The Fem Cel™ and Sad Girl Core

TW: eating disorders

Sylvia Plath published The Bell Jar in 1963, a year in which girls were lobotomized if they expressed an ounce of female suffering. A year where mental illness was a complete taboo. A year in which not many authors spoke about what was it like to be mentally ill while living under the suffocating patriarchy. In fact, throughout the whole twentieth century, Plath’s book was one of the few where girls with mental illnesses were portrayed. In the twenty-first century, on the other hand, the type of character Plath created is to be seen throughout. The sad depressed girl who is antisocial and self-destructive is romanticized everywhere. Through the last couple of years, this romanticization has led girls to adopt the personas of what many TikTok users call a “Bell Jar, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Fleabag, Fiona Apple, etc, etc, etc” type of girl.

The type of girl Plath created is not only characterized by her mental illness, however. She is also known because of her insufferable personality. For instance, in Plath’s book, repeatedly, The Bell Jar‘s main character, Esther, is an asshole for no reason. In fact, many readers have been quick in comparing Esther’s behavior with the infamous Holden Caufield from The Catcher in the Rye. This comparison is typical when talking about girls like Esther—for instance, in internet lingo, they are now called femcels, i.e, female incels. In other words, these girls are supposed to be the female equivalent of men who listen to The Smiths and think that Radiohead’s Creep is written about them. 

Fleabag (2019), a series starred and directed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is one of the greatest and most popular examples of the revival of the type of persona Plath created. Fleabag, the main character, comes across as selfish, rude, and self-destructive. It is clear, however, that she elaborates this type of persona in order to make up for her serious pain and depression. There’s a famous quote on the show that claims that “women have pain built-in”. Fleabag does not say this quote herself, but she does seem quite nihilistic about it. She even frequently brags about what a bad feminist she is.

Fleabag (2019)

An article titled “The Smartest Women I Know Are All Dissociating” calls the rise of self-destructive characters like Fleabag “nihilistic feminism”. As Fleabag’s behavior demonstrates, these types of characters are in direct contrast with the classic empowering feminism that has been so prevalent in the last couple of years. In her article, Emmeline Clein explains that the soar of the glamorization of self-destructive female characters is a response to the now heavily criticized and mocked girlboss type of feminism. 

Girlboss feminism, scholarly known as choice feminism, rose in the late 90s and early 2000s. Popularized with strong and ambitious female characters like Elle Woods from Legally Blonde, girlboss feminism sold the idea that feminism is about individual empowerment rather than collective change. It characterizes itself as “feminist” because it tells girls that boys should not be a priority — instead, their careers should. It is no surprise that this type of feminism soared a few years after the rise of neoliberalism and the glorification of hustle culture. 

With the advance of late-stage capitalism and the pandemic, girlboss culture has been strongly criticized and mocked. People are realizing how hard work does not always pay off, and how there are certain structural inequities that prevent non-privileged individuals from becoming “girlbosses”. Women who actually manage to become girlbosses— female CEOs and billionaires— are no better than male ones. They still exploit their workers and ignore their positions of privilege. Moreover, the fact that they have become CEOs has had almost no material change in the patriarchy. For example, many female CEOs, like make-up and fashion gurus, still promote unrealistic standards of beauty. Even worse, there is evidence that female CEOs do not even protect the rights of their fellow female employees, sometimes by maintaining the wage gap, violating maternal breaks, or tolerating sexual harassment in the workplace. As Emmeline Clein brilliantly words in her article– girlboss feminism hasn’t made much of a crack in the bell jar. 

However, although girlboss feminism has been mocked for a while now, arguably it is still the most dominant branch of feminism, and it is constantly rebranded and popularized. For example, there has been an increasing rise in the advertisement of “wellness” culture. This rise has also been co-opted by girlboss feminism, as it is seen with the famous “That Girl” aesthetic. The Urban Dictionary defines the term “that girl” as a girl that gets up at 5 a.m, meditates, drinks smoothies, goes to the gym, eats only healthy food, does skincare, etc. These girls, usually rich, white, and skinny, promote and share tips on TikTok on how to become “that girl” everyone is jealous of. Long before TikTok, a similar kind of trend was widespread on YouTube. After Sophia Amoruso’s Girlboss became popular on Netflix, YouTube was filled with videos on how to become a girlboss, and it was basically the same thing: waking up extra early, dieting, planning, bullet journaling, studying for hours, etc. 

Aside from promoting unhealthy behaviors, like eating disorders, the main problem of this rebranding of the girlboss movement is that it so explicitly suggests that girls constantly have to try and improve themselves, in other words, that girls are never enough. 

The exhaustion girlboss feminism creates explains why there is such a rise in the glorification of self-destructive behavior in girls and the glamorization of mental illness. This relationship between girlboss feminism and dissociative feminism can be observed in one of the most famous contemporary sad girl/ femcel books, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. 

The book written by Ottessa Moshfeg narrates the year of an unnamed girl who decides to sleep for a year in order to avoid confronting all of her internal problems. Just like Esther Greenwood, she is insufferable, spoiled, entitled, but also, depressed. The unnamed protagonist of Moshfeg’s novel is not interested in being better. She stops bleaching, waxing, brushing her hair, moisturizing, and shaving. With these behaviors, she contrasts her best friend Reva, a girl very much influenced by 2000s “feminism”. Reva reads Cosmo, watches Sex and The City, and is “partial to self-help books and workshops that (…) combine some new dieting technique with professional development and romantic relationship skills” (15). She is also bulimic . In contrast, the narrator is not interested in becoming perfect like Reva is. Instead, she goes completely feral, to the point of almost returning to an animal state and letting go of the anthropocentric (and patriarchal) ideal of being. However, she is not able to completely let go. Unconsciously, in her somnambule activities, she books appointments at salons and spas and occasionally orders cashmere socks from Sacks or Barney. Ultimately, the world she is so keen on ignoring is still out there. She tries her hardest but ultimately she is always unable to completely detach herself from the world and eventually returns to it.

That is the reality for all the girls who intensely want to dissociate and create destructive personas in order to be “subversive” and not like other girls. They still live in a misogynistic world, and pretending as if that world is completely unchangeable while withdrawing from it is the epitome of privilege. It is no surprise that most of the infamous sad girl personas are white, cis, and upper class. Aside from not attempting to change any material conditions, they even demand that feminism has a place for women like them. Lana Del Rey is the ultimate example. When being criticized for her glorification of self-destructive behavior, she argued that “it’s pathetic that [her] minor lyrical exploration detailing [her] sometimes submissive or passive roles in [her] relationships has often made people say that [she has] set women back hundred of years” continuing to say that “there has to be a place in feminism for women who look and act like [her]”.

The critique of the glorification of unhealthy behaviors does not mean that these shouldn’t be discussed. However, the rise of the sad girl persona has not led to a proper discussion of women’s mental illness, and instead, there has been a commodification of it. For instance, the music industry is not interested in finding the root of the damage, instead, they expect artists to display their trauma just to make them relatable and capitalize out of it. This is why there is constant pressure for “sad indie girls” in the industry to always be sad. For instance, this year, when Lorde and Billie Eilish released “happier” songs, people complained that they were not “sad enough”, as if there is an expectation for women to be in perpetual pain — much like Fleabag’s claim of pain being innate in women’s bodies. Women’s sadness gets fixated on, simplifying their complexity. For instance, Phoebe Bridgers — ”sad” indie darling — has argued that she does not “want to sell people the idea that wallowing in your own misery is the thing”. In spite of having songs about depression and toxic relationships, she also has songs that celebrate solitude and recovery. However, she is still often reduced to simply being a “sad girl”. Mitski is similarly, a complex artist and a lyrical genius like Bridgers.  She also has noted that fans also are intensely keen on her sadness. In order to subvert her sad girl label, her last EP, Be the Cowboy, is full of songs about overdramatized characters, emphasizing that her songs are not solely biographical and about her sadness. However, she is nevertheless known as “the Asian sad girl”. 

Phoebe Bridgers (image credits: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)

In spite of Phoebe and Mitski’s efforts to distance themselves from the sad girl persona, every TikTok I’ve seen about “sad girls” —whether it is a POV about being “a girl interrupted” or a video recommending “femcel books” —has their songs as audios. They are not entirely to be blamed, however. Girls on TikTok claim that “men will never understand what it is like to be a Phoebe Bridgers, Mitski, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Fleabag, type of girl”. They are right, they don’t understand. However, the reason why nobody understands these girls is ironically because these women are treated as personas. Their characters are flattened and their unhealthy behaviors are romanticized. This treatment demonstrates there is no interest in actually addressing women’s collective and societal pain or their individual mental health issues. And then, a full circle happens: precisely because of this lack of interest in mental health, girls emulate and glorify self-destructive characters in order to cry for help. After all, more than half a century has passed since the release of The Bell Jar, and although now you don’t get lobotomized if you tell most people you suffer from depression, the best you get is a pat on the back —  and whenever that happens, it feels like the bell jar has been there asphyxiating you all along. 

Written by Emilia Barriga

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