The 2019 Sad Girl: From Trope to Trend

17-year old Billie Eilish is, well, sad. Not in totality nor in singularity—but sad nonetheless, singing about insecurities and pain with a deadpan expression, big heavy-lidded eyes staring with preternatural emotion—or, more accurately, lack thereof. Her rise on the pop culture charts might seem to signal another rendition of the Sad Girl, popularized in the Western lexicon in the early 2010s in the time when Tumblr was at its height and the desire to be whisked away was translated into vampire love stories where one could die without dying.  

The Sad Girl—who, far before Lana Del Rey, owes its origins to the 1994 film Ma Vida Loca—is a creature entirely new from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) of Kirsten Dunst acclaim. But even so, she has maintained the MPDG allure and fascination: you want to know her or be her. (A moment of irony: Billie singing to her own reflection: “tell the mirror what you know she’s heard before, I don’t wanna be you anymore”).

The Sad Girl was never out to discount depression but instead to glamourise and sometimes commodify it. Billie complicates the simplicity of this trope, much of which was embodied by Lana Del Rey. Where Billie has always been herself, Lana has not always been. Right before her debut album Born to Die was released in 2012, The Guardian published an article comparing the Lizzy Grant she performed as in 2008 to her current Lana Del Rey persona. People were incensed at the thought that their idol of flower crowns, vintage opulence, and boundless emotion might be a construction.

Jump forward 6 years to 2018, when another deliberate act of sadness was captured in My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh—but this time with a surprising level of self-awareness. It shows the unnamed narrator succumbing to sadness in a particularly privileged state of stasis and indulgence, by numbing herself with drugs and alcohol. She has money; she does not have to work. It is, in many ways, bleak and altogether devoid of glamour. And then the narrator literally takes part in performance art.

Personas have been dangerous, historically, in that they make it all too easy to believe that others pain may be faked. That others may also be hiding something. Perhaps Sad Girls are on one level formulaic—but patterns, both finding and following them, are a part of human nature. An astute and provocative 2015 piece on Sad Girl culture states: “Channeling depression into beauty through creative practice isn't new. It's an age-old coping mechanism that social media merely makes accessible.”

It makes me think of the backlash against the Basic Girl (or against any stereotype, particularly female, for that matter). Where Basic Girls are annoying, Sad Girls are dangerous. But why the harsh distinction? I have two theories. The first: because of the remaining taboo around mental health; if we can’t even talk about it in an open honest way, people should not be doing so in a way that is at all glamourising, as Sad Girls do. But when women shoulder the majority of the weight when it comes to emotional vulnerability, is it any wonder that some found comfort in a performative pathology? The second reason: because women are consistently charged with being false.

As a survey this is a scant one. But as a snapshot, it has led me to the conclusion that what was once a trope is on its way to becoming a trend. What could easily be a shallow, two-dimensional character is becoming something more—an acceptance, even a movement, by very real and very three-dimensional people, like in the Sad Girls Club. I am in the camp—of the metaphorical kind, not the Met Gala variety—that a trend need not be dangerous or cliche and that popularity can sometimes bring about positive change. Look at plastic use. Reusable containers are trendy, and also good for the environment.

We’re hardly there yet. But I’m encouraged by the idea that the Sad Girl of 2019 can be someone who pops a pill with a smile to keep her sadness at bay; that we can be open about the fact that yes, we are sad, and instead of being quick to judge one another, we can be quick to empathize; and, that a girl who is sometimes sad can sing about her insecurities without being reduced to a Sad Girl.


my fall playlist got me thinking about unfiltered art

For a while, towards the end of summer, I wasn’t listening to much music. Instead, I was obsessively listening to my favorite podcasts. But I’m back on the tunes train and lately, several songs have been deeply resonating with me. I made a fall playlist that I thought would be fun to share on my blog, just to change up my content from all my melodramatic navel-gazing.

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And then the other day, I was listening to Dreams on repeat, (holla to all of us listening to Stevie and Fleetwood Mac lately) and began reading the facts they listed on Spotify. Apparently, Stevie Nicks wrote the song in one sitting, and the original vocals ended up being the ones on the final track. This struck me—and I was reminded of something my friend said, about how she appreciated that I put relatively unfiltered art on my blog, in addition to my blog posts that go through multiple iterations. Now, I would never compare myself to Stevie, but I couldn’t help but think of the importance of not always being so precious with our creations.

There are some posts I write in one sitting (I’ll read them over, but they won’t sit in my drafts for days or weeks as other posts do). Then there are others that I think about, not necessarily more deeply, but over longer periods of time. Those often go through a few different drafts. They might end up more polished in the end, but I have to wonder if in that process they lose something. I suppose, as with most things, it is circumstantial. Most essays and blog posts benefit from the added self-editing, and drafting process. And there are the occasional few that, in my humble opinion at least, are worthy in their own right because they are a little rough around the edges, a little bit raw, and maybe—likely—inconclusive. Sometimes you have to follow your own stream of conscious.  

I imagine that if I reach a period where I publish more work outside of my blog, I’ll become even more intimately familiar with the editing process—but for now, there is a raw beauty in having a place to share my thoughts, polished or not.

And, now that I’ve concluded my rambles, here is my lengthy moody fall playlist for your enjoyment.

what stories are ours to tell?

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Last night,  I listened to a song my friend Becs wrote. It was, loosely, based on a romantic situation in which I’d found myself over the past few months. And it made me cry. I considered FaceTiming her, bloodshot eyes and all, to show her my very visceral reaction. (Unsurprisingly, I did not, relying instead on texts  because I didn’t trust myself to talk without once again devolving into tears). It was strange, wildly strange, to listen to something that in some small way told my story—but something that I didn’t write. And it made me think of all the times I had jotted down notes for short stories based on situations I had not lived through, but that my friends had. 

Often, I stop these stories before I really start them, unsure of what is ethical and what is most certainly not. In the most meta of fashions, I wrote a short story a few years ago about a character who loses his friends because of a play. In that play was a story they believed wasn’t his to tell. My short story has no real resolution, because even then I had no real answer. 


A friend of mine recently opened up to me about a period of her life I couldn’t even imagine going through, let alone go through by myself as she so often did. When I returned home from our conversation, my initial reaction was to fictionalize what she told me. And I was just as quickly ashamed, feeling no right to call her story “inspiration.” When does inspiration become appropriation? Was I capitalizing on my friend’s pain? 

But the more I thought about it, I wasn’t so sure that was it. I felt something when my friend opened up to me, something I couldn’t quite imagine but that illicited intense emotions nontheless. I wanted to write because I wanted to understand those emotions in the best way I knew how to — by writing. It was my way of empathizing. Though so often we are told to ignore authorial intent, I think intent can make a difference when empathy is at the core. 

But as of today, I still have no plans to write that story. Even with the best of intentions. 


In her book of essays So Sad Tody, Melissa Broder begins “I told you not to get the knish: thoughts on open marriage and illness” discussing this same dillemma. Her husband lives with a chronic illness; it is not something she often addresses. And she says as much, in the beginning sentences: “I did not think [his illness] was my story to tell. But the illness is a third party in our relationship….In this way perhaps it is my story, too.” Put in this manner, Broder does have some claim to write about her husband’s illness because it has affected her life in such a degree. 

Becs did not ask my permission before she wrote her song. It did not cross my mind that she should. After all, if effect gives you some semblance of ownership, then the myriad anxious texts I sent her were essentially my permission. But how much does something have to affect you before you can speak to it? Before you can tell it? It seems that there is some unspoken line, but no clear rules on how this line is drawn. 

Effect does not beget ownership, in the same way that honest intent does not negate appropriation. I don’t think we should only write what we know; but I also don’t think you can fully inhabit someone else’s story. I’m beginning to think the most you can do is be thoughtful. 

And this all begs the question, at the end of the day, are our own stories ever fully our own? 

why i loved atomic blonde when i saw it, & why i love it now

Last night, I rewatched Atomic Blonde. It's been about a year since the film came out, and I still remember how much I loved it when I saw it last August. When I walked out of the theater then, I had a smile on my face. I was buzzing — feeling the similar rush that Wonder Woman also left me with, but on an even grander scale. 

I was curious if, upon rewatching it, I would feel the same. (Some people are staunchly against rewatching movies or rereading books; I actually enjoy it — but that's a blog post for another time). And once again, I loved the film.

The story is intriguing (albeit slightly confusing); the action is intense; the 80s soundtrack is so much fun (seriously. so good.); the outfits are fantastic; and, above all, Charlize Theron's character, Lorraine, is one of the strongest female leads I've seen in a long time.

Theron did the vast majority of her own stunts, including the insane fighting sequences. It's easy to see that she is talented — and also that she is strong. It was her strength that struck me above so much else. There’s a scene early on in the movie where the camera pans over Theron’s naked, bruised back in an ice bath. She didn’t have the narrow shoulders ubiquitous of so many slender actresses today; she had the strong shoulders and broad back of an athlete. Seeing those traits on someone else, someone portrayed as both feminine and strong and well, sexy, as opposed to seeing them on myself — I finally saw them as beautiful.

As someone that spent 17 years as a competitive swimmer, equally hating the broad back and strong arms I didn’t find feminine, and also loving them for what they let me do in the water, I never realized how empowering it would be to finally see a similar body to mine reflected on such a large stage. Seeing Theron as both feminine and strong was something I never knew I needed.

The paradoxical thing is, I always loved feeling strong; there was just a disconnect in my brain when I saw the actual physical manifestation of that strength in my back and shoulders. It feels cheesy to admit all of this. And slightly disappointing, that something external to myself helped me finally overcome the disjoint between pride of the strength I had worked for, and the wish that I could be skinny rather than athletic. (A wish I finally no longer feel).

It would be silly to say that a movie miraculously fixed something I've struggled with for some time. (Try fitting into a blazer as a female athlete and you’ll understand the frustration). But Atomic Blonde was, and is, the perfect reminder that just as I'm proud to feel strong, I should be proud to look it, too. 

 

a fall reading list

Call me cliche, but Fall conjures up images of cozying up with a blanket and mug of tea while reading a good book. Since this summer hasn't been the most stress-free, I'm looking forward to days where comfort is the only objective and I can have a good binge-read. So, in preparation for the next few months I put together a rather ambitious list of the books I'd like to read. 

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  • Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong: I love a good debut novel and this one by Rachel Khong about protagonist Ruth's end to her engagement and subsequent move home sounds delightful. Not to mention, I do love the colorful cover.

  • The Idiot by Elif Batuman: The first bildungsroman of a few on this list, The Idiot which is about a college freshman at Harvard feels like the right kind of nostalgia to embrace given my recent graduation from NYU.

  • Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Krauss' The History of Love is one of my favorite novels so when I heard she was having a new novel come out following two separate storylines that intertwine in Israel, you know it was added to my TBR list.

  • The Goddesses by Swan Huntley: While I haven't read Huntley's Beautiful Creatures the premise of her latest one sounds worth a shot. A psychological novel with deceit and doubt taking place on Hawaii — why not?

  • Motherest by Kristen Iskandrian: Anyone that knows me well knows I love a good coming-of-age so when I read the synopsis for Motherest, I was sold. Protagonist Agnes is having trouble adjusting to college and begins to write letters to her mother, whom she was never close to and explores the various hardships and triumphs that come with growing up.

  • Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: In college, one of my creative writing professors told me that one of my strengths lay in my portrayal of friendships and I think part of that comes from enjoying to read about them.

  • How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry: Just the title of this reminded me of one of my favorite books — The Storied Life of AJ Fikry — which is largely centered around a bookshop. And as a lover of independent bookshops myself, this story of Emilia Nightingale trying to run her family's shop after her father's death seems right up my alley.

  • The Sun and her Flowers by Rupi Kaur: I LOVED Kaur's Milk & Honey. And in a time where poetry has taken a backseat to prose, to see such a young writer reach so many through her craft is inspiring to say the least. I very much look forward to this release. (Out October 3rd).

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  • Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang: I've just started this collection of short stories by Jenny Zhang. It is the first book from Lena Dunham's Lenny imprint and largely focuses on the Chinese-American experience. Already, I'm captivated by Zhang's voice and content.

  • The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons: This is a historical fiction novel I've wanted to read for ages ever since Regan originally talked about it on her YouTube channel. I finally was able to nab it from the library and it awaits on my iPad for me to dive into.

  • Crazy, Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan: If you're a frequent reader, you might have heard of Kwan's 2013 novel which is currently being made into a movie. Amazon's synopsis perhaps tells it best.

  • Heir of Fire by Sarah J. Maas: A few years ago, the majority of what I read was YA fantasy. I f**king loved it and assumed if I became an author, that's what I would write. While that has changed, YA fantasy will always have a place in my heart which is why this summer I started reading a series I had heard a lot of great things about. This is the third book in that series and I'm loving following assassin Caelena on her journey.

  • Turtles All The Way Down by John Green: John Green was a hugely influential author for me as a teenager. When I heard he was coming out with a new book, you know I had to read it if only for old time's sake. I honestly don't even know what this book is about, only that if it can elicit even a fraction of the feelings his other pieces did for me when I was younger, I'll have enjoyed it. (Out October 10th).

  • Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion: I'm in the mood for some Didion and I actually haven't read any of her fiction so I figured, why not just pick one. Play it as it Lays was the first novel to come up in my search.

  • The Sun is also a Star by Nicola Yoon: Another YA, this time by the author of Everything, Everything which recently was released as a movie. My colleague actually recommended this to me and its another I haven't even read a synopsis for but am looking forward to reading.

  • A Stranger in the House by Shari Lapena: I love scary movies and it's been a while since I read a great thriller. This novel, where at the center of it protagonist Karen is convinced someone else is in the house sounds like such a fun read.