Femcels the female version of involuntary celibates, or, "incels" are rapidly gaining visibility and attention, as evidenced by the recent uptick in femcel related content on social media platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, and especially TikTok. Young, mostly Gen Z women, are self-identifying as femcels online, mainly in an ironic way. Tagging their content "female manipulator," "toxic femininity," "femcel moment," or more simply, "femcel" and "femcelcore," present-day femcels are breaking into the mainstream through the creation and circulation of self-deprecating text posts, image collages, memes, and short form videos. The femcel is simultaneously a hyper-specific yet capacious figure; the femcel is chronically depressed, living in squalor, a reader of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, full of female rage, a Lana del Rey fan, and on the brink of a mental breakdown. Out of this constantly evolving set of discordant criteria, trending femcel content coheres around a central element: skepticism and dissatisfaction with heterosexual relationships with men. Beyond expressing general disdain of men, femcel content specifically reflects a critical attitude towards heterosexual relationships as well as an awareness of the pressures of compulsory heterosexuality.1

As with many online niche communities and subcultures, femcel culture and the defining features of femcels have drifted and evolved from their original affiliations. Even the term incel itself, which is now aligned with a hostile, masculinist ideology, has extended beyond its initial scope. The term first emerged from "Alana's Involuntary Celibacy Project," a website created in 1997 by Alana, a then 24-year-old university student in Canada who struggled with romantic relationships. Citing her own feelings of rejection and loneliness, Alana's original vision was to collect resources and offer a forum for people struggling with loneliness and rejection to find community and genuine connection. Social awkwardness, the pressure of conventional gender roles, and deviance from beauty standards were some of the issues that Alana and other users identified as root causes of their undesirability.2 By 2000, Alana handed over control of the website, distancing herself from the incel community, which has since become an increasingly reactionary and violent group.3

Though present-day femcels seems to have surfaced on social media without any history or clearly defined politics, early iterations of femcels emerge from this shared context of experiencing intense alienation and loneliness due to exclusion from romantic relationships, though femcels have been less visible and less threatening than their incel counterparts. Femcels who mostly gathered on the now defunct r/trufemcel Reddit community in the 2010s, attributed their condition of involuntary celibacy to their lack of attractiveness.4 While incels often blame others for their sexual isolation, femcels believe there is something fundamentally wrong about their appearance and their personalities.

As more recent coverage on femcels noted, the term femcel has become increasingly diluted, and is now more commonly used to describe someone who is a loner, depressed, emotionally toxic, or generally disaffected.5 When confronted with the femcel's origins, most self-identifying femcels on TikTok openly state their disaffiliation from incels and incel ideology, providing a disclaimer that calling oneself a femcel is intended as a self-aware, self-deprecating joke.

As the figure of the femcel finds renewed currency on social media platforms like TikTok, we are perhaps now witnessing yet another shift that might be best described as an intensified heteropessimist turn in femcel content. On the surface, the femcel's suspicion of heterosexuality resembles what Asa Seresin calls performative disaffiliation with heterosexuality complaining about, making fun of, and expressing negative feelings towards heterosexuality that ultimately falls short of actually abandoning heterosexuality as a whole.6In Seresin's 2019 essay on heteropessimism, he focuses on the exercise of empty disavowal, touching briefly on incels and political lesbians, two groups he locates as outside of normative heterosexual attachments, before moving on to critique the depoliticizing effect of heteropessimism. The femcel's ambivalent relationship to both incel culture and political lesbianism as well as the breakout popularity of femcel content on social media disrupts Seresin's claim that those who act on their heteropessimism are merely outdated outliers.

On TikTok alone, ironic and self-deprecating content tagged  "femcel," has garnered more than 500 million collective views.7 In 2022, thinkpieces, articles, YouTube videos, and podcasts have also turned their attention to the uptick in femcel self-identification and femcel content.8 This essay suggests that the femcel's heteropessimist turn builds on femcel culture's early discontent towards heterosexuality, but is now articulated through an amplified critique of heteropatriarchy rather than resentment directed towards only the self or towards men. Present-day, social-media savvy femcels might appear to blame their lack of sexual and romantic experience on the shortcomings of men, but I contend that they are interested in indicting something larger and more systemic: heteropatriarchy and their own conscription within it.

Despite the femcel's ties to involuntary celibacy and the injury of being deemed sexually undesirable by men, what makes today's femcel legible is not necessarily the problem of not having sex. On social media, present-day femcels embrace a negative attitude towards heterosexual relationships, shifting to a practice more closely resembling voluntary celibacy by consciously choosing to opt out of romantic and sexual relationships with men. This line of thinking echoes the ideology of political lesbianism, which grew out of the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s and urged women to abandon heterosexuality. To be a political lesbian did not necessitate choosing to engage in sexual activity with other women instead of men, but to take up a political position of opting out of heterosexual coupling so as not to be complicit in one's own oppression under heteropatriarchy.

The heterosexual couple is "the basic unit of the political structure of male supremacy," argued The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group's 1981 manifesto against heterosexuality, which identified romantic love and sex as the very mechanisms through which men exercise their control over women and their bodies.9 For political lesbians, sexuality was central to the oppression of women; so long as women continue to participate in heterosexuality, women will continue to suffer denigration, humiliation, and powerlessness at the hands of men. This suspicion that heterosexuality is damaging and emotionally draining for women forms a throughline across various femcel and femcel adjacent content circulating on TikTok. One of the most popular styles of femcel expression on TikTok is a few lines or a paragraph of typed text layered on top of a short selfie-mode video, accompanied by instrumental background music or a trending audio clip. These videos, made almost exclusively by young female creators, are less likely to be self-loathing rants about their lack of desirability than critiques and warnings about engaging in heterosexual relationships with men, reflecting what Sean Lambert identifies in this cluster as "a broader cultural pessimism about the possibilities of fulfilling heterosexual relationships after GamerGate and #MeToo."

"sorry for wanting to be just friends, that wasn't very object made for your plea5ure of me," writes user @draftedrants, tagged #femcelrights, succinctly capturing the diminishing experience of being reduced to a sexual object.10 Drawing on the common trope of being "friendzoned," the sarcastic apology exposes how the injury of being friendzoned by a woman is rooted in male entitlement to sex. For the femcel, being unattractive or undesirable to men might feel devastating, but realizing that one is desired by men solely as an object for sexual pleasure is its own unique torture. Self-declared femcels find straight cis men disappointing, but are also attentive to how their own desire to participate in heteronormative romance is cringe-inducing and self-sabotaging. Take for example a TikTok by user @_carinss, captioned "for my girlies" with a stream-of-consciousness paragraph on the mind-numbing, unrewarding experience of entertaining the sexual and romantic interests of men transposed over a clip of herself:

when as a woman u reach that point where every man u meet is pathetic in your eyes. they all seem braind3ad with 0 general knowledge and their weaponized incompetence disgusts u. you start to realize they use the same exact 5 or 6 narratives to get girls and it gets old quickly. u can actually feel that intellectually you are on totally different levels, and slowly every man that comes your way is beneath you. once u accept the fact that most of them won't ever be able to achieve the emotional depth women can, u'll feel free, in a sense.11

This TikTok, posted with hashtags like #femcel and #femcelrights, has garnered thousands of likes and hundreds of comments echoing agreement with the disappointment experienced by women in romantic relationships with men, particularly the asymmetry of emotional intelligence. Inflected with a heteropessimistic attitude, the TikTok lays bare what Jane Ward has identified as heterosexual suffering, pointing out the deflating reality of how straight men view women as sexual objects to be pursued.12

@_carinss emphasizes that women, or the "girlies," will only feel liberated once they come to fully accept that men will never be able to offer emotional and intellectual fulfillment. For @_carinss and many of the commenters on her video, it is important for women to get ahead by understanding how men are trying to manipulate them, but it's perhaps even more important to come to terms with the reality of heteronormative romance as a dead end. And yet, the momentum towards a promise of freedom is curtailed by the closing disclaimer of "u'll feel free, in a sense," leaving unanswered the question of how exactly women can escape the emotional drain of heterosexual relationships. For some, celibacy is one solution. "Celibacy has never been this easy lol they're [men] just not worth it," says a commenter. Instead of deliberately pursuing celibacy as a political commitment in the manner of political lesbians decades ago, the voluntary celibacy practiced by TikTok femcels resembles a strategy of self-preservation and necessity; having a relationship with a man just simply isn't worth the trouble. Part of the appeal of heteropessimism, as Adora Svitak suggests in this cluster, is the refuge it offers to women: "if some of us are fated to [desiring men] it's imperative for our wellbeing and liberation to figure out how to live with it better." Part of the logic in opting-out of heterosexuality is rooted in sparing yourself the pain of never being treated or loved by men in a way that would be fulfilling. It "gets old quickly," as @_cairnss puts it.

In a different TikTok, also tagged #femcel, celibacy and asexuality become a potential alternative to the drudgery of heterosexuality: "gatekept myself a bit too hard cos now I'm in my early twenties w zero dating experience"13 writes @cazazza, paired with a video of herself mouthing along to a trending TikTok audio of a woman saying "wow, the pressure is getting worser." To the suggestion of individual deviance put forth by a commenter who empathizes with the lack of sexual experience, "Honestly. Starting to think I may be the problem," @cazazza responds, "genuinely not our fault dude. ppl (esp men) really not that great these days." Despite recognizing the lack of sexual and romantic experience as a potential problem, femcels are not yearning for relationships with men, departing from earlier femcels' fixation on the involuntary condition of their celibacy. The word "femcel," which has omitted explicit reference to "involuntary," now signals an interest in embracing female celibacy. The femcel's heteropessimist impulses ask us to seriously consider whether women would ever enthusiastically choose heterosexual coupling and marriage under different material and social conditions.

@cazazza elaborates in a separate comment, "seriously been questioning whether I'm asexual for years now," which spurred separate discourse on asexuality. In recent years, growing numbers of people are identifying as asexual, or ace. Notably, a large proportion of this population also identify as women.14 Although ace identification does not necessarily correspond to celibacy, in registering the convergence of both trends online, femcel culture indicates that something is changing about young women's desire.

Unlike their predecessors, the mainstream internet femcel of 2022 is not so concerned with being rejected or passed over by men. If anything, the rise of the femcel is a glimpse into the phenomenon of young women who are increasingly disappointed by heterosexuality and are either moving away from it or already standing outside its reach. As a recent piece on femcel culture in i-D points out, the present-day femcel is increasingly disinterested in having sex with men. Instead, femcels are invested in a "post-ironic, self-conscious embrace of aesthetic feminine toxicity," referring to the general mood, style, and visual elements that comprise a legible femcel sensibility, colloquially referred to as "femcelcore."15

The production of femcelcore involves achieving a recognizable aesthetic attained by buying and accruing femcel-coded items and cultivating a specific style. If the aforementioned cluster of TikToks are mostly text overlaid on simple video clips, another subset of femcel content on TikTok revolves around highly edited visual representations of careful self-curation through the consumption of specific products and media. "Pov: you're a femcel" is transposed on a TikTok slideshow featuring pictures of waif-like white female models; blush and lipstick; and conventionally hyperfeminine clothing and accessories, like lace-trimmed clothes and lingerie, heart-shaped jewelry, strings of pearls, ribbons, and pink floral bedsheets.16

Other variations of a femcelcore aesthetic include clips of the film adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides, the titular character of the 2022 horror film Pearl covered in blood and screaming, and Megan Fox's Jennifer from Jennifer's Body smiling coyly edited together and synched to a sped-up Lana del Rey or Mitski song. "Pov: you're actually fucking insufferable," writes user @pebbletumbledskin, tagged with #grippysock, #femcel, and #insufferable, as a hand rummages through orange prescription bottles, headphones, cigarettes, a copy of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Girl Interrupted, Lolita, My Dark Vanessa, Gone Girl, among other femcel "classic reads."17 The implied consumption of these products and media gestures towards a delicate, feminine exterior within which lies a complex and tortured inner life spilling over with uncontrollable emotions. Curations of such films, celebrities, books, and hyperfeminine material objects form a visual representation of femcel culture that intentionally appears contradictory and superficial in contrast to the provocative ideological stances on gender and sexuality that also comprise femcel culture.

Scrolling through content tagged #femcel on TikTok can feel like a case of bad whiplash and the line between sincerity and sarcasm is nearly indiscernible. Femcelcore is dense with contradictions, in spite of femcels' self-aware and seemingly unserious attitude.18 In sharp contrast to the hyperfeminine aesthetic of one swath of femcelcore, another subset of femcelcore content is all about reveling in mess. One viral TikTok, tagged #femcel and #femcelrights and captioned with "that girl u have a crush on lives like this," features a desk covered in empty ramen cups, beer bottles, chip bags, candy wrappers, used tissues, empty mugs, medication containers, papers, and other litter, contrasting desirability with an overwhelming display of clutter.19 Some TikToks merge the messy with the hyperfeminine, showing off piles of clothes strewn across the floor and surfaces crowded with makeup and jewelry.20 While the hyperfeminine aspects of femcel content may seem at odds with an emphasis on disorder, both focus on what happens when women are too much, whether in terms of expressing excessive emotion, exaggerated conventional femininity, or accumulating trash.

Femcelcore partially responds to other popular social media trends like the "clean girl aesthetic" and "that girl" content, in which conventionally attractive female influencers film daily routines and tutorials showing themselves cleaning, performing self-care, doing "no-makeup" makeup routines, shopping, working out, and completing other productive self-help practices. If the ideal woman is "always optimizing" to become the most polished and palatable version of herself, then the femcel is instead committed to being inefficient and messy, undesirable to men, and emotionally toxic and insufferable.21 In this way, femcelcore content is in conversation with adjacent social media trends like"going feral," sad girl culture, and "goblin mode" that similarly reject demands of performing agreeability in favor of indulging in self-destructive behavior.22 What self-proclaimed femcels brazenly call being "unhinged," "insufferable," and "delusional" stages not only a critique of the male gaze and their own internalized desire for male validation but also resists the pressures of stereotypical femininity. Refusing to engage in gendered fantasies of femininity as clean, pure, and aspirational, femcelcore embraces the opposite by playing up the dirty, the unkempt, and the excessive. Even the over-the-top, hyperfeminine stylization of femcelcore commits fully to the bit of being so feminine and so girly that femininity exceeds the threshold of desirability to men, instead becoming nauseating.

Other formats of femcel content include guided tours of one's "depression room" and announcements of one's becoming "unhinged" and "delusional," further blurring the lines between physical mess, emotional disorder, and struggles with mental health. Femcelcore's intense interest in psychotic breakdowns and outbursts of "female rage" is an avowal that psychological distress experienced by young women is a direct outcome of the conditions of heteropatriarchy, an argument rooted in feminist theory. In her 1972 book, Women and Madness, psychotherapist Phyllis Chesler argued that women have been historically pathologized as mentally ill by the industry of psychiatry when in fact, women were often responding to the violence and psychological burden of their subordination under heteropatriarchy.23  A few years later, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's influential work of feminist literary criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic, drew attention to how female "madness" in nineteenth-century women's literature registered the pathologization of women within a patriarchal literary tradition and patriarchal society.

Some of the most poignant examples of femcelcore's enmeshing of madness and femininity are edited montages of emotionally tortured and traumatized women from television shows and movies who are doubled over on the ground while screaming and wailing, having been betrayed by men. These montages, often tagged with #femcel and #femalerage, play with gendered tropes of women as overly emotional, irrational, and hysterical. As feminist interventions in psychoanalysis have argued, the long history of Western medicine contains no shortage of medical professionals who have evaluated hysteria describing a host of symptoms that range from emotional outbursts, "excessive" sexual desire, depression, anxiety as a mental disorder to which women are biologically predisposed.24

It is perhaps all too easy to dismiss femcelcore as an example of how social media reduces the very real harms of misogyny and patriarchy to a consumable style and personal brand. Hannah Wang, in their critique of the Internet as exceptionally conducive to the proliferation of anesthetic feminism, notes that social media "makes it more convenient than ever for a woman to disembody her own lived experiences by offloading them onto the digital sphere," producing an echo chamber of "insular discourse" that falls short of enacting meaningful change offline. Yet, femcelcore's over-the-top joining of female madness with hyperfemininity and messiness could be productively read as a reappropriation of female hysteria and a reimagined diagnosis of how it feels to live under the conditions of heteropatriarchy. Femcelcore asks: wouldn't you also scream, lose your mind, dissociate, disavow heterosexual romance, and choose self-preservation if your body were constantly scrutinized, if your reproductive rights were constantly on the brink of being stripped away, if you lived under the threat of sexual harassment and assault, and also were tasked with constantly improving yourself in order to transform into the neoliberal ideal of an empowered "girl boss," and so on?

Chesler suggests that the institutions of psychiatry and marriage have conditioned women to "express and defuse their anger by experiencing it as a form of emotional illness, by translating it into hysterical symptoms: frigidity, chronic depression, phobias, anxiety and eating disorders, panic attacks, and the like."  Through pathologization, each woman is manipulated to believe that her "symptoms" are individual and the fault of her own because she is "neurotic," and that she can be cured by a "personal solution" of finding the right therapist and a suitable romantic partner.25 Heterosexual coupling becomes intimately linked to and compatible with the pathologizing of women as innately crazy. The myth of a personal, individualized solution helps to explain why each generation of straight women seems to be eternally trapped on the hamster wheel of dissatisfaction with heterosexual relationships despite the overwhelming archive of evidence documenting mistreatment and disappointment. Femcelcore's interest in making mess and acting out responds to this false pretense that women simply have to wait for the right man to come along.

Femcelcore's emphasis on female madness and the suffering of patriarchal trauma identifies a particular condition of injury but specifically locates its cause outside of the psyches and bodies of individual women. This move is closely aligned with feminist scholars who have argued that female hysteria is not innate to women's bodies or brains but rather that women have been driven to madness by the unbearable conditions of life under male control and domination. Feminist psychologist Carol Tavris has similarly argued that women are often misdiagnosed and pathologized as psychologically deficient because male experience is treated as the standard for what is normative. Tavris points out that when women encounter issues like low self-esteem, passivity, and depression, "society looks inward" to identify the cause within women's psyches and biological processes.26 By engaging with female madness and depression in its heteropessimist turn, femcelcore expands beyond a critique of heterosexuality alone. Femcelcore links heterosexuality to broader structures of oppression beyond the individual by laying bare how oppressive beauty standards and the dehumanizing forces of misogyny, hypersexualization, and objectification under the male gaze work in conjunction so that heterosexual relationships are ultimately unappealing, disempowering, and disappointing for women. Underneath the layers of satire, the present-day femcel, with all her ironies and contradictions, articulates both very real rage and a desire for something better than what heterosexuality currently has to offer. The heteropessimism of femcel culture, then, is not an anesthetizing force that numbs and chains us to heteropatriarchy's inevitable disappointments, but instead is the lens through which a diagnosis of our culture comes into sharp focus.

Annabelle Tseng (@aytseng) is a PhD candidate in English & Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the entanglement of technology, race, and gender in 20th/21st century Asian Anglophone literature.


  1. In reference to Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Signs 5, no. 4 (Summer, 1980): 631-660.[]
  2. See Jim Taylor, "The Woman Who Founded the 'incel' Movement," BBC News, August 30, 2018; Peter Baker, "The Woman Who Accidentally Started the Incel Movement," Elle, March 1, 2016. []
  3. For more on the relationship between femcels and incel culture, see Mina Le,"'toxic' femininity: what's up with girlbloggers, female manipulators, and femcels?" YouTube, August 29, 2022.[]
  4. Isabelle Kohn,"Inside the World of 'Femcels,'" MEL Magazine, February 10, 2020.[]
  5. Kaitlyn Tiffany, "What Do Female Incels Really Want?," The Atlantic, May 12, 2022. []
  6. Asa Seresin, "On Heteropessimism," The New Inquiry, October 9, 2019. []
  7. As of June 12, 2023, a quick search on TikTok shows that videos with the hashtag #femcel have accrued 725.8M million total views, #femcelcore at 102.3M total views, and  #femcelrights at 141.4M total views. On Instagram, around 100,000 posts  are tagged with #femcel.[]
  8. See Nona Willis Aronowitz, "The Femcel Revolution," Elle, September 1, 2021; Charlotte Colombo, "2022 is the year of the 'femcel,'" Metro UK, March 20, 2022; Tiffany, "What Do Female Incels Really Want?"[]
  9. Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group. "Love Your Enemy?: The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism," (Onlywomen Press, 1981), 6.[]
  10. @draftedrants, "#femcelrights," TikTok, September 9, 2022. Note: On TikTok, some terms, like "plea5ure" are stylized with numbers replacing letters in order to circumvent TikTok's content filters.[]
  11. @_carinss, "for my girlies #fyp #romania #misandry #fy #femcel #femcelrights #misandrist #misandristandproud #lainpilled #based," TikTok, March 21, 2022.[]
  12. Jane Ward, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality (NYU Press, 2020).[]
  13. @cazazza, "support group for the overly picky girlies who believe no one deserves access to them like that #dating #relationship #fyp #femcel," TikTok, August 2, 2022.[]
  14. Esther D. Rothblum et al., "Asexual and non-asexual respondents from a US population-based study of sexual minorities." Archives of Sexual Behavior 49 (2020): 757-767.[]
  15. Róisín Lanigan, "Are you a femcel?" i-D Magazine, June 16, 2022. []
  16. @unavonzenelaire, "#pov #femcel #radiohead #femalemanipulator #femalemanipulatormusic #aesthetic #y2k #grunge #wheezer," TikTok, June 23, 2021. []
  17. "Grippy socks" is a reference to receiving psychiatric treatment, often used online to signal one's struggle with mental health.[]
  18. Femcel culture has also been criticized for contributing to gender essentialist and transphobic ideology, given that some femcels attribute being born a cisgender woman as one of the primary sources of their disappointment and angst. []
  19. @melanie.courtinat,  "that girl u have a crush on lives like this #chaotic #twofingerstyping #femcel #femcelrights #gamingsetup #messy #manicpixiedreamgirl," TikTok, January 14, 2022.[]
  20. @coquettona, "female rage, #femalerage #femcel #coquette #hyperfeminine #messyfrenchgirl #pinkaesthetic #dolette #messyroom #depressionroom," TikTok, November 24, 2022. []
  21. Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror (Penguin Random House, 2019), 64. See also Caroline Rottenberg, The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism (Oxford University Press, 2018).[]
  22. Charlotte Chalkten, My Year of Rest and Relaxation: 'sad-girl' fetishism or 'cuttingly funny' feminist satire?, The Conversation, October 22, 2022.[]
  23. Phyllis Chesler, Women and Madness (Doubleday, 1972).[]
  24. See, for example, Elaine Showalter, "Hysteria, Feminism, and Gender," in Hysteria Beyond Freud (University of California Press, 2020), 286-344. []
  25. Phyllis Chesler, Women and Madness (Doubleday, 1971).[]
  26. Carol Tavris, The Mismeasure of Woman (Simon & Schuster, 1992).[]