You’re scrolling through your timeline, enjoying wholesome dog videos and the latest NBA meme, when you see a face that, at first glance, appears to be contorted in despair.
It’s an unsettling selfie, but there’s a creepy-cute aspect to the face’s bulging eyes and distended tongue. It’s called ahegao, and is the latest meme to take over the internet.
The ahegao face has its roots in gamer culture and Japanese hentai, and is now entering the IRL space in a major way. Unlike hentai, ahegao is not pornographic in nature, but we don’t suggest Googling either term if you’re at work or there are small children nearby.
So what is ahegao?
Chances are, you’ve seen anime or anime-adjacent cartoons depicting the facial expression. It’s a clichéd hentai construct which depicts a character, usually a female, in the throes of pleasure.
The idea of ahegao is that it captures a moment of sexual arousal so powerful that all usual faculties, like manners or attention to aesthetics, descend into visual chaos. And it’s certainly not your typical orgasm face: ahegao faces look absurd, featuring rolled back eyes, flushed cheeks, and a tongue sticking out. There’s also lots of body fluid, with tears, drool, and snot forming a thick slime over the female’s face. Sexy!
Ahegao has been a part of hentai for years, though it has now become its own world. Know Your Meme reports that fans have been sharing ahaego screenshots and images for over a decade, and the r/ahaego subreddit (NSFW) was formed in 2010. A companion subreddit, r/realahaego (again, NSFW) features real folks, mainly female cosplayers, in their ahegao glory. A quick glance through both subreddits makes it clear that ahegao is a bona-fide kink.
But where is the recent surge in ahegao coming from?
The leap was made earlier this year, when a popular cosplayer named Belle Delphine made waves for her ahegao selfies. Delphine is based in the United Kingdom, is 19, and has pink or robin’s egg blue hair, depending on the day. She capitalized on the success of her ahegao content by starting a PornHub account and selling her bath water for $30 a pop.
Delphine’s elf-ear ahegao face is arguably her most well-known; it was shared widely after she posted it onto her Instagram in September 2018. From there, Delphine’s D.Va cosplay ahegao went similarly viral, ushering in ahegao to the mainstream.
The popularity of Delphine’s ahegao selfies are why you’re now seeing them all over your feed. Still, the lasting power of ahegao remains to be seen. Hentai itself is more popular than ever, though it’s not as mainstream as it was when millennials first turned 18.
Because there’s a sexual component, Mel Magazine asked a female fan named MidiSymphony about her interest in the genre. Her answer is surprisingly feminist: “Female pleasure is still taboo,” she said. “So I’m always down to support other ladies who put themselves out there and do it because it makes them feel sexy. It’s hot to watch a woman whose [sic] feelin’ herself,” she said.
Still, the debate over porn as inherently designed for the male gaze rages on, and ahegao is not exempt. As ahegao depicts a woman in orgasmic delirium, it begs the question: what or who is making her feel that way?
Among heterosexual, cisgender couples, the orgasm gap is a real thing. As NBC reports, 95 percent of hetero cis men blow their load during sex, compared with just 65 percent of their women counterparts. Statistically speaking, ahegao orgasms aren’t coming from sex — it’s coming from the woman pleasuring herself.
As a kink, ahegao probably won’t lose its fandom anytime soon, even as tongue-out drooling selfies fade away from your Instagram. As long as Delphine continues to sell her bath water, ahegao will be aRule 34 of the internet remains true: if it exists, there is porn of it, but porn and memes don’t necessarily follow the same trajectory. Not all memes are porn, but all porn becomes a meme at some point.