Why Do These White Women Look So Sad?

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Is the Sad Girls movement an exceptionally morbid fashion trend, or a feminist statement? I talked to feminists on both sides of the question to find out.

By Laura Barcella

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The Sad Girls of social media post pictures of themselves with bruises, dead flowers, and melancholy song fragments. (Photo:

Guilherme Yagui/Flickr

)

Is it finally OK to be sad in public? The year 2015 marked a turning point in pop culture’s acceptance of melancholy, from the viral success of “Will From Queens” crying on the radio, to Justin Bieber’s tear-soaked performance on MTV, to Adèle admitting she cries to her own songs to the New York Times. It was the year of “sad girls and sad boys,” according to Vice, which called tears a new “kind of marker of cultural authenticity” and a “sign of realness in the face of packaged pop stars, wooden movie franchises, and the images of carefully styled perfection we see reflected back to us through our phone screens.”

But while some see this forthright vulnerability as a sign of emotional candor, others treat it as a deeply political and radical act. For the last few years, a group of women nicknamed “Sad Girls” — some of whom identify as feminist activists — have been documenting their despair online on Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter. This subset of women on social media — who post pictures of themselves with unexplained bruises, within desolate landscapes, or alongside dead flowers, and melancholy song or poem fragments — views publicly performing their pain as a means of agitation and reclamation. “What if we could re-frame any girl that killed herself, starved herself, was unhappy — as an activist?” one Sad Girl leader, artist Audrey Wollen, asked in an interview last year. Sadness, according to the movement, is not something women should be ashamed of; it’s a common human emotion that should unite and even empower them.

Some feminists, however, question the Sad Girl movement’s premise and impact. As they document their distress, are Sad Girls giving women space to express the messier sides of themselves? Or are they promoting images of women being stereotypically fragile and “hysterical,” and glorifying depression? Other take issue with the movement’s secret-clubhouse vibe: Why are so many Sad Girls, who purport to celebrate a universal human emotion, conventionally attractive, young, and white?

As a feminist who’s grappled with clinical depression since childhood, I feel conflicted about the Sad Girls. So I talked with feminists on both sides of the debate. From them, I came to terms with the movement’s benefits and shortcomings — and with my adolescent relationship to my own tragic female heroes.

As Sad Girls depict their sorrow as a kind of transgressive rebellion, are they making it look cool to be sick? This is an element to the trend that troubles some feminists I spoke with, who cited pop-culture and mental-health statistics as reasons for their skepticism.

“There’s a long history of [glamorizing] depressive heroines for public consumption,” says Andi Zeisler, author of the new book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. “If I’m being told that being sad is somehow a feminist act, I want more detail.”

“Severe depression is not a trend or an aesthetic; it is a potentially fatal mental illness,” says Imade Nibokun, the writer and blogger behind Depressed While Black. About 12 million American women suffer from clinical depression each year, with women experiencing depression at roughly two times the rate that men do. There’s nothing cute or bewitching about feeling like crap.

There’s nothing cute or bewitching about feeling like crap.

Other women were more open to the Sad Girl ideology. Writer Alice Hines, for example, who examined S.G. culture for Vicelast summer, believes the movement makes sadness look artful while also “making a commentary on it.” In pop culture, she points out, men have often created the most iconic depictions of depressed women — Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 book The Virgin Suicides, about five blond sisters who all end up killing themselves and shattering their respectable Michigan neighborhood, for instance, was told from the perspective of the obsessed boys next door. Surely, by owning their sadness, Sad Girls have given women more control over depictions of their darker feelings. “No one questioned Jeffrey Eugenides about whether he was trivializing mental illness,” Hines says.

As a feminist with a history of depression, I understand the allure that anguished women can hold for other women in pain. Growing up depressed in Washington, D.C., I felt perpetually isolated, embroiled in a daily battle with a brain that despised itself. Ensconced in my parents’ white, upper-middle-class bubble, I had no concrete “reason” to feel as miserable as I did, which only became fodder for further self-loathing. As a form of therapy, I deified depressive, ill-fated icons like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, whose morbid words and imagery helped me feel less freakish, and less alone.

Figureheads of the Sad Girl scene say they aim to destigmatize “negative” feelings like the ones I hid. Take Audrey Wollen, a Los Angeles-based artist, creator of “Sad Girl Theory,” and unofficial chieftain of the morose-girl masses. In her Instagram feed, Wollen uses her own image as a backdrop for postmodernist-infused ideas about contemporary feminist culture, often posting long, impassioned captions alongside somber self-portraits shot in occasionally bizarre settings. Wollen, who initially began attracting attention for her re-interpretations of classic artworks like The Birth of Venus, says she’s “not trying to make sadness seem cool and fun or glamorous.” Instead, she aims to bear witness to the masses of suffering girls and women out there; to acknowledge their pain and “imbue their experience with a different, more expansive and structural meaning.”

Wollen wants to separate the idea of female pain from passivity and turn dolor, no matter how dark or “ugly” it skews (she touches on topics from anorexia to cutting to suicide) into an expression of personal agency. As I did, Wollen draws inspiration from the oeuvres of disturbed lady muses. She focuses on those who turned their distress into politicized art, such as Judy Garland, Ana Mendieta, Sylvia Plath, and Edie Sedgwick. Women’s misery, Wollen has said, “should be witnessed and re-historicized as an act of resistance.”

While it’s not Wollen’s goal to advocate negativity, some believe that she lionizes self-destruction, and that this approach isn’t doing women any favors. “Girls are socialized to hate themselves, and Wollen says self-hatred is resistance. I do not believe her,” says Aurora Linnea, creator of the radical feminist blog Exquisite Misogyny. I don’t quite see it that way: It seems to me that Wollen’s mission is to fill a cultural void of images of young women dealing with mental illness, eating disorders, and suicidality. With her brooding pictures, Wollen demonstrates her belief that it’s unrealistic for women to find happiness or freedom in a patriarchal culture that has persisted despite feminism’s many gains.

Sad Twitter” celebrity Melissa Broder, meanwhile, is doing something different. Broder is a dark horse of the Sad Girl scene — on her hugely popular @SoSadToday Twitter feed, Broder, also the author of a new essay collection, conveys the self-defeating thought cycles of her anxiety and depression. And yet, despite the gloom and doom in Broder’s writing, her Twitter account does not venerate difficult feelings — rather, it re-frames them with humor. The feed was born from “a part of me that wants to live and survive and be happy,” she says. Broder recalls being amused when a journalist once likened her to Sad Girl icon Lana Del Rey; in real life Broder says she is “smiling all the time” — partially to compensate for the intense anxiety and panic attacks she experiences.

If Wollen’s feed, with its meanderings on identity and culture, bears some similarities to confessional writing, Broder’s approach might be more reasonably compared to a tragi-comedy performance. For someone with clinically diagnosed depression, this raises two interesting questions: Is a sad girl a Sad Girl just because she says she is? Who gets to be a “Sad Girl” in the first place?

You don’t have to be an expert on the trend to see that most Sad Girls are a pretty homogeneous bunch. Often white, young, and waifish, many of the more visible Sad Girls are conventionally beautiful. Though not all are women of means — Wollen, for her part, works a minimum-wage full-time day job — their look does telegraph a leisure-time fantasy about people with depression that isn’t necessarily accurate. Most women who are clinically depressed do not, it turns out, look like 19-year-old Urban Outfitters models.

Statistics show that women of color are more at risk than white women. Low-income minority women in general have higher rates of depression than other groups, and are less likely to get treated for it, in part due to the social stigma attached to depression in many communities of color. Meanwhile, the “strong black woman” stereotype is one that many African-American women still feel pressure to adhere to. “There is no room in the narrative of the strong black woman for panic attacks. There is no room for days spent unable to get out of bed, ” Ijeoma Olou wrote in xoJane in 2014.

Is a sad girl a Sad Girl just because she says she is? Who gets to be a “Sad Girl” in the first place?

Ironically, the Sad Girl trend derives some of its trademark look from diverse cultures — parts of the S.G. aesthetic are linked to L.A. chola culture, an oft-appropriated Mexican-American style subculture first popularized by Southern Californian youths in the 1990s, for example. Some niche groups, too, are diversifying the movement. The Tijuana-based feminist art collective Sad Girls y Qué might be the most radical and openly political Sad Girl sect out there. Sad Girls y Qué “acknowledge anger and rage, rather than just performative sadness,” Zeisler says. On its Facebook page, the group — which was launched in 2013 by five 20-something Chicana-identifying women — regularly posts anti-racist memes, as well as lighter offerings about Sailor Moon, Selena, and getting your first period.

By and large, however, the mainstream Sad Girl scene draws on social-media conventions that may be troubling to feminists of color. The inward gaze of white “selfie feminism,” for instance, comes at a cost for the visibility of marginalized women, as writer Aria Dean has argued. Though women of color have, historically, used selfies to publicly self-affirm their beauty, minds, and lives in a culture that many believe negates and dehumanizes them, in recent years, particular groups have taken over. Namely, Dean writes, white, female-identifying artists and creatives. Though white “selfie feminists” might want to believe otherwise, personal narratives on Instagram can’t “provide points of identification for all women, everywhere,” Dean writes.

With some refinement, a cultural wave like Sad Girl could have legitimate potential for emotionally troubled women of all races and backgrounds. It could help amplify the voices and images of women of color, and give them a space to document their mental-health battles on their own terms. Shouldn’t we be encouraging that sort of public exploration: real women confronting their real issues? Why, instead, do we continue to re-blog photos of young, twee white women with pastel hair?

I don’t believe that Audrey Wollen, Melissa Broder, or other women lumped in with Sad Girl consciously strive to be associated with a fashion trend or normative beauty ideals. They appear to want to mold their pain into something bigger and more meaningful. While it may be exclusive in its current iteration, that the movement is focused on self-documentation rather than traditional forms of agitation is, in a sense, one of its assets — those traditional forms may not be the most effective for sufferers of depression anyway.

For depressed people, activism that takes place in comfortable, known spaces can be more effective than conventional, public agitation. When you’re ill, even the most minor movement — like, say, getting up to brush your teeth — can feel like a monumental feat; the idea of heading out to attend a protest or meeting could, for some, feel Herculean. Sad folks, often introverts, may be inclined to stay safely situated in quieter, more manageable environments.

This is something Sad Girls seem to understand. “Perhaps what appears as a space of nonaction and passivity, is actually a … strike of sorts,” Kate Zambreno wrote of “political depression” for The New Inquiry. Zeisler, for her part, believes “there is absolutely a feminist benefit” to destigmatizing depression, sadness, and self-destruction through selfies and other forms of public self-representation.

Here’s what I know: I feel better when I dissect my demons with others who’ve been there. If using social media to deconstruct their despondency is helping some women connect with each other, talk about mental illness, and feel less alone, who would I be, as a feminist, to not support that?

I just wish we’d collectively prioritize supporting more sad women (and regular women) in more ways — regardless of race, class, age, or body type. Not just by re-blogging their memes or heart-ing their pictures, but hiring them, hearing them, actively promoting their work and their words. Perhaps fewer women would be sad if more of us were open to each other — online and off.

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