The idea that women are best when they are sad (and young, and hot) forever has given way to something truly radical.
I f you could pick a moment when the sad girl tweeted and streamed and sighed her way into the mainstream, you’d probably place the year as 2011.
That summer, Lana Del Rey emerged, fully formed, onto the internet in a whirl of beauty and tears and cigarette smoke. With her pleading looks and plaintive glances, Del Rey was a Valley of the Dolls-era Sharon Tate for the 21st century, a Bardot beauty fallen on hard times, a good girl gone despondent. The image she cultivated was one of hard, masculine men and the women who yearned for them, who grieved for them — “it’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you, everything I do” — who were nothing without them. Above all, she was capital-“S” Sad. She was something tragic, something doomed.
“Vamp of constant sorrow,” Rolling Stone proclaimed, over an image of her wearing furs and smoking sadly (of course). It’s an image that Del Rey would shrewdly utilize in the years following — whether in song names (“Summertime Sadness,” the unsubtle “Sad Girl”) or public image (flower crowns, sepia filters, a fixation with suicide and death). Something about this overt yet glamourous sadness, this image of mascara smudged perfectly by tears, of a cigarette in a holder held by a delicate yet trembling hand, stuck in the cultural consciousness of the decade. And thus the Internet Sad Girl was born.
2011 was also the year when Instagram began to take hold, and YouTube continued to cement its place in media. With new technology came the opportunity to share your most intimate moments in a way that wasn’t possible before — the ability to be truly steam-of-consciousness in your discussions of your feelings, your secrets, your particular problems at that point in time. It’s easy to see why this way of baring all was particularly appealing to young women, who were used to being silenced when they tried to talk of their sadness and depression, who had it ingrained within them that they should aspire to be cool, calm, fine with everything that happened to them.
Young women in this new era were also the victims of wage stagnation and an escalating housing crisis, poor access to mental-health services, increasingly limited access to reproductive rights; in other words, they had many reasons to be miserable, depressed, and cynical, and suddenly there was a platform on which to voice these concerns. A platform where people listened, or at least related. Every retweet, every like, every “same,” serves as an affirmation that your feelings are valid, that you are not alone in your struggle.
It’s easy to see why this way of baring all was particularly appealing to young women, who were used to being silenced.
The movement was codified, and then calcified, by artist Audrey Wollen, whose “Sad Girl Theory” argues that:
“the sadness of girls should be recognised as an act of resistance. [A] limited spectrum of activism excludes a whole history of girls who have used their sorrow and their self-destruction to disrupt systems of domination. Girls’ sadness […] is a way of reclaiming agency over our bodies, identities, and lives.”
Viewed through this lens, the Sad Girl is inherently radical — it is an expression of personhood, of the difficulty inherent in being a girl. The selfie taken while crying in a bathroom, the tweet about missing your ex — these are the methods of girls resisting what is expected of them.
But this new-era manifestation of the personal as political is undone by the very platforms it thrives on. Across Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter, we saw artists like Molly Soda, who showcased works which consisted of her crying on webcam, and Arvida Byström and Amber Navarro, whose exhibition of digital and Instagram art was titled QWERTY, Flirty and Crying. Another flag-bearer for the movement was Sad Girls Guide, which in a memorable piece for The Toast, intoned that “sad girls aren’t the girls you see walking around with the teary-eyed gaze of someone who looks like they could break down at any instant if nudged the wrong way.” Hugely popular Tumblr users such as Plastic Pony and online zines like Sad Girl Magazine contributed to the sense that this was a major internet movement, rather than just the preserve of artists.
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Adding to this, and one of the most high-profile examples of the Sad Girl phenomenon, is “So Sad Today,” Melissa Broder’s hugely popular Twitter account. Dedicated solely to publishing tweets about, simply, being sad, Broder’s account is so popular that it spawned its own book. Sample tweets include:
“i don’t like you, respect you, enjoy your company or find you cute but i still need you to like me”
“i miss ex-boyfriends who were never my boyfriend”
“determined to not get my life together”
At the time of writing, the account had 506,000 followers. There are normally four or five tweets posted a day, most of them with thousands of retweets, a constantly updated stream of wry, knowing despair. Laid out like this, an infinite scroll into the depths of sadness, stripped of complexity and context, the idea that the online Sad Girl is an act of rebellion seems hollow. Repeated over and over again, it becomes empty, no longer an outlet but a parody of sincere emotion, a stereotype and fetishization of female sadness. If the Sad Girl is desirable, funny, sexy, then surely to make serious and concerted attempts to alleviate mental illness or depression is the opposite of those things. When there’s an onus on performative, calculated vulnerability, there’s no reward for sincerity.
After 27,000+ tweets about how sad it is to be a girl, to be alive, it begins to feel as though the Sad Girl phenomenon hinges on the idea that women should be inherently sad, never moving forward or growing, but instead that that is our default condition. Being a Sad Girl is not only a popular and profitable aesthetic, but its very name emphasizes that its defining trait is arrested development. It’s not a particularly novel concept; the thread of the Sad Girls connects to the weeping, beautiful girl of Victorian art (Tennyson’s Mariana, Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallot), who either wishes to die or, even better, ends up dead. The tears are still on her cheeks, her pale face unblemished, beautiful and tragic forever. While today’s Sad Girls might be women on the internet, the point is still the same: Women are best when they are sad (and young, and hot) forever.
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Attempts to feel better rarely translate well into 140 characters. Rather than immediately shareable or aesthetically beguiling, narratives of recovery are difficult and complex and ugly. Women trying to help themselves are ugly, as is any effort shown by a woman. To care, to want, regardless of optics or popularity, is something women are constantly denigrated for.
This is particularly worrying in the way the movement fetishizes bad relationships, in there being something glamorous or romantic about being treated shittily by men, and to keep wanting them all the same. Of course, this is reality: People can and will lust after those who have treated them badly. There is a certain luxury in longing for something you cannot fully have. But it’s that this, again, is championed as something that is a core tenet of being a girl, that womanhood is defined by sitting and waiting and yearning. That this is normally expressed as waiting for guys to text you back, or give you the time of day at all, not only seems to reinforce sexist ways of thinking about how men and women should communicate, but also emphasizes the heteronormativity behind the movement. Just as Lana Del Rey’s songs and videos pine over daddy figures and emotionally-unavailable bad-boys, the Sad Girl movement seems to define the female experience as something that hinges on male interaction, a subtle exclusion of girls who don’t date men.
Narratives of recovery are difficult and complex and ugly.
It’s no surprise that the rise of the Internet Sad Girl directly coincides with the ascendance of social media platforms that not only place a direct emphasis on sharing personal, private details, but also trade in an aesthetic currency. Look sad, but do it in a way that makes you look hot. Depression and sadness become something that is only valid if you can look good doing it, if you can post a selfie on Instagram with your mascara smudged. As the Sad Girls Club article on The Toast notes in a painfully irony-free description of their muse: “she listens to better music than you and might spend her alone time watching French films from the ’60s or angsty TV shows from the ‘90s.” The Sad Girl is more than just a woman who’s sad: she’s always cool, always better than you. The Manic-Pixie-Dream-Sad-Girl.
Wrapped up on this is still another form of exclusion. Search for the term on Tumblr, perhaps the site that most fetishizes the idea, and you’ll see image after image of, specifically, thin white girls holding cigarettes, their tights slightly ripped (presumably this is an indicator of despair, rather than them having caught them on the edge of a chair). These images also betray the highly middle-class origins of the movement. It’s telling that the Sad Girl as a term was coined by an artist, that it is prevalent among those with social and cultural capital. The tears of black women, of poor women, are constantly ignored in society — you can’t use performative sadness for your gain when you are disenfranchised and your sorrow ignored. As always, it’s only those who are privileged in society who can capitalize off it. Nobody wants to like your crying selfie if it’s about how you literally can’t afford to buy food, or if you don’t fit the mold of Western beauty standards. Then you’re just a woman, crying. You’re not part of a movement.
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Similarly, actual mental-health problems, outside of references to various medications or therapists, aren’t part of the Sad Girl aesthetic. It’s not hot to be cowering on the floor because you can’t cope with your anxiety anymore. It isn’t sexy to lie in bed for four days straight and only eat beans on toast because it’s all the effort you can manage. When women’s real depression and real upset is taken and scrubbed clean and sanitized so that it becomes an aesthetically pleasing image, or a witty 140 characters, it is a negation of our complex and challenging lives.
With the ascension of Trump, the more ferocious and important battle for women’s rights, and continuing cuts to support services, you might expect the Sad Girl movement to be stronger than ever, for women to have retreated into an aestheticized version of disillusionment. But the opposite seems to have happened: The Sad Girl movement seems to be on the decline.
Actual mental-health problems aren’t part of the Sad Girl aesthetic.
The patron saint of sad girls, Lana Del Rey, has even named her next album Lust for Life. While the @sosadtoday account is still updated, Melissa Broder now functions as an agony aunt in Vice, perhaps preferring the security of paid, traditional media outlets. The artists who used to be the forefront of the movement, such as Plastic Pony, have removed their Tumblrs from the internet, and Molly Soda’s artwork has turned away from videos of her crying. Web searches for So Sad Today peaked in early 2016, and have been generally declining throughout 2017.
Maybe we have realized that although not being texted back is irritating, it’s pretty small scale in the face of all the awful things we see every day in the news. Maybe it just fell out of fashion, as internet trends always do. Or maybe it’s the fact that we have become not just depressed at what is happening, but furious too, and we are no longer content to be regarded as passive.
The Internet Sad Girl is dead. Now let’s get angry.