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“We were all ugly,” Amanda, a 22-year-old student from Florida told me, recalling the online community she found when she was 18. “Men didn’t like us, guys didn’t want to be with us, and it was fine to acknowledge it.”
This Reddit forum was called r/Trufemcels, and she commented there under the username “strangeanduglygrl.” Amanda didn’t post very often, but she checked in every day on the community of self-identified “femcels,” or involuntarily celibate women. (I agreed to refer to her by her first name only, to separate her current life from her former internet identity.) They came to complain about the superficiality of men and the privilege of pretty women, and to share their experiences moving through the world in an unattractive body, which therefore disadvantaged them romantically, socially, and economically. They were finding the modern dating landscape—the image-based apps, the commodified dating “market,” the illusory “freedom” to be found in hookup culture—to be unnavigable, and they talked about taking a “pink pill,” and opening their eyes to the reality that society was misogynistic and “lookist.” They could be funny—in 2019, a commenter repeated a pretty friend’s suggestion that nobody really needs to wear makeup, adding five heart-eye emoji and a link to the joke subreddit r/thanksimcured. They could be kind of mean—like male incels, they mocked lucky, beautiful women, whom they called “Stacys.” Mostly, they wrote about being sad. “Normies can’t comprehend real loneliness,” an early post begins. “Guys don’t treat ugly girls like people,” reads another.
“I was the kind of girl in school where it was like, people would say ‘Oh, he has a crush on you’ to make fun of the guy,” Amanda told me. She was anxious and unhappy, but she didn’t want to talk about any of it with her friends. When she first heard the term femcel, it offered some clarity. “In a very literal way: I was involuntarily celibate and female. So I was like, Okay, that applies.” Online, she found thousands of other women who were trying to figure out how to live without the kind of romantic love that our society has deemed a pillar—maybe the pillar—of happiness. “Even though the women in the [subreddit] were pretty depressed and sad, it did give me reassurance,” she said. “At least there are other people out there who are like me. And they weren’t completely weird. They were pretty normal.”
Around the same time that Amanda was getting involved in the femcel community, mass media attention was focused on its far-better-known male counterpart. The lonely and angry young men of the internet became a subject of fascination because their language was disgusting and their threats of violence against women were real—incels deified the murderer Elliot Rodger, who killed six people (and himself) in Isla Vista, California, in 2014 and left behind a YouTube video in which he outlined his plans to punish women for rejecting him. Coverage also illuminated the broader “Manosphere,” the sprawling online network of disaffected young men that overlapped with the so-called alt-right and with President Donald Trump’s rabid army of MAGA trolls. In a 2018 report on “the intersection of misogyny and white supremacy,” the Anti-Defamation League outlined how incels’ sense of entitlement to sex was leading them toward other extremist spaces and beliefs. This was a scary and dizzyingly complicated story, and femcels, whose rage was quieter and whose presence was smaller, didn’t really factor in.
Five years later, incels are a known quantity, and femcels are the new mystery. In recent months, headlines have named 2022 “the year of the ‘femcel’” and heralded a coming “femcel revolution,” wherein women are “reclaiming involuntary celibacy” and asserting their right to give a name to their loneliness and alienation. This new recognition of femcels has tended to stop there. But incel had political meaning—people who identified with the term were read as reactionaries, the young, mostly white men who felt left behind as society progressed beyond its historical focus on their specific needs. The term femcel is now in widespread use, not just in Reddit forums but on every major social platform, including the Gen Z–favored TikTok, but we still don’t know what it’s for. If a femcel revolution is coming, what new world are femcels dreaming about?
When Amanda talks about the femcel community, she specifically contrasts it with one other option: contemporary liberal feminism, or maybe “girlboss” feminism, as popularized by Millennials and the brands that cater to them.
“The liberal-feminist notion of like, supporting all women, feeling positive all the time … it’s disingenuous,” she told me. When she started identifying with the term femcel, it was partly because she felt a resentment toward a style of feminism that challenged traditional beauty standards mostly by asking those who fell short of them to feel beautiful anyway, regardless of their lived experiences. “I’d rather be able to talk about being ugly than just try to convince myself that I’m pretty,” she said.
In some ways, this logic is even more uncomfortable than the original incel logic. In a 2021 essay, the feminist theorist Jilly Boyce Kay argued that it’s not just incels who assume that “any woman can get sex from men.” This is a widespread cultural assumption. Women have long been understood to hold sexual capital; in modern dating culture, they’re expected to wield it. Femcels complicate that story. They feel the same sense of “humiliation and exclusion” that incels do, but they react to those feelings differently. “Incel discourse tends to project anger outward onto society in a hatred of women,” Kay told me when we spoke recently. That anger is expressed radically: through threats of violence, or through bizarre (though, arguably, imaginative) calls for the government to “redistribute” sex. “In femcel discourse, it does tend to be much more turned inward on the self,” she said. Though society is discussed as inherently “lookist” and unfair, femcels are not out to change it, because they don’t see it as changeable.
This inward-facing posture contributes to the difficulty in estimating the group’s size and summarizing its positions. When the most well-known Reddit forum specifically for femcels, r/Trufemcels, was banned from the platform in June 2020, it had just over 25,000 members. (The subreddit was one of 2,000 forums banned for “promoting hate” after a major change to Reddit’s content policies. A Reddit spokesperson declined to provide more detail on the decision.) The larger Vindicta subreddit was created as a space for femcels to discuss “looksmaxxing,” or improving their physical appearance with a combination of “soft” (makeup) and “hard” (plastic surgery) approaches, but has recently seen a diluting influx of non-femcels looking for beauty advice and sometimes offering words of encouragement. (This has caused problems: “Reminder to femcels, people who LIE to you and tell you that ‘you look fine the way you are’ are NOT on your side,” a moderator wrote last year. “They BENEFIT from you remaining ugly and not fixing your looks because it makes them more attractive relative to you.”)
Now femcels are scattered across what Kay tentatively calls the “Femisphere.” Some left Reddit altogether, moving instead to a small, femcel-specific board on the Reddit-look-alike site The Pink Pill, which has only 580 members. Another reason the femcel subculture is difficult to visualize and comprehend: They’re unwanted even in many women-only spaces, so they sometimes hide or are hidden. They were tolerated in the notorious Female Dating Strategy subreddit for a while, but were later kicked out. The Forever Alone Women subreddit welcomes them, but forbids the use of any incel or femcel lingo. A women-only 4chan-like imageboard called lolcow.farm has a reputation as another site that femcels have drifted to—and is covered with femcel lingo—but virulently denied their presence there when I posted on the site about this story. “They’re a fringe group that is mostly a meme,” one commenter wrote. “Femcels aren’t real,” another added.
Femcels are real, and their existence has meaning. But thinking of them as a unified group with specific political goals is less useful than thinking of them as overlooked individuals who are now being swept around the web, sometimes letting their insecurities and resentments lead them into unproductive conversations. The architecture of many of the forums they’ve ended up in encourages defensiveness, border-patrolling, exclusion, even aggression. For instance, while femcel culture is not inherently transphobic, there is an “overlap or amenability to transphobia,” Kay told me. Femcels, especially now, tend to find themselves on identity-based forums that are fixated on biological-essentialist ideas of gender—“women are like this, men are like that,” as Kay put it, more stagnant than revolutionary. “These spaces do just kind of become inward-looking, very defensive, rather than about imagining radical new futures,” she said.
In the past year, the term femcel has taken a surprising turn: It has been adopted by the mainstream internet. On Twitter, it’s an easy synonym for “depressed” or “not dating right now.” On Instagram, it’s a sort-of-funny word to pair with a baffling meme or a picture in which you actually look really hot and disaffected. It’s newly popular on TikTok, which has seen an odd trend toward semi-ironic sex negativity. And on Tumblr, it’s the latest word for describing your basic Tumblr user—a romantic loner who likes to blog. “The era of the incel is over, the era of the femcel has begun,” reads a tweet that has been circulating as a meme; the text appears above a graph that shows an increase in the number of women under the age of 35 who say they have not had sex in the past year. (The graph was created by a right-wing think tank with the creepy task of promoting the “natural family.”)
“It’s, like, an appropriation of ugly-girl culture,” Amanda said, when I asked her about the diffusion of the term. “I did kind of get that old feeling of like, You guys are not part of the group. You’re too pretty to be part of this group.”
On Tumblr in particular, the word is totally divorced from its original meaning, and is following the natural, goofy path of any internet word that is perceived to confer edginess and intrigue. Lila, a 21-year-old Tumblr user, recently used the “femcel” tag on a post that reads, in curling cursive script, asking myself if I can cook my instant noodles with vodka instead of water. The tropes of the toxic loner are not just for boys, she told me. (I agreed to use only her first name because she was worried about harassment.) Tumblr users are adding #femcel to images of antisocial icons like the super-skinny and delusional Natalie Portman in Black Swan, the Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides, and of course Lana Del Rey, from whom they learned of the joys of cigarettes and cherry schnapps. “I just thought the word was funny and maybe even a little shocking,” Hannah, a 19-year-old Tumblr user who also tags some of her posts with #femcel, told me. “I knew it would get people’s attention. Most of my posts are ironic. I’ve been in a relationship with my boyfriend for two years.” (Hannah asked to go by her first name only, because she doesn’t want her identity associated with her Tumblr account.)
As silly (or maybe even annoying) as that may be, using the word femcel more lightly could hold some promise. Its literal use has been nearly tapped out. At the personal level, true femcels see two main options for themselves—they either give up on love and society altogether, vowing to “lie here and rot,” or they devote themselves to “ascending” through rigorous self-improvement and sometimes dangerous body modification. Broadly speaking, they’re finding their way to extremes but not toward anything revolutionary. A smaller number have recognized a “more politically hopeful” third option, Kay told me, which is to give up on men but not on the world. In abandoning heterosexuality, they work on “finding joy and intimacy in other ways” or “focusing on other areas of life which are not to do with romance and sex.”
Used more airily, the term femcel still highlights certain contradictions in contemporary life. There are many people who are experiencing similar, less articulated anxiety about their place in the gender order and about the pressure to locate happiness through sex and romance, which they must find through success in a marketplace. The 21st century was supposed to bring a wider range of options than this, but to many, it doesn’t appear to have. There are still winners and losers, Kay argues. She also cites the feminist philosopher Amia Srinivasan’s 2018 essay on incels, “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” In it, Srinivasan wonders “how to dwell in the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obligated to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question.” Femcels dwell in that ambivalent space all the time. Some may risk, as they say, rotting there. But others may emerge having thought more deeply than most about alternative ways of ordering their lives, of finding happiness and dignity on their own terms.
Amanda no longer thinks of herself as a femcel, and she looks back on the time when she did as an experience. (Her era of “femceldom,” she called it.) Today, she’s sympathetic toward the young women who have adopted the word, even if somewhat insincerely or inaccurately. On the internet, young women see more images of beautiful people every day than they have at any other time in history, she pointed out. A TikTok feed is “basically the popular girl in high school times 10 million.” It’s easy to feel like an outsider, and it’s also easy to feel like you’ve been lied to: If traditional beauty standards don’t matter, then why are they still celebrated all the time? What are we, stupid? “I think for girls, it just feels kind of infantilizing,” she said. “Like, we’re not allowed to think of ourselves as we really see ourselves.” It was illuminating, for a time, to have a word for that.