In 2019, writer Emmeline Clein coined the term “dissociation feminism.” She pointed to the emergent trope of the unlikable, “relatable,” woman who, according to Rebecca Liu, is “pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive. Often described as relatable, she is, in actuality, not.” Both Clein and Liu point to examples of characters like Fleabag in Phoebe Waller Bridge’s series of the same name and Hannah from Girls

Liu’s piece focuses on the formulation of a millennial woman’s identity as one that must, somehow, find a way to make feminism and the pursuit of constant self-destruction coexist. With this purpose in mind, Waller Bridge’s Fleabag and Lena Dunham’s Girls exemplify this complex project within the mainstream. 

With Fleabag, the series’ antiheroine seems to disappoint or irritate the viewer with every self-destructive and outwardly insensitive choice she makes. From sleeping with her best friend’s boyfriend to attempting to break a priest’s celibacy, her self-destruction becomes an explosive that threatens to decimate anyone who finds themselves in the crossfire. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character grapples with her conduct, saying that she has “a horrible feeling that I'm a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can't even call herself a feminist.” 

But while Liu’s essay focuses on millennial-aged women, I am particularly intrigued in the new emergence of the Gen-Z dissociation feminist. Essayist Rayne Fisher-Quann writes on the emergence of the “fleabag era,”: “i am in my hysterical 20th-century woman era, i would think, unlikeably. i am sleeping at erratic hours, i am sobbing, i am writing and never publishing, i am seeing shapes in my wallpaper. i am never washing my face, i am eating lavishly, i am ruining my reputation.” Fisher-Quann’s essay echoes what is now visible on many Gen-Z TikTokers feeds. It seems now more than ever that it has become increasingly fashionable to fall apart publicly; the “Sad Girl” is the new “It Girl.” 

But some, even those who have become (unwillingly) emblematic of Sad Girl culture, seem to disagree. Pop singer Mitski, whose work has been featured on a Spotify playlist entitled “sad girl starter pack,” stated in a recent interview with Crack Magazine “You know, the sad girl thing was reductive and tired like, five or ten years ago, and it still is today,” she continues, “Let’s retire the sad girl schtick. It’s over. Sad girl is over!” But despite the decree from one of the resident artists lumped into the “sad girl” genre alongside the likes of Phoebe Bridgers, Fiona Apple, and Taylor Swift, it seems that the Sad Girl isn’t over, she’s having a real moment in online culture. 

Rayne Fisher-Quann calls it “lobotomy-chic,” which is described by the Aesthetics Wiki as an aesthetic embodied by those committed to “exploring femininity through meta-irony, detachment, and nihilism.” The moniker “lobotomy-chic,” of course, refers to the invasive procedure popularized in the early twentieth century as a means of treating mental illness. In actuality, the procedure decimated the minds of many deemed as ill beyond repair and was performed on women disproportionately. In some sense, the perpetuation of the “lobotomy-chic” aesthetic could be seen as reclaimatory. In the same way that the y2k-inspired “bimbo” aesthetic reclaims the term and bolsters a hyper-feminine, hot-pink aesthetic, “lobotomy-chic” is characterized by an embrace of the nihilistic, a certain love of misery, and the seeming inevitability of annihilation.  

Based on the proliferation of the Sad Girl online, there is something sexy about sadness. One song by Corpse Husband, entitled “E-GIRLS ARE RUINING MY LIFE,” features lyrics like “Ain’t no daddy issues then I won’t even bother.” Reigning Indie-Sad-Girl Lana Del Rey has long been criticized for the politics of her song “Ultraviolence,” where she sighs that “he hit me and it felt like a kiss.” Somewhere in the ether of romanticization of toxic relationships and the eroticization of misery lies the implication that women are more desirable when they are inching ever-closer to destruction. 

Even staunch feminists often find themselves falling into the cult of the Sad Girl. I, myself, a senior in college with a major in Gender Studies, recently described my own sadness as “the cozy sweatshirt I put on every night and never wash.” Most mornings, I take my antidepressants with black coffee and a cigarette and I just love to talk about (and photograph) it. Ironically, of course. 

In some sense, Mitski hit the nail on the head. The unironic, unrepentant “indie sleaze” 2013-Tumblr-smudged-liner-Sad-Girl-smoking-marlboro-blacks may be over. Instead of agonizing over the pain of being sad, the new Sad Girl, or the dissociation feminist, as Emmeline Clein speaks of, laughs at it. She makes it ubiquitous, consumable, sexy, funny, and most importantly, desirable. Of course we’re sad, we’re women! We’re “born with pain built in,” after all. 

Emmeline Clein asserts that the dissociation feminist interiorizes her “existential aches and angst, smirking knowingly at them.” It is this brash self-awareness that is perhaps the most troubling aspect of dissociation feminism: after centuries of investment in a movement intended to ease the suffering of women, the dissociation feminist embraces it, saying “Fuck it! I’ll always hurt!” 

To be a dissociation feminist is to merely abandon the possibility of change, remaining unblissfully indifferent to the consequences and poor politics of giving up. On the most basic level, dissociation feminism, the “lobotomy-chic” aesthetic, and the ironic new wave of Sad Girl are all emblematic of acceptance of the status quo. Why push for social change when you could drink straight from the bottle and watch your mascara drip down your face? However desirable the new Sad Girl is, she is tragic. She has accepted her dejection as pleasurable and even somehow feminist. 

The dissociation feminist is charged with a dilemma that becomes difficult to navigate: stay down or don’t, and with the current online cultural zeitgeist in mind, it seems that many women are staying down, laughing and crying amidst the descent. 

May 11, 2022

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