To an incel, feminism is one of the root causes of all relationship woes.
An “involuntarily celibate” person (otherwise called an incel) believes feminism has made the modern woman too empowered, and therefore, too choosy with her potential sexual partners. Feminism, many incels would claim, has left unattractive, inexperienced men (called “sub-8” men within incel circles) in the dust.
Numerous sexually frustrated, angry, self-identified incels — a digital subculture fixated on its members’ believed inability to find sexual or romantic partners — have used this misogynistic rhetoric as the basis for several violent attacks over the last decade.
The infamous incel figurehead Elliot Rodger, who is often revered as “The Supreme Gentleman” among incels, perpetrated the 2014 Isla Vista killing spree which left six people dead. Rodger wrote in his manifesto that he opened fire on the University of California campus to “punish” all women for sexually rejecting him.
In 2018, 30-year-old Alek Minassian, who claimed to be an incel, killed 11 people in Toronto when he drove a van through crowds on a busy street in an attack inspired by Rodger. (The 11th victim died years later from their injuries following the attack.) Minassian was eventually convicted of 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder, but not terrorism.
In 2020, a Toronto teenager became the first person in Canada to be charged with terrorism for carrying out an incel-inspired attack after he stabbed and killed a woman in an erotic spa.
But this violent misogyny wasn’t always associated with incels. In fact, the incel movement was originally created by a woman.
In 1997, before the age of TikTok, Instagram and Twitter, Alana, a woman from Toronto, created a website for lonely people she called involuntary celibates. In 2018, more than 20 years later, she told the BBC her website for incels was originally “a friendly place.”
Now, most incels would entirely reject a woman like Alana from their community – a collection of websites, blogs and forums called the “manosphere.” This is because incels believe a woman can always, at any time, find a sexual partner, making a woman’s inceldom impossible.
But there are plenty of women online who share the same frustrated feelings of involuntary celibacy as men. These women want to have romantic and sexual relationships, but for whatever reason, are unable to do so. They call themselves “femcels,” an abbreviation of “female incel.”
The vast majority of femcels are not welcome in the manosphere, not that it matters. Most femcels, it seems, don’t want to engage with incels anyway. Separating themselves from incels has allowed femcels to create a unique identity entirely their own. By definition, both groups claim to focus on the same issues — difficulty finding romantic and sexual partners — but there is certainly no confusing the two.
Where inceldom often has strict rules and ideologies (many of which border on eugenics and how to improve one’s physical attractiveness), femceldom is much less defined. Interestingly, what “makes” a femcel can vary drastically from woman to woman. Global News spoke to several self-proclaimed femcels, none of whom were in agreement on what defines femceldom.
Aesthetic satire vs. self-loathing
To some, being a femcel is to be loudly feminine, outrageous and controversial online, or it’s about posting memes and tweets inspired by movies like Gone Girl and musicians like Lana Del Rey. To others, being a femcel is a prison-like state of mind; it’s focused on a perceived lack of sexual and romantic experience that makes a person different — less than — the peers in their age group.
The only true commonality among femcels seems to be the internet. On social media, femcels use sarcastic and self-deprecating humour to express upset at not meeting the conventional standards for female objectification. Whether it’s a young woman claiming the femcel identity as a satirical social media trend, or another tweeting their genuine feelings of frustration into the digital void, there is an undeniable performance of identity among femcels. Edgy, crude and usually chronically online, the femcel is unashamed of their own toxicity, and has cultivated a powerful persona surrounding it.
Femcel 101: Who can be a femcel?
No two femcels are exactly alike. Often, there’s considerable in-fighting about who can call themselves a “true” femcel. Some believe that a conventionally attractive woman cannot possibly be a femcel, regardless if she is celibate or not. Others are more inclusive and will argue anyone who identifies with the label can claim it.
Becca, a 20-year-old American college student, first called herself a femcel as a joke after she saw the term on social media. The more she thought about the word, however, the less of a joke it became.
It’s been over a year since Becca claimed the title seriously. She defines a femcel as a woman, or feminine-identifying person, who is “unable to succeed in their romantic and sexual life.”
Becca is a lesbian and a hopeless romantic. As she’s grown, she’s felt “different” from other girls in part because she has not had the same “foundational experiences” as most women when it comes to dating and sex.
“The femcel experience is definitely being very miserable and insecure and then putting that onto the internet.”
Though she has been in an online relationship, Becca is a virgin and has never been kissed. She claims that her sexual inexperience doesn’t bother her too much, but the lack of romantic connection in her life has impacted her confidence.
“I feel bad. I feel like I have failed, and I feel like I have missed out on an important life experience that other people my age have,” she says.
This is a key distinction in what defines a femcel (or incel) in Becca’s mind: whether one’s lack of romantic or sexual experience influences their self-worth. While someone can be romantically or sexually inexperienced and not be an incel, they may become one when this becomes a point of intense frustration and insecurity, regardless of one’s level of perceived attractiveness.
Becca describes herself as “mildly attractive,” but says the confidence in her looks varies day to day. On occasion, other femcels online have said Becca is “too pretty” to be considered legitimate, but she doesn’t subscribe to this belief.
She says femcels are “women being pathetic on the internet.” She even joked that she is not an exception, as Becca regularly laments about her love life (or lack thereof) on Twitter.
Gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss: The online femcel persona
Like Becca, 18-year-old Anna (first name changed for privacy reasons) became a femcel because she felt that she wasn’t “pretty enough” to meet societal standards. When she first heard the word “femcel” on Twitter in 2021, she resonated with the “alienation” many claimed to feel while dating, or attempting to date, men.
Anna took the label and ran with it, creating a part-“online persona,” part-“IRL (in real life) personality” built around femceldom. A big part of her identity is “shitposting,” or the practice of sharing shocking, false or offensive statements on social media in an attempt to provoke others or derail existing conversations.
On Twitter, Anna, amid regular tweets about her life, has mastered the art of shitposting. She is incredibly open about herself and her thoughts, many of which are shocking or offensive, so much so that she claims to have been suspended from the app 18 times.
The American teen has multiple Twitter accounts, all of which have different personas and regularly interact with one another. She describes herself as “the femcel behind the screen.”
She says her online personality, while based in truth, is a performance; it’s an over-exaggeration of her “degenerateness” for “shock value.”
In conversation with Global News, Anna regularly contradicted herself, especially on the subject of her own physical attractiveness, saying she is both “very pretty” and “not pretty enough.”
But the contradiction is not without reason. Anna says femcels are “emotionally stunted” because the majority “grew up really, really ugly and just got pretty in our puberty years.” For Anna, this was partially during the COVID-19 lockdown, so very few people got to witness her “transformation,” as she calls it.
“It’s a pretty girl with an ugly girl mindset, that’s what a femcel is.”
She claims she feels “no pressure to be loyal to any ideology except for the fact that I’m just a girl and I’m doing whatever I want.”
Perhaps that’s why Anna admitted she is a “fakecel,” an oft-used term in incel communities meaning fake incel. When Global News spoke to Anna, she had a boyfriend, though their relationship was not physical, as she is waiting until marriage to be intimate.
She maintains she has never had sex or been kissed.
“I am celibate, and I’ve always been celibate,” Anna says. “To me, being a femcel is performing outside of the norms of my group and building an identity around that.”
Since Anna is not sexually active, she says that makes her different from other young women her age, and thus, a femcel.
But not every femcel has the same extreme online persona(s) as Anna. While there’s certainly an undeniable biting edge to femcel humour, some women, like Barbara, take a different approach.
A 23-year-old from Warsaw, Poland, Barbara runs a femcel meme page on Instagram. She and her friend, both of whom identify as femcels, launched the page in January 2022 to share snarky, usually provocative, memes about the feminine experience, all through a femcel lens.
The memes are overtly girlish in their presentation and often feature controversial female characters from pop culture, like Mia Goth in Pearl or Cassie from Euphoria.
To Barbara, the “trauma dumping” style of humour seen on her Instagram is a massive part of being a femcel; she is able to overshare on a regular basis about her mental health, daily happenings and the men she’s dated. Her Instagram account has more than 4,000 followers.
The account is both a dramatization of Barbara’s feelings about men and a means of self-therapy.
“It is, in some way, empowering for me to just get it out of my system and put it out there to be open about the many ways that men mistreated me,” she says. “It’s nice to feel like someone shares your experiences.”
Barbara describes femcels as a group of women that have “just stopped excusing men for the bad things that they do.”
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However, like Anna, Barbara does not fit the conventional definition of a femcel. Barbara, who identifies as bisexual, is not involuntarily celibate; rather, she is celibate from men.
“I just date women instead,” she says.
Her non-celibacy would certainly cause some other femcels to take offence, but that doesn’t bother her.
“The use of the femcel term shouldn’t be restricted for only people who’ll fit in the primary meaning,” she says.
“We are actually trying to empower ourselves and women in general.”
Cultural criticism, identity and self-deprecation
Before June 2020, most femcel discourse occurred on the since-banned Reddit forum r/Trufemcels, which had at least 25,000 members. The forum, and all other incel forums, were banned from Reddit for “promoting hate.”
The ban scattered femcels across the internet and likely contributed to the disorganized definition of what makes a femcel. Some took refuge on mainstream sites like Twitter or Instagram, while others joined private Discords or visited the message board 8kun (formerly 8chan). The temporarily disbanded website The Pink Pill was also used by a smaller group of femcels. (The term “pink pill” is seen as the female equivalent to the “black pill” incel philosophy, which argues that physical attractiveness is the most critical factor in determining one’s dating success, especially in modern Western countries.)
Anne Speckhard, the director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), has spent many years studying incels. She claims incel culture promotes a deep-rooted and ever-growing hatred of oneself. In her eyes, femceldom is the opposite.
“In the case of male involuntary celibates, it’s a really hopeless, despairing, ugly community,” she says. “The femcel communities are much more regretful that society is organized the way it is — that it’s painful to them.”
Speckhard claims that most femcels are actively rejecting hookup culture and are instead “celebrating oneself.”
Unlike incels, she says, femcels are not blaming men (or their prospective partners) for their lack of success in cultivating romantic or sexual relationships; instead, they are having conversations about societal bias and the fair treatment of women.
Femcels, Speckhard says, are reclaiming existing, perpetuated incel ideologies and are adapting the misogynistic rhetoric into cultural criticism. They are not rejecting men — they are rejecting mistreatment.
Brett Caraway, a University of Toronto professor who specializes in social movements, says femcels should not be mistaken as simply a tongue-in-cheek, aesthetic-based meme culture. Instead, he says femcels are “a group of people that are on the receiving end of a power dynamic and are performing a grievance.”
Though he hesitated to qualify femcels as a “movement” or “community,” given there is no clear organizational structure, he says the meaning lies in the examination of the patriarchy. As a result of existing gender-based societal imbalances, femcels feel they are either being overly objectified by the male gaze, or that they do not meet the standards to be objectified in the first place.
Though there are undeniable undertones of self-loathing, Caraway says femcels are “letting off steam.” What unites femcels, he believes, is the performance of self. Through humour (often in the form of memes or self-deprecating comments on social media), femcels have created a unique identity and are using it to resist existing power dynamics.
Speckhard feels this performance of identity, both online and off, is for the most part beneficial to those who identify as a femcel.
She explains the thought process of a femcel as such: “I may be judged for my looks, I may find it hard to meet a man if I’m overweight — if I’m not the societal view of what’s beautiful — but that’s OK, and I don’t reject men because of that.”
The real rejection, she says, is in being used for sex.
“It seems healthy to me,” Speckhard says of femcels. “Healthy, self-affirming and positive.”
‘It’s a feminist awakening’
Jessica, a 22-year-old student from Portland, Maine, also believes being a femcel is to realize how a person is directly affected by societal misogyny. She labelled herself as a femcel less than a year ago.
In elementary school, Jessica was heavily bullied for her appearance. Starting at 11, classmates would comment on her dark undereye circles and unconventional, alternative style choices. Boys would ask her out on a date as a joke, only to giggle amongst themselves afterward.
“I felt like I would never be sexually attractive to someone,” she says.
These experiences have affected her self-confidence to this day.
Refuge for Jessica was the internet. When she started to see memes on TikTok from femcels who enjoyed some of her favourite media — including Serial Experiments Lain, a very popular anime among femcels about a female shut-in and internet addict who eventually, essentially, becomes a god — she did some research.
Though she initially thought the word femcel was an insult thrown at feminists online, she later became attached to the term and its perceived ideology.
Jessica, like Becca, believes low self-esteem is a key part of what makes a femcel. She says societal misogyny has often made young women with low self-esteem feel like they cannot ever have gratifying sexual or romantic experiences.
That’s why claiming the femcel identity feels like “a feminist awakening” to Jessica.
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Like her cohort counterparts, Jessica too does not fit the “conventional” femcel definition.
Jessica is queer and in a long-term relationship with a woman. Her relationship is both sexual and romantic, though she still has difficulty believing someone finds her attractive.
Regardless of sexual orientation, relationship status or physical appearance, Jessica says any feminine-identifying person, in her eyes, can be a femcel.
“Empowerment doesn’t look the same for everyone.”
She added that this empowerment is what differentiates femcels and incels.
“Incels are very delusional and they think the world works in a certain way because they can’t get laid,” she says. “They created this whole mythology and you don’t really see that in the femcel conversation.”
Becca believes this incel mythology –– that only the top echelon of attractive men can easily find a woman — is based on a misogynistic belief that women have innate advantages when it comes to dating.
“There’s a societal pressure on women that’s existed for so long that I don’t even think we recognize it that much anymore,” Becca says. “How much more effort do women have to put into their appearance in general versus men who just get treated as equals?”
Instead, Becca believes in “pretty privilege,” the idea that conventionally attractive women find more success in their relationships (and are generally treated better in society) than unattractive women.
Barbara and Anna disagree; they subscribe to the incel-held belief that it is not difficult for any woman, regardless of her attractiveness, to find a willing, male sexual partner. Though both Barbara and Anna are not having sex with men themselves, they say that is beside the point.
“Even if you’re a conventionally attractive woman, you still might have trouble dating or finding someone who’s treating you with respect,” Barbara says. “The fact that you’re conventionally attractive doesn’t change that you might still have problems dating men.”
Even still, all of the femcels interviewed by Global News said they do not hate men.
“I’m going to build my life with (a man) so I don’t see why I should hate them unnecessarily,” Anna says. “Misandry doesn’t appeal to me.”
Once a femcel, always a femcel?
Though it’s perhaps easier to dismiss femceldom as a quirky, meaningless internet trend, the women who choose to claim the label clearly resonate with its ideology, however loosely it may be defined. In their own right, each woman says they feel empowered by the word.
For Anna, to be a femcel is like “a new avenue of female expressionism.”
Though she feels inspired by the label for now, Anna has her eyes set on a domestic future, complete with a husband and a white picket fence. She was very clear that, for her, femceldom is not forever. She says anyone over the age of 23 who is a femcel is a “loser” or an “old maid.”
Alternatively, both Barbara and Jessica felt, to varying extents, that certain elements of the femcel philosophy — specifically the empowerment of women to deny mistreatment and abuse from men — are values they will carry forever.
Becca, who was most protective of the label of all women interviewed, said femceldom is a state of mind not to be co-opted for internet clout or aesthetic means.
“The entire point of ‘femcels’ is to be a representation for women that go against what is commonly believed by misogynistic men: that women are, by nature, loved by society and can easily have their way,” she wrote in an email.
To Becca, femceldom is “for the shut-in women, the perverted women, and the incelibate women.”
So, what really makes a femcel? It turns out, it depends on who you ask.