Are you a femcel?

The new gen of femcels are more interested in the aesthetics of toxic sadness than the original meaning of involuntary chastity.

by Roisin Lanigan
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16 June 2022, 8:55am

Hey, do you like listening to Lana Del Rey? What about Fiona Apple? Mitski, Hole, Melanie Martinez, MARINA? Can you recite the ‘cool girl’ speech from Gone Girl verbatim? Do you love that one Jacques-Louis David piece (“Portrait of a Woman in White”) not because you care about art, but because you like the broken female protagonists of Otessa Moshfegh’s literature? Do you have a favourite Lisbon sister (and is it Lux)? Are you still mourning the loss of Tumblr? Do you like to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita? Do you enjoy Catholic iconography? Pressed to describe yourself, or to have others describe you, would you be comfortable with adjectives like “toxic” or “manipulative”? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, then congratulations — you might be a femcel.

Or at least a modern femcel. Taking its inspiration from incel culture (the term is a portmanteau of ‘female involuntary celibate’), the social media femcels of today use the term less as an indicator of how much sex they’re unable to have, and more as a way to express their personality traits that are perceived as pathetic or manipulative or toxic in some way. They do so unapologetically, romanticising these stereotypical ‘femcel’ traits in the process.

It might be defined by KnowYourMeme (the closest thing the internet has to a sacred text) as “a slang term that defines the female version of an involuntary celibate or incel”, dating all the way back to the primitive days of the internet (Yahoo Groups, circa 2004), but modern femcels, which exist primarily on TikTok and Instagram, and on Spotify — where they create some of the saddest playlists you’ve ever heard — are more interested in aestheticism than sex with men. The hashtag #femcel has around 242 million views on TikTok. On Spotify, there’s an overlap with the femcel culture meme and our current era of ‘feral girl summer’ with endless playlists called things like ‘female manipulator anthems’ and ‘songs for your fleabag era’. There is little reference to actual celibacy as, for femcels, unlike their incel counterparts, the movement has simply ascended past this concern.

In comparison to incels — a once fringe internet community that has since leaked offline and been linked to escalating incidents of violent crime, primarily against women and minority groups – femcels have been relatively un-investigated, until recently at least. They are certainly not as established (or feared) as incels, who have been recognised as a genuine extremist group and a growing terrorist threat by the US Secret Service as of March this year. But just as incels are growing, so too is an online interest in femcels; Google trends illustrates showcases a recent spike in use of the term.

Last month, a piece in The Atlantic reported on the centre of the femcel movement in its purest form: the subreddit r/Trufemcels, which was founded in 2018 and banned by Reddit in 2021 as part of their attempts to eliminate hate speech on the website. Unlike femcels’ current iteration, this forum was a more nascent form of what it means to be a female incel. On the forum, female incels post about “pretty privilege”, being overlooked by male partners (the users of /trufemcels tend to discuss their desire mainly to exist in heterosexual relationships, if at all) and on the inherently misogynistic “pink-pilled” society in which they live. They borrow terminology from male incels too, posting about “Stacys” (the female equivalent of “Chads” in incelspeak) and mocking the appearance of women who are considered conventionally attractive. Whereas incels are now a (sadly) all too well-known quantity, the article describes femcels as the “new mystery”. 

Part of this mystery — which many pieces about femcels have overlooked — is that incel culture at its inception was not segregated by gender. The founder of the internet’s first incel forum, in fact, was a queer woman. Whilst she has remained anonymous in the years since (understandably concerned for her own safety and regretful over what has become of her creation) the woman did speak to journalists in one episode of Reply All, Gimlet’s erstwhile and hugely popular podcast investigating internet culture and online communities. Known by a pseudonym, Alana, she recalls starting the mailing list in 1997 and inventing the portmanteau of “Involuntarily Celibate’ as a lonely college student in Ottawa, intending for it to be a support group, describing its demographic as mixed gender from the beginning. When she found a relationship and moved away from the project, she expected it to peter out. Of course, it didn’t. Instead the internet did what the internet does: it grew and morphed and created a juggernaut of people, mainly men, building something bigger and meaner than Alana had anticipated or wanted. It became memetic and devoid of meaning — or its original meaning anyway — just like aesthetic femcelism has become, a quarter of a century later. 

“In recent months, headlines have named 2022 ‘the year of the ‘femcel’ and heralded a coming ‘femcel revolution,” The Atlantic writes, “wherein women are ‘reclaiming involuntary celibacy’ and asserting their right to give a name to their loneliness and alienation.” It’s this loneliness and alienation that defines the current femcel upsurge we’re seeing online, and that explains why it’s moved to a new home on the internet. While femcels have existed on Reddit since 2012, and on the internet since 2004, new femcels have flourished on popular social media platforms, where it can be communicated not through tortured posts about being overlooked by men and self-hatred, but rather through a post-ironic, self-conscious embrace of aesthetic feminine toxicity. It’s not femcel for these women, it’s femcelcore. 

A kind of descendant from the manic pixie dream girls of bygone eras, or a spiritual cousin of the recent indie sleaze revival, femcelcore is a kind of adoption of some of the grimier and more decorative elements of nu-femcelism, a repackaging of it for an internet audience for whom everything is satirical anyway. “While some of these femcel posts [on TikTok] still involve women self-identifying as femcels and talking about their experiences, the vast majority of posts focus on the femcel ‘aesthetic’, such as a messy, unappealing room, a lack of hygiene, being a fan of ‘female manipulator’ artists like Mitski, and reading Sylvia Plath,” Charlotte Colombo writes for a Metro piece on nu-femcels earlier this year.

For these posters, identifying as a femcel is less about complaining about societal misogyny and toxic beauty standards, and more about rejecting toxic standards for women entirely. If incels are the perfect distillation of toxic masculinity, femcelism is, at least aesthetically, its opposite; the term goes hand in hand with other post-ironic, quintessentially online terms like “toxic femininity” and proudly identifying as terms which would have traditionally been used against you, such as being a “female manipulator” (a genre which has its own musical canon and is exemplified by manipulative, villainous or emotionally toxic characters like the narrator of My Rest and Relaxation, or Fleabag) “‘Femcel’ has been adopted by many cheerfully partnered women who simply want to express some form of heterosexual dissatisfaction,” Gawker notes, adding “the true femcel has resources at her disposal beyond the caprices of internet slang” (the article goes on to recommend some femcel literature as said resources).

Although it’s ostensibly apolitical in nature, it also aligns itself more closely with traditional feminism — albeit skewed towards misandry — than femcels or incels originally did (instead they blamed feminism for the loss of traditional masculine and feminine roles, which both groups felt had inhibited their potential ability to find a partner). “It’s hard to know which came first, the misandry, or being mistreated by men,” Gigi Fong wrote last month for Hypebae. “But one thing’s for sure, femcels have a deep disdain for the current dating pool and its beauty standards, while incels believe feminists are to blame for their sexual dysfunction.”

It’s that disdain (both in terms of a dismissive misandry and a more general misanthropy) that defines femcelcore, which flourishes on platforms which simultaneously pushes content about the joys of living as a traditional house-wife and adopting a ‘clean-girl’ aesthetic and a life defined by feminine wholesomeness. This is no coincidence: modern femcelcore arguably exists because of these trends, as a reaction, albeit a self-reflective and ironic one, to prescriptive doctrines of wholesome femininity.

But it would be naive to think that irony is enough to completely dispel the problematic roots at the heart of online femcel culture as it stands today. The toxicity embraced by the young women self-identifying as femcels on TikTok might seem mordant and harmless, a kind of extension of sad-girl culture on Tumblr, for the next generation, but as Alana found out in 1997, things change quickly. The nihilism and misanthropy espoused by modern femcels could easily become less sarcastic and more sincere and dangerous over time. It’s entirely possible too though, that in the current ever accelerating trend-cycle we live in online, it’s just another fad that will be abandoned — like feral girl summers, coastal grandmothers and goblincore — by the time Lana drops a new album or you’ve struggled through 320 pages of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Lapnova. Only time will tell.