I first heard the phrase ‘Sad Girl’ used to describe a female “archetype” in the words of Audrey Wollen, an instagram artist whose ‘Sad Girl Theory’ started circulating on the internet around 2015. Wollens theory functions on a number of levels; firstly, as a reaction against what she describes as the high “demands” of contemporary feminism: overwhelming positivity, pressures to self-”empower”, “self-love”, and to live up to high standards of economic success. Sad Girl Theory posits that women’s sadness should be reclaimed, and even “re-historicised,” as an act of political resistance; she argues that “masculine” expressions of resistance, like anger or violence, are not the only valid or productive responses to injustice; and that the sadness of women should be reframed not only as “articulate” and “informed”, but charged with radical and resistant potential.
Suddenly, I noticed the Sad Girl everywhere on the internet, not least in my own social media feeds, which are brimming with insta-art darlings like Petra Collins, Molly Soda or Arvida Byström, as well as a plethora of other young women discussing anxiety, depression or simply sadness online. As described by Emily Gaynor in her article “In Defense of Sorrow: The Sad Girl Internet Aesthetic”:
“The “sad girl” aesthetic varies in style and tone but can generally be defined as a celebration of the burdens of womanhood, an exposition of everyday anguish, a shimmery jumble of daddy issues and internet-age references, a subversion of both traditional feminine and feminist narratives, and a blurring of the divide between public and private lives […] Humor rooted in the failure to achieve unattainable expectations of womanhood is often an intrinsic part of the work associated with the “sad girl” aesthetic”.
As a highly sensitive person (so-called “HSPs” make up 20% of the population, it is not a disorder) who has always felt things very strongly, been prone to anxiety and suffered from depression as a teenager, the online presence of the Sad Girl has always been a source of great comfort. Wollen’s theory has also struck with me, not only as an interesting reappraisal of sadness as a potential political tool, but I also took her “positive” revaluation of sadness to be liberating on a personal level. If we can de-stigmatize the reputation that sadness has, as a childish, narcissistic and passive reaction, and reposition it as an informed, empathetic and possibly even productive expression, perhaps we can form a less toxic relationship with it and break down some of the damaging taboos in our current cultural conversation.
With this mind, one day recently as I was browsing music online, I was struck with a strange realisation. I had heard some snarky dismissals of the internet Sad Girl before, but never given them much thought. Then I scrolled past Lykke Li’s newest album, the title scrawled in quiet alliteration across its cover: “So Sad So Sexy”. An underlying and long-time dormant concern suddenly rose to the surface and slapped me in the face: Is the internet Sad Girl just a romantic fetishisation of the sadness of women? Is the phenomena that I’d always characterised as feminist, progressive, demystifying and liberating for our discussions about mental health, actually nothing more than an aesthetic trend? A new kind of manic-pixie-dream-girl in disguise?
I searched the internet for some opinions and, sure enough, I found some. An article from June 2017 by Hannah Williams struck me as particularly provocatively titled, “The Reign Of The Internet Sad Girl Is Over— And That’s A Good Thing”. The piece starts off by sketching a brief history of the Sad Girl as an internet phenomena, first pointing to Lana Del Rey’s 2011 breakthrough into mainstream pop culture as a major instigator of the Sad Girl “trend”; the always miserable and always sexy wet-lashed babe, whose daddy issues and compulsive attraction to emotionally unavailable men are the source of her constant state of heavy-lidded and pouting, apathetic cool-girl sadness. Even speaking as a fan of Lana and her music, I can see the validity and importance in questioning her glamorous portrayals of self-destructive behavior. Just consider the Marilyn Monroe-paradox of her personal brand: her traditionally feminine adult sexuality satiates the male gaze, her sexuality then defanged by an infantile vulnerability – still sexually attractive, but made less threatening and more accessible by a nymphet-ish (nym-fetish?) and dependent sugarbaby complex.
Later in the article, however, Williams goes on to mention poet and writer Melissa Broder – or, as she’s probably known to most people, the Twitter account @sosadtoday. I’ve been following @sosadtoday for a number of years now, delighting in her darkly funny yet painful and resonant tweets about existential dread and despair. The deadpan delivery and self-deprecating humour make for Broders hilariously self-aware snippets of relatable confessions and jokes; If you’ve never seen this account before, it warrants a small preview:
Williams, however, problematises @sosadtoday for precisely the humour and “witticisms” that render Broders account so compelling:
“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 […] Melissa Broder now functions as an agony aunt in Vice, perhaps preferring the security of paid, traditional media outlets.”
Williams critical analysis does not sit well with me for a number of reasons. Firstly, I don’t believe the implicit allegation that Broder constructed a calculated internet persona for the sake of personal profit, and Williams accusations of Broders supposed calculated vulnerability and prioritisation of financial reward, both seem deeply unfair. Broder started and ran the Twitter account in complete anonymity for a long time, to vent her anxieties and feed her addiction to the internet, as an escape from reality. In an interview with Vanity Fair she recounts how, one day when she was working as an assistant director of publicity and social media at Penguin Group USA, she was hit by an overwhelming panic attack that then eventually led her to create the account as a way of anonymously venting, whilst still being at work. As written in the VF interview:
“The anonymity of the account allowed Broder to shamelessly engage with her anxiety and its distinct connection to pop culture without feeling a published poet’s pressure to uncover its greater meaning.”
I also disagree that discussing or normalizing sadness with deadpan or self-deprecating humour is somehow equivalent to discouraging people from seeking treatment for mental illness. Let it be clearly stated: Twitter is not a replacement for professional or medical treatment for mental illnesses like depression. But, as Gaynor observes in her piece, “there exists a gap between the emotions we experience and how much can be revealed”. Suppressing negative emotions can be just as damaging to our mental health as leaving a mental illness untreated. Sadness is part of the human emotional experience, and it needs to be expressed before it can become productive, or even eventually heal. Our own misguided disapproval of and discomfort with sadness is what strengthens the taboos that prevent us from expressing and processing it in a healthy or productive way, which in turn prevents us from seeking help for stigmatized mental illnesses like depression and anxiety or eating disorders.
Williams also goes on to essentially hold the inherent nature of the internet and social media accountable for undermining the very Sad Girl “movement” it spawned, writing about @sosadtoday:
“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 fetishisation of female sadness.”
Yet, isn’t @sosadtodays endless echo into the internet-void also what lends her online persona some of its poetic quality? The “infinite scroll” of her 28,000+ tweets mimics the Sisyphean existential anxiety that she herself is always tweeting about. And sure, the @sosadtoday endless stream of sad tweets might be “hollow” without some specific, nuanced and less “kitschy” or Cool Girl context; but, as Williams herself mentions, Broder’s online popularity led her to write and publish a book. Said book is a collection of personal essays published under the same name as Broders internet-famous alias, written in her familiar deadpan tone but now fleshed out in an unbelievably raw and gut-spilling depiction of depression, addiction, eating disorder and existential anxiety. @sosadtoday might be “shallow” or parodic of sadness standing on its own, yet Broder would likely not have published such a groundbreaking and revelatory collection of essays without it. The internet provided her with the anonymity she needed to be so open and so honest, and the Sad Girl “movement” equally provided the open support that facilitated the publication of her more fully-realised and fleshed out work and ideas. Williams’ conclusion thoughtlessly brushes this off and, for some reason, ignores the complex and nuanced context that she herself has been asking for, scoffing that “Broder’s [Twitter] account is so popular that it spawned its own book” – and then failing to say anything more about it.
If Williams had actually read So Sad Today, she would’ve read one of Broder’s essays entirely dedicated to her internet addiction. The chapter “I Took the Internet Addiction Quiz and I Won” is structured as a long-form-answer version of the multiple choice quiz Broder apparently took to try and self-diagnose the severity of her obsession. Spoiler alert, it’s severe. In the essay she writes:
“The internet has given me the dopamine, attention, amplification, connection and escape I seek. It has also distracted me, disappointed me, paralysed me, and catalysed a false sense of self. The internet has enhanced my taste for isolation. It has increased my solipsism and made me even more incapable of coping with reality.”
Broders supremely self-aware observations manage to capture both the funny and the sad in the paradoxical nature of everyday existentialist anxiety: your rational mind is watching you be irrational as if from the outside, all the time; we consistently do things that we know are bad for us; and even if we believe that life is meaningless and know that death is inevitable, we also care about our weight, our hair, and being texted back. Williams, whose final conclusion has a somewhat awkward flavour of whataboutism, mistakes this portrayal of absurd and irrational reality for immaturity and superficiality, suggesting that perhaps the Sad Girl is going out of fashion because “we’ve realised 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.” Perhaps I’m being defensive but, it seems unproductive and problematic from a feminist perspective to reduce @sosadtoday’s Sad Girl tweets to something that is, relative to the tragedy of the rest of the world, insignificant; Sad Girls know that they’re sadness is both globally and cosmically totally “insignificant”, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist or isn’t valid. It’s time we moved on from the persistent trope of accusing sad young women, or women with mental illness, of being childish, petty and narcissistic.
Trying to encompass all the different iterations, benefits, and “problematics” of the online Sad Girl would require an impossible breadth and depth of analysis. The internet is too enormous and sprawling for me to properly cover all the nuances of this strange, multi-faceted, and certainly complicated phenomena. Though it is near impossible to provide a final analysis of the negative versus the positive potential of the internet for working through the sadness and mental health of women, I’ll end on the following note: while “the reign of the internet Sad Girl” may very well be in steady decline, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss her radical potential. If we can encourage the women making honest attempts at productive and cathartic dialogue around sadness, depression, and mental illness online by listening to them and taking them seriously, maybe we will continue to get more work as insightful, honest and compelling as Broder’s So Sad Today.
Melissa Broder published her first fiction novel, The Pisces, this May. Coming soon to Ark Books!
Works and persons referenced:
Audrey Wollen’s Sad Girl Theory
Petra Collins, Molly Soda, and Arvida Byström
“In Defense of Sorrow: The Sad Girl Internet Aesthetic” by Emily Gaynor
“The Reign Of The Internet Sad Girl Is Over— And That’s A Good Thing” by Hannah Williams
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder
The Pisces by Melissa Broder
“So Sad Today Author Melissa Broder on Twitter Anonymity and Internet Addiction” by Bryn Lovitt