Inside the Male-Dominated Meme Hijacked by Lib-Bashing Trumpsters
The new documentary “TFW NO GF (That Face When No Girlfriend)” examines the wildly popular Wojak meme—and why lost, lonely young men relate to it so deeply.
It’s a cliché to say that increased connectivity has actually driven us further apart, but there’s more than a kernel of truth to it. In a way, we are better prepared than ever through the invention of the computer and the internet to wade out the storm of social isolation. We have practice. It’s still not easy though, and for a lot of people, including young men who have spent their formative years on forums where they feel more comfortable and more accepted than in society, it’s a way of life that is at once freeing and also full of misery. Alex Lee Moyer’s documentary film TFW NO GF (“That Face When No Girlfriend”) observes five young men who grew up on internet boards like 4chan and social media sites like Twitter and became inextricably connected by the use of a meme known as “Wojak.”
Moyer’s film, which was supposed to premiere at SXSW, isn’t particularly introspective or detailed and works mostly as a primer for people who are generally unfamiliar with online subcultures, cutting in cable news segments on an epidemic of male loneliness and giving definitions of various online terms and acronyms like NEET, blackpill, /r9k/ and NPC, among others. Most of the homework must be done on one’s own, because this is a rabbit hole that goes deep and gets very weird. Moyer is a woman in her mid-thirties, someone who’s an outside observer to this realm of culture, but she isn’t looking to be an “interpreter.”
“I feel like there may be an inescapable and distinctly female empathic energy to the film—which is why I did not find it necessary to insert myself into the narrative or make too big a deal of it,” she says of the film, which includes almost no narration. “I just tried to present things earnestly, as I found them.”
Sean, the first person Moyer contacted for the documentary, begins the film by saying (rather self-deprecatingly), “For context, I’m 5-foot 6-inches and live in a one-bedroom apartment with my mom.” He lists his height before telling anything else about himself, an insecurity that is generally associated with phrenological beliefs by incels and some other men on the internet about dating and attraction—namely, that height, race and bone structure determine men’s worth and desirability to women. Before Reddit boards like r/incel, r/foreveralone, and others, the /r9k/ board on 4chan was where, as Sean put it, “the most hopeless and miserable people congregate to flirt with their despair.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, to wallow in one’s own misery that nothing will get better, yet it provides a sense of community to express feelings that these young men don’t feel they can express in the real world.
Emotions are things that men—mostly because of other men—have been discouraged from expressing. Internet forums and Wojak are, in a way, a circumvention of that pressure through ironic posting. Wojak has existed on the obscure corners of the internet for a long time, but its connection to the phrase “tfw no gf” became popular following a 4chan post on the /a/ board (anime & manga) which combined his visage—an ambiguous stare that, through the Kuleshov effect, could range anywhere between disappointment to wistfulness to complete apathy—with the phrase.
Politically, the meme has taken on many forms, notably “NPC.” Around 2018, near the time of the midterm elections, right-wing Twitter users began making sock accounts as NPCs—video-game terminology for “non-player characters,” or the characters you talk to that just roam around, can’t be controlled by the player, and have no significant effect on the result—to troll liberals. It was a permutation of Wojak as a blank-looking grey character; a mocking intonation that liberals were both “zombies” and “irrelevant” (non-players) to the fascist political upheaval happening in the country.
Recently, Wojak has been adapted into alternative characters mocking the capitalist economic models that are failing before our very eyes. In a more general context, men on the internet, especially those on 4chan and Reddit, have predominantly used Wojak over the past several years to offer condolences to each other in the face of societal rejection, especially by women. From the original manifestation of a wistful look to the meme of two Wojaks hugging with the tag “I know that feel bro,” he has taken on contexts in male-dominated internet spaces that signify a brotherhood of sorts. He is the internet’s Vishnu. But is “that face when no girlfriend” really that complex? Or does it simply mean lack of companionship from the opposite sex?
TFW NO GF’s attempts to represent a contained understanding of the meme’s more metaphysical meaning prove to be unwieldy. Instead, the documentary takes bits and pieces of ideas and beliefs and experiences and edits them into a sample platter of what being a lonely male must be like – using Wojak as the cipher. It also, by virtue of its subject matter, could’ve done better in trying to engage with the moral dilemmas of posting and tweeting. The closest the movie comes to tying an identity around itself is through a Twitter user named Kantbot—a portmanteau of the philosopher Immanuel Kant and the term “robot,” which some /r9k/ users refer to themselves as—who fashions himself an internet dialectician of sorts. He acts as a meta-analyzer of the film and its thesis, suggesting that Wojak is the true representation of us “when we feel like we’re nothing.”
This is the most direct relation the documentary makes with its audience—that the grievances that young men like Charels and Viddy, two brothers documented in the film, are not totally alien. The pressure to follow a singular path of going to school, getting a degree, being stuck in a shitty job with menial pay and no respect, and revolving your entire life around the monotonous cycle that is the daily “grind” is a belief shared by many in American society. In a way, to exist outside of that sphere as a NEET (Not in Employment, Education, or Training) can be thought of as rewarding in itself, even if it precludes you from building meaningful relationships with “normies.”
In Arthur Chu’s article for The Daily Beast titled “Your Princess is in Another Castle, Nerds and Misogyny,” he discussed issues of male entitlement, specifically the entitlement to a female partner. All of the men in TFW NO GF have feelings of loneliness and atrophy, but they expand wider and to a much more existential nature than simply the lack of a romantic relationship that is suggestive in the titular acronym, if attaining that is even a serious end-goal. A recurring theme between them is the need to simply feel like a real person. The ways to attain this are diverse and the needs are not monolithic; they exist in different forms for different people. Kyle, who lives in Texas, says he “tries to go out and do stuff. Simply going out to drink or eat at a restaurant makes you feel like you’re part of the world.” Sean occupies himself with weight training, which he says has helped him get more attention from women, but he says “tfw no gf” is something that is expansive beyond its literal phrasing. It can be as simple as “if you know someone who’s having a hard time, give them a call.”
In an email exchange, Viddy tells me, “In light of current events, it’s looking like almost everyone is set for some hard times in the immediate future. In spite of that, and in spite of the myriad troubles in my own life, every day I come online and see some of the most talented and creative people that I’m lucky enough to call my friends persevering. Those connections help keep me going despite the almost existential difficulties of life.”
Our internet lives are strange and unexplainable in many ways, and right now we’re stuck with them because that’s all we have left. Kantbot says directly to Moyer near the end, “At the end of the day, you’re making a movie about people’s lives.” The use of Wojak as a meme is varied in the way it connects the lives of people who see and represent themselves through it, for better or for worse. He is vaguely anthropomorphic, malleable in his presentation, and adaptable to nearly every ideology, belief, religion, race, and social commentary—a constant reminder that behind his visage is a real person who is a part of this world.