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The Cult of the Sad Girl

In 2014, Tumblr reached peak daily activity and I believe I contributed to a weighty portion of its traffic. This website, full of the coolest teenage girls in the world, was my haven. My clandestine account with over 100,000 followers was my diary. I posted poetry with no sense of rhythmic structure, black and white photos of coffee too bitter for me to actually enjoy, and quotes from books I did not truly understand. During this time, sadness was the coolest accessory you could have.

It is no coincidence that around this era, Lana Del Rey emerged onto our feeds, cigarette in hand with impeccable black eyeliner and a beautifully despondent gaze. She was absolutely tragic, yet so cool. She was what every Tumblr Sad Girl aspired to be.

It is perhaps my exposure to this during the years where my brain was still plastic, prefrontal cortex not-yet-formed, which has led to the relationship with sadness I have to this day. Sadness, I learned, was beautiful, noble, and interesting.

So today, I tend to package my pain into a neat parcel of smudged eyeliner tied with a white lace bow. I am so sad I cannot even swallow my lunch, but that is okay because I am one of Sally Rooney’s protagonists, I am a Lana Del Rey lyric, I am the Portrait of the Young Woman in White on an Ottessa Moshfegh cover. I am thin, I am poetic, I am beautiful. My sadness is romantic and real because I have something romantic and real to compare it to.

Beyond real, it is important. When the agony of young women is degraded to an innate feminine weakness, to raging hormones, to our menstrual cycles, it can feel so good to be understood by artists, poets, or writers who have already established themselves as prestigious, talented, and serious. It can feel so good to be seen, if only by a trope. But it does beg the question — are we being mirrored or are we merely mirroring?

Sometimes it is hard for me to tell what came first — my Tumblr account or my mental illness. I would like to believe that I discovered Tumblr seeking to understand the disturbing emotions encumbering me in my pre-teen years; that my first pre-pubescent reading of The Bell Jar gave me a vocabulary for how I felt, that Marina and the Diamonds’ “Teen Idle” was an anthem for me because it was reflective of my experiences. I am not so sure anymore; If this would have manifested in such a deep a pit of gloom within me had it not been so romanticised in the media I consumed.

In many ways, once I found something to relate it to, my sadness drove me. It now had a meaning. It made me interesting.

Fredierich Nietzche reflected on this idea in On the Genealogy of Morality. The struggle of man is not suffering itself, he believed, but rather, when suffering has no meaning. We do not avoid suffering, in fact, we “will it”, “even seek it out”, so long as there is a meaning for it; “The meaninglessness of suffering, not the suffering, was the curse that has so far blanketed mankind.”

The Sad Girl’s meaning for suffering can be found in the romanticsed tropes through which she defines herself.

Rayne-Fischer Quann wrote about this in her Substack essay ‘standing on the shoulders of complex female characters’: “It’s become very common for women online to express their identities through an artfully curated list of the things they consume, or aspire to consume,” she writes, “and because young women are conditioned to believe that their identities are defined almost entirely by their neuroses, these roundups of cultural trends and authors du jour often implicitly serve to chicly signal one’s mental illnesses to the public.”

“One girl on your TikTok feed might be a self-described Joan Didion/Eve Babitz/Marlboro Reds/straight-cut Levi’s/Fleabag girl (this means she has depression). another will call herself a babydoll dress/Sylvia Plath/Red Scare/Miu Miu/Lana del Rey girl (eating disorder).

“The aesthetics of consumption have, in turn, become a conduit to make the self more easily consumable: your existence as a Type of Girl has almost nothing to do with whether you actually read Joan Didion or wear Miu Miu, and everything to do with whether you want to be seen as the type of person who would.”

Naomi Elias similarly discusses the way The Bell Jar has been aestheticised and become a prop, a symbol of “an exclusively female experience of sadness”. This tragic book, a Roman à clef, is a portrait of a young woman’s struggle with depression yet it is often belittled to an expression of feminine blues. Elias specifically looks to film and television, recounting its use in everything from Gilmore Girls to 10 Things I Hate About You to demarcate a female character who is “introspective, outcast, and, most importantly, sad.”

This specific consumption of Plath’s literature is the subject of Janet Badia’s book Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers. The book discusses the Sad Girl cultural trope of Sylvia Plath fans, specifically the way these women are demonised by literary critics as shallow readers who take Plath’s work at face value or, worse, commit the even graver sin of considering Plath’s personal life while reading her work. This “thoughtless, intemperate, self-indulgent, and consequently, self-perverting” mode of reading, critics argue, lacks the Kantian disinterestedness necessary for a proper reading.

These readers are viewed not just as reading uncritically, but as reading both incorrectly and harmfully. An incorrect reading, according to literary critics like Judith Kroll, fails to see beyond the surface of Plath’s work, “diverting the reader from seeing deeper meanings.” This mode of reading cripples the readers’ critical facilities, “rendering them unable to see the complex meanings of Plath’s poetry. By failing to see beyond the confessional surface of the genre, readers lose the “complex mythic system articulated by the poet”. The only way to remedy this, Kroll insists, is to abandon any knowledge of an exterior context and read the work purely based on what we are presented without considering its relation to ourselves or to what we know about Plath’s life.

Badia’s book criticizes both of these interpretations, viewing them as a form of frankly gender-based “literary bullying”. Sylvia Plath studies, Badia states, should encourage “the diversity of interpretations surely made possible by the impressive nature of Plath's body of writings”.

I agree that there is an immense value in these identificatory, supposedly uncritical readings of her work. Sylvia Plath’s work was a form of therapy for me throughout my youth, a nod to the fact that my anguish around what I saw as the prison of womanhood was not a burden I carried alone.

However, I do believe we are doing a disservice to these forms of art and their artists when we lump them together. By typifying the immensely different works of Phoebe Bridgers, Lana Del Rey, or Ottessa Moshfegh under the common “Sad Girl” label, we place them in a bell jar of their own, a gendered space with no room for growth or renewal. Lorde, patron saint of 2014 Tumblr, attempted to free herself from this bell jar when she released Solar Power in 2021. As the album differed from the melancholic melodies she released when she was only a teenager, she was seen as superficial, as selling out, as no longer abiding by the label her fans had placed upon her.

Phoebe Bridgers criticised the Sad Girl trope calling it “​​so romanticized and so kitschy…I didn't want it to come across as lazy songwriting, listening to me be like, 'I'm soooo sad, blah blah blah.'"

Ottessa Moshfegh, author of the TikTok Sad Girl bible, My Year of Rest and Relaxation expressed concern about this subgroup of fans, “That concerns me, just as someone who was a younger woman with depression. When my older sister read it, she said, this should come with a warning label on it. Maybe it should. Because guys, this is a satire, this is not real.”

Last Saturday, February 11, was the 60th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s suicide and a yearly reminder to me of not only the tragedy of her suicide, but the vitality in her life. Her work was undeniably beautiful and it is easy to project this beauty onto her suicide. However, this was only a small part of her 30 years in the world. Her poetry encompassed all spectrums of emotion, layers of vitality, of life.

I wish to close by committing the sin of an identificatory, potentially incorrect reading of a passage near the end of The Bell Jar following Joan’s death by suicide. Joan, who came from the main character Esther’s hometown, dated the same boy, attended the same church, is almost her psychological double. At Joan’s funeral, she reaches a crucial moment where she may soon be leaving the psychiatric institution she is held in and begin to live her life again. As she watches the coffin be lowered into the ground, she listens to the brag of her heart, “I am, I am, I am”.

The cadence of her heartbeat guiding her, she knows she is alive and she is not Joan.

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