“Sad girl” aesthetic and the romanticization of female pain

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Leaves are falling and pumpkin spice lattes are on the menu again, which means one thing: “sad girl autumn” is in full swing. If you’re embracing the latest trends, it’s time to curl up by the window with a pumpkin spice latte and cry to Phoebe Bridgers songs, even though you’ve never been in a relationship. Don’t believe me? The hashtag #sadgirl has over 13 billion views on TikTok and 2 million posts on Instagram. 

But how did society become obsessed with long-suffering women to the point that it has become a trendy aesthetic? 

Our obsession with the “sad girl” is nothing new. The tragic heroine has been one of the most popular archetypes in both fictional and historical narratives for centuries. Historians have crafted a legend around the beautiful, powerful Cleopatra, who allegedly committed suicide by snake bite. In Greek mythology, the lovely Echo is doomed to waste away from her unrequited love, while Shakespeare’s Ophelia drowns herself after the fate of Denmark is placed in her hands. The tormented titular adulteress in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina throws herself under a moving train after society ostracizes her for her affair, and Fantine from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables serves as a heartbreaking symbol of suffering as she sells her hair, teeth and sex to care for her child. Female pain has long been a powerful muse for heartbreaking art. 

In early literature, female characters were often one-dimensional martyrs conjured by male authors. However, as women fought to have their voices heard in the literary world, they brought more nuanced portrayals of female experiences. Many female writers used their heroines as an outlet to express the trials of womanhood under patriarchy. The female protagonists in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” experience great tragedy and injustice, but their suffering exposes the evils of misogyny. Furthermore, some female authors turned their “sad girls” into symbols of resilience and feminine strength. Celie from The Color Purple and Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale experience horrific violence under patriarchy, but they survive. As women began reclaiming these narratives, the “sad girl” became a subversive figure. 

Today, the “sad girl” occupies a precarious position in gender politics because the lines between empowerment and exploitation have grown thin. While media gives women a platform to share their painful stories, the entertainment industry often tries to control the narratives surrounding them. It’s been sixty years since Marilyn Monroe’s passing, but the film industry continues seeking new ways to capitalize on the trials of her life, turning a real woman into a one-dimensional symbol who must be repeatedly traumatized for the sake of “art” – all without her consent. Furthermore, Marilyn’s own memoirs have been tossed aside and buried under fictionalized portrayals of a tragic femme fatale who never even existed. When the media capitalizes on women’s suffering, the truth often gets lost in the theatrics, stripping women of their right to tell their own stories. 

These twisted narratives prevail because society takes perverse pleasure in dehumanizing women. When news broke that pop superstar Adele had filed for divorce, Twitter was flooded with people hoping to see a new album inspired by her grief. But we also disrespect women who channel their own emotions and experiences into art. When Olivia Rodrigo expressed her raw heartbreak in her hit song “Driver’s license,” people dismissed it as “teenage girl drama” and publicly speculated on her relationships. Similarly, many of Taylor Swift’s songs are based on her experiences with unrequited love, tumultuous relationships and grooming, but the media reduced her music to “songs about boys.” 

We love to discover brilliant young women for entertainment, then crucify them as soon as they stray from the role we’ve assigned them. Disney stars like Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato rose to extreme fame as teenagers because beautiful young girls are marketable to the masses. However, as they grew older and began making decisions for themselves, society labeled them as rebellious and unworthy of respect. Furthermore, when the pressures of early fame became detrimental to their mental health, the media delighted in their downfalls. The patriarchal entertainment industry holds young girls to unreasonably high standards of behavior, exploits them for their talent, and calls them unhinged when they crack. 

We’ve become obsessed with tragic beauties because our misogynistic society teaches us that women’s main assets are their appearance and fertility. Under patriarchy, women’s value has an expiration date. Since we’re deemed useless once we no longer serve the male gaze, it’s better to die young and beautiful than grow old. Our culture idolizes beautiful women who died young because we can’t admit that women who don’t fit into our narrow beauty standards still have value. If Princess Diana was still alive today, would we still worship her, or would the tabloids be gossiping about how well or poorly she aged? 

Society’s fixation on female youth is also tied to our misogynistic view of female sexuality. Since sexy women are considered most valuable to the patriarchy, the entertainment industry constantly sexualizes women for profit. However, the media also shames women for being too sexually liberated. Many “promiscuous” women in literature even die at the end of their stories because we see death and suffering as punishment for female sexuality. Under patriarchy, sexuality is something that men project onto women, not something for women to claim and enjoy. From Mary Magdalene to Meghan Markle, society loves to spin narratives about women they deem impure. We romanticize the “sad girl” because the patriarchy cannot withstand women who are both wild and happy. 

Furthermore, the media often fails to recognize when the “sad girl” aesthetic is being used ironically. In her 1996 music video for “Criminal,” Fiona Apple portrays herself as a sexualized, heroin-chic teenage girl, but she actually wrote the song to criticize how the media stigmatizes female sexuality while objectifying girls and young women. In her early years of stardom, Lana Del Rey constructed her onstage persona around the titular protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a teenage girl who suffers sexual exploitation at the hands of her stepfather. But while Nabokov’s Lolita is a powerless victim, Del Rey reclaims the role as a consenting adult and allows Lolita to express her complex emotions towards her abuser, giving her a voice she never had in the novel. Unfortunately, the media largely misses the social critique in Apple and Del Rey’s music and focuses on the surface-level narrative of the troubled femme fatale. 

The “sad girl” archetype also holds different associations for women of color because the entertainment industry has historically capitalized on nonwhite female characters’ suffering. Mixed-race women – particularly biracial Black women – are often reduced to the “tragic mulatto” archetype: beautiful, exotic creatures doomed to suffer for the crime of their “racially impure” blood. Since the stigma of miscegenation historically forbade happy endings between interracial couples, women of color were usually spurned by their white male lovers or died tragically. In Miss Saigon, the Vietnamese heroine Kim survives sexual exploitation, single motherhood and the Vietnam War only to commit suicide after her American husband leaves her for a white woman. Non-white women are often treated as martyrs in the media – human enough to elicit sympathy from the audience, but not human enough to earn happiness. The modern “sad girl” trend often fails to recognize how the intersection of gender and race affects women of color. 

Once women have been labeled as “sad girls,” it’s hard for them to cast off the label. Lana Del Rey, Marina and Lorde rose to fame with tragic personas on their respective albums Born to Die, Electra Heart and Melodrama. However, when they began transitioning into less melancholy aesthetics, many fans criticized them for abandoning their previous images. It’s almost like society doesn’t like seeing women being happy and resilient. 

Even when the entertainment industry admits how they’ve mistreated women, they still attempt to profit on that injustice. The same media outlets that dehumanized Britney Spears for years are suddenly obsessed with her horrifying experiences under her conservatorship – but mostly because it’s a juicy story for the front page, and not because they truly care about Britney’s well-being. Sensationalized portrayals of female pain under the guise of “exposing industry secrets” often do more harm than good because they force victims to relive their trauma. 

In conclusion, the “sad girl” aesthetic has a complicated legacy. When used correctly, it’s a subversive outlet for self-expression. However, women’s suffering often gets commodified through the male gaze, so it’s important to know the history behind the aesthetic so we can be better feminists. But by all means, enjoy that pumpkin spice latte and the Phoebe Bridgers tunes.