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Tragically Beautiful: A Taxonomy of the "Sad Girl" Pandemic


Safa Ali


The trend of the “Sad Girl” seems to be growing at an alarming rate, and while it may seem like harmless fun, its implications often go unspoken. 


“Being born a woman is an awful tragedy,” wrote the well-loved mid-century poet Sylvia Plath. This notion of the beautiful tragedy of womanhood has been misconstrued and exaggerated over recent years, and if you have spent any time on TikTok or Tumblr, this concept will be no stranger to you. 

The phenomenon of the “Sad Girl” has been going viral in the post-modern culture of curated identities and fitting oneself into a niche yet paradoxically overall aesthetics and personas. The Sad Girl wears her emotions on her sleeve and in a soft-grunge blog post, creating an online version of herself as romantic and seductive in her deep-rooted pain. From glitching animations of pill bottles to Lana Del Rey vinyl and cigarette packs, the Sad Girl is trendy and sexy but mysterious and riddled with agony, creating the perfect mystique of the wounded feminine. From a consumer standpoint, it may seem like harmless teen pop culture. Still, the growing obsession with mentally-ill women is hazardous and misogynistic, not too different from the trivialization of women's mental illnesses as “female hysteria” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 


It is important to note that the “Sad Girl” is not a new phenomenon. As early as Shakespeare, writing and art presented beautiful women as sad and elegantly distressed. Ophelia in Hamlet drowns herself after being driven to madness by her family. The paintings depicting her many years later showed her flower clad and glowing, even in death. In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Sibyl kills herself after being rejected by Dorian. Lord Henry assures him that he should be happy that such a beautiful woman should commit suicide in his name. The old idea that a woman should become suicidal over the absence of male attention is, in essence, similar to the social media posts and memes depicting young girls going “insane” over a lover. At the same time, a sped-up version of a Lana Del Rey or Mitski song plays in the background.

Even when Marilyn Monroe was driven to suicide by an industry that drained her of her beauty and sexual gratification, she was still a victim of this horrendous disease that sought to hunt vulnerable women.  Her dead body was filmed and zoomed in on, and even years after her passing, there are media depictions of her life and how she was a tragically beautiful sex symbol. Blonde (2022) faced many controversies over its disrespectful and distasteful portrayal of the actress’ mental illness and painted overly sexualized scenes of Monroe, even during her breakdowns. 


Social media fuels the already bright fire of misogyny and mental illness. Today, teen girls are faced with hours of content that encourages them to place themselves within a boxed “aesthetic” via “starter pack” memes and Tumblr mood boards. There is such a high influx of trends, and it seems almost impossible to keep up with the ever-growing array of aesthetics for individuals to place themselves neatly. 

 One of the many absurd trends of 2022 that created a new generation of Sad Girls was the hashtag “female.” The “female” is the counterpart to the “incel”- an involuntarily celibate misogynistic man. The female is a heartbroken, man-hating archetype who dons elegant pink lace and ribbons in her messy room and dolls herself up in her pill-bottle crowded vanity. She is unable to attain love and affection because of her deep-rooted mental illness, and she makes this known by posting about her pain online through poetry and “female music,” consisting of the likes of Fiona Apple, Mitski, and The Smiths, artists who all sing about agony and the dark gloom of being alive. But there are pitfalls to having a persona - social media puts an image of a skinny blonde girl with feelings of melancholy and creates a generational subconscious that associates sadness with sexiness.


 The ever-increasing boxes and trends on social media make it so that mental illness and understanding such deep, complex feelings make one unique and mysterious. There is a curated appeal around sadness and its intricacy; sadness makes you attractive, creating a diluted sense of what mental illnesses like depression are. Many young people today are falsely self-diagnosing after seeing their peer's online face similar symptoms; much of what is shown online is inaccurate and romanticized. 


Perhaps there is an element of wanting to be relatable and keep up with what is trending, so young teen girls will do all they can to appear misunderstood and complicated, all the while trying to fit in with the majority. 


The damage that this curated persona can have is often overlooked. Young girls are subjected to self-sabotaging and are desensitized to the dark reality of depression. In even worse cases, “edit” or “eating disorder Twitter” creates spaces where life-threatening illnesses are encouraged. Mental illness now plays a precarious role in gender politics: while it could be said that embracing the beauty in sadness is empowering for an individual, it is most definitely not beneficial for women as a whole. It furthers the pressure on women to be perfect and sexually appealing even in their lowest moments and pushes young vulnerable girls into feeling sad and lonely.

Additionally, the cult of the Sad Girl leads to a misinterpretation of women’s work and emotions. This was perfectly expressed by Sylvia Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes when she stated: “the point of anguish at which my mother killed herself has been taken over by strangers, possessed and reshaped by them.” She expresses how social media and the obsession with depressed women have led to a trivialization and misunderstanding of the depth of Plath’s mental illness. Further, in her 1996 music video for Criminal, Fiona Apple ironically sexualizes herself as a heroin-chic teenage girl. This concept has been taken literally when in actuality, the message of the video was to create a commentary on how the media criticizes young women for being sexual, all the while sexualizing them without their consent. Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita depicts a 12-year-old  girl as the victim of grooming and child abuse. Still, unfortunately, social media has turned this into an aesthetic of sorts by the name of “Loli-core” or “coquette,” turning the story of a vulnerable victim into a troubled femme fatale. 


The hashtag “sad girl” has surpassed 13 billion views on TikTok and 2 million posts on Instagram, so the pandemic of the tragically beautiful is spreading fast. The damage it can cause, and is presently causing, to young girls cannot be understated. It has a complicated legacy, coming from Shakespearean and Victorian distressed damsels and postmodern questioning of the stigma around mental health. While it can be used to create a space where young women can express themselves, it seems that, more often than not, it glamorizes and encourages damaging and self-sabotaging behaviors. The fine line between destigmatizing and romanticism can be easily crossed.

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