Is female suffering a form of protest?

By Erin Stewart

When LA artist, Audrey Wollen, posited in her “Sad Girl Theory” that female suffering could be a form of protest, it took a bit of thinking to work out what she was getting at.She told Dazed, there is “a whole history of girls who have used their sorrow and their self-destruction to disrupt systems of domination.” And my response was, “Really? Wrapping myself in a doona, too exhausted and too sad to do anything else is protest?”

Being miserable, Wollen argues, isn’t as passive as that image would suggest. For one thing, being sad about the state of affairs for girls in the world is pretty logical. It’s an experience mired in misogyny, which,  for too many of us, results in violence and abuse. Wollen takes particular issue with popular feminist media that would have us aim for “empowerment”, as though the answer to our problems are in building self-esteem and practicing self-care when the problems – from the wage gap to harassment to body image – are beyond our control. “Feminism needs to acknowledge that being a girl in the world right now is one of the hardest things there is,” she says.

There’s a long tradition of women who create art from places of sadness or angst as a way to critique the way women have been treated. These are women who describe the pain of living in a patriarchal world in clever ways to challenge the status quo. Wollen names Sylvia Plath, Frida Kahlo, and Virginia Woolf as examples.

In my experience, depression is not always conducive to creativity (as Tavi Gevinsonreflects on trying to make art while depressed, “I had nothing to say, I didn’t feel inspired, I didn’t feel special. I just felt as a total loss for words and completely overwhelmed”). But I agree that it is helpful to stop thinking of the sad girl as herself problematic. Instead, we should to bear witness to her pain as she narrates it, and start looking at ways her sadness might be compounded by a world of sexism and pressure. And yeah, thinking and creating along this vein is a form of protest, just like taking to the streets with a placard.

Sad Girl Theory empowers girls to point out real world problems, sparing the melancholic among us form being trapped in a shame spiral.

Wollen’s art can be found on her Instagram feed or though her mailing list. And these are related projects that are worth checking out too:

  • Photographer Steph Wilson’s series, “The Bell Curve” viscerally depicts how claustrophobia, panic attacks, dependency, and other facets of anxiety feel. The images are moving, yet also soft and light, making it feel like these issues can be endured.
  • Kate or Die comics are too-true takes on the daily experience of mental illness (as well as other subjects). In a similar style, Allie Bosch’s depiction of depressionon Hyperbole and a Half is so sadly accurate yet funny that I feel dizzy from the cognitive dissonance.
  • Khale McHurst’s graphic series, “I do not have an eating disorder” is an artful portrayal of anorexia and other mental illnesses from someone who doesn’t identify with stereotypes about eating disorders. It provides a self-aware, feminist debunking of myths and stigmas of them.
  • Melissa Broder’s @SoSadToday Twitter feed humorously gives voice to the experience of depression and anxiety. And it’s so relatable with tweets like “every time i get out of bed is a disaster”.

Erin Stewart is a UK-based Australian writer. Find her website here.

Photo (cropped): Instagram/audreywollen aka “tragic queen”