The Metamorphosis of the Sad Girl
As someone who spent their middle school years scrolling on Tumblr, I am no stranger to the aesthetic of the “Sad Girl.”
In 2011–2012, the Sad Girl ruled Tumblr. The Sad Girl was a waif-like figure with bad taste in men who spent most of her time either dwelling on her own misery, crying beautifully, or partaking in glamorously reckless behavior. Girls who aspired to be the Sad Girl filled their feeds with B&W gifs of Lana Del Rey, Effy Stonem and Violet Harmon. It was the era of Marina and the Diamonds singing about being “super super super super suicidal” and stills from the Stanley Kubrick Lolita adaptation floating around without criticism.
As someone who wallpapered my own Tumblr blog with depressing quotes and images, I understand the appeal of this trend. I was thirteen when I first joined Tumblr, which is objectively the worst age to be in your life. Being a teenage girl feels like the entire world is working to kill you. Not only do your friends change their minds about you as often as they change their clothes, but school is getting harder, parents seem like they can no longer be trusted, every interest you take on is vehemently hated by the general public simply because you like it, and your body and brain feel like they are actively working against you. On top of all of this, because all of these emotions are being felt by a teenage girl, they are dismissed on sight, only making this experience that half the world goes through feel entirely isolating.
At this point, feeling miserable might as well be beautiful. While I could never relate to the subject matter of Lana Del Rey’s songs in her album Born to Die, I could daydream about the feeling of my own sadness being perceived as just as glamorous and aspirational as hers was. My own depression felt inescapable; a weight that had simply taken up residence in my chest and was as much a part of me as my drastically changing body was. If I couldn’t feel the simple happiness I had felt years earlier in childhood, couldn’t I at least be beautiful?
Additionally, being a Sad Girl was tied directly to the desirability of said woman. Lana Del Rey sang frequently of the hordes of older men who desired and mistreated her. They were desperate for her, and though the relationships never seemed particularly healthy, the very thought of a man wanting you so badly he would do something terrible has been fed to young girls via romantic media for decades. Beyond this, the fictional characters who are reminiscent of the Sad Girl persona such as Effy Stonem and Violet Harmon have their entire storylines wrapped up in the boys who love them because they are so sad and mysterious. Effy had two boys fighting over her simply because she was beautiful and off-putting. Her depression was directly linked to her desirability as her depression was the only personality trait she really had in the first place.
Just like Effy, Violet Harmon from the first season of American Horror Story was a sad teenager who not only self-harmed but attempted — and later revealed to have completed — suicide. Her storyline is tied up in her relationship to Tate. A ghost of a teenage school shooter who sexually assaults her mother, murders several residents of her house, and finds Violet’s sadness and prickly personality extremely appealing. Violet smokes, is given perfectly gif-able Sad Girl dialogue, and is shown to be romantically desired because of these traits. To young girls who have been fed the idea that male validation is what gives a woman worth, the connection is clear. Being sad, depressed and hopeless are what makes a young woman desirable and therefore gives her worth.
This trend also happened to overlap with the tail-end of the supernatural romance craze in young adult literature. One of the all time ultimate Sad Girls, Bella Swan, spent large chunks of each Twilight book feeling melancholy. Her friends, Jessica and Angela, were far more similar to stereotypical teenage girls. They liked boys, they hung out after school, they went prom dress shopping, and most notably, they seemed happy and content with their lives. Therefore, the young audience of Twilight was meant to understand that Bella’s underlying sadness was what made her the only girl palatable and attractive to vampire Edward Cullen. As Twilight was sold to young girls as the ultimate romantic fantasy, sadness as a personality was sold as the way to achieve that romantic desire.
Despite the hold that the Sad Girl aesthetic had on young girls in the early 2010’s, the specific brand of content was soon on its way out as the decade progressed. A popular Medium article from 2017, “The Reign Of The Internet Sad Girl Is Over — And That’s A Good Thing,” even declared, as the title suggests, that the world has moved on from the idea of the Sad Girl. Hannah Williams proclaims that “we are no longer content to be regarded as passive,” in her essay, crediting the Trump era of politics with turning former Sad Girls into angry women instead.
However, the reign of the Sad Girl is far from over. The Sad Girl has instead transformed into something just as sinister.
Sad Girls of the 2020’s tend to no longer refer to themselves in weepy, romantic ways. Instead, these Sad Girls are far more interested with appearing unhinged or invoking the nineteenth century idea of female hysteria. Must more manic than depressed. While the Sad Girl of the 2010’s tended to paint herself as a more Victorian woman — a girl who was fragile, shut herself up in her home and existed almost as an homage to the consumptive ideal of women, the Sad Girl of the 2020’s falls more into the Charlotte Perkins Gilman idea of femininity. This Sad Girl cries less in her bedroom and more on public transportation. She pines less for the hopelessly devoted, morally gray teenage boy and more for her ex, or a man who she believes she could ruin his life. There is a desire for destruction in the Sad Girl of 2020, though the life she tends to want to destroy is her own.
Lana Del Rey, Marina and the Diamonds, Effy Stonem and Violet Harmon are no longer the patron saints for Sad Girls. Now, the gifs of Effy claiming to have been born backwards are replaced with Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne giving her “cool girl” monologue or the cover of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Sad Girls are listening to Phoebe Bridgers, Mitski and Taylor Swift. Similarly to the music taste of Sad Girls in year’s past, the purpose of listening to these songs appears as both a way to find someone to commiserate with as well as a way to find the ultimate Sad Girls to worship at the alter.
The way these Sad Girls listen to these artists, however, appears to be slightly different. Rather than glamorizing the sadness oozing out of these artists, listeners prefer to talk equally about how crazy, unhinged, or feral these women are while also insisting they are just like them. Despite artists like Mitski and Lorde commenting on their discomfort of being pushed into this Sad Girl box, their listeners care very little about that. Instead, they ignore the themes of race in Mitski’s music in favor of performatively praising her for perfectly encapsulating their own yearning and unhinged emotions and complain that Lorde’s third album Solar Power isn’t sad enough for their liking. Even Taylor Swift, who attempted to capitalize on her cementing her Sad Girl throne by releasing a remix called “All Too Well (Sad Girl Autumn Version),” is more celebrated currently for her lyric from “Champagne Problems,” “what a shame she’s fucked in the head.”
While the current Sad Girl exists on Tumblr, Twitter, and anywhere where teenage to twenty-something girls can be found, TikTok has also become a new platform for Sad Girls to express themselves. Currently, the aforementioned “fucked in the head” sound is extremely popular for both Taylor Swift fans and non-Taylor Swift fans alike. On top of that, another current popular trend has girls lipsyncing to “Crazy” by Patsy Cline, reminiscing on “crazy” things that they have done for or to ex-boyfriends or situationships. The comments are full of other women celebrating them, laughing with them, and relating to the unhinged behavior that these girls claim to have exhibited, finding common ground in just how “crazy” women can be.
While women being crazy was once something that women were angry at men for perpetuating, the idea now seems to be what the modern Sad Girl is reclaiming. They insist that yes, women are crazy, and that does not have to be an insult. While Hannah Williams believed the rage felt by women during the Trump era was going to be the send-off of the Sad Girl aesthetic, it actually only morphed it into its current state. Similarly to how the original Sad Girl aesthetic was meant to be a way for girls to reclaim the rightful sadness they felt as they attempted to navigate their teenage years and the vitriol sent their way for existing, the current Sad Girl aesthetic appears to be a way to reclaim the rightful anger women have held onto for years. Rather than insisting that they are not crazy, the modern Sad Girl insists that she is crazy, but how could she not be?
The hero of modern Sad Girls, Amy Dunne, said it best in her “cool girl” monologue: “Nick got lazy. He became someone I did not agree to marry. He actually expected me to love him unconditionally then he dragged me, penniless, to the naval of this great country and found himself a newer, younger, bouncier Cool Girl. You think I’d let him destroy me and end up happier than ever? No fucking way.” Amy faking her own murder and framing her husband was actually justified. Nick was a man, Nick took her for granted, Nick turned her into someone she didn’t like and didn’t hold up his end of the bargain, then he made her crazy. Despite Gillian Flynn insisting multiple times that Amy is not the hero of Gone Girl — because… duh — if being “crazy” is a radical act to the modern Sad Girl, then Amy must be the hero. Otherwise, what does that mean for the movement?
However, just as it went for the Sad Girl of the 2010’s, to wrap up one's own identity exclusively in the most negative part of their life will never end in some kind of epiphany or radical act of change. Instead, it makes you miserable. To exist by insisting over and over to yourself that you are crazy and unhinged will only make life feel that much more unbearable. As someone who once loved the Sad Girl era of the 2010’s, obsessing over my own misery did not make me feel empowered in my mental illness. It just made me more miserable.
Not only this, but the current Sad Girl movement still places the worth of a woman in her beauty, her ability to appeal to men, and her whiteness. The beloved unhinged women of present day are primarily white, blonde women who are thin and conventionally attractive. The one exception, Mitski, is more often than not stripped of her sexuality and any commentary that she has made on her own race, instead just reduced to her most heartbreaking songs. Just like the “crazy” TikTok trend, women tend to talk about their craziness or how unhinged they are in relation to the men that like them, find them desirable, or have found them desirable in the past. Still, just like the Sad Girl of the 2010’s, women are eroticizing their own suffering in order to feel appealing to the men in their lives. All this does is continue to tell women that their worth lies in their ability to appeal to a man and how well they can bear the burden of their own suffering.
While the Sad Girl of the 2010’s as well as the Sad Girl of the 2020’s attempts to position her own suffering as a radical act of self-acceptance, it is instead a dangerous slide into glamorizing and romanticizing one’s own misery. As previously mentioned, Lorde’s 2021 album Solar Power received mixed reviews from her fans for not making them sad enough or being too happy of an album. One listen to Solar Power would quickly disprove this criticism. Solar Power is not a happy album by any means, but an album that appears to be Lorde insisting that she is going to heal from what ails her no matter how painful it may be every step of the way. While this may make Lorde a disposed of product of Sad Girl’s past, it speaks to a much better outcome to the Sad Girl trend cycle.
Get in, girls. Next time, we’re healing.