The sad, stupid rise of the sigma male: how toxic masculinity took over social media | Men

You are a lone wolf. You are an independent thinker who makes his own rules. You are confident and competent. Women are drawn to you, but you don’t really care about them. Your day begins at 4.30am with a cold shower, followed by a punishing workout and an even more punishing skincare routine. You shun conventional career paths and run your own business, probably in crypto or real estate or vigilante crime fighting. You are that rarest of males – you are a sigma.

Either that or you’re a bemused bystander who has had a hard time avoiding content about sigma males and the “sigma grindset”. In the past few years, sigma masculinity has blown up. It’s all over social media – and it’s helped define what could be a masculine archetype for our times, supposedly exemplified by characters played by the likes of Keanu Reeves, Cillian Murphy, Bryan Cranston and Christian Bale, plus the manosphere influencer Andrew Tate as well as actual, real life wolves.

All of these and more have gone into the meme-culture blender when it comes to the sigma phenomenon, which could well be an indication of how deep it has seeped into the mainstream, and by extension into the minds of our impressionable, smartphone-addicted youth. It has been described as “extremist thinking” and “a new kind of toxic masculinity”, although as we shall see, these fears may be overstated.

‘I’m just an extreme example of what a working man can achieve’ … Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions

Either way, YouTuber Lily Simpson probably summed it up best in a viral post on Twitter/X from January 2021 that helped put the whole thing into the mainstream: above four images of various permutations of sigma male content, it read: “What the fuck is going on with men?”

Maybe it’s easiest to start with the wolves. You’re probably familiar with the concept of the “alpha male”, as in the dominant male in a social group – confident, good at sports, a natural leader who’s admired by his fellow men, the betas. The term is derived from “dominance hierarchy” – the way in which many species of social animal organise in hierarchies beneath a dominant male, who usually gains his place through size or aggression, and earns food and mating rights as a result. Dominance hierarchies are found in species from monkeys to hens (the “pecking order”) but the example most often seized upon is wolves, which turns out to be completely wrong. The original notion of the “alpha wolf” was based on a 1940s study that observed wolves in captivity, which is a bit like making sweeping assumptions about humans by studying prisoners. In the wild, it was later discovered, the prevailing wolf grouping is actually the family unit.

Anyway, these “natural” systems of social organisation were inevitably mapped on to humans. “Women use the dominance hierarchy to select mates,” the conservative thinker Jordan Peterson told Joe Rogan on his show in 2017. “There are influential men that rise to the top and the women take them.” This is evolutionary science, Peterson argued: “Dominance hierarchy is a mechanism that selects heroes and then breeds them.” The problem today, in Peterson’s view, is that some men can circumvent this immutable order: “Pathological guys who are out there bolstering up the feminists … they compete as ‘allies’, let’s say. Very sneaky.”

This kind of thinking has found fertile ground in the modern manosphere – the loosely connected network of online groups who broadly agree that masculinity (invariably meaning straight, white masculinity) is in crisis, and that the cause is some combination of feminism, leftwing politics, immigration, “wokeness”, vegetarianism … who knows? Subgroups would include pickup artists: men who effectively seek cheat codes to the dating game, in the form of “rules” and tricks to attract women. And “incels”: men who are involuntarily celibate and resentful about it, and have been known to resort to violence.

The “sigma male” emerged from this primordial testosterone swamp largely thanks to a 55-year-old American science-fiction writer and publisher named Theodore Robert Beale, who blogs under the name Vox Day. A proud Christian nationalist, racist and misogynist, Beale has argued that black men are genetically more inclined to violence than white men, that women should not be allowed to vote, and that feminism was “a seductive but destructive Jewish ideology that was more incoherent than communism, more bloodthirsty than nazism, and more histrionic than fascism”.

In 2010 Beale wrote a blog post in which he attempted to expand the “overly simplistic” division of men into alphas and betas. He came up with his own “sociosexual hierarchy”, with alphas at the top – “the male elite, the leaders of men for whom women naturally lust” – followed by betas, deltas, gammas, lambdas, right down to omegas – “the losers”. Sitting outside this imaginary pyramid of masculinity were sigmas – “the lone wolves”. Beale defined sigmas as “outsiders who don’t play the social game and manage to win at it anyhow” and who “often like women, but also tend to be contemptuous of them”. They were on a par with alphas, but just didn’t show off about it.

‘You wanted me back… I’m back!’ … Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 2. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/AP

“There is very little – if any – convincing science behind the notion that personality types exist or are fixed,” says Debbie Ging, professor of digital media and gender at Dublin City University. “It’s basically a really simplistic, misguided and bio-determinist account of human behaviour, which doesn’t take into account the sociocultural construction of gender identity or the impact of economic and political forces on people’s choices or lack thereof.”

But the appeal of this stuff to some men is understandable, Prof Ging says: “It’s pretty obvious that the whole manosphere project is deeply regressive and rooted in concocted nostalgia and the notion of a mythical past, and comes from a place of insecurity and anxiety about progress and relinquishing or sharing power.”

These ideas remained largely confined to manosphere chatrooms and forums until about early 2021, around the time of Simpson’s tweet, when interest in, and content about, the sigma male suddenly skyrocketed.

Beale cited Clint Eastwood’s movie persona as his prime example of a sigma, but online culture has found many more: Reeves’ John Wick, Cranston as Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Murphy’s Tommy Shelby from Peaky Blinders, Ryan Gosling in Drive, Brad Pitt in Fight Club, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, the evil superhero Homelander from The Boys, Mads Mikkelsen’s depiction of Hannibal Lecter …

And then there’s Patrick Bateman, created by Bret Easton Ellis in his 1991 novel and later played by Bale in the 2000 movie American Psycho: a 1980s Wall Street banker who’s wealthy, gym-toned, well-dressed, woman-hating, terminally narcissistic and a delusional serial killer. Somehow, Bateman has become the arch-sigma, though he’s a curious choice of role model. Far from being a lone wolf, he’s fixated on status among his peers (who obsess competitively over the design of their business cards), he dresses like every other Wall Street wannabe, and he has utterly mainstream taste in music (such as mansplaining the brilliance of Huey Lewis and the News) – which was kind of the point: American Psycho was supposed to be satire.

Bateman was already a fixture of the manosphere via “hustle culture”, as in the celebration of a particular type of male wealth, characterised by hard work, self-discipline, fitness and grooming. Other hustle culture heroes include Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street (wolves again!), Elon Musk and, of course, Tate, who has successfully parlayed his notoriety as an unrepentant misogynist into some kind of guru status. Tate’s online Hustlers University promised to teach men how to “uncover the hidden secrets of success”, “escape The Matrix” and make life-changing amounts of money – mostly by paying Tate a monthly subscription and promoting his content online. Tate is awaiting trial in Romania on human trafficking and rape charges.

The overlapping of these strands gave birth to a new viral incarnation: the “sigma male grindset” – a set of motivational rules and maxims by which successful men supposedly live. Celebrities such as Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson have paved the way for this by broadcasting their absurdly punishing workout schedules. (Wahlberg’s viral routine began at 2.30am and took in a 90-minute workout, breakfast, prayers and golf all before 8am.)

Breaking Bad … Bryan Cranston as Walter White. Photograph: AP

Sigma content is now a fixture on social media. On YouTube you’ll find innumerable videos along the lines of “14 signs that you’re a sigma” or “15 Things Women INSTANTLY Notice About Sigma Males” or “How to Become SIGMA Male – RAREST MALE TYPE” – most of them recycling the same pseudoscientific tropes. You’ll find annotated scenes from shows such as Peaky Blinders and Breaking Bad illustrating the familiar sociosexual hierarchy – “sigma male realising again how superior he is”, “omega woman crying because she can’t handle the sigma energy”. You’ll find motivational quotes by the likes of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, lists of “sigma male grindset” rules, memes about how “if you’re aged 20-30 and your main circle isn’t discussing” stuff like real estate, committed relationships, fitness, etcetera, it’s time to “elevate your circle”. There are “sigma male grindset” playlists on Spotify. There’s even a “sigma face” – an exaggerated “Oooh!” expression, in imitation of Bale during a scene from American Psycho – as modelled by social media stars like Mr Beast and Khaby Lame. There have been some attempts to get “sigma female” trending, but they have not really taken off in the same way.

The phenomenon might well have reached a tipping point with a bizarre campaign ad by presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis last year, which sought to appeal to this subculture by proudly trumpeting DeSantis’s anti-LGBTQ+ stance.

Between images of DeSantis looking macho and threatening trans rights, the ad included clips of Bale as Patrick Bateman, DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street, Murphy in Peaky Blinders, Pitt in Troy and other muscular, manly men, plus slogans including “a real wolf had arrived”. The whole thing was bafflingly weird and unwittingly homoerotic.

While we should worry about the conduit from toxic manosphere fringe to teen-friendly TikTok fare, if the plan was to brainwash a new generation, it doesn’t seem to be working very well. In fact, sigmas have become a bit of a laughing stock.

“One of the first things I would say if somebody was coming to me asking what a sigma male was, is ‘Don’t take it too seriously’,” says Don Caldwell, editor in chief of Know Your Meme, which tracks meme culture. “I’d say 90% of the time it’s being used ironically, in a joking fashion.” Almost as soon as the sigma male went viral in 2021, “people started to meme it, because they thought the concept was really funny and silly”, says Caldwell.

When I ask a small sample of 15-year-olds what comes to mind when they hear the word “sigma”, the universal response is: “cringe”. Cringe at hearing someone of their parents’ generation using the term, but also cringe at the general idea of sigmas.

“I’ve never in my life heard anyone use it in a serious way,” says Mabel.

“You might use it to take the piss out of someone,” offers Alex. “Like, if someone posted their workout video online you’d go, ‘Oh he’s being a sigma.’”

They’ve mostly come to sigma content secondhand, after it’s been recycled and chopped up and folded into TikTok videos and the like. They’re familiar with sigma types like Bateman and Tate, but have no idea of the term’s manosphere roots or its original meaning.

“The type of male who’s like masculine and strong and provides,” says Alex.

“I think it’s sort of like an alpha, wolf kind of person?” says Mabel.

“The existing worry is that as these terms travel from the fringe of the web to the mainstream, they surreptitiously spread their reactionary messages, but that assumes that the meaning of these terms stays the same as they travel across different platforms,” says Dr Daniël de Zeeuw of Amsterdam university, who studies online culture. Just as offline language changes and evolves continuously, so too does online language, says De Zeeuw, except at a much faster rate. “You differentiate yourself by way of these mimetic innovations, so constantly coining neologisms, bending and transforming language and visuals.”

‘Your day begins at 4.30am with a cold shower, followed by a punishing workout and an even more punishing skincare routine’ … Christian Bale in American Psycho. Photograph: Lionsgate/Sportsphoto/Allstar

This is what has happened with sigma, the teenagers say. Describing someone as “sigma” might be a compliment or an insult, depending on the context. They might say “that’s so sigma”, meaning something is broadly cool. The expression “What the sigma?” – derived from another viral meme – is in vogue, though by the time you read this, it will probably be passé. All of this feeds into what’s described as “brainrot” – easily scrollable, low-quality content that gives meme culture an extra whiz in the blender. So “sigma grindset” will be mixed in with other overused meme slang like “skibidi toilet”, “rizz”, “only in Ohio”, to form an almost meaningless babble that’s a parody of online obscurantism and its logical conclusion: a language virtually no adult can make sense of.

“You’re normalising problematic discourse, but also in that normalisation, the meaning of these terms changes and gets reappropriated by different online communities. And ultimately, it ends up with people using it in a very different way than was probably originally intended,” says De Zeeuw.

So if there was ever a concerted plan to inject manosphere toxicity into the mainstream, it seems to have fallen flat, neutralised by the hive mind – or perhaps mindlessness – of meme culture. Perhaps we don’t need to be as afraid of the big bad sigma wolf as we initially feared; the rest of the pack is doing fine without it.


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