Like many other women my age, I have lain out in anguish singing along to Mazzy Star and Fiona Apple. I’ve annotated “Prozac Nation” like it’s a diary, and I still have a photo of Joan Didion taped above my desk. I’ve made eye contact with myself in the mirror as I wailed and checked that my tear-flushed face is the perfect shade of blush.
I’ve spent the past week reliving Sad Girl culture and declaring to my roommate that I’m in my “Melodrama” era while humming along to melancholic Lorde lyrics about being a sweetheart, a psychopathic crush. And if Lana Del Rey — the now-disgraced patron saint of Sad Girls everywhere — can sing that she is pretty when she cries, then so can I. If she, amongst others, can be loved for her misery and Sad Girl persona, then why can’t I?
And though I certainly can romanticize my anguish, I’ve realized I shouldn’t.
Audrey Wollen, art theorist and token Sad Girl, coined Sad Girl Theory. She describes the Sad Girl as a reaction to the high demands of feminism and the reclamation of female pain, equating it to “a gesture of liberation.” Though the ability for women to be open and vulnerable in a public space is both necessary and liberating, the Sad Girl is not interested in vulnerability as a tool of liberation, nor is she invested in humanely caring about herself.
The problem with the Sad Girl isn’t the sadness itself; rather, the context she lives within. Her type of sadness is not the ordinary tongue-in-cheek ironic misery, nor the digital indulgence of public vulnerability that’s seeing an uptick on social media platforms. Though they’re nuanced for separate reasons, both often lack the ability to fully jump out of the digital world and consume all aspects of the individual’s life. The Sad Girl’s performance is neverending, and even stepping slightly out of line invalidates the entire persona. This is a hollow type of constant, existential performance — one that just narrowly misses actual emotional depth.
The Sad Girl is not human. Instead, she is a product of male fantasy and self-commodification. She extends from two larger ailments of society — one that loves to dissect and compartmentalize its women, and one that loves its women fragile, submissive and easily pushed onto their (prettily bruised, probably purple) knees. In the eyes of the patriarchy, an identity centered around emotional masochism is the most valuable trait a woman can possess.
Genuinely open and vulnerable women are pushed out of this archetype and, more importantly, all other social graces. To combat this, it is almost logical that emotional women have turned to celebrating their self-compartmentalization. But only the prettiest parts of women’s misery are tied up with a ribbon and shown to the world. The rest is too loud or too messy and has to be shoved back under the bed. A woman embracing her natural and authentic emotions cannot be a carefully curated Sad Girl, because a woman breaking out of this mold is not a woman that can be easily advertised. The Sad Girl boils down to an absence of genuine emotional expression. Instead, cherry-picked expressions of pain replace genuine emotion and a genuine connection to humanity.
I can connect with the Sad Girl because I am a (hopefully) recovered one.
In true Sad Girl fashion, I quoted French philosopher Albert Camus underneath my senior yearbook photo. Choosing the quote was a lengthy process, and I flipped through a mess of vaguely nihilistic and artistically depressed quotes until I landed on his. The importance of the quote itself wasn’t my concern: rather, it was important that I sell a very specific version of myself. I needed to be beautiful, that was the photo. I needed to be offbeat and intellectual, that was Camus. “There is a life and there is a death, and there are beauty and melancholy between” — my melodramatic final words to high school. I needed those words specifically because they mention both beauty and death. This was what I wanted to sell my audience of teenage peers: a compartmentalized view of my own, beautifully-wrapped depression.
It is impossible to deny that the Sad Girl and my own Camus quote, are quintessential by-products of the male gaze. The ever-present male fantasy of battering women (or saving these battered women) is the other ailment Sad Girls extend from. This is unsurprising in a culture that defines its erotica by the amount of violence and domination it can inflict on women. There is a key difference between exploring one’s own female misery and eroticizing it — one exists for the woman herself, and the other caters to male fantasy. A woman bound by her misery can use violent or harmful sex as a type of self-destruction to further validate her Sad Girl status. The patriarchy especially loves this, since an emotionally unwell woman is easier to coerce into pornographic fantasies. Afterward, the scratches and bruises from rough sex compliment the Sad Girl’s mini skirt and knee socks. The evidence of degradation becomes a beautiful accessory rather than proof of sexual subjugation. Tears shed from a hand wrapped around her throat are no different than the tears intentionally staining her journal — this is another aspect of her performance.
There is a sinister sharpness in our patriarchal state that convinces its women to define themselves via emotional and physical masochism.
In early high school, I told my best friend that I was yearning to get my heart broken for the very first time. Not for the attention or the post-breakup glow, but for the ability to artistically exploit the beauty of my own misery. I could picture myself — older, wiser and definitely sexier — crying in silky lingerie with mascara tears and a sultry pout that only tragedy can romanticize. My first heartbreak already felt like it would be both erotic and beautifully damaged. This version of myself would have been wrecked in every aspect, and still somehow pulled it all together to write the most beautiful poetry collection Tumblr had ever seen, or maybe just the next great American novel. My brand of Sad Girl at least had a literary twist. Before I even experienced the suffocating loss of first love, I had already turned it into an editorial — I preemptively shaped this pain into the type of neurosis a memoirist would adore.
In essence, Sad Girl Theory argues that the genuine pain and misery of life can be boiled down into artificially wine-stained lips and perpetually-wetted bedroom eyes. Life becomes a constant desperation — there is no hope here, and nothing outside of this performed hysteria. It is significantly easier to delude our pain into a chic performance than to live with it.
Two semesters ago, in the fall of my sophomore year, I began wriggling out of the grasp of Sad Girl culture. Though my dissipating adolescence only left traces of Sad Girl in me, these few traces bite down to my bones. I still stare gloomily out of bus windows on my daily commute, now out of habit rather than its original, silent beg for a savior from a stranger. Bruised knees still invoke a sense of frail beauty, and my blood-colored lipstick makes me feel more self-actualized in my femininity than any other product I own. While these small mementos aren’t too harmful anymore, they are ghosts of past romanticized self-destruction.
Instead of Sad Girl Theory, women deserve to hold the necessary space for their emotions. Extensive histories of female hysteria and cultures reeking of misogyny have stolen that from every woman, living and dead.
Kneeling at the altar of our own misery is never beautiful nor erotic. A commonly cited Chelsea Hodson quote amongst Sad Girls says that “suffering feels religious if you do it right.” This fetishization of women’s pain is not religious, and cannot be done “right.” Misery and a life of degradation should not be pious. There is beauty in the first bit of sunshine kissing dry winter skin, or the hits of dopamine from dancing around the kitchen while baking with my partner. It feels religious to be surrounded by love and care when it is 2 a.m. and I am drunk and emotional with the friends I love. In a life of authentic fullness, I am the closest to divinity I have ever felt. Pain is never this beautiful — pain is always just pain.
It is easy for me, still, to remark that my often depressively thinned-out frame and stress-induced hair loss should earn me a lobotomy rather than a long, stern talk with a psychiatrist. This is the core failure of painting Sad Girls as a revolutionary aspect of feminism and mental health — they require suffering for the sake of cool-girl apathy and irony. Life cannot be sustained by this devotion to suffering.
Statement Columnist Ava Burzycki can be reached at email@example.com.