It's Time to Give Up the "Sad Girl" Era.
We need to leave dissociation feminism behind and start being optimistic.
By Hughlyn Wong
January 22, 2022
If you have been on Tik Tok or Instagram lately, you have likely seen young women talking about being in their sad hot girl era – in their My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Fleabag, Sylvia Plath, Sally Rooney era. All these pieces of media feature young women who are flawed, angsty, and relatable. These female characters are complex and satirical, snarkily commenting on and wallowing in their female struggles. In her article “The Smartest Women I know Are All Dissociating,'' Emmeline Clein writes “So instead we now seem to be interiorizing our existential aches and angst, smirking knowingly at them, and numbing ourselves to maintain our nonchalance. Let’s call it dissociation feminism.” Dissociation is defined as the feeling of being disconnected with one’s thoughts, feelings, actions, memories, and sense of identity, symptoms that usually develop as a response to a traumatic event. While dissociative disorders are a serious mental health condition, Clein uses a more casual definition of dissociation when she coins the term dissociation feminism.
In Fleabag, an Amazon Prime show written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag is constantly breaking the fourth wall during moments such as somber conversations, sex, dates, and cringy interactions to stare straight into the camera lens, as if she and the viewer are in on an inside joke. We see Fleabag attempt to cope with grief, navigate tricky family relationships, unfiltered and the main character. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, the unnamed narrator, a rich white woman, deals with the grief of her parents’ passing by using prescription medication to literally sleep for a year. Both of these characters are deeply flawed and are written to be unlikable to a certain degree. They are examples of women who deal with the hardships of womanhood by literally dissociating.
In an interview with Audrey Wollen, a feminist theorist, comments “I think feminism should acknowledge that being a girl in this world is really hard, one of the hardest things there is, and that our sadness is actually a very appropriate and informed reaction.” Wollen proposes that the sadness of girls is actually an act of resistance or political protest in a patriarchal society. In this way, the sad girl era on social media can be seen as “radical.” It seems like young women have moved past the girl boss era of breaking the glass ceiling and are instead finding power in their sadness. However, while the protagonists of these media do participate in this act of resistance, their internal angst subverts the feminist undertones. What is now known as one of the most famous quotes from Fleabag, a character says “Women are born with pain built in. We carry it within ourselves. Men have to seek it out.” What first appears to be the painful truth of womanhood is actually counterproductive. This quote implies that womanhood is naturally cursed, that it is innate and our gendered struggles are not a social consequence. Instead of blaming the patriarchy for her struggles, she blames herself while making a joke of it.
Don’t get me wrong, Fleabag is my favorite show and I enjoy reading Moshfegh’s works; what I am questioning is not these works, but the manner of which consumers interact with them. In the second season of Fleabag, we see Fleabag resolve some of her struggles and begin healing from her past. In the last episode, we see she leaves the camera behind on a bench and walks away into a better future. However when people participate in the Fleabag, sad girl, Sally Rooney “era,” they idealize Fleabag’s first season of stunted self-growth, her self-deprecation and comical awareness of her self-destruction. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the main character is written to be unlikeable; written with dark humor, she has racist inclinations, disregards her friend’s eating disorder, recognizes and indulges in her privilege, and is just plain mean. Moshfegh writes her main character’s with a level of self-awareness that makes it satirical. In my opinion, Moshfegh wrote a solid book, however, with the way “sad girls” interact with this trend and found the novel relatable (somehow), it seems like the whole point of the book has gone over their heads. There is this snarky glamorization of self-destruction and a desire to revel in this pessimistic aesthetic that fuels this “era.”
What at first seems to be detachment from mainstream girlboss feminist values, is actually a lack of energy or compassion for feminism. These “sad girls” feel the weight of womanhood, and instead of finding a solution to these inequalities, they resolve to not find one at all. Clein writes “On the other hand, giving up on progress is perhaps the epitome of white feminism, and promotes a nihilism that is somewhere between unproductive and genuinely dangerous.” We cannot afford to completely detach from the feminist movement. This fatalistic mindset will keep us from dismantling the patriarchy, as well as other structures of inequality. After all, this nihilistic mentality of giving up on progress is only accessible to those who already benefit disproportionately from other systems of oppression. Not everyone can afford to dissociate. In Marxist theory, revolutionary optimism is the belief that a better world is possible and “worth fighting for;'' it fights the alienation and complacency bred by dominating structures like capitalism, and in this case, the patriarchy. Instead, we should strive for being optimistic and believing in making a difference, despite our harsh reality.
(1) Clein, Emmeline. “The Smartest Women I Know Are All Dissociating.” BuzzFeed News, 20 November 2019, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emmelineclein/dissociation-feminism-women-fleabag-twitter.
(2) MacWhirter, Marissa. “Forget The 'Good Feminist', We're Living In The Era Of The 'Sad Girl.'” Thought Catalog, 3 January 2020, https://thoughtcatalog.com/marissa-macwhirter/2020/01/forget-the-good-feminist-were-living-in-the-era-of-the-sad-girl/.
(3) @c.a.i.t.l.y.n on Tik Tok