Heterosexuality is undergoing a major public relations crisis. From Gallup polls proclaiming Gen Z as the "queerest generation ever" to reactionary pundits inveighing against the death of traditional family values, the idea that heterosexuality is becoming outmoded in some way permeates the twenty-first-century zeitgeist and finds expression across a disparate array of ideologies.1 This sentiment is perhaps most palpable in discursive circles that rebuke the heterosexual experience from a feminist standpoint, highlighting its disappointing, degrading, and dangerous impact on women in particular. Nevertheless, for all of its recent bad press and supposed decline in popularity, heterosexuality is not going anywhere anytime soon, and its heterosexual detractors remain, for the most part, attached to it in practice, if not entirely in spirit.

"Heteropessimism" was coined by Asa Seresin to describe "performative disaffiliations with heterosexuality . . . rarely accompanied by the actual abandonment of heterosexuality."2 A central theme of the heteropessimist worldview is that heterosexuality is embarrassing and unsatisfactory, a problematic state of being that any self-aware straight person especially straight women would theoretically jump at the chance to leave behind. Yet heteropessimists are ultimately unable to do so, no matter how emphatically they denounce heterosexuality or disavow their own, because they view it as an immutable condition. And immutable it may be, for the time being anyway, but surely heterosexual culture is not. Heteropessimism misguidedly conflates the two, and in doing so, its performativity extends beyond individual reluctance to relinquish heterosexuality; it is also a collective failure to engage with the material conditions of heterosexual culture and grapple with the question of how it could be changed for the better.

Many heteropessimists are progressive women. They are far from the only heteropessimists, but their alignment with heteropessimism is all the more interesting because it often serves to forestall their ostensible end goal of attaining gender justice. Feminist heteropessimists are able to identify and condemn, often quite incisively, the patriarchal underpinnings of heterosexual culture that make it so intolerable for women. However, when their response is to performatively withdraw from heterosexuality, the societal problem of heteropatriarchy atomizes into individual stances of repudiation. In this way, Seresin observes, "the possibility of solidarity remains foreclosed"3 among those who would benefit the most from collectively revolutionizing heterosexual culture.

Heteropessimism is not a novel phenomenon, but it is particularly infectious and manifest in the present, especially with social media as a vehicle. Platforms such as Twitter activate the memetic potential of heteropessimist sentiment and allow it to proliferate and mutate like cells in a petri dish. In tracing the digital narratives of heteropessimism, it becomes apparent that heteropessimism is not the only mode of expression in which feminist perspectives have been turned inward to distance the self from the dismal realities of patriarchy. All over the internet, women who are well versed in the systemic cruelties of feminized existence are renouncing active opposition and choosing instead to observe the ugliness of the world while keeping it firmly at arm's length. What writer Emmeline Clein calls "dissociation feminism" encapsulates a significant subset of online behaviors and attitudes that evince this shift toward isolationism.4 Rather than externalize their anguish or rail against society, dissociative feminists deliver sarcastic, self-deprecating commentary with an air of jaded imperturbability. Lived experiences of oppression are heartbreaking, and a dissociative feminist's commitment to intellectual detachment as she dissects her own pain is ultimately a denial of emotionality an attempt to transcend feelings of sorrow, shame, and rage that are popularly thought to be intrinsic to womanhood.

The rise of self-styled "bimbos" on social media is another such example. At its core, the Gen Z bimbo movement aims to reclaim the maligned stereotype of a shallow and hypersexualized young woman by knowingly performing extreme femininity and vacuity. Bimbos also espouse progressive values: one seminal TikTok video explains that a bimbo "is actually a radical leftist, who's pro-sex work, pro-Black Lives Matter, pro-LGBTQ+, pro-choice, and will always be there for her girlies, gays, and theys [sic]."5 In practice, however, the bimbo influencer usually situates her feminism in her embrace of sex appeal, materialism, and frivolity, reminding her followers that they are too hot for the men causing them grief and encouraging them to take pride in not knowing about long division or the stock market. Bimbo content may be ironic, but in conflating political praxis with the enactment of an aesthetic persona, it remains inert as a social movement, thus failing to cohere with the radical feminism that it professes to support. The bimbo's conformity to patriarchal expectations of feminine beauty and foolishness, while styled as subversive, gives the impression of withdrawal, and her choice to pursue hedonistic sensibilities while cheekily disregarding the judgment of others preempts the disappointment of seeking genuine parity and respect from society as a woman.

Even seemingly more disruptive movements like the "femcel" subculture, which often endorses toxic, off-putting, or downright repulsive expressions of feminist angst, can be interpreted as retreats into depoliticized introspection. Annabelle Tseng points out that, in contrast to the involuntarily celibate "incel" communities from which they derive their name, some modern femcels have shifted to practicing voluntary celibacy as an indictment against patriarchy, echoing the political lesbians of second-wave feminism. The ongoing evolution of femcel culture may eventually, as Tseng suggests, render it "a site where young women act out against and actively critique heterosexuality and heteropatriarchy." To date, however, the femcel ethos is still largely disseminated through online content creation and curation. Mood boards of messy bedrooms and pill bottles, playlists of "female manipulator music," and montages of film clips featuring unhinged women characters combine to evoke the idea of an ungovernable, undesirable madwoman, burning down attics and crawling out from the wallpaper. Upon sublimating her frustration and discontent into digital media of a predefined ambience, the femcel is spared from having to embody that madwoman in real life.

The wry dissociative feminist, bubbly Gen Z bimbo, and deliberately repellent femcel appear to have little in common, but their approaches to feminism all share a calculated avoidance of personal identification with the injustices of womanhood and the struggle for social change. This recalls one of the principal allures of heteropessimism, which Seresin articulates as an "anesthetic feeling" that protects against "the pervasive awfulness of heterosexual culture."6 Heteropessimism, then, falls in line with a broader trend toward what might be dubbed "anesthetic feminism": women engaging abstractly with feminist thought while maintaining a perpetual state of negative anticipation, shielding their hearts and minds from the quotidian indignities of misogyny that their bodies are still forced to experience.

While there is nothing inherently new about such a coping mechanism, anesthetic feminism is unmistakably grounded in the present moment because it is explicitly aware of feminist theory and implicitly reactive to the mode of liberal feminism that was most culturally dominant in the previous decade. The liberal feminist of the 2010s called herself "empowered" or a "girlboss," openly aspired to climb corporate ladders, and demanded to be seen as the equal of the men around her. She was always grinding and hustling for a seat at the table, doggedly playing by meritocratic rules to assert her individual worth. Nowadays, her swagger has gone from charming to cringeworthy, her empowerment exposed as a façade propped up by racial and economic privilege. As the girlboss fades from relevance, young women raised on the illusion of liberation through capitalist assimilation must contend with the vacuum left by its shattering. If chasing upward mobility and begging the patriarchal establishment for rights still result in sexual abuse, workplace exploitation, and reproductions of other social hierarchies, then truly, why bother with any of it?

Anesthetic feminism often assures itself that it is morally superior to what came before, or at least more self-aware. It is wise to the futility of incrementalism and hip to structuralism, and it avoids the fatal misstep of believing too much in its own progressive potential. But anesthetic feminism still fails to address the central irony of its development; namely, that it follows girlboss feminism in doing politics exclusively at the level of the individual. Whereas the girlboss trusted in her own talent and willpower to be the change that she wished to see in the world, anesthetic feminism harbors no such ambitions because it recognizes that sexism is more systemic and complex than what girlboss feminism had imagined. Yet it continues to conceive of resistance as a fundamentally solitary, and thus abortive, affair. Bereft of community and ignorant or skeptical of the concrete possibilities of organizing, coalition building, and radical practice, anesthetic feminism is set adrift upon the eddies of its own defeatism.

The internet is an essential component of anesthetic feminism. The perfect incorporeality of social media makes it more convenient than ever for a woman to disembody her own lived experiences by offloading them onto the digital sphere in the form of shareable content and commentary. Consuming relatable content made by other women or, alternatively, infuriating content made by chauvinistic individuals completes the feedback loop and allows her to continuously anticipate frustration with a sexist world. As such, while social media is undoubtedly useful for women to connect with each other and participate in feminist dialogue, it can also promote the development of nihilist narratives, insular discourse, and performative personas. It is easy to solicit engagement on the internet, but less so to forge strong relationships and build movements committed to transforming material realities. In the physically sequestered, relative comfort of cyberspace, anesthetic feminism can thrive.

Social media facilitates the construction of online identities based on trends, which are as slippery as they are ephemeral, and it is equally adept at encouraging reactive identification. Anesthetic feminism took form, in part, through the coalescence of viral waves of backlash to girlboss feminism, which was itself strongly influenced and promulgated by the internet. At their most pernicious, online modes of political expression can engender callousness and drive wedges between existing communities. Anesthetic feminism has found a foothold in queer internet spaces through a variation of heteropessimism, in which queer people join in on deriding heterosexuality and portraying it as irredeemable. The catchphrase "Are the straights OK?" typically pokes fun at the fragility, absurdity, and hypocrisy of heteronormativity, but it can also be used to ridicule and trivialize accounts of real suffering inflicted by heterosexual culture. The impulse to jeer at "the straights" is understandable: given how queer communities have endured generations of messaging about the dirtiness, sinfulness, and deviance of their own existence, a few petty jabs in response hardly feels unwarranted. Still, it is troubling to witness queer commentary that equates individuals especially women who happen to be straight with heteronormativity itself. Doing so creates a false impression that there is no overlap between the experiences of heterosexual women and queer people under patriarchy.

The ultimate danger of anesthetic feminism is that by making a habit out of compartmentalizing one's own pain, the tribulations of others will also cease to feel urgent or real. Anesthesia erodes the faculties of empathy; its literal form, for that matter, triggers a total obliteration of the senses. This is not to imply that womanhood is defined by misery, or that suffering inherently confers moral worth upon anyone. On the contrary, it is a reminder that feminism ought to be a labor of love, because love may well be the only thing that makes life tolerable when reality is cruel and overwhelming. Of hardship, organizer Mariame Kaba is often quoted as saying, "Let this radicalize you rather than lead you to despair."7 Love is what transfigures heartbreak and outrage into something fiercer than hope: the courage to build toward a more equitable and generous future, knowing that nothing about it is assured. Love extrudes the self from its protective shell and demands that it partake in the messy, yet infinitely rewarding, business of living. Feminism exposes the scars of society so nakedly that it is tempting to recoil and retreat to a place of safe, impersonal observation. But feminism has always been more substantial than optics, unafraid to fight a world that is unacceptable out of love for the world that could be. Feminists owe each other solidarity in the project of reconfiguring social relations to honor the human capacity for care. In the age of anesthesia, it is important to remember that we, all of us, deserve better than this.

Hannah Wang (@_wannahang) is a recent graduate of Princeton University and the Columbia School of Social Work.


  1. Nico Lang, "Gen Z is the Queerest Generation Ever, According to New Survey," Them, February 24, 2021.[]
  2. Asa Seresin, "On Heteropessimism," The New Inquiry, October 9, 2019.[]
  3. Seresin, "On Heteropessimism."[]
  4. Emmeline Clein, "The Smartest Women I Know Are All Dissociating," BuzzFeed News, November 20, 2019. []
  5. @chrissychlapecka, "who is the gen z bimbo?," TikTok, November 26, 2020. []
  6. Seresin, "On Heteropessimism."[]
  7. The phrase provides the title of Kaba's recent book, co-written with Kelly Hayes, Let This Radicalize You: Organizing and the Revolution of Reciprocal Care (Haymarket Books, 2023).[]