix things in the first place. As one Reddit user wrote, “Women and normies [are] taking something original and meaningful to a specific group of men and making it about themselves.” But the truest tradition of memes has always been pilfering things from boring places with rigid rules, redoing them, and creating chaos.