The return of the femcel 

Why Gone Girl is as relevant as ever

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IT MIGHT SURPRISE you to learn that the term ‘incel’ was coined by a woman. In 1997, a twenty-four-year-old university student created an all-text website called Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project, alongside a mailing list with links to resources and forums for people struggling with loneliness and rejection. 

‘The initial aim was to create an inclusive community, embracing those whose sex lives had been marginalised for reasons ranging from rigid gender norms to mental illness or social awkwardness,’ writes Ashifa Kassam in a 2018 Guardian interview with Alana, who asked that her last name not be published. Her project grew to include thousands of members, including a couple who would end up getting married. (This was before dating apps, MySpace and Facebook.) In 2000, Alana felt that the community could continue without her and handed control of the site to someone else. 

She didn’t realise what had become of the movement she’d started until 2014, when news broke that a twenty-two-year-old named Elliott Rodger had made a string of posts calling himself an incel, then killed six people and wounded fourteen before fatally shooting himself. This would mark a pivotal moment for the online incel movement we’re familiar with today, characterised by a hatred and dehumanisation of women. 

‘It’s not a happy feeling,’ Alana told Kassam. ‘It feels like being the scientist who figured out nuclear fission and then discovers it’s being used as a weapon for war.’ 

Interestingly, 2014 also marked the release of the movie Gone Girl (based on the bestselling novel by Gillian Flynn), a harbinger of the burgeoning ‘femcel’ movement. The villain, Amy (Rosamund Pike), is hyperintelligent and attractive, provoking split views between feminist commentators. She is violent and cunning, but for some her vengeful impulses resonate; she takes the everyday outcome of male violence and turns it on its head by faking her own death and plotting the downfall of her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck).  

Soon after the film’s release, the word ‘femcel’ emerged as a viral term, and it reached a zenith in 2020, when the popular thread r/Trufemcels was banned from Reddit. But internet communities are hard to stifle. Two years later, Glamour magazine would declare 2022 to be the ‘year of the femcel’. These original incels distinguish themselves from violent attackers like Elliott Rodger by using a different moniker that can’t be co-opted by misogynists. 

WHERE MALE INCELS blame feminism for their inability to get laid, femcels identify misogyny, power imbalances and unrealistic beauty standards as the cause of their struggles. Unlike previous waves of political lesbianism, the #femcelrights movement to opt out of sexual relations with men is more of a signal than a concrete commitment. ‘Femcels are more interested in the aesthetics of toxic sadness than the original meaning of involuntary chastity,’ writes Róisín Lanigan in i-D magazine. Femcel content is often undercut by a self-deprecating humour, lightly seasoned with feminist theory: Sorry for wanting to be just friends, that wasn’t very object made for your plea5ure of me, reads a TikTok caption by @draftedrants. Pov: you’re actually fucking insufferable, reads a TikTok by @pebbletumbledskin, as she takes us on a tour around a darkened room cluttered with blister packs of Valium and Seroquel. Cigarette butts languish beside dog-eared copies of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Like her literary heroines, the femcel is constantly on the verge of a mental breakdown. She uses tags like #grippysockprison, referring to the socks provided in psychiatric hospitals. When she’s not in the loony bin, she hides herself away in sprawling, witchy squalor, swaddled in alternative clothing. Femceldom represents a sort of self-constructed exile, a dark, rotting core beneath the soft frills of hyperfemininity. 

Much of the emphasis on psychosis harks back to Victorian-era accusations of hysteria as the cause of women’s ill health, but as Annabelle Tseng notes in her article ‘Femcel Heteropessimism’, femcels interpret the psychological distress experienced by young women as a healthy reaction to the conditions of their social milieu. While femcelcore remains an undercurrent, heteropessimism is widespread in pop culture: think of the term ‘ball and chain’ to describe one’s wife, or the recent trend for photos of women with their mouths taped while their husbands enjoy a beer beside a sign that reads ‘Peace on Earth at last!’ On the other side, women bemoan their male partners’ lack of contribution to household chores and parenting. They liken coupledom to a prison, marriage a life sentence to hard labour. 

At the intersection of femcelcore and heteropessimism is a hard kernel of defiance. The femcel is unapologetically toxic. She is not concerned with bettering herself. ‘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,’ writes Annabelle Tseng, quoting Jia Tolentino’s essay, ‘Always Be Optimizing’. 

THE SCENE FROM Gone Girl that continues to go viral in chat forums and threads around the world is Amy’s ‘cool girl’ monologue. At this point in the film, the narrative flips – until now, we’ve been led to believe she could be the murder victim of her husband. But here we discover the truth: that Amy is the one on the run, and very much alive. She takes us through her plot to frame Nick, replete with sticky notes including a calendar square that reads: KILL SELF? She’s sick of pretending to be the perfect wife, the cool girl; as she speaks she is snacking on chips, letting her hair grow wild, driving on the open road. Her cheeks are puffed and ruddy. She has let herself go, but she’s done so in a spirit of indulgence and self-liberation: 

I am so much happier now that I’m dead. Technically missing, soon to be presumed dead. Gone. And my lazy, lying, cheating, oblivious husband will go to prison for my murder. Nick Dunne took my pride and my dignity and my hope and my money. He took and took from me until I no longer existed. That’s murder. Let the punishment fit the crime. 

In the pre-Fleabag era of the early twenty-first century, mainstream media portrayals of ‘strong female characters’ were lacklustre, with many endorsing traditional heteronormative expectations. Amy’s ‘cool girl’ monologue and character arc became iconic in their refusal to buy into these cultural norms. The character’s psychotic energy, anger and unapologetic selfishness feel exhilarating to watch. Her refusal to accept poor treatment in this way is unusual for a mainstream Hollywood movie, and follows the logic of femcels who have chosen to ‘opt out’. 

Femcels often use the term ‘pink pill’ (incidentally also the name of a ‘female Viagra’ drug approved by the FDA in the year of Gone Girl’s release) to describe this disillusionment with heterosexual relationships. ‘For many femcels, not accepting bad treatment is an act of self-love,’ writes feminist thinker Nona Willis Aronowitz. ‘Despite the sadness and anger they may feel, many operate on the premise that they are entitled to respect.’  

Another aspect of femceldom’s appeal is the desire to break away from a society in which women are still often forced to be financially dependent on men. In Gone Girl, financial crisis is intrinsic to both the disintegration of Amy and Nick’s relationship and to Amy’s fate – the reason she ultimately returns to Nick (although not without further Machiavellian manoeuvring) is because she’s robbed after she runs away and has to resort to desperate measures to ensure her survival. 

The film depicts class friction in an America polarised by extreme wealth and crushing poverty. Hulking McMansions sit alongside abandoned malls frequented by trailer trash and fentanyl addicts, the scenes underscored by Trent Reznor’s spine-tingling soundtrack. These saccharine melodies are evocative of elevator music: a marimba, a bland synth, something to fill the silence and keep ruffians at bay. Yet Gone Girl begins with determined optimism, overlaid with foyer synth: ‘Promise me we’ll never be like them,’ Amy implores Nick, ‘all those awful couples we know. Those wives who treat their men like dancing monkeys to be trained and paraded. Husbands who treat their wives like the highway patrol, to be outfoxed and avoided.’ 

At first, all this seems possible. But then Nick is laid off, Amy loses her job and her parents end up borrowing from her trust fund to pay their mounting debt. ‘All this is just background noise,’ says Nick, referring to the global financial crisis. He and Amy head south, ostensibly to be closer to Nick’s family in Missouri, where the contrast between the wealthy Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest is glaring. In the suburbs, the husband and wife are a caricature, tiny blonde Amy and bulky Nick. The newly developed streets appear gentrified and emptied of life, the old-timey lampposts a throwback to the 1950s.  

The storm begins to brew when we find out Nick has borrowed money from Amy. Resentment and tension build as she levels her cool fury against her husband, who is hot-headed and physically violent in response. Nick doesn’t know what Amy does all day, while she knows all too well what he does with his time outside of work, including an extramarital affair with a student. They have become what they despised: the cunning shrew and the blundering oaf. 

The storm breaks on their anniversary when Amy disappears, leaving a carefully orchestrated trail of bloodstained furniture and a treasure hunt to incriminate Nick. A media storm ensues.  

LIKE MANY, I was hooked by Gone Girl’s premise of faking your death to own Ben Affleck, and I have watched the movie more times than I’d like to admit. It topped the box office on its opening night in 2014. But rates of male violence skyrocketed during the period of financial crisis in which the film is set, with many women disappearing forever.  

Ten years on, watching Gone Girl feels a little bit like déjà vu; with pandemic-related economic downturn and cost-of-living pressures at an all-time high, the conditions that make it harder to leave toxic relationships are rife. It feels luxurious to indulge in the fantasy of a villainess who makes herself vanish and returns to triumphant fanfare, even if that triumph rings a little hollow. 

Meanwhile, the femcels’ retreat from heterosexual relationships continues to make waves online. Their efforts have made clear how difficult it is to flourish as a woman in the twenty-first century if you haven’t ‘got it all’ – good looks, wealth, social capital. And sometimes, as Amy shows, even if you do. 

Photo credit: Robin Edqvist from Unsplash

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About the author

Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn

Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn is a writer living in Tasmania. Her work has appeared in The Age, Meanjin, Overland, Island, among many others. Her essays and...

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