“Sad girl” aesthetics and the romanticization of female pain – The Lawrentian
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The leaves are falling and pumpkin spice lattes are on the menu again, which means one thing: “sad girl fall” is in full swing. If you’re embracing the latest trends, it’s time to cuddle up by the window with a pumpkin spice latte and cry to Phoebe Bridgers songs, even if you’ve never been in a relationship. You do not believe me ? The #sadgirl hashtag has over 13 billion views on TikTok and 2 million posts on Instagram.
But how did society become obsessed with long-suffering women to the point of making them a fashionable aesthetic?
Our obsession with the “sad girl” is nothing new. The tragic heroine has been one of the most popular archetypes in fictional and historical narratives for centuries. Historians have created a legend around the beautiful and powerful Cleopatra, who allegedly committed suicide by snakebite. In Greek mythology, the charming Echo is doomed to wither because of her unrequited love, while Shakespeare’s Ophelia drowns after the fate of Denmark is placed in her hands. The Tormented Titular Adultery in Leo Tolstoy Anna Karenina throws herself under a moving train after society ostracizes her for her affair, and Victor Hugo’s Fantine Wretched serves as a heartbreaking symbol of suffering as she sells her hair, teeth, and sex to care for her child. Female pain has long been a powerful muse for heartbreaking art.
In ancient literature, female characters were often one-dimensional martyrs evoked by male authors. However, as women fought to make their voices heard in the literary world, they brought more nuanced portrayals of female experiences. Many female writers have used their heroines as an outlet to express the trials of womanhood under patriarchy. The female protagonists of Kate Chopin awakening and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” experience great tragedy and injustice, but their suffering exposes the evils of misogyny. In addition, some female authors have made their “sad girls” symbols of resilience and feminine strength. Celie from The purple color and offered to The Handmaid’s Tale suffer horrific violence under the patriarchy, but they survive. As women began to reclaim these narratives, the “sad girl” became a subversive figure.
Today, the “sad girl” occupies a precarious position in gender politics because the lines between empowerment and exploitation have tightened. While the media offers women a platform to share their painful stories, the entertainment industry often tries to control the narratives around them. Sixty years have passed since the death of Marilyn Monroe, but the film industry continues to seek new ways to capitalize on the trials of her life, turning a real woman into a one-dimensional symbol who must be repeatedly traumatized for good. of “art” – everything without his consent. Moreover, Marilyn’s own memoirs have been tossed aside and buried under fictional depictions of a tragic femme fatale who never even existed. When the media capitalizes on women’s suffering, the truth often gets lost in the drama, depriving women of their right to tell their own stories.
These twisted narratives prevail because society takes pleasure in dehumanizing women. When news broke that pop superstar Adele had filed for divorce, Twitter was flooded with people hoping to see a new album inspired by her heartbreak. But we also disrespect women who channel their own emotions and experiences into art. When Olivia Rodrigo expressed her raw grief in her hit song “Driver’s License,” people dismissed it as “teenage drama” and publicly speculated about her relationships. Similarly, many Taylor Swift songs are based on her experiences of unrequited love, tumultuous relationships, and grooming, but the media has reduced her music to “songs about boys.”
We like to discover brilliant young women to entertain us, then crucify them as soon as they deviate from the role we have assigned to them. Disney stars like Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato became hugely famous as teenagers because beautiful young girls are marketable to the masses. However, as they grew older and began to make decisions for themselves, society branded them as rebellious and unworthy of respect. Additionally, when the pressures of early stardom became detrimental to their mental health, the media rejoiced over their downfalls. The patriarchal entertainment industry imposes unreasonably high standards of behavior on young girls, exploits them for their talent, and calls them unhinged when they crack up.
We have become obsessed with tragic beauties because our misogynistic society teaches us that women’s main assets are their looks and their fertility. Under patriarchy, the value of women has an expiration date. Since we are deemed useless once we no longer serve the male gaze, it is better to die young and beautiful than to grow old. Our culture idolizes beautiful women who died young because we can’t admit that women who don’t fit our narrow beauty standards are still valuable. If Princess Diana were still alive today, would we still adore her, or would the tabloids be chronicling how well or badly she has aged?
Society’s fixation on female youth is also linked to our misogynistic view of female sexuality. Since sexy women are considered the most valuable to the patriarchy, the entertainment industry constantly sexualizes women for profit. However, the media also shames women for being too sexually liberated. Many “promiscuous” women in literature even die at the end of their stories because we see death and suffering as punishment for female sexuality. Under patriarchy, sexuality is something men project onto women, not something women claim and enjoy. From Mary Magdalene to Meghan Markle, society likes to tell stories about women it deems unclean. We romanticize the “sad girl” because the patriarchy can’t stand women who are both wild and happy.
Additionally, the media often fails to recognize when the “sad girl” aesthetic is used ironically. In her 1996 music video for ‘Criminal,’ Fiona Apple describes herself as a sexualized and heroically chic teenager, but she actually wrote the song to criticize how the media stigmatizes female sexuality while objectifying girls and young women. . In her early years of stardom, Lana Del Rey built her stage persona around the titular protagonist Vladimir Nabokov lolita, a teenage girl victim of sexual exploitation by her stepfather. But while Nabokov’s Lolita is a helpless victim, Del Rey takes over the role of consenting adult and allows Lolita to express her complex emotions towards her attacker, giving her a voice she never had in the novel. Unfortunately, the media largely misses the social critique in Apple and Del Rey’s music and focuses on the superficial narrative of the troubled femme fatale.
The “sad girl” archetype also holds different associations for women of color, as the entertainment industry has historically capitalized on the suffering of non-white female characters. Mixed-race women – especially black mixed-race women – are often reduced to the archetypal “tragic mulatto girl”: beautiful, exotic creatures condemned to suffer for the crime of their “racially impure” blood. Since the stigma of miscegenation historically prohibited happy endings between interracial couples, women of color were typically rejected by their white lovers or died tragically. In Miss Saigon, Vietnamese heroine Kim survives sexual exploitation, single motherhood and the Vietnam War only to commit suicide after her American husband leaves her for a white woman. Non-white women are often treated like martyrs in the media – human enough to win public sympathy, but not human enough to win happiness. The modern “sad girl” trend often fails to recognize how the intersection of gender and race affects women of color.
Once women have been labeled as “sad girls”, it is difficult for them to get rid of this label. Lana Del Rey, Marina and Lorde rose to fame with tragic characters on their respective albums Born to Die, Electra Heart and Melodrama. However, when they began to transition to a less melancholic aesthetic, many fans criticized them for abandoning their previous images. It’s almost as if society doesn’t like to see women happy and resilient.
Even when the entertainment industry admits that it has abused women, it still tries to profit from this injustice. The same media that dehumanized Britney Spears for years are suddenly obsessed with her horrific experiences under her tutelage – but mostly because it’s a juicy front-page story, not because they really care about well-being from Britney. Sensational portrayals of female pain under the guise of “exposing industry secrets” often do more harm than good as they force victims to relive their trauma.
In conclusion, the “sad girl” aesthetic has a complicated legacy. When used correctly, it is a subversive outlet for self-expression. However, women’s suffering is often commodified through the male gaze, so it’s important to know the story behind the aesthetic so we can be better feminists. But by all means, enjoy this pumpkin spice latte and Phoebe Bridgers tunes.