Downtime

Incel Memes Aren’t a Joke

How playful propaganda can mask a dangerous and toxic culture.

Last week, a Twitter user named Ben tweeted the following meme:

Ben, who tweets from the handle @BenIsYourHero and declined to give his full name, found the image in a closed Facebook group called “Incels say the darndest things,” a gathering place where users mock and argue against the work of the “involuntary celibate” community. Soon, his tweet went semi-viral, popping up on blogs, anti-incel Tumblrs, and incel subreddits.

The term incel, a self-adopted label for a group of men who blame women and feminism for their inability to find sexual partners, first gained public notoriety in 2014, when Elliot Rodger killed six people in Santa Barbara, California, in “retribution” for women refusing to give him the sex he believed he deserved. It entered mainstream discourse again in 2018, when Alek Minassian allegedly killed 10 people in a Toronto vehicular attack after praising Rodger on Facebook and declaring “the Incel Rebellion has already begun!”

Incel culture has flourished online, where like-minded men post unsigned messages on Reddit, 4chan, and incel message boards, describing their most sinister fantasies about worlds in which women are collected like tax dollars and redistributed for sex. These insular communities have developed an in-group lingo that’s tricky for outsiders to parse. When a community that’s highly anonymous, decentralized, and often contradictory becomes fodder for memes, which are easily stripped of their provenance and edit history, it becomes extremely difficult for observers to understand and contextualize what they’re seeing. Memes can provide crucial insight into what’s really going on in incel forums. They can also warp the truth. Whether a meme is a bit of primary-source incel doctrine, a hyperbolic riff on an in-joke, or a work of satire can be impossible to determine if you don’t spend hours a day steeping yourself in the native language of incel culture.

It’s not clear, for instance, that “Aborted GF,” a riff on the creepy “Ideal GF” meme, was created by an incel or even reflects the incel worldview. The invocation of “anon” (“Sorry I couldn’t be there for you anon”) suggests that, like many memes, it was created for—or created to mock—a 4chan or 4chan-adjacent community. A user in the incel subreddit Braincels (“a fun, energizing, and thought-provoking atmosphere for incel culture”) suggested it was an “ironic meme”; commenters ridiculed those who took it seriously as a depiction of incel philosophy. Nevertheless, anti-abortion advocates on Reddit sincerely debated whether the meme’s message (that an incel’s potential perfect girlfriend was aborted in utero) might attract incels to their cause.

One meme that clearly has taken hold in incel communities is “millimeters of bone,” in which side-by-side photos of similar-looking men run alongside the caption “The difference between Chad and non-Chad (incel) is literally a few millimeters of bone.”

In incel jargon, a Chad is a strong, well-liked, testosterone-loaded man who has sex with a disproportionate number of women. Incels resent women for choosing to sleep with Chads rather than non-Chads like themselves. Chins and jaws, the most enhanced facial features in the millimeters of bone meme, are particular obsessions of many incel communities, as members believe women are biologically drawn to men with prominent ones, while guys with weak chins and slight overbites are doomed to lives of solitude.

For some men who identify as incels, this meme isn’t something to joke around about—it’s a part of the “red pill” indoctrination that incels say has taught them profound evolutionary truths the rest of the world is too busy drooling over Chads to notice. Learning that women supposedly throw themselves at some men and shun others on account of a minuscule difference in bone structure can comfort a person who doesn’t understand why women don’t want to sleep with him—hint: it’s usually because of more than a few millimeters of bone—and also anger him, because why are women so shallow?! In the Braincels subreddit, the most upvoted comment on a “few millimeters” post is a comment contending that “You can have asymmetric eyes like Gosling, or you can even have a shitty maxilla. But if you have a square jawline, it will definitely hide all those.” Downthread, other users suggest that incels visit developing countries for plastic surgery.

A lot of the variations on the millimeters of bone meme read less as sincere musings on facial structure than as ridiculous metacommentary on incel ideology. A version featuring The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons, who plays a socially incompetent nerd on the show, stretches his neck and jaw to inhuman proportions, creating a Chad who, not unlike Barbie, would never exist in the real world. Many others come from cartoons, a medium in which faces are constantly being distorted. There’s “handsome Squidward” and regular Squidward, Shrek making two different facial expressions, Hercules as both an awkward teenager and a muscular adult who’s grown into his ears.

Though far from serious, these send-ups seem like they’re teasing those incels who imbue photoshopped facial profiles with life-or-death significance, exposing the absurdity of the fixation on mandibles. It does social good to point out the trivial factors that determine whether society deems us attractive, but that’s not what “millimeters of bone” is about. (One wonders, for instance, whether any incels have pointed out the way millimeters of bone, flesh, and cartilage have contributed to racist beauty standards that privilege Anglo facial features.) Instead, it serves to establish a framework of biological victimhood, a rallying point for a community of antisocial misogynists, to support an argument of entitlement to nonconsensual sex.

There are other, more light-hearted incel memes: One asks users to map people, characters, or concepts onto a matrix with axes that stretch from incel to Chad and from “softboy”—a manipulative fuckboy who comes off more benign than he is—to “edgy.” A lot of these memes feature animated characters I do not recognize, though I did enjoy the zodiac version and the one with alt-rock frontmen. But the most popular incel meme is definitely “Virgin vs. Chad.”

Incel meme depicting a virgin and a Chad

In the meme, Chad is rendered with MS Paint with bulky arms, a protruding jaw and chin, a blond spike of hair, and a package so big he has to walk bow-legged to accommodate it. His red tank top almost always bears an exclamation, like OUCH! or WOW! The virgin is pale, his body slim with a little paunch. He wears glasses, earbuds, New Balance sneakers, and ill-fitting jeans. His head usually tilts downward, his eyes on the ground. The meme places Chad and the virgin in various ordinary situations, explaining how the Chad dominates and the virgin fails.

Some iterations of the meme poke fun at the two characters.
In one that pits a virgin “test taker” against a Chad “exam executioner,” the virgin “writes neatly and wastes time erasing bad handwriting,” while the Chad “makes parting eye contact with professor to establish dominance.” A meme that picks apart the ways virgins and Chads sit claims the virgin “tries to stay perfectly still to avoid bothering other people” and “uses his smartphone constantly in an attempt to appear busy and less awkward.” The illustration for Chad has him doing a split across a bench meant for four people; the meme says he “vibrates constantly to annoy people” and “perfectly aligns spine with the center of the Earth for optimal posture, making his neck immune to pain.”

Others are a bit more earnest. The original, posted in 2016, featured only the virgin. “The Virgin Walk” described the way his “hair seems to overreact to wind” and how his “walking pace/form lacks fluidity because he struggles to ‘autowalk,’ analogous to always manually breathing.” A later version depicts the “virgin self-improver,” who “doesn’t masturbate because he thinks it will raise his T levels” and whose “face [is] strained from trying to force tongue on roof of mouth”— a practice called “mewing” that some incels believe will help them develop a more attractive facial bone structure—and the “well-adjusted Chad,” who is so sure of himself, he “has never thought to measure his dick” and, in the most ruthless burn of any of the virgin/Chad memes I’ve seen, “doesn’t know what a ‘Chad’ is.”

The virgin vs. Chad meme originated in 4chan’s /r9k/ forum, where social outcasts and loners share their contempt for “normies,” or people who enjoy and partake in standard social interaction. Now that it has spread to non-incel corners of the internet, the Chad and virgin archetypes are being used in multilayered gags. One beautifully drawn version uses the meme to explain the difference between a “virgin Protestant” (“gets up at 4am to pray like some kind of sleep cuck”) and the “CHADolic Pope” (“earns his salvation through good works and being a beautiful, sexy badass”). The sincere, aggrieved language of incels turns droll in the hands of jokesters with no misogynistic paradigm to promote.

Popular tropes of masculinity suggest that men go to great lengths to avoid emasculating themselves or admitting to embarrassing flaws. At first glance, then, it can look like incels are uncommonly evolved: They admit that their hatred of Chads stems from jealousy, publicly own up to qualities society deems weak in men, and mostly resist the urge to drag those who have it better than them. (Chads, unlike women, are rarely portrayed in a demeaning or uncharitable light.) The virgin in these memes often sounds unobtrusive, even pleasant. When he sits, he “keeps [his] legs close together so as to not annoy people for taking up space.” What a dreamboat!

But this image of the shy, pathetic, maladroit virgin doesn’t provide a comprehensive picture of how incel culture interacts with the rest of the world. Not every socially inept man blames his woes on a feminist movement that has left women better able to leave, or refuse to enter into, monogamous relationships with controlling or abusive partners. And very few women who’ve had a hard time finding sexual partners have let their feelings of shame and longing morph into a vision of humanity that classifies men as worthless, stupid sperm factories who deserve to be raped.

Anyone who feels a twinge of empathy for incels after seeing a meme that casts them as harmless dweebs need only scroll down in whatever forum she’s viewing, where she’ll almost certainly find a post calling women “cum dumpsters,” suggesting that they be forced to preserve their “anal virginity” for incels, or proposing a policy of “mandated girlfriends”—aka sex slaves. Incel memes can offer us a window into the isolated community that has claimed two mass murderers as its own. But by defanging the worst parts of the incel philosophy, they can also mask its cruelty, the reason why it matters to those of us who aren’t in on the joke.