Glittery mascara running down her face, Lana Del Rey playing in her headphones, and a copy of The Bell Jar in her tote bag: the image of the Sad Girl is almost beyond cliché. Despite a plethora of criticism – usually attacking its romanticization of mental illness or supposed promotion of risky lifestyle choices to young girls – the image and idea of the Sad Girl has remained popular across various forms of media.
Peering beneath the glamorous veneer, however, the Sad Girl aesthetic appears to be just another example of female exploitation. So why does it remain so alluring – especially to young women?
Three things remain undeniably true in our modern age: people experience suffering, people want to feel like they belong, and people want to make money. These things ring true to different degrees for different people, but they are, generally, undeniable. And, in many ways, the proliferation of the Sad Girl aesthetic can be observed as a messy collision between these three truths.
People, especially people experiencing hard times, crave community. In today’s hyper-individualistic world, however, this proves harder than ever. So, in a desperate attempt to feel less alone, people turn to easily accessible distractions: the internet, television, and music.
This is exactly where the Sad Girl aesthetic thrives: on the TikTok accounts of girls wearing heavy eyeliner lip-syncing to Phoebe Bridgers, on television in Skins and Euphoria, on the playlist named ‘Sad Girl Starter Pack’ – created by Spotify itself – with nearly 1.3 million likes. The Sad Girl's aesthetic thrives in all the spaces where someone stands to make money from it.
Young women doom-scroll through their TikTok For You Page because they find an identity that reflects their suffering, making them feel less alone. All the while, the TikTok algorithm exploits this, keeping them sucked into this endless loop of sadness as long as it keeps them online.
The same goes for TV and music. As long as there is a big enough audience for Sad Girl content, there will be someone looking to exploit that audience for money.
Let it be clear, though, that the fault does not lie at the feet of those simply expressing their pain through art. The musicians, writers, and filmmakers are not usually to blame.
Many female artists have expressed their anger at being reduced to nothing but the Sad Girl. Successful singer Lucy Dacus voiced her frustrations on Twitter:
“Sadness can be meaningful but I got a bone to pick with the “sad girl indie” genre, not the music that gets labeled as that, but the classification and commodification and perpetual expectation of women’s pain, also I don’t think my songs are sad […]”.
Elsewhere, Fiona Apple, arguably one of the pioneers of the so-called Sad Girl aesthetic, removed all her original music from TikTok in 2022. Her songs had gone viral as the backing track for people to ‘ironically’ describe the ways they fit into the Sad Girl or ‘female manipulator’ trope. Whilst the reason for Apple removing her music has never been given, fans speculated that it may not have just been down to a licensing disagreement.
Even Lana Del Rey, mentioned at the start of this article, and potentially the modern woman most closely associated with the Sad Girl aesthetic, has suggested she does not want to be known just as that. The opening line to her 2019 song Mariners Apartment Complex – “You took my sadness out of context” - is a sharp departure from her 2014 song Sad Girl in which she laments “I’m a sad girl” over sixteen times.
So, rather than pointing the finger at the female artists simply looking to express their experiences, perhaps we should look at those who profit from decontextualizing the Sad Girl aesthetic.
Algorithms frequently promote Sad Girl art whilst removing it from its original context. How many audio clips of Effie Stonem having a mental breakdown have gone viral on TikTok? How many screenshots of Euphoria populate people’s Instagram discovery feeds? These offer the bleakest snapshots of a wider picture.
Art communicating the realities of mental illness, heartbreak, or addiction, whilst also offering ideas of hope, perseverance, and community, get reduced only to their messages of pain. The complexities of female suffering get reduced to the Sad Girl aesthetic. The Sad Girl gets views, clicks, and streams – things that make people money. The Sad Girl is profitable.
It is here, at the intersection between sexism and capitalism, that the Sad Girl aesthetic becomes toxic. Rather than being a common identity for women and young girls who feel isolated in their suffering, it amplifies their pain, keeping them trapped.
Women are reduced to nothing but pain – but a certain kind of pain. A pain that can be repackaged and sold back to them. The Sad Girl cannot be ugly in her sadness, because nobody wants to consume something ugly.
The Sad Girl does not hysterically sob, instead, she lets a single mascara-stained tear fall gracefully down her cheek. It is telling that the scenes from Euphoria which depict Rue contracting a kidney infection, because she is so deep into a depressive episode that she can’t get out of bed to go to the toilet, are not the ones that go viral. Instead, the scenes showing the drugged-out, hazy parties, costumes, and makeup – dangerous yet alluring – go viral.
Essential to the image of the Sad Girl is the idea that to be sad is to be beautiful. Much has been said over the years about the damage which has been done to women as a result of the commodification of their bodies – but what about the commodification of their expressions of pain?
That is, in essence, all that the Sad Girl aesthetic is. It is a way for people to exploit authentic expressions of female suffering for personal, primarily monetary, gain. It is difficult to imagine an end to this – will the Sad Girl continue to exist as long as sad women continue to exist?
Whatever the future of the Sad Girl, it is time to stop blaming women for trying to authentically express their pain for her existence.
Edited by: Fahima.
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