How the Sad Girl movement on Tumblr might be making light of mental illness

Lana Del Rey. Blurry photos with captions that seem meaningful but are really just a string of words. Teardrop motifs. All stock and trade of the new movement that’s sweeping social media: Sad Girls.

The Sad Girl is not a new thing. There have always been adolescents who identify with the dark, morbid, and brooding, going all the way back to Romeo and Juliet. But, recently, it seems that this movement has come even more into the mainstream (not that I am upset about things moving to the mainstream — it’s just that, in this particular instance, it is perhaps not for the better), and has strayed from its think-piece roots into an almost purely stylistic movement. So, as you see more and more blurry, dark, captioned photos pop up on your feeds, you might find yourself asking what exactly has happened to the once meme-focused teens of Tumblr.

“Sad Girls” has only recently been popularized as a term by writer Rosemary Kirton, who, according to i-D magazine, defined a Sad Girl as one who “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.” And, in theory, this doesn’t sound all that bad. Who doesn’t like the occasional binge-watch of My So Called Life? And one with a feminist agenda might even say that the movement has revolutionized what we perceive as a strong woman, by taking actions and emotions previously seen as weak and turning them into a strength. Many films, shows, books, etc. that Sad Girls have firmly identified as their turf also reflect this.

For example, in Une Femme Est Une Femme, in one line, Angela (Anna Karina), in between tears, perfectly sums up the motto of Sad Girls: “Nothing is more beautiful than a woman in tears. We should boycott women who don’t cry.” Angela isn’t the only figure (fictional or real) that the Sad Girls look up to. From Sofia Coppola to Jane Eyre, they have plenty of inspiration to post more #PrettyWhenYouCry selfies. While that’s all fine and dandy, there’s a more important societal impact Sad Girls have had: They have blurred the lines between those who latch onto the dark aesthetic photos popping up, and those who are struggling with mental illness and a deeper, more pervasive kind of sadness.

You could easily interpret my argument as calling out Sad Girls for being inauthentic, poseurs, etc. but we should look to Sad Girl sources, interests, and actions to fully determine what being a Sad Girl even means. 

The art, movies, books, poems, etc., that Sad Girls consume and imitate, aren’t in and of themselves a glamorization of depression. The majority of Sad Girl interests, unlike what you might expect from a culture where sadness is defined more by your clothes and demeanor than any clinical terms, are very much indie and far from “sellout” titles. It’s not the entities within the culture that are particularly unhealthy; it’s the use of these interests to create an aesthetic fad that utilizes the hallmarks of teen depression (or depression in general) while simultaneously (intentionally or not) parodying and alienating teens and young adults who are struggling with mental illness and find solace in identifying or creating the art that Sad Girls use purely for its cool cache. Clinical depression is foreign to many Sad Girls, who appropriate the angst and atmosphere for their own stylistic purposes. The Sad Girl lifestyle is more subliminal than thinspiration posts. It makes an aesthetic out of something that completely shouldn’t be made into a style of any sort. But worse than that, its youthful followers latch onto it.

As i-D puts it, “Sad Girls are everywhere, in the musings of Twitter profile @SoSadToday, the selfies of artist Audrey Wollen, creator of ‘Sad Girl Theory,’ and on Etsy, where you can buy Sad Girl necklaces, pins, vests, and tote bags, typically in pastel.” Sad Girl has become, or perhaps it always was, a brand. There’s an undeniable allure, at best, or at least sense of belonging, in embroidering “sad girls club” onto your jean jacket or reblogging an angsty post on Tumblr, which, as with any other subculture, makes for a good marketing technique. This brings to light the idea of whether Sad Girls ever really existed as more than a brand or aesthetic. Even more disturbing than teens using depression to be cool is the possibility of companies marketing depression to those teens to make a quick buck.

Regardless of its possible commercialization, even from a feminist standpoint, while Sad Girls seemingly use their softer, emotional side to flaunt their femininity as unseen strength, they also participate in the exclusivity and in-fighting that solidifies the patriarchy’s power. In their use of dark aesthetics as a sort of cultural capital, they also isolate themselves from or even attack girls who favor lighter aesthetics, casting them away as not meaningful or deep enough.

Perhaps it is overly cautious of me to challenge a movement that has yet to make it past indie or cult status, but I feel the ideas and images (detached from the term) are firmly in the mainstream. My social media feeds are teeming with darkly-captioned photos and pessimistic poems by friends who once posted One Direction photos. One could say that it’s simply a part of growing up, but the change has, for my friends at least, happened quickly, like a fad. It seems like Sad Girls is quickly becoming a youth movement to embrace the dark. Even if you feel you’re much better suited to a lighter style, peer pressure takes a new line of attack through social media that makes depression seem like a whole lot of fun.

i-D writer Alice Hines concluded her article “A Taxonomy of the Sad Girl” by saying, “like a recycled Tumblr image, the Sad Girl is fluid and constantly morphing — and maybe that’s not so bad.” True as this may be, whether Sad Girls pick their new patron saint to be Angela Chase or Margot Tenenbaum, they will still use it to convey the same dangerous message.

Maybe Sad Girls have as much of a right to consume and participate in darkness that their naivety prevents them from truly understanding, but they should also be more mindful of what effect their new atmosphere could have on their peers and those that are struggling with mental illness.

I don’t object to the idea of crying seen as a strength. I don’t even particularly object to the merchandizing of the Sad Girl movement. I don’t think mental illness is something to be ashamed of, either, as people who are struggling or have recovered from mental illness are incredibly strong and brave. But depression isn’t a goal either. We should strive to love ourselves and our life, and the Sad Girl movement appears to poison this idea, making mental illness into a declaration of self-confidence, turning depression into a fashion statement, and in doing so excludes both who don’t identify with these dark styles, and those whose darkness goes beyond skin deep.

(Image via iStockPhoto.)

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