Click here to read our latest report: Behind the Skull Mask: An Overview of Militant Accelerationism

Men, Masculinities and Memes: The Case of Incels

Men, Masculinities and Memes: The Case of Incels
27th November 2023 Jayden Haworth
In 16 Days, Insights

This Insight is part of GNET’s Gender and Online Violent Extremism series in partnership with Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre. This series aligns with the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gendered Violence (25 November-10 December).


In the decade following the 2014 Isla Vista killing spree by self-described incel Elliot Rodger, there has been increasing academic and media interest in the online incel community and the potential threat of violent extremism its members pose. Particular attention has been paid to social media websites like 4chan, 8kun and Reddit and their role as online sanctuaries that facilitate the growth and spread of extreme misogynistic digital rhetoric. Incels are one of many subgroups that comprise this loose coalition of antifeminist groups animated by the ‘Red Pill’ philosophy, known as the ‘manosphere’.

A key concern for counterterrorism researchers is the apparent ease with which disaffected young men are radicalised – and indeed, are self-radicalising – through their participation in the manosphere via user-generated content like internet memes. The rise of the alt-right since 2015 and the election of Donald Trump have demonstrated the utility of memes on social media as a vehicle for the spread of far-right and misogynistic propaganda, simultaneously highlighting the inability of conventional P/CVE approaches to understand and intervene in these spaces. Incels, being ‘terminally online’ and holding an outsized influence in meme subcultures, are particularly influential in the creation and spread of antifeminist memes, with popular templates such as ‘Virgin vs Chad’ being widely used in mainstream digital spaces.

Since the incel worldview is preoccupied with the supposedly feminist-controlled gender and sexual hierarchy articulated in the nihilist ‘Black Pill’ interpretation of the Red Pill philosophy, rigid representations of masculinities are a central visual and discursive feature of incel memes. Based on my research into incel memes (forthcoming), this Insight provides a comparative analysis of the ‘Virgin vs Chad’ and ‘Wojak’ incel-aligned meme templates through the lens of hegemonic masculinity theory, focusing on how masculinities are represented in these memes and the implications of this for their virality online. 

I argue that the virality of incel memes is contingent upon their alignment with mainstream portrayals of idealised masculinities and their emphasis on individual agency, rather than the appeal of the incel worldview itself. They draw on the misogyny that already exists as a political force in the wider culture and further legitimise patriarchal structures. Securitising incels as highly misogynistic or extreme obscures this relationship and the real threat it represents; the political mainstreaming of inceldom into the hegemonic masculine bloc of patriarchy itself, a process already underway via antifeminist gurus like Andrew Tate or Jordan Peterson.

Misogynistic Ideologies and Incel Memes

Both the Red and Black Pills portray gender relations as dominated by feminism and structured according to a hierarchy of physical attractiveness dictated by female desire, with men holding no power or privilege in society. This ‘lookist hierarchy’ essentialises men into three broad categories of masculinities reflective of their desirability and access to female sexual attention: ‘alpha’ males that sleep with the majority of women, ‘beta’ males who can sleep with women that are undesirable to alphas, and incels, who are excluded from sexual relationships with women altogether. 

The Red Pill philosophy allows space for men to move between these masculinities through a combination of self-improvement and manipulating women into having sex by ‘hacking’ their supposedly inherent biological instincts. The Black Pill, on the other hand, is far more rigid and genetically deterministic. Since incels believe physical attractiveness is genetic, they tend to view these masculinities as impermeable and self-improvement near-impossible. Black Pill incels view themselves as doomed to a life of celibacy unless the structure of gendered social relations itself changes. This worldview is responsible for the nihilism and fatalism that characterises the incel subculture.

This lookist hierarchy, and the incel response to it, are reflected in the ‘Virgin vs Chad’ and ‘Wojak’ incel-aligned meme templates:

Fig. 1: Virgin vs Chad meme template



Fig 2: Wojak meme template

In Fig. 1, the left-hand ‘Virgin’ character is associated with negative or undesirable traits, functioning as a stand-in for beta or incel masculinities. This is contrasted with the ‘Chad’ character who represents alpha masculinities and is associated with positive, desirable traits. Since these characteristics are commonly behavioural as often as they are physical, this template can be seen as representative of the Red Pill exhortation to be an ‘alpha male’ to gain female sexual attention. In Fig. 2, the ‘Wojak’ character represents feelings of hopelessness, depression, fatalism or nihilism, and is regularly used as a reaction image in response to content that prompts these feelings in the user. In incel communities, it is often used to signify resigned acceptance of the Black Pill characterisation of the lookist hierarchy and express empathy for other incels’ experiences, failures, and feelings about it.

Hegemonic Masculinities and the Virality of Incel Memes

Both meme templates are extremely popular, ranking in the top 3% of the most popular memes on the Know Your Meme online database. My research found, however, that only the Virgin vs Chad template can be considered mainstream, due to its intertextual connections with various other popular memes, its place as an ‘ordinary term’ in mainstream online discourse, and the sustained popularity of its derivatives. While the Wojak meme remains popular and has spawned its own series of derivatives, these templates have not broken into mainstream cultural discourse in the same way. This disparity in mainstream cultural integration has little to do with their portrayal of misogynistic discourses – both meme templates are routinely used to illustrate extreme antifeminist or incel worldviews – but rather their representation of masculinities and how these align with idealised expressions of masculinity in wider society.

Based primarily on the work of R.W Connell and a reformulation of Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, hegemonic masculinity theory examines the power relations between multiple masculinities within patriarchal structures and how dominant conceptions of idealised masculinity are realised. Under patriarchy, masculinity always occupies the hegemonic position, but the particular configuration of idealised masculinity is constantly shifting to reflect changing gender relations and the cultural expectations of the day. 

In the past century, three primary expressions of idealised or hegemonic masculinity have emerged: the ‘traditional’ masculinity epitomised by figures like John Wayne or Don Draper from the TV series Mad Men; the ‘transnational business’ masculinity or ‘Sensitive New Man’ exemplified by Barack Obama or Phil Dunphy from the sitcom Modern Family; and the contemporary ‘geek entrepreneur’ represented by Mark Zuckerberg or Tony Stark. These masculinities reflect cultural expectations of what constitutes a male role model in their respective time periods and the configuration of gender practice that legitimises men’s domination of women under patriarchy. 

In response to the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1970s and neoliberal globalisation in the 1980s, the self-sufficient, rational breadwinner archetype of traditional masculinity was replaced by the technocratic and educated ‘New Man’. This archetype supposedly represented a more caring and emotionally literate masculinity that embraced equality in domestic life and valued collaboration. In the Web 2.0 era, the geek entrepreneur figure has risen to prominence, combining the ‘tortured genius’ technological innovator of Silicon Valley with the emotional suffering and interests of ‘nerd culture’ that has come to dominate online spaces. However, while these masculinities differ enormously in their idealised traits, such as the accepted role of masculine emotional expression and the preferred competencies of their respective modes of production, all three portray individual agency as the most valuable trait of the ideal man. Under patriarchy, men are defined by their ability to impose their will on the world around them.

Conversely, the Black Pill nihilism of the incel worldview is predicated upon the impossibility of overcoming the lookist hierarchy imposed upon men. In this way, incel memes that represent masculinities solely in these terms do not go viral in mainstream digital spaces in the same way as templates that align with the idealisation of individual masculine agency in hegemonic masculinities. Iterations of incel memes like Virgin vs Chad that refrain from engaging in fatalistic or self-pitying representations of masculinity have no issue integrating with the mainstream and becoming embedded in popular meme culture. This phenomenon should compel scholars of gender and extremism to reevaluate exactly what cultural forces are responsible for the seemingly exponential growth of extreme antifeminist ideologies like inceldom.

Confronting Mainstream Misogyny

The relationship between inceldom and mainstream misogyny holds significant implications for extremism researchers seeking to understand the appeal of incel and other antifeminist worldviews are significant. The fatalistic nature of inceldom is the primary barrier to the incel worldview going mainstream. This is not to diminish the fact that inceldom is an extreme form of misogyny, but rather to highlight the tendency of conventional P/CVE approaches to securitise incels as somehow deviant or outside the broader societal culture of misogyny. This approach is misguided and obscures how the incel worldview both draws from and contributes to the reinforcement of patriarchy by situating incels in opposition to mainstream masculinities and the inherent misogyny these embody.

The true threat of inceldom, then, is its potential to normalise and reintegrate these ideologies into the hegemonic masculine framework of patriarchy. This is not mere speculation; the explosive popularity of antifeminist gurus like Andrew Tate or Jordan Peterson indicates that this process is already underway. This shift carries severe political implications, as the Overton window of ‘mainstream misogyny’ increasingly shifts towards the acceptance of violent antifeminist ideologies

While there is a need for extremism researchers to find ways to intervene in extremist subcultures, we should not lose sight of the fact that terrorism and extremist violence serve a political agenda. The gradual normalisation of inceldom suggests that incel-related violence has already been somewhat successful in achieving this. To effectively counter the rising tide of antifeminism and misogynist extremism in society, gender and extremism researchers must examine incels within the broader context of hegemonic masculinities and acceptable misogyny.

Inceldom and other antifeminist subcultures have an outsized influence on the development of online meme culture. Still, it is social media algorithms on mainstream platforms that amplify these ideologies and make possible their normalisation into the mainstream, geared as they are to the interests of young, white men. If the rising tide of misogyny is to be pushed back, the role of mainstream misogyny in the function of social media algorithms needs to be addressed, and the algorithms transformed to reflect the composition of the entire online community. Failure to do so will see incel ideologies become integrated, possibly even dominant, in the hegemonic structure of patriarchy.

Jayden Haworth holds a Master’s of International Relations by Research from Monash University, with his dissertation “Men, Masculinities and Memes: Mainstream Digital Culture and the Legitimation of Incel Discourses” undergoing editing for journal publication.