Reclamation of the Sad Girl Persona

sadgirlpersona“‘Mental illness isn’t artistic or romantic’ should be something told to [neurotypicals] when they treat mental illnesses like a trope, not to mentally ill people who express themselves through art and relate to brainweird aesthetics.” – source (Yeah, I use Tumblr. So shut up about it!)

I am obsessed with Lana Del Rey, and I get a lot of shit for it. Like, “Oh no! She romanticizes insanity, addiction, and submission.” And I’m just like, “Yeah, isn’t it great?” If someone is going to sexualize or romanticize my mental illness, *starts singing* it’s gonna be me.

The manic pixie dream girl or the tragic beauty often personifies female mental illness in popular culture – The Virgin Suicides, Silver Linings Playbook, Black Swan, Suicide Squad, etc. There is a huge difference between a third party writing mentally ill female characters in a way meant to conform to patriarchal fetishism of “crazy” and a woman expressing her personal experience with substance abuse and mental illness in the way she chooses.

I’ve talked at length about using frivolity to gain a sense of control over mental illness, but this is a bit different. Needless to say, I’m a huge proponent of reclaiming the attitude of “I’d fuck a crazy girl, but I’d never marry her” because 1) it turns the patriarchal sexualizing of literally everything a woman experiences on its head by beating men to the punch, 2) it gives me a sense of control over everything from ableism to sexism, and 3) it opens up the conversation of complexity in women and specifically in mentally ill women by putting real faces on the Sad Girl aesthetic that seem to say, “Yeah, I have this side of me that’s overtly sexual, a tad histrionic, and prone to bad coping mechanisms, but I’m still human and capable of lasting interpersonal relationships – romantic or platonic – even if it requires a little extra work.”

There’s a counterargument to be made here, as there always is. By allowing the Sad Girl aesthetic to be legitimized as a mode of expression for mentally ill women, it can subsequently legitimize the sexualizing and romanticizing of mentally ill women if the artistic persona isn’t separated from the person. But hey, maybe just take ten minutes to separate the artistic persona from the person. It doesn’t take that much effort.

If men can have artistic personas (everyone from Marilyn Manson to Michael Jackson to Elvis Presley), so can women. Sure, the persona is probably informed by personal experience, but better that than having someone who has no personal experience with mental illness writing the persona for someone else.

Maybe this goes back to the sexist notion that women can’t simultaneously enjoy frivolity while engaging in serious social and political discussions. I can wear false lashes and a push-up bra, and that doesn’t suddenly erase the information I’ve gathered about socioeconomic inequality, social justice issues, and existential philosophy. Sure, I might not necessarily want to engage in those conversations at a party, but I can be obsessed with Lana Del Rey, the Kardashians, Star Wars, Radiohead, Joe Biden, classic lit, and Sartre at the SAME TIME. None of those things are mutually exclusive interests. I can also enjoy them but still call them out when they’re problematic. By extension, I can adopt a Sad Girl persona to cope with my mental illness without actually becoming her and without condoning the unhealthy coping mechanisms in which I might partake. Retweets don’t equal endorsements.

This is why I’m so drawn to someone like Melissa Broder and her poetry. She loves “glittery shit” (“Man’s Search for Meaning” from Last Sext), but she is also incredibly aware of the very real damage mental illness inflicts on people’s lives because she has mental illnesses.

Don’t get me wrong. I know these things are distractions. They don’t deal with the underlying problems, but if I was trying to deal with the underlying problems 100% of the time, I would legit LOSE MY MIND.

I am literally glued to bipolar disorder and OCD. I cannot distinguish myself from them any more, and that’s not something I should be expected to do. I know – I know – the immense stigma these diagnoses carry. I see the pity and fear in people’s eyes, and I hate it. I see the efforts to eliminate the stigma from anxiety and depression, and I feel excluded from those efforts.

Bottom line and with this new Carrie-Fisher-shaped hole in the world, no one in the peanut gallery gets to tell a mentally ill person how to cope or how to treat his or her illness. If I want to listen to music that sexualizes insanity and romanticizes melancholia, I can. If I want to read the latest scientific literature on the mechanisms that cause mental illness, I can. The former gives me some semblance of control over manifestations of mental illness in my own life and the latter helps me separate symptoms from my actual self. I can do all this without inviting people to reduce me to a Tumblr Sad Girl persona or a case study.

I was the same person before I opened up about my mental illness as I am now that everyone knows. I maintain my complexity even though my mental illness consumes a lot of my identity. If that scares people, so be it.

Sometimes, I have to indulge my symptoms and wallow before I’m ready to resume practical solutions. After a breakup, people listen to sad music and eat shitty food before they start to move on. Mental illness is the same way except the breakups happen repeatedly and there’s no real way to ever move on. There is improvement. There is no cure, but even in the face of improvement, there’s no way to repair the damage already done or get back the years lost to the fight. There is no way to redact the ways in which I’ve spoken loudly about my struggles. People will remember my meltdowns and dispassionate discussions of my mental illnesses, but I continue to talk candidly about it because I’m tired of making excuses and I’m tired of misconceptions. Trust me. Every mentally ill person is tired of these things.

I’m not naïve about stigma, but I’m no activist martyr either. I’m just frustrated with my brain, my treatment, and the world’s conception of mental illness. I might as well make a joke about it here and there or momentarily embody a stereotype I do not believe is real for the sake of catharsis, but I’m neither a meme nor a two-dimensional, Bambi-eyed portrayal of a woman with runny mascara who has been sucked into the void of her own mind. Neither is anyone else with a mental illness, but give me my silk robe and bottle of wine that I can no longer drink anyway. Don’t be afraid of taking advantage of my compromised mental state, and don’t be afraid that I will be unpredictable. I’ve controlled it around people for this long, and I will continue to do that. I know what I need, and that now entails not always getting what I want, so why not pretend?

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