Sympathy for the Sigma
Musings on a meme
If you’re a young guy who spends too much time on the internet, you have encountered him: Patrick Bateman schizo-posting his way to Dorsia, Travis Bickle sans weekend plans, a bloodied Ryan Gosling facing down the abyss. The sigma male.
It’s a joke, but like all jokes it’s not. I first encountered the sigma male as subject when finding myself oddly mesmerized by the online esoteric right-wing bodybuilding movement, an amalgamation of young and desperate-to-remain-young men whose commitment to breathing techniques, raw liver, and positive affirmations struck me as simultaneously intriguing, self-parodic, and tremendously off-putting. Theirs is a self-describedly autistic approach to wellness: your primal humanity is reclaimed through strict regimen and an inhumane obsession with optimization. Many of their most successful members tout themselves as such, either through actual diagnosis or by a sort of affected persona to excuse their fascistic self-treatment (the esoteric regimen includes cold showers, “sunning your balls,” and a militant refusal to cum). Their aim, to the extent they have one, appears to be a sort of self-mastery that in turn will produce mastery of the other, imposing order upon a deviant world intent on force-feeding soy, estrogen, and microplastics into their gullets.1
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So too, at first blush, does the sigma male fashion its grindset. As he’s popularly imagined, the sigma male derives his power not only from his raw masculinity but from the sense in which that masculine energy is refined, channeled, and withheld; he is cast not in the dominating light of an alpha, but in an either self- or societally-imposed loneliness and isolation. His perceived rejection by society in general and femininity in particular translates into a disaffection with modernity that characterizes so much of Zoomers’ comedic-political sensibilities. His masculinity is both his damnation and potential salvation.
It’s hard to write about Zoomers without necessarily situating yourself as a Milennial – a culturally dead body politic, ironic while pearl-clutching, so scared both of sincerity and abandoning liberal pieties that you resort to homogenous, tired banalities. If Millenials inherited the internet, Zoomers were born into it; Milennials learned how to make the Internet reflect what they were thinking while Zoomers learned to think like the Internet. These are lives not only mediated but formed by screens, minds that absorb the logic of screens. Because the world belongs to screens now, the world is theirs. Welcome to the age of shitposting.
And so the sigma male, if he ever reaches a level of prominence to merit a serious analysis in legacy (or, now, Milennial) media, will likely be misunderstood. On the outdated, stale political matrix which might be applied, the sigma male’s categorization seems clear: these are incels, misogynists, lone wolf gunmen in the making. To the extent that the sigma male is created by screens, these categorizations will all contain a kernel of truth to them. The world of screens is a cold, anti-social one. But the sigma male can likely only be properly understood as a manifestation of extremely detached, mediated desire. Its avatars are not human beings, as much as writers may be tempted to draw connections to Andrew Tate, Jordan Peterson, and conveyers of toxic masculinity of that ilk – they are film characters. Travis Bickle, Patrick Bateman, Gosling in Drive (perhaps the ur-sigma, a character so abstracted that his name escapes memory). The sigma male is an object of pure desire, understood properly as such.
Of course, the fictional characters who populate the grindset’s cultural reference-book are almost universally desipicable characters – violent, mysognystic, sociopathic. The sigma male canon is something like a complete list of the most toxic, ill-advised role model figures one might imagine. But the memes establish a certain distance from these characters, drenched in irony and self-pity as they are. These young men, it seems, want nothing more than to be desired. They feel compelled to distance themselves from this want, so natural and yet so grotesque, through impenetrable layers of ironic pastiche. How else could they admit that they worship and associate with culture’s most fucked up representations of masculinity – its antiheroes, villains, and monsters?
These kids seem to understand, on an intuitive level, that our society asks of men that they be vulgar, calloused, both calculating and prone to violent explosion. Whether or not their memes are critiques of this archetype or wholehearted endorsements feels a bit beyond the point; they are worth examining because they are likely both. These are lonely young men in a lonely world. Might it be that they are attempting to contextualize their loneliness and horrific depression, one we all feel, through the images popular culture beams in to satiate our dissatisfaction? Does the sigma male scorn companionship and comfort because he has learned not to depend upon such bygone comforts, born into a world where touch, connection, and meaning grows scarcer by the day? What better vessel than films to confirm your belief that you are not living the life for which you were meant? How many people asking how to be a man are just asking how to be?
We live in a world territorialized by manufactured desire. Through our screens, dream-purveyors sell us fantasies, identities, and purpose. The sigma male meme is fascinating, precisely for its understanding of this fundamental truth – that our dreams are not ours, that what we have come to desire has never existed. It’s a genuine desire for self-transformation expressed through rigorous adherence to a set of aesthetic principles: the same few movie clips, the same few songs. It is, at the same time, almost incomprehensibly ironic. The sigma male experiences self-affected autism at his mildest, full-blown schizophrenia most often. You can labor through Deleuze and Guattari if you’d like, but the finest introduction to schizoanalysis in the 21st century can be found on the now-deleted page of the sigma male’s lodestar content creator, @Bibawen. These are the mysteries of the sigma male – it’s the valorization of schizophrenia that makes the whole endeavor appear safely ironic, situating the consumer in knowing, healthy observation of the content’s toxicity. And yet the self-diagnosed schizophrenia can read in moments as itself a sincere and meaningful object of desire – a mark of differentiation, a sense-making system in a world seemingly devoid of one, an explanation for one’s otherwise inexplicable situation. It’s an undercurrent that runs through many of the sigma male’s running staples, from Where Is My Mind Wednesday to Out Of Touch Thursday, especially as these late-stage memes come to associate more and more with some of masculinity’s most pathetic popular representations - a trembling Kendall Roy, Saul Goodman all out of tricks.2 These young men and the male cultural object are the butts of their own joke, employing deep-fried irony and a formal set of standards to critically engage with masculinity writ large and their individual perceived failures. It is Zoomer art par exemplar, simultaneously derivative and sincere.
And so while there is an obvious odiousness to the sigma male, there is also a level of vulnerability and reflection worth examining. The sigma male is distinct from his more deplorable cousins, whether alpha males or pick-up artists. He seeks not domination or retvrn, but dominion over himself, his persona, his desires. Where is my mind, he meekly asks, as the world asks of itself the same. As Gen Z assumes its rightful throne as stewards of the online world, it’s possible that meme economies like this will constitute a new frontier of cultural criticism almost incomprehensible to the Milennial gatekeepers. Of course, the meme likely already has been – and certainly will be – commandeered by cynical, misogynistic actors, contorted out of its irony and into plain toxicity. As it stands, though, the grindset exposes an insight that only the farthest-gone realms of shitposting seem able to capture: the pain of living in a world that demands we invest so much into our self-perfection that we forget how to interact with the people around us.
Their newest obsession, for which they will certainly make news, is their attempt to build an ungoverned city somewhere in the Mediterranean. It’s an effort led by venture capitalists and a former Boston College wide receiver.
Noteworthy too in this community is a total reverence for form, adherence to strict principles of the meme, and watchdogging against thief and rip-off acts. In that sense, it is a very ethical meme ecosystem.