The Alt-Right Has Lost Control of Redpill

A pair of eyeballs looking at a bunch of red pills, shifting back and forth.
Shira Inbar / The Atlantic

Have you fallen for a famous great ape, the most lovable star of something called the “MonsterVerse”? You’re Kong-pilled. Have you been convinced by a local restaurateur that an imported Italian oil is actually worth the expense? You’re truffle-pilled. Have you inadvertently become entranced by Marxist perspectives on mass media and popular culture? You’re Horkheimer and Adorno–pilled.

All over the internet, people are claiming to be “pilled” by anything you can imagine. Like lots of memes, this one comes from pop culture. In the 1999 movie The Matrix, the protagonist is presented with a choice: Take a red pill or a blue pill. The red pill will wake you up to all the horrors of reality, and the blue pill will let you stay clueless and happy in a simulated dreamworld. But unlike lots of memes, this one didn’t start as a neutral joke about a famous movie. About eight years ago, boys who were spending too much time on the internet—usually on 4chan or Reddit—began to use taking the red pill as code for “choosing to realize that feminism is destroying society and my life.” The phrase was adopted by other far-right political subcultures and slowly came to mean that a person had been radicalized in some way.

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Now the pill is experiencing new life as a funny little suffix that makes all interests and proclivities sound more dramatic. If you search pilled on Twitter, you will see people getting playfully radicalized about one thing or another every minute: Rory Gilmore–pilled, an affliction that makes a person want to act like the main character in Gilmore Girls. Or fish oil–pilled, which is nice, because fish oil supposedly has many health benefits. Or Opulent Tips–pilled, which is when you’re obsessed with the invite-only email newsletter about fashion. Pilled was a bad meme, and now it’s become a big joke. Nobody is really “pilled” on coconut oil or kindness or the Adam Sandler movie about a charming kidnapping. That would not make sense. Rather, people are taking a classic far-right meme and intentionally twisting it into something insignificant. The power of the MAGA internet is now diminished, and some Americans are ready to have a bit of fun at its expense.

Like so many other things that end up confusing millions of people a few years later, red pill, usually written as redpill, sprouted on Reddit. It was first popularized in 2013 in a Reddit forum called The Red Pill, which is for men who aspire to seduce women using complicated manipulation; the term meant deliberately opening your eyes to the oppression of modern men. Then it made a run through almost every major reactionary space on Reddit: the Gamergate forums, the white-supremacy forums (before they were banned), the incel forums (before they were banned).

Leading up to the 2016 election, the red pill exploded in popularity when it hit the once-massive Reddit forum dedicated to then–presidential candidate Donald Trump (before that forum was banned too). Taking a red pill still meant opting in to a new worldview, but the worldview in question was now less clearly defined: QAnon believers took red pills, and so did garden-variety misogynists, and so did MAGA diehards who simply loathed and distrusted the media. The red pill became such a popular right-wing meme during the Trump years that people started to hear about it even offline. In 2017, Maroon 5 titled an album Red Pill Blues, and the band members were forced to clarify that they were only fans of The Matrix, not misogynists or racists. Then, in May 2020, Elon Musk tweeted, “Take the red pill,” and Ivanka Trump replied, “Taken!”—a news event that was covered everywhere, including The New York Times and Fox News. (The Matrix director Lilly Wachowski responded, “Fuck both of you.”)

As outsiders caught on to the red pill, the red-pilled came up with new pills that others couldn’t understand. Certain 4chan and Reddit users delineated the difference between a red pill and a green pill (which reveals the truth about lizard people), or an iron pill (which makes a white supremacist into a ripped white supremacist), or an indigo pill (which is for Joker-style anarchists who are also obsessed with the Illuminati). Recently, the black pill has become a favorite of the “doomers” who have given up on everything. When colors got boring—or too much outside attention—the meme moved on to words affixed nonsensically to pills, some of which, such as schizopilled and jewpilled, still have terrible meanings.  

A rotating pill surrounded by a text bubble and the GOP logo
Shira Inbar

The dispersal of pilled is what led the mainstream internet to pick up on the meme, Tom Willaert, a researcher at the Free University of Brussels, who has monitored some of the more heinous “pills,” told me. Studying exactly how a meme jumps from one platform to another is almost impossible, Willaert said, but the new exciting, comforting, or funny types of pilled seem to have gotten popular on Twitter in the past year, particularly among people who spend plenty of time online and would have some knowledge of the meme’s history. Lately, people have claimed to be pilled on Rihanna’s makeup line, on coziness as a concept, on cats sitting in gardens, on the song “Running Up That Hill,” on Kansas, on red sauce, on the country singer Hank Williams, or on the Peloton instructor Cody Rigsby. Now, pilled is an appropriate substitute for simply “suddenly becoming really into something,” in the same way that gate, in a wink to Watergate, gets attached to every scandal. It appears totally divorced from its radical roots, and is approaching the point where it means almost nothing at all.

Anthony Oliveira, a writer living in Toronto, recently claimed to have been “turpentine-pilled by art conservation ASMR videos” (the joke being that, after watching an old painting get cleaned, he was now obsessed with paint-thinning solvents). When I emailed him about the tweet, he dismissed the suffix’s connection to the far right. “I think many people use the suffix ‘-pilled’ to indicate an ironic awareness” of that history, he said. They’re also making fun of themselves, using the suffix to indicate “that the thing they are purporting to believe is recognized on some level to be incredibly stupid.” It’s self-deprecating, but it’s also a little jab at how self-satisfied and misguided the original red-pill takers were.

This is not the first time a word beloved by online trolls has made its way into common speech. “Over the last 10 years, this seems to have happened every few months,” says Matt Schimkowitz, an editor at Know Your Meme. He pointed to the laundering of the “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong” meme, which originated on 4chan and later became a common joke format. Similarly, based, which originated on Black Twitter, was co-opted for quite a while by 4chan posters who would celebrate hate crimes as “based,” or “cool.” Now it’s everywhere. And in February, Popeyes tweeted about a promotion using the word tendies, which was popularized on 4chan as part of a running joke about how every person on the site identifies as both infantile and violent, constantly screaming for chicken tenders cooked for them by their terrified mother.

The progression of these memes tended to feel icky: The “normie” mainstream was duped into repeating something with a disgusting backstory. But the difference with “pilled” is that, this time, seemingly everyone knows what they’re doing. The online far right has demanded an intense amount of our attention over the past five years, which has left a lot of people who would never hang out in their spaces with a passing familiarity of their language nonetheless. Their memes elected a president and then inspired an attempted coup on his behalf. These years of dealing with online radicalization traumatized a lot of Americans, Schimkowitz told me: “I think maybe people feel that they’re owed the right to make fun of it now.”

The problems with the Trump internet have not disappeared—online spaces dedicated to hate and delusion still proliferate. But with “pilled,” people are letting themselves have a little meme, as a treat. The president is no longer tweeting posts that he stole from white supremacists, which, for many Americans, is a relief, even if it is a small one. I told Schimkowitz about a comment I’d seen from someone who had been “turnip-pilled,” which he took as a sign that the pills are all right. “The more specific it becomes, the sillier the idea is, and therefore the more defanged the term becomes,” he said. “It kind of makes a joke of the whole thing.” The Matrix is not actually a metaphor for waking up to the supposed rationality of misogyny, but an allegory of gender dysphoria, as its creators have repeatedly said. The guys who used it as a serious self-identifier for so long were so wrong, and isn’t that funny?

Now you can undermine redpill by getting it even more wrong. If you want, you can welcome the post-vaccine summer like, “I’m beach-pilled! I’m Miller High Life with a shot of Aperol–pilled!” You can be truly radicalized in your adoration for the basic pleasures of life on Earth. It’s 60 degrees out, and I, for one, am tulip-pilled.