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Doll Parts

Unlike the thoroughly analyzed incel, the “femcel” is a cultural blank canvas.

In June, i-D published an article titled, “Are you a femcel?” The article opens with a list of questions for the reader:

Hey, do you like listening to Lana Del Rey? What about Fiona Apple? Mitski, Hole, Melanie Martinez, MARINA? Can you recite the ‘cool girl’ speech from Gone Girl verbatim? […] Are you still mourning the loss of Tumblr? Do you like to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita? Do you enjoy Catholic iconography? Pressed to describe yourself or to have others describe you, would you be comfortable with adjectives like “toxic” or “manipulative”? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, then congratulations – you might be a femcel.

Author Roisin Lanigan acknowledges the disconnect between the list of traits she offers and what one might imagine when they hear the word femcel (a portmanteau of “female involuntary celibate”). She has an explanation ready for us: the modern femcel has evolved. They’re no longer forever alone spinsters, if they ever were, “There is little reference to actual celibacy as, for femcels, unlike their incel counterparts, the movement has simply ascended past this concern.”

But it’s unclear how Lanigan reached this conclusion. What made her think that there was ever a “femcel movement” any more than there had been a cohesive movement in the mid-2000s of posters who “did it for the lulz”? And if there was a femcel movement, what made her think it had ascended?

On some level, these questions seem insignificant. There is something about Lanigan’s error that feels unimportant to focus on. These throwaway articles – designed for clicks and quick, online conversation – aren’t written to advance any serious scholarship about digital subcultures. From one vantage point, they’re the fast fashion of the discipline, good for a day or two, at most re-circulated a second or third time. Occasionally these articles go viral, but virality rarely speaks to quality or durability. They generate clicks; they act as billboards for journalists’ names; they may generate discussion, but rarely about anything more significant than the headline. They’re most useful as a digital object rather than a text.

But on the other hand, the internet’s tempestuous relationship with time and memory makes building cohesive histories of digital life difficult. Platforms are killed; search functions fail us; archiving isn’t as good as we’d hope it’d be; the Wayback Machine didn’t take a snapshot of the page we needed. It is too easy to live in a Perpetual Now on the internet. And because of that, these fast fashion articles do sometimes end up being the foundation of alternative histories that create timelines that never existed anywhere but the mind of a single journalist.

What happens when the comments sections and tweets correcting Lanigan are deleted, or the platforms that hosted them are shut down? There is always a chance that through her error, Lanigan created a world where the femcel and the Lana-loving aesthetics poster were always one-in-the-same.

As far as I could tell, Lanigan hadn’t considered the broader usage of the term. There is no throughline from the diasporic femcels of, say, 2013 Reddit and the young women ironically affixing the #femcel and #femalemanipulator tags to their TikToks and Tumblr posts. By misunderstanding how people were using the term and misnaming the subculture, Lanigan obscured their genealogy.

The “femcels” Lanigan writes about aren’t femcels at all; there is little reference because she wasn’t writing about the evolution of a subculture. No such shift occurred. The women Lanigan describes in her piece are one subset of what was once called nymphets and today, in the post-Tumblr-porn-ban landscape, are also known as coquettes or doelettes, a distinct and separate subculture.

One viral tweet remarked, “Why are we suddenly calling the 2014 Tumblr girl a femcel?”

Even this tweet misses a critical detail. These young women aren’t the “2014 Tumblr girl.” By 2014, pre-teens, like the YouTuber Nylijah Myeesa, were building on a community first created by women in their late-teens and early-twenties, sometimes slightly older.

The peak nymphet was a product of 2012, with the tag “nymphet” appearing as early as 2011. The same year Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die, laden with visual and lyrical references to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, was released and, yes, was an instant hit. She was likely born between 1990 and 1993. She existed in a world where the echoes of early-2000s pro-anorexia forums like Ana’s Grotto, and Lolita forums, and LiveJournal communities, like the ones described by Jamie Loftus on her podcast Lolita, were still audible. Where washed-out images of nameless, lithe Japanese women and scanned magazine photos of Kate Moss were metonyms for thinness – itself a metonym for femininity and desirability.

She took shape on a website where aspirational images of the luxury of sugar babies intermingled with fandom, Daddy Dom/little girl (BDSM) kink, expressions of self-harm, explorations of disordered eating, and aesthetics-posting, every micro-blog reminiscent of Japanese fashion magazines – a swamp of tags – pale goth, soft grunge, kawaii.

Nostalgia I didn’t remember: the digital nymphets

Nymphets are a difficult subculture to write about or research partly because of their name, which reveals a sort of adolescent myopia endemic to the community. Google “nymphet,” and you won’t be greeted by old Lookbook.nu, Polyvore, or Tumblr posts, but something much more insidious: child pornography. How did this happen? Nymphets take their name from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The term was coined in a passage where the narrator, pedophile Humbert Humbert, justifies his attraction to pre-teen and young adolescent girls:

Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.”

This is perhaps the most recognizable element of this subculture for people already aware of “nymphets.” They romanticize being perceived by older men and, in turn, idealize the pain they imagine is characteristic of that perception (and, perhaps later, relationship). This impulse towards romanticization also explains the glamor of Lana Del Rey, the first mainstream artist to capture this aesthetic, without the vulgarity characteristic of Katy Perry or the genre-bending of Ariana Grande. As YouTuber Nylijah Myeesa described her relationship with Lana Del Rey in one video, she awoke a “nostalgia [I] didn’t remember.” Lana Del Rey was the first to get it – without needing to transform or re-contextualize her work.

In today’s post-#MeToo landscape, now much more aware of the politics of abuse, the historical use of the word “nymphet” has been re-imagined by some as a brazen reclamation, an intentional re-appropriation of a term once used to disempower survivors of sexual abuse. This reclamation may be true today, or it may have been conditionally true in pockets, but I would imagine another scenario is much more likely.

In the early-2010s, the very real and insidious manifestation of the pedophile who might use the word “nymphet” to search for child pornography never entered the Tumblr nymphet’s view. The self-styled adolescent nymphet can only imagine the fantasy of the predator – the GIF of Jeremy Irons in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 adaptation of Lolita – not his manifestation in the real world. She does not envision the leering gas station attendant or the too-familiar Algebra teacher – the older man these young girls dream of will hurt them, but it will be beautiful. It will be the stuff of Lana Del Rey’s crooning lyrics. A poem written in a leatherbound diary with a fountain pen, photographed in black and white and tagged #heartbroken.

Many nymphets were projecting more prosaic adolescent pain into a fantasy. Your mother is narcissistic, and there’s something about that’s an unsatisfying frame for your teen angst, so you escape into a fantasy world where an abusive older man has hurt you. For other nymphets, the reality was much more depressing. Sometimes the romanticization was a form of protecting themselves from the reality of their situation; they had been molested, and it had been the Algebra teacher or the gas station attendant or the stepfather, and the abject reality of the experience was too much to bear. So, they escaped into a fantasy where they experienced the same pain but with more dignity. Where there was once the grotesque, they could reimagine it with more glamor. This time, the Tumblr nymphet imagines, the pain might be more beautiful.

Nymphets also called themselves nymphets because there is something aspirational in the nymphic – one can imagine how this dovetails not only with a history of abuse but with the pain of female puberty, which leaves many of us fat, pockmarked by acne, and with unrecognizable relationships with not only our parents but the world around us. Women pass through the purgatory of ugliness into sexuality the world doesn’t prepare us for. For some, the natural reaction to this tumultuous period is a distancing from one’s womanhood.

The nymphet is the eternal, ethereal little girl – sexual in some iterations, but not in the way the poster’s body is sexual. When the nymphet posts sexual imagery, it is rarely straightforwardly pornographic. It is the lithe, naked body, revealing pale skin and a well-defined collarbone. There is no messiness; there is nothing ugly. There is something transcendent about her.

Perhaps these women resonate with the word “nymphet” because women with eating disorders are attracted to fairy imagery; its ethereality is present in the name itself. It is ethereality, more than the validation of being sexualized, that teenage girls, especially teenage girls online, desire more than anything. Is it not this loss of the body, this act of “purifying” that underpins all digital subcultures, in one way or another? I am reminded of an image macro that’s been collecting notes since I was a teenager: you want so badly to be pure again, you call yourself a doll, an innocent little thing.

Every time I log on, it’s like a dark paradise.

Aside from the persistent question of archival integrity, another difficulty in writing about the history of digital subcultures is that they’re not only in conversation with the rest of their environment but the boundaries of where one subculture starts and ends are blurry. For example, I started using the terms “Online Right” instead of “Dissident Right” in my reporting. Words we think of denoting a single subculture often describe a complex ecosystem that encompasses many subcultures. “Dissident Right” and “alt-right” have historically been liberally applied when what the author really means is “Online Right.”

So, while nymphets were a discrete digital community, their influences and evolutions converge and diverge in a complicated web. Here is one attempt at understanding the growth and ecosystem in which it developed. Given its complexity, this is not exhaustive, and misses some of the finer nuances.

Nymphets are best understood in conversation with eight other phenomena:

1. The relationship to gender on Tumblr. Nylijah Myeesa describes Tumblr’s environment as one that stressed androgyny. In her account, the nymphet community offered a “hyperfeminine option” for young women who wanted to explore their gender but didn’t want to gender-bend. Some young women were exposed to this community because it was one of the only exclusively feminine spaces on the website. I agree with this assessment, which clarifies why it’s at the intersection of so many other communities and tags on the website, including fashion, eating disorders, and girlblogging. The nymphet aesthetic touched everything we might think of as “girly” on Tumblr. Something I also picked up during research, but unfortunately have no exact numbers, is that transgender identity is rarely discussed. As far as I’m aware, there was no strong transgender presence in the nymphet community, despite being reasonably ubiquitous on Tumblr otherwise.

2. The intersection of self-harm/eating disorder and aesthetic communities on Tumblr. Because of Tumblr’s user interface – which stressed images more than text – “aesthetics” were inescapable. On Tumblr, “aesthetics” meant collecting images to express a certain sensibility, and often these sensibilities would be consistent enough to gain a label. Aesthetics may be recognized predominantly in fashion, but they’re more than fashion. Fashion is defined by mood; music evokes fabric. Really, “moodboard” is the best term for it.

When I say everything got “aesthetic” treatment on Tumblr, I do mean everything, including eating disorders and self-harm. And because of the gloominess of the teen angst of nymphets, the two would often zigzag with one another. Images of self-harm or anorexia became deeply rooted in the community’s mood. Women like Allison Harvard, who had become famous on MySpace and websites like MyProAna, a pro-anorexia forum, because of how they embodied both thinness and hipster ethereality, became natural fits in the nymphet moodboard.

One mean-spirited imageboard described the relationship between aesthetics communities and the nymphet successor community, coquettes, like this:

the pink/feminine/dolly aesthetic is just pink/feminine aesthetic. what makes “coquette aesthetic” is i guess addition of wishing for having ED, ddlg vibes whilst claiming they don’t support it, pseudo-strong bitch jennifer’s body vibes, heroin chic and wanting to be ~*broken but pretty*~~. all the pink, feminine dress style can be enjoyed without linking to coquette aesthetic. clothes wise same things can be found in kinderwhore or kawaii style. or just pink clothes alone, idk why these girls need to name everything this or that aesthetic or something-core.

3. The sex workers on Tumblr who also resonated with Lana Del Rey, so shared tags with the nymphet community. In the 2010s, Tumblr had some of the most relaxed policies around sexually explicit imagery. It’s well known that this impacted fandoms, but it also had more practical applications: sex workers felt safe on Tumblr. But Tumblr was also famous for how the dashboard blurred subcultural lines – subcultures that may have never intermingled with one another often would. Famously, this created the fandom “SuperWhoLock,” but it also meant that things like pornography were difficult, if not impossible, to avoid. Any heavy Tumblr user knows the feeling of opening the site while in class or another public place, only to quickly shut their laptop as they’re greeted with a pornographic GIF.

How did this impact the nymphet community? Sex workers who also resonated with Lana Del Rey and were either using Tumblr as a diary or as an advertisement met with teenage girls who had a shared interest in aesthetics. Rachel Davis writes about how this intersected with the sugaring community specifically in her thesis, “Tell me you own me, gimme them coins”: a postfeminist fascination with Lolita, Lana Del Rey, and sugar culture on Tumblr:

The aesthetic of the Sugar Culture community involved images of luxurious consumer goods and sexualized female bodies. In the Lolita community, the aesthetic revolved around symbols of femininity found in Lolita: pink roses, lollipops, and heart-shaped sunglasses. The NymphetsLife community combined these symbols of femininity with symbols of violence and melancholy, which may indicate discontent with the postfeminist, neoliberal social conditions in which they live.

(As an aside, she also hints that this might be the genesis of the 2010s infiltration of sexual choking, “Throughout the Sugar Culture community, the Lolita community, and the NymphetsLife community, choking was mentioned multiple times.” Earlier in the piece, she specifies that these three communities produced hundreds of thousands, if not millions of posts.)

4. The DD/lg (Daddy Dom/little girl) kink community. These relaxed policies around sexual content also made it possible for fetish communities to thrive on the site. Again, shared tags meant that adjacent communities could find one another easily but would never have otherwise interacted. The influence of the DD/lg community becomes salient and is reinforced by the sugaring communities and Lana Del Rey’s song lyrics. Nymphet blogs would either have alts explicitly dedicated to the DD/lg community, like this one or feature it on their main blogs.

This explains the inclusion of, for example, pastel-hued images of dog collars that read “Daddy” affixed with the nymphet tag. But I should also note that DD/lg communities didn’t only influence the nymphet community but also other aesthetic communities, like pastel goths. Like microplastics in our drinking water, these things are inescapable online.

5. Pre-existing Lolita fandom communities. On Jamie Loftus’s podcast Lolita, she makes a compelling argument for why Lolita forums from the early-2000s were predecessors to the nymphet subculture on Tumblr. And if we look at other historical digital migrations, her theory checks out: a non-trivial number of fandoms moved from forums and LiveJournal communities to Tumblr when these other websites became unsustainable.

Loftus marks two major growth spurts for the Lolita fandom: first in 1997, when Adrian Lyne’s adaptation became more accessible, and then, in the 2010s, when Lana Del Rey released Born To Die. In her research on the pre-Tumblr Lolita fandom, Loftus says that posters were preoccupied with what they thought it meant to be a nymphet. Loftus postulates that the young women in these fan forums weren’t glorifying Dolores Haze, or the message of Lolita, since it was clear they had read the book and were engaging in serious analysis. However, they did glorify Dominique Swain’s portrayal of Dolores Haze.

In Loftus’s account, when these forums migrate to Tumblr, the community remains small until Lana Del Rey re-popularizes Lolita. At this point, the nymphet community takes on the character that those of us who were on Tumblr during this period are familiar with. More driven by images as opposed to text due to the user interface of the site, the analysis of the film and novel are eclipsed by trying to encapsulate a cohesive sensibility, interspersed with short diaristic, angst-ridden text posts. Loftus makes a critical observation: it’s not that this community was born in 2014; 2014 is the year it comes into analysis. That is, we start seeing the first nymphet thinkpieces.

6. The Teen Girl Renaissance of the 2010s. The Teen Girl Renaissance of the 2010s, as heralded by fashion-prodigy Tavi Gevinson and artists like Petra Collins and Arabelle Sicardi, is another crucial link. What now feels like a blip on the radar in hindsight had a significant influence on adolescent culture – but its far-reaching impact was present in fashion, television, film, and music. (It’s even possible that Harmony Korine would have never directed Springbreakers without this movement.)

I see the nymphets in conversation with publications like Rookie and as a reaction to them. Tavi Gevinson’s project was very much about giving young women a place of empowerment, but because Gevinson and her friends were, themselves, both thin and glamorous, they ultimately reinforced this idea that the ideal adolescent girl was a pale, borderline anorexic with flowers in her hair. Tumblr both embraced this and reacted to it, further exploring the dark undertones inherent in it.

7. Black Swan, The Virgin Suicides, Girl, Interrupted, White Oleander, and other dark feminine media. In 2010, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan was released, congealing a suite of films that already had a strong following online into a genre. These films were considered dark feminine, often earning spots on “recommended movies” lists on pro-anorexia forums. These films didn’t only provide aesthetic but spiritual inspiration – image macros that feature quotes from these films are still popular fodder for blogs, Instagram, and TikTok accounts in this universe.

8. The WASP revival and the rise of “dark academia.” In the early 1990s, authors like Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt, along with filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and Whit Stillman, resuscitated the corpse of the American WASP. Their reimagining remained relevant into the 2010s. The WASP archetype ebbs and flows from our view, but she never disappears. The darkness and melancholy of the American WASP undergirded many subcultures of the early 2010s, including the nymphets, which distilled much of the sadness of the forlorn WASP adolescent girl.

NoKinkNymphet, the Tumblr Porn Ban, and Soft Black Girls

What happens to the nymphet subculture in the wake of Tumblr’s 2018 porn ban changes depending on whom you ask. Some creators, like Schyler Reighn, who started the #NoKinkNymphet movement, cite a schism between those who sexualized nymphets (like the DD/lg community) and those who were only interested in the fashion. They say young women in the nymphet community were sick of “constant harassment by older men.” In these creators’ tellings, the newer iterations of nymphets, “coquettes” and “doelettes,” respectively, celebrate Dolores in two phases of her life. The coquettes focus on Dolore Haze before she was abused by Humbert Humbert, “immortalizing the happy child she was,” whereas the “doelettes” are gloomier and explore her traumatization. Creators like Dion the Taurus have similar opinions but reach slightly different conclusions: she describes the coquette as the “matured” nymphet. The nymphet with more self-awareness.

Others say that the schism was natural: several communities imploded because of the ban, including the nymphet community, the biggest reason being that #nymphet became a banned word on Tumblr. Posters were forced to come up with a new name, and the culture shifted as the offline world evolved. For these posters, the terms “coquette” and “doelette” can be used interchangeably, and they sometimes encompass subgenres like Americana coquette. They may be unique groups in some corners of the internet, but there is significant overlap, and the boundaries are too malleable for their meanings to be static.

Loftus and others argue that the most significant change in the nymphet/coquette/doelette subculture has been increased awareness after #MeToo and more inclusivity. Loftus notes that after 2017, you begin to see anti-childhood sexual abuse memes, more emphasis on trauma and survival, and disclaimers about how these communities do not glorify sexual abuse. I would be cautious about ascribing too much to #MeToo’s impact or assuming that these young women necessarily have an opinion that’s more clearly in line with what’s now politically acceptable. Much of the content of the posts within these communities remains similar to what was seen when it first emerged in 2011. The disclaimers seem to reflect more mainstream sensibilities about what’s acceptable to speak about, as opposed to an increased sensitivity on the part of the poster.

However, a change that is visible is more inclusivity. For example, I see many more openly Black creators in this space today than I did in the early 2010s. In her video “The Coquette – a brief history of the rising TikTok aesthetic,” Dion the Taurus suggests that the Soft Black Girl, an aesthetic for and by Black women that emphasized hyperfemininity, may be to credit with this change. I think this is possible, but I also believe that the internet has become more welcoming to people of color than it was in the early-2010s. It’s a sensibility that’s visible throughout different subcultures. 

Misuse of the word “femcel”

Let’s return to Roisin Lanigan’s piece. How did she get it so wrong?

Well, her article has a kernel of truth – the term “femcel” has been re-appropriated.

Type “femcel” into TikTok or Tumblr, and you’ll be greeted by an alternative set of tags on most videos: coquette, coquettecore, doelette, and even, sometimes, clever misspellings of nymphet. Occasionally, you may see two different ironic applications of the term “femcel,” one in reference to what I call “femcel fatales,” a specific archetype of the female manipulator or perhaps, more fittingly, psychopath; and another making fun of an imaginary femcel character, best expressed by this meme. The latter are often in conversation with “incel” TikToks, which are more often self-serious.

My best guess? Roisin Lanigan was grasping in the dark. I could imagine Lanigan flipping through TikTok after TikTok and seeing that many evoked the term “femcel,” a hot topic in the media world right now, she thought she had made a connection. And she wasn’t totally wrong – the woman she describes is real. Just her history is much more complicated than it might first appear.

A casualty of all this is that the trufemcel remains criminally understudied.

Lots more where that came from.