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Imagining the Past: Justifications of Ideology in Incel Communities

Imagining the Past: Justifications of Ideology in Incel Communities
25th April 2024 Emilia Lounela
In Insights


Incel (‘involuntary celibacy’) online communities have become known for hostile, misogynist ideology and a hopeless, deterministic and self-deprecating worldview. Mostly frequented by heterosexual men, they are often considered a part of a wider online ecology of anti-feminist and male supremacist movements known as the ‘manosphere’. Incels construct identity over not having sexual and romantic relationships with women, attributing this to their not being attractive enough to interest women. The incel worldview involves a rigid idea of masculinity hierarchy and a key component of victimhood based on being at the bottom of this hierarchy. Incels blame women for their perceived rejection and feminism for allowing women to choose their partners independently. Incel communities have been connected to several violent attacks, most well-known ones being the 2014 Isla Vista shooting and the 2018 Toronto van attack, and are often considered as spaces contributing to radicalisation to violent extremism.

Incel violence, discourses, and ideology have recently gained increasing research attention, partly due to instances of political violence connected to the incel ideology. Incel interpretations of history and using imaginations of the past to justify ideology have, however, not been as comprehensively researched.

In this Insight, I present a look into incel discourses on the past and show how these ideas are used, both implicitly or explicitly, to justify political views and ideology. This is based on a current study with colleagues at Dublin City University and the University of Helsinki using data from discussions. First, we read a random sample of discussions from the forum to see how the past was discussed. After this, we searched for all the posts mentioning different decades, such as ‘the 1990s’, ‘60s’, etc. and examined how these different times were portrayed. Before going to the more specific incel discourse, I explain the background of the mainstream and far-right presentations of the past incel ideas connect to.

Politicised Imaginations of the Past

Interpretations of the past are often used either implicitly or explicitly to justify political goals, beliefs, and worldviews. There is a wider conservative political narrative of imagining the past as an ideal and utilising it to critique the current era as too liberal. This involves presenting the past as warm, communal and caring, contrasting it with a cold and individualistic present. This popular and affective form of politicised nostalgia, theorised by Svetlana Boym as ‘restorative nostalgia concerned with returning to and rebuilding the past, is visible in mainstream right-wing populist movements as well as far-right and male supremacist extremism. This political nostalgia has been thoroughly analysed in the context of far-right ideology and relates to both gender conservatism and a mythological idea of a past, ‘pure’ racial community.

Particularly relevant is how interpretations of history are used to justify certain ideas about gender roles. A prominent form of this is naturalisation – discursively constructing something as natural and, therefore, non-political. When conservative ideas about gender are justified by arguing they are natural, they also gain value as morally right. For example, a common argument for women staying at home as mothers is that women are and have always been naturally suited for being stay-at-home mothers This both ignores real, complex histories of women’s work and incorrectly positions the past as more ‘natural’ compared to the present. This is an effective and common discursive political strategy. 

Since the 1970s, conservative actors and movements have presented the 1960s as an important watershed moment in history and culture. According to this narrative, the success of progressive social movements, such as feminism, radical left-wing politics, and the civil rights movement, ruined the ‘normality’ of conservative society and interrupted the natural course of history. This connects to the almost fetishising idealisation of the 1950s as a conservative utopia, one that many far-right and male supremacist movements long to return to.

Incel Presentations of the Past and the ‘Natural’

Politicised nostalgia and a tendency to naturalise the past are prevalent within incel discourses, although narratives and ideas differ between individuals, and the subject sometimes leads to disagreements. Overall, the past is often presented as more natural, and patriarchal gender norms and structures as ideal. Similarly to the far-right, incel discussions often glorify the imaginary idea of a 1950s patriarchal utopia. In this fantasy construction, even unattractive men could easily find a faithful, virginal wife and start families:

“Why bother when there is no loyal wife waiting for you at the end of the day, no kids for you to help with their homework, no pool table in the basement of your big house whose mortgage you are able to pay and have a lot of funds left over in a single income household.”

“in your grandma’s time, you’d be with a looksmatch virgin girl by your early 20s”

Incel discussions often present a heteronormative patriarchal system based on nuclear families, monogamy, and individuals committing to their ‘looksmatches’  (partners on a similar level of attractiveness) as natural and normal. However, this societal system is also presented as a way to control women’s purportedly ‘natural’ tendencies towards hypersexuality, hypergamy (seeking sex and relationships with the most attractive men possible), and shallowness.

“[—] The only way society goes back to normal is when foids [women] are scared again by rape running rampant (which they are enabling) and when the bullets start flying.[—]”

“‘Feminine charms’ aka their hole/s. Back in the day, feminine charm meant taking care of their man, their kids, not trading sex for favours.”

The idea of natural female tendencies is utilised to justify misogyny when it fits the incel ideology and does not need to be logical to be effective. Based on our preliminary findings, these contradictions are not noted or questioned in incel discussions.

Another way of engaging with the past, different from the explicitly political nostalgia described above, is a more banal nostalgia reminiscent of an ideal 1990s and 2000s pop culture. Discussants long for their own childhood and youth – a time when life was simpler, and they had not yet realised their future would be hopelessly lonely. Banal everyday nostalgia is often less political than restorative nostalgia; we like to reminisce, idealise the past, buy retro products and rewatch old films and TV shows. 

“I would rather live in the 90’s tbh”

“true when i was younger i used to believe you just had to be yourself and treat others nicely. the reality is life is cruel and females are shallow.”

“Those were special times. I remember me and my friend would have so much fun playing together on our computers. How so many years have gone by so quickly and how much everything has changed.”

Banal nostalgia may, however, be more political than it initially seems. In incel discussions, the broad ideas of victimhood, hopelessness, and everything inevitably ‘getting worse’ align well with nostalgia. The causes of this worsening situation are largely believed to be feminism, social media, and the appearance-focused nature of online dating. Even everyday discourses of music, video games, and movies connect to the idea of modern culture as decadent and ruined by feminism, reflecting contemporary culture wars. According to these incel narratives, in old movies, there is no “political agenda”, whereas there are too many “strong female characters these days”. Life before social media and feminism is seen as ideal and modernity as suffering.

“That’s why classic movies are good because they don’t have any bullshit that these people praise or promote nowadays. Older movies have good storylines and are pretty much straightforward”

Victimhood Narratives and Fantasies of Alternative Timelines

The feeling of being worse off than previous generations is prevalent in incel discourses. This connects to both their specific perceived victimhood and a wider experience of economic and social uncertainty among young people, who feel unfairly impacted – with good reason –  by the increasing demands of the neoliberal capitalist system, as well as the ongoing climate catastrophe. A general form of pessimism typical to online discussion culture, dubbed alandscape of precarity by Eliisa Vainikka, and the more specific incel collective victimhood leads many incels to paint dystopian images of censorship and mass arrests awaiting them in the near future. They present women and attractive men as the winners in this new world, where, they claim, unattractive men face ever-worsening marginalisation and oppression.

“And trades work your body down to the bone cuz you’re working 60-70 hours a week. This whole society we’ve been put in was a lie since women joined the workforce and started being ‘independent.’ And now they complain about that.”

An interesting element in incel discussions is the idea of being born into the wrong era. Some posters lament that being born even a few years earlier could have prevented their suffering and ensured a ‘normal’ life. Also present are discussions of ending up in the wrong timeline or reality.    The thought of being lost and homeless in a reality to which they do not belong may also be attractive as it erases personal responsibility; the only fault of the discussants is existing at the wrong time through no choice of their own.

“We were born too late. We were born at the end.”

“[—] I fucking hate my parents if I had my way I’d wanna be born into a different timeline and then on top of that they gave me the shittiest genes ever.”

“[—] For most of history if you were male and had your shit together financially then you got a woman. It was the social contract. [—]”

In incel discourses about the past, the focus is often not on the past itself. It is used to justify the incel worldview of everything getting worse and their own unchangeable fate being only suffering and oppression. These narratives of a catastrophic present and dystopian future, and the fantasies of different ideal timelines just barely out of reach, all contribute to the overarching idea of collective incel victimhood. This victimhood identity helps bind together contradicting narratives in a way that does not need to be coherent and logical to be attractive. The idea of victimhood is central to many extremist movements and ideologies, and it can fuel political violence. While claims of victimhood should be approached critically, the feeling of being an outsider should be acknowledged without legitimising the affective idea of male victimhood or supremacism.


Taking into account the specific ways in which incels construct collective victimhood and use it to justify misogyny facilitates a better understanding of incel culture. Understanding the construction of worldview and ideology is crucial in developing deradicalisation services and interventions. An important part of this worldview is ideas about the past and the future. More research is needed on how even banal nostalgia and everyday discourses about the past can be used to justify pessimistic and even catastrophic ideas about the future.

Emilia Lounela is a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. Her dissertation examines incel experiences, ideals and worldviews through both online discussion and interview data.