The emotional lives of girls are mainly myth and diagnoses and constellations and made-for-TV movies and bathroom stall graffiti, at this point. Girls’ pain is held at gunpoint by competing narratives of attractive, elegant frailty, attention-addicted poseuring and wound-dwelling melodrama. When a girl speaks about the way she feels, we quietly select from a finite archive of stories tell us who that girl is and why she feels like that — which is why you’ve probably heard a woman explain something she felt to you, clarifying, “but it’s not like that.”
The hyper-representation of female pain in our culture has rendered it a moot point. We can’t just be ourselves; we have to choose from IMDB’s Top 70 “Memorable Female Characters.” We can’t really just be ourselves, we can only be Anna Karenina or Sylvia Plath or Bella or Hillary Clinton or Jo or Katniss or Mimí or Precious or Lisbeth or Alaska or Scarlett or Sula or Carrie or Daisy or Elizabeth.
Female pain is played out. Us girls over here with this nebulous sadness and these broken hearts, feeling terrible about ourselves in the corner, under the bleachers, in class, in our beds, with the headphones in, getting our periods or not getting them, feeling bad, feeling like we deserve to feel bad, feeling good, feeling like we don’t deserve to feel good, feeling weird, feeling ugly, feeling angry, feeling shame, feeling stupid, feeling scared — we’re the oldest clichés in the book
Living in a world that’s post-female pain, a girl’s problems are perpetually suspect to being real; to being interesting; to being worth talking about. Female pain can be interesting today, but only if mediated: translated correctly and expressed appropriately; cooly, stylized, ironically, jadedly. It can be interesting, but we have to make sure no one thinks we’re being like that. So, women who want to speak about their pain, both everyday and cataclysmic, outside of mythology and pathology, face a challenge.
Fortunately, a whole bunch of women with the radical belief that female pain is still news are rejecting mythology and pathology, disclaimers and translation, and making sweet, sweet art about their feelings on Instagram. Contrary to conventional wisdom about the superficial alienation of social media where vapid girls show off their lattes and new boots and workout sweat — Instagram, for me, has become a space of powerful affective catharsis and validation and self-sensitizing and emotional learning and humor and joy and release.
This is because of the cadre of what I am calling sadgirl instagrammers that I fill up my feed with: members of a thriving social media artistic subculture of feminist artists, making art explicitly, unapologetically, vibrantly and voluminously about women’s emotional and affective lives.
They are illustrators and graphic designers and cartoonists and photographers and photo-shoppers, snapchatters, textile artists and poets. Some are professional and commercially successful artists, well-known in the art, photography and fashion worlds; others are amateurs who operate exclusively on social media. They make drawings and paintings and collages and videos and memes and screenshots and selfies and comic strips and embroidery and Photoshop masterpieces.
I am talking about accounts like @jooleeloren, @bigsiss666, @filthyratbag, @lauracallaghanillustration, @audreywollen, @pollynor, @lianafink, @thunderpuss, @birdbonez, @fridawannerberger, @slimesistren, @bloatedandalone4evr1993 and so, so, so, so many more. I don’t want to reduce the complex politics, alignments and styles of these artists or collapse them into a fantasized, homogenous community. However, without simplifying these artists or the diversity of their work, I want to argue for this drawn connection between these artists, which points to a certain kind of feminist sensibility — one interested in making room for new stories and conversations about women.
This community of artists insist upon the interestingness of female life and on the expansiveness and strangeness of femininity: reclaiming those busted boring stories of female pain with which we are nauseatingly familiar. They claim female and feminist identities, without the repudiation of the affects and emotions, like sadness, insecurity and shame, brought into being by sexism and patriarchy — a problem innate in the girl power politics of mainstream feminism. They refuse quick fixes to women’s pain and trauma and shame, like body positivity or break-the-glass-ceiling-girl power or mandatory Title IX coordinators, instead insisting on keeping pain and trauma unrelentingly in view, making no promises about when it will all be better, and everyone will be empowered and happy and safe.
These artists are collectively and individually making room for the nuances and idiosyncrasies of women’s emotional and social and sexual and political lives — in the face of the hyper-representation and petrification and idealization and romanticization of female pain and trauma. They create images of women masturbating, crying, vomiting, having sex, cuddling with their demons, peeling their skin off to reveal new selves, drinking, smoking, loving other women, hating other women, furious at and in love with their own bodies, wondering about death and self-destruction, being gluttonous and dirty and lazy and indulgent, experimenting with and feeling confused and angry about feminism and politics and the world — and a million more things that being a woman can look and feel like.
I think what these artists all share is that they find femininity so emphatically interesting, that they debase our society’s disgust with femininity. They sometimes even manage to debase my own disgust for my femininity; their art helps me to find myself interesting and complicated, and worth talking about, even when I feel dumb and vapid and crazy.
They are taking female pain and traumas out of therapeutic and pathological and mythological contexts, and making beautiful, cultural sense of what it means to be a woman today, in this world. And for that, I’m fucking grateful.
Jael Goldfine is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected] Objectivity Bites appears alternate Thursdays this semester.