I Don’t Want To Be The ‘Troubled Girl’ Anymore
Turns out, you can’t get healthy and hold on to all your bullshit ideas about sexy tragedy.
Content note: There’s some talk of mental health, suicidal ideations, and eating disorders in here so please be kind to yourself and make a decision that’s good for you. ❤
“You do remind me a bit of tragedy,” read the AOL Instant Message on my computer screen. I was in my college dorm, about to go out for yet another Lucky Strike on the back steps with the other bad kids. “With your, like, big sunglasses and your scarves and stuff.”
It was, at the time, the greatest compliment he could have paid me.
I was listening to a lot of Bob Dylan then and like any number of girls in the last four decades, I identified closely with the character (because truly, it could not have been an accurate portrayal of a complete human) described in “Just Like a Woman.”
You know the details of this kind of character. TVTropes.com refers to her most closely as the Broken Bird, but even if you’ve never heard her referred to in that way, you’re certainly familiar with her traits.
She’s a kind of young, sorrowful Femme Fatale who, perhaps later in life, will turn her toughness into strength and power but for right now is just kind of…dark. She’s a Chill Girl with No Feelings (unless those feelings are sad, but she largely keeps the real emotions to herself). Like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl but much more sorrowful and dark and serious, she exudes sexuality and desire through her brokenness. She is brooding and fierce and somehow inspirational despite being deeply fucked up. She’s Penny Lane, she’s Marla, she’s Sam in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, she’s the woman in Chelsea Hotel №2, she’s the literal girl next door in Breaking Bad.
But perhaps the best name for this trope (for this lifestyle, really) is the Sexy Tragic Muse, who Anne Thériault described beautifully in this 2015 essay.
“She’s damaged, often as a result of sexual assault or other abuse by men. Her life carries with it some kind of Deep Lesson, usually a lesson that a male protagonist needs to learn…The Sexy Tragic Muse fetishizes women’s pain by portraying debilitating mental health disorders filtered dreamily through the male gaze. The trope glamourizes addiction and illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia — diseases that are distinctly unglamorous for those of us who live with them. The Sexy Tragic Muse is vulnerable, and her vulnerability is sexualized. Her inability to properly care for herself or make decisions on her own behalf is presented as being part of her appeal.”
And she was exactly who, in my teens and early twenties, I thought I wanted to be. And that has made it, as I approach 30, all the more difficult to get better.
When you’ve spent most of your life identifying with and even clinging to the worst of you, the most painful of you, it makes being well and healthy feel an awful lot like giving up.
There were, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and still are to some degree, a limited number of role models for girls and young women to look to. In my most impressionable days, they seemed to me to be neatly deliniated into categories. Smart Girls, Good Girls, Rich Girls, Plucky Girls, and of course, Bad Girls. Troubled Girls. For a while there, it was Emo Girls, though that’s its own essay.
Poor, white, and pretty rural, I saw myself a bit in several, but never fit quite comfortably in any one. I was smart (though numerous outside forces attempted to tell me I wasn’t, or at least, that I wasn’t the kind of smart that counted), I was plucky, I was good…but I was also emotionally treading water, beating my stout legs against a then-undiagnosed mental illness.
Societal pressure to align with powerful men is overwhelming…and damning.theestablishment.co
Going to college has a kind of sharpening effect on a person’s characteristics, or at least, the ones they make the most visible. You come into clearer focus when hundreds of new eyes set upon you and decide who you are and what you’re like.
It was when I moved away that I really found myself identifying with the Troubled Girl. After all, she is always kind of the best character if we’re being honest with ourselves. The Troubled Girl taps into the centuries-old idealization of the Starving Artist; she’s a kind of new beat poet. In the bulk of teen lit and media, the girl who has it going on in the traditional sense is nearly always cast as dull and one-dimensional; the (still hot) Troubled Girl likes cool music and does cool things and attracts cool boys.
See: Vanessa in Gossip Girl. See: Ramona Flowers in the Scott Pilgrim universe. See: Mimi in Rent.
Unfortunately, the Sexy Tragic Muse must also look a certain way to be fully realized. The specific traits of such a character are rote and easy to identify. This character is:
— Thin (always and in the extreme; it is very necessary that she be thin)
— White (always except in the very rare occasion when she is a hyper sexualized, exoticized non-Black woman of color)
— A user of something (coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, all of the above, especially if it fuels the aforementioned thinness)
— Hot (necessarily)
— Modified in some way (tattoos, piercing, unnatural hair color)
— Unwell in some way (that must be somewhat sexualized, as well, like depression, bipolar, a restrictive eating disorder, addiction, or cutting; more on this later)
This was, in essence, a trap for every single thing I prized the most as a teen. I wanted to be smart. I wanted to be desired. I wanted to be thin. And I wanted my chaotic inner life to make sense among all of it.
This is the ultimate, dangerous trap of the Sexy Tragic Muse or Troubled Girl ideal — it creates space for people in pain where there’s no other space and allows them to hang on to it with both hands. It’s a map for depression and eating disorders and anxiety and substance abuse and hurting.
The Sexy Tragic Muse must also look a certain way to be fully realized.
When the currents of overwhelming emotions that beat inside of you like a second pulse are sexualized and made to match with other cultural values—attractiveness, the ability for a woman to be a kind of Swiss Army knife, the impacts of rape culture as Not That Bad—that are difficult and toxic, you may find yourself bound up in your pain like the shell of a moth affixed to a web.
It’s not only understandable that a young person would identify this trope, it’s practically a given.
Unfortunately, we have yet to develop a way to grow out of it or beyond it. Sexy Tragic Muses aren’t depicted with a path to a healthy life. They tend to fade away, or live Sadly Ever After, or die.
Here’s the honest truth about life as a Troubled Girl: It’s not really a way that a fully-realized human being can be, and it’s certainly not a way that a person who is loving and caring and helpful and effective can be. But when you identify so thoroughly with a one-dimensional idea of a person, you begin to fear than your other dimensions are boring or undesirable or otherwise repellent in some way.
My body and I have been at odds for some time now, and like a lot of people who have lived with an eating disorder, I’ve gone through fits and starts when it comes to getting better. I’m a pretty firm believer that, a lot like living with mental illness, there’s no such thing as being “cured” entirely. However, there is the possibility to get better.
Here’s the honest truth about life as a Troubled Girl: It’s not really a way that a fully-realized human being can be.
In the last few months, I’ve been taking a hardcore stab at it. Again. And it’s going well—I’ve got my meds and my mental health apps and my exercise routine and my healthy diet all hammered out—except for the fact that every single day, I still have to remind myself that I don’t want to be the Troubled Girl anymore.
The Sexy Tragic Muse represents a lot of things we collectively covet (thin, hot) but her traits are also specifically, systematically designed to keep her from becoming anything more than human. When we sexualize and revel in emotional pain, we all but ensure that the people who live with it can never experience anything else.
The Sexy Tragic Muse is not a good friend or partner. She’s not good at her job. She’s not a productive community member. She can’t be, because, by definition, she’s unwell and able to do anything but emote and maybe fix a sad boy’s heart or give a nice boy a chance to redeem himself.
Though I hit the peak of my Troubled Girl status a decade ago, it’s still evident that these ideals are pervasive. A recent series of advertisements for the startup Fiverr make it clear that the idea of being unhealthy as a point of pride is still alive and well, even if it looks a little less emo than it used to.
This is the pernicious nature of tropes like the Sexy Tragic Muse, which all but demand a certain kind of weakness (hunger, exhaustion, reduced lung capacity due to cigarette smoking) to portray strength or beauty or desirability. The Sexy Tragic Muse might look a little different in Silicon Valley—call her the Sexy Tragic CEO or the Sexy Tragic Founder or the Sexy Tragic Gig Economist—than she does on a college campus, but the idea is the same and it’s one that is designed to be limiting.
These tropes are seductive; they create thought patterns that are difficult to shed and easy to take advantage of. But this is a choice that I’m making (and in part, I’m writing it for accountability, so welcome to my process).
In order for me to be my healthiest self, I have to be okay with shedding the trope that has kept me from getting better by encouraging me to stay within dangerous parameters.
And I suspect I’m not alone.
There’s too much tragedy in the world to create more for the sake of sexiness. There’s plenty of sadness in the air to wear it like perfume. There’s too much trouble in me already to cultivate more for the sake of an imaginary ideal meant to keep me simple.