The term self-care gets thrown around a lot these days. Feminism in late-stage capitalism is focused on “treating yourself” as a response to the constant oppression of marginalized groups. The instinct is certainly an understandable one, but I question how much self-care is actually good for the health of marginalized groups, and how much is intended to distract from real activism. Is the purpose of self-care in the cultural lexicon to actually take care of ourselves and be healthier? Or is it just like when George Bush told us to go shopping as a way to feel better about 9/11?
Capitalism is laser-focused on marketable female empowerment right now. We are repeatedly told that women are equal because we have all-female reboots of movies that were originally written by and that star men. But is a female Ghostbusters really a mark of progress? Of course, representation plays an important role in dismantling systematic inequality, but we still have a government that forces us into lifelong free labor by restricting our access to legal abortions. Women of color are still being imprisoned en masse for nonviolent crimes, and the most likely place for a woman to be murdered is still her own home.
Meanwhile, the proponents of late-stage capitalism are hard at work shoving women into male roles, like putting a round peg in a square hole, and telling us we have to like it or we aren’t feminists. Instead of giving women the space and respect to create their own roles—to tell their own stories— we are reinforcing the idea that the only acceptable kind of feminism is one in which women are supposed to be grateful for male-approved representation in a society that actively discriminates against us.
In her work, artist and scholar Audrey Wollen grapples with the female reaction to these issues, and what role our emotional response plays in advancing political rhetoric.
I first came across Audrey Wollen in 2015. At the time, she was working on a series of self-portraits on Instagram in which she posed herself to mimic classical paintings, but with overtones of modern girlhood. One photo in particular caught my eye: Wollen was nude, lying on her side in bed, her red hair contrasting with her pale white body. The bottoms of her feet were so red they almost matched her hair. Her back was facing the viewer as she looked directly at a laptop perched upon a small plastic bed tray. On the gently glowing computer screen, you can just barely make out a blurry webcam image of her face and nude body. The photo is a re-creation of Diego Velázquez’s 1651 painting The Rokeby Venus, in which we see a naked woman lying on her side, looking at a reflection of herself in a mirror that’s being held by a kneeling cherub. The painting is thought to be the only image of the goddess Venus without a single sign of divinity.
As a scholar, Wollen is the creator of Sad Girl Theory, which reframes the sadness and suffering of women as part of a long lineage of political resistance. With this theory, Wollen takes another look at the cultural trope of the suicidal woman who refuses to make peace with her own suffering. It is a research project of sorts. The theory is not forward-looking. Wollen isn’t asking you to perform a new action, and she isn’t asking you to harm yourself further. Rather, Sad Girl Theory aims to provide a framework through which we can understand previously disregarded practices of feminine self-harm as part of the long lineage of political resistance. Wollen wants the suffering woman to be included in history, as a stepping stone that helped lead us to our modern definition of protest.
Wollen and I agree on the necessity of protest as it exists in society today, but as Wollen points out, modern protests are often exclusionary. A socialist feminist critique finds a lot of issues with our current definition of political activism. For example, I firmly believe in the effectiveness of strikes for negotiating better working conditions—but how can you boycott your job if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, have a family to feed, and aren’t part of a union? How can we gain equality in a world where the primary way to protest inequality excludes anyone who isn’t able-bodied and economically privileged?
Wollen, who lives in New York, is currently getting her PhD in women’s literature, with a focus on representations of suicidality and feminism. After confirming that neither of us enjoys speaking on the phone, Wollen agreed to chat with me via Google Hangouts on a weekday afternoon. We discussed a wide range of issues, including but certainly not limited to female friendship, chronic illness, and Britney Spears.
I. “THE SELF HAS NOT SERVED US.”
Mira Gonzalez: What are the defining features of Sad Girl Theory?
Audrey Wollen: Sad Girl Theory rehistoricizes girls’ sadness and self-destruction as a political gesture and part of a lineage of political uprising. I’m interested in sadness as an affect and an action. How the trope of the suffering, suicidal woman in culture can be reframed within the lens of a feminist struggle.
The history of “political resistance” has always relied on binaries that mirror gendered codes of behavior: active versus passive, public versus private, violent versus nonviolent.
The way we protest has been validated and formed by a masculinist framework, and while those practices are totally valid and very necessary, I do think it’s interesting and worthwhile to expand our strategy base to include previously ignored practices of femininity. These forms of “activism” have been dismissed; we focus on the vulnerability of the suicidal girl, and disregard her powers of obliteration that are produced through that vulnerability.
MG: In addition to outward self-harm and suicidal actions, are there other aspects of girlhood that Sad Girl Theory reframes, historically, as acts of resistance? Specifically, I’m talking about labor that is nonviolent, yet still pushed on women by a patriarchal society—things like putting on makeup, or being a mother.
AW: I think of femininity and the labor of upholding it as this truly tragic, exultant, pleasurable, and horrifying practice of extended, daily self-destruction, and I mean that in the best way.
The self has not served us. The self is a clearly exclusionary concept that only pertains to a small fraction of people on the planet, and the way some women have asserted their self-ness when given the opportunity has almost always fallen into patterns that oppress others. Questioning the cultural repudiation of “self-destructive tendencies” is fundamental for me: destroying the self might be key to women’s liberation, and it just so happens to be part of every woman’s beauty routine too!
The feminine labor of “doing one’s face,” for example, is a kind of self-multiplying, self-effacing self-fantasizing that often mirrors and converses with other practices of more “visible” self-destruction—they are sister actions. It’s not a coincidence that the trope of the “sad girl” is also hyperfeminized in an aesthetic sense; she’s usually glamorous, always beautiful. That beauty is often used to discredit her (especially because our standards of what makes something or someone “beautiful” are so deeply exclusionary), but I think her finely honed techniques of display make total sense. Display is how she exists in public, and it is often the only way she is allowed to exist in public.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Manifesto for Maintenance Art is hugely influential to me—it honors and acknowledges the feminized maintenance/care labor of girls and the poor (“After the revolution, who is going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?”). There’s something about caring for an un-self, or self-caring without asserting a self, only an image. [Seeing] girls putting on their makeup [while] riding the train [is] my favorite thing, because it exposes the ritual in public and says, “Oh, beauty? Yeah, it’s this thing I make with my hands every day.”
II. BRITNEY SPEARS SHAVES HER HEAD
MG: The image that always comes to my mind when I think about Sad Girl Theory is Britney Spears circa 2007. There was something about the act of her shaving her head that was so objectively terrifying, despite not being violent in any traditional sense of the word. It was like she took the violence onto herself and enacted it publicly, which is scarier than if she had enacted violence on someone else. She wouldn’t have been able to cause so much damage if she was being violent toward someone else, and she definitely wouldn’t have received as much empathy. Self-harm is the most efficient way for women to be violent.
AW: I love describing shaving her head as self-harm, because it implies that her long blond hair was her “self”—it kind of was.
MG: Right. I think what made it so frightening was not necessarily that she aggressively rejected societal beauty standards (although I think that was part of it), but that we were all forced to look at the necessary torment (and, arguably, self-harm) that goes into making femininity marketable. That’s where the real terror lies.
In a sense, [her act] was not only resisting the constraints of her own fame, but it was also anticapitalist, even if that’s not what she intended. She mocked and rejected the impossible set of conflicting ideals she was expected to embody as a young female pop star, and revealed a deep sadness that is impossible to market in any traditional way. She forced people into the uncomfortable position of reexamining their own definition of suffering by publicly acknowledging that her own body sometimes feels like a flesh prison. (Celebrities: they’re just like us!)
AW: Like everything else, sadness is marketed in all sorts of ways. Find me an affect that isn’t also a commodity! Britney was aestheticizing and embodying her supposed “breakdown.” She was making her sadness material in a way that could be passed between girls forever as an image of solidarity. I know when I saw Britney shave her head, my first thought was, I know that feeling.
And she is smiling, right? In the photograph that repeated over and over (and that she knew would repeat over and over), she is smiling—she’s giving us this moment of extremely pleasurable (and maybe frightening) effacement. I like that a lot because I think sadness is very pleasurable at times. It’s a sensation of multiplicity.
MG: Yeah, the smile really added to the out-of-control horror of the situation. It showed that even though she was aware that she was harming herself and her career, she was also aware of the pure, unmatched pleasure that comes with ruining something beautiful.
AW: “Ruining something beautiful” makes me immediately think of the pleasure children and adults get from building something and knocking it down—the fact that you build it specifically to knock it down. The bigger and the more beautiful the thing you build, the more pleasure you get from destroying it.
MG: That could be seen as a metaphor for abusive masculinity. Abusive men build you up and give you expectations so that it’s more destructive when they knock you down. Britney was just knocking herself down so that nobody else could. She effectively protected herself from the disappointment of having someone else destroy the thing she built.
III. “HURTING YOURSELF IN ORDER TO AVOID HURTING OTHERS” IS ONE DEFINITION OF MATERNITY
MG: Sad Girl Theory aims to expand the definition of violence so that it’s no longer something that can be enacted only outwardly. It acknowledges that there is a power to inward-facing violence too. Society presents us with this binary of “acceptable violence” versus “unacceptable violence”—cops murdering black children is acceptable, but a civilian breaking the window of a CVS during a Black Lives Matter protest is unacceptable. The government is allowed to enact violence, but the individual is not. To me, that is a backward and unacceptable way to think about violence.
But what about self-harm? We get very confusing messages about it, as women. We are told that hurting yourself is generally bad, but then we’re encouraged to hurt ourselves in specific ways in order to fit societal beauty standards. We should starve ourselves to stay thin, but anorexia is bad. If you wear a short skirt and get harassed, it’s your fault for not dressing modestly. If you wear a hijab and get harassed, it is your fault for dressing too conservatively.
Women are repeatedly characterized as nonthreatening and nonviolent. At worst, we are viewed as annoying or crazy, but we never get labeled as “scary,” and I find that really frustrating. Because, to me, living as a woman is just an unending series of violent acts.
And in that sense, I feel like Sad Girl Theory has everything to do with violence—specifically, introducing a more inclusive definition of violence and expanding the role of this newly defined violence within the history of political resistance. Yet I’ve repeatedly seen the theory described as a “nonviolent” rebellion against societal expectations. What role do you think violence plays in Sad Girl Theory?
AW: Sad Girl Theory gets described as “anti-violent” or “nonviolent” all the time, which drives me crazy, because to me there is an obvious and very real violence in a girl’s efforts to destroy herself.
Anyone who has met an anorexic fourteen-year-old girl knows that she is terrifyingly violent, even when she is doing absolutely nothing. In fact, it’s her doing of nothing that makes her so violent. It is her commitment to nothingness.
MG: When I think back to times in my life when I’ve starved myself, usually I did it as a way to scare someone I was romantically involved with. I got a perverse pleasure from denying myself sustenance, but that wasn’t exactly why I did it. I did it to frighten the person I was dating. They made me feel bad, so I wanted them to feel afraid. To me, that’s not a nonviolent act. That was my way of responding in the language of violence despite my unwillingness to harm anyone besides myself.
But we live in a culture that doesn’t respect nuance, so it’s hard to say, “Well, be skinny but don’t starve,” because we actually do want women to starve; it’s just that we don’t want women to starve so much that their misery becomes an inconvenience to us.
AW: Right. The girl anorexic is taking the praxis she’s inherited culturally and following it to the logical outcome. She’s an accelerationist, to put it in political terms.
The British suffragettes had this motto of protest: “Objects or themselves.” Meaning they participated in violent protest but never against other bodies. They enacted violence only against objects, like property (both public and private), or themselves. They set government officials’ holiday homes on fire, as long as no one was in them. Mary Richardson slashed The Rokeby Venus, one of the most famous paintings in England at the time, and Emily Davison committed public suicide by stepping in front of the king’s race horse at the Epsom Derby. I find that really interesting, despite their other ideological failings. They are rightly critiqued for an implicit and explicit racism—and, as with most of the radical histories I study, I am hoping to be able to take some parts of their more generative thinking and reject others, such as the imperialism, racism, and fundamental issues around class.
“Objects or themselves” is a powerful idea. For one, it equates their bodies with objects, which is a very proto-object-oriented ontology attitude (“Us and things: we’re the same!”), but it also maintains an ethics of care alongside an ethics of violent resistance.
MG: Right. They are radical in how they inherently view their own bodies as “less valuable” than other bodies. They’re willing to hurt themselves in order to avoid hurting others, which is the most traditionally “maternal” way to be.
AW: “Hurting yourself in order to avoid hurting others” as a definition of maternity is really dark and cool. And what would a maternal practice of violent revolt look like? I live for questions like that.
MG: Creating another person whom you have to make sacrifices for until you die is so hard-core.
AW: Right, and even if you don’t create the person yourself—motherhood is not a biological position but a social one—still, you are sustaining a lack of self every day. Hélène Cixous says woman is “the desire-that-gives.” You prioritize the other over yourself, but in this case, the other is also an “extension” of the self, therefore you are prioritizing mutuality over a sense of the individual. Moms invented communism.
IV. A POST-DAD UNIVERSE
MG: A cultural trope that I think is often accurate is “the man who can’t talk about his feelings.” Toxic masculinity has isolated men, and forced them to suffer on their own. Which means their emotions can manifest as this feedback loop in their head. And the frustration from that cyclical thought pattern often leads to violence if left unchecked.
Feminized suffering, however, tends to occur within a group. It’s like, If I have to suffer, why do it in silence? Why do I have to feel alone and crazy if I know other women are suffering too? Do you feel like the intention of Sad Girl Theory is to create a metaphysical “space” for women to be comfortable suffering openly?
AW: I don’t think Sad Girl Theory is necessarily about creating a space to suffer openly, or visibly, or with greater representation, because that implies a call to arms, so to speak; a change in behavior. What I’m trying to say is that girls are already suffering, so here is how we can read their actions differently. And, as a call to reflect differently, the theory can live in multiple ways, because a lot of people can do it. It goes without saying that I am limited by my own history, my own privilege, and my own subjectivity. Sad Girl Theory is a lens that can be applied to many different histories I’ll never know, and it’s my hope that this process goes on without and beyond me.
That said, the retrospective can happen in the present too. I think we can do something and reflect on it simultaneously. But Sad Girl Theory is not attached to a future action at all. Fuck the future.
MG: Reclaiming autonomy by changing the way you think about past events is, to me, one of the defining struggles of womanhood. Society exists to prevent women from confirming that our experiences of oppression are universal. I think that’s why so many women gravitate toward the internet, even though we experience endless harassment on it. Because the reality is that we experience harassment everywhere, but online we can at least have direct communication with other women to confirm that we aren’t crazy. Why do you think so many aspects of society exist specifically to shut off communication between women?
AW: Communication between girls is actively dangerous to the status quo, which is why it’s vilified as “gossip.” It makes me think of that line from Adrienne Rich: “When a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.”
MG: Right. The idea of “mean girls” exists specifically because it’s beneficial to capitalism. If women don’t fight with each other, we will end up fighting together against what’s oppressing us, and so much of what’s oppressing us directly benefits the ruling class, which is primarily made up of wealthy men.
AW: There’s this amazing part in Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici, where she explains how the destruction of the “commons”—which were bits of land that everyone could grow food on, that didn’t belong to anyone, not even the state—was this super-important step in the development of capitalism (obviously), but was also totally world-destroying for the women of those communities, who weren’t allowed to own property. Women relied completely on the commons. The commons were primarily a “feminine” space. So the advent of private property as we know it today actively relied on denying women mutual spaces of shared resources.
MG: On that note, I’m curious about your experience with female friendships. Personally, I had a lot of girl friends as a child and young adolescent. I struggled with it, though. Young girls are capable of being really mean, and I was a very shy, very depressed child. I got bullied a lot. As a result, I started having only male friends in my late teens. It was nice at first—they reminded me of my brothers—but I quickly realized that being “one of the guys” usually just means that your male friends are comfortable being misogynists in front of you. As a result, I now place a lot of value in my friendships with women. Was your experience similar to mine? Or have you always valued female friendship the way you do now?
AW: I grew up in a girl universe, post-dad. I had a single mom: I went to a girls’ school; I didn’t know any boys. So it wasn’t even a choice for me. Boys always scared the shit out of me, honestly. I thought they were all either stupid or scary. I’m only just finding out that kind ones exist. Which is not to say that that girl universe wasn’t super controlled by masculine influence—the girls’ school was like a little hive-mind of how to attract men—but it was structural rather than individual.
MG: Yeah, that’s the realization I eventually came to: that female friendships only suck insomuch as they are shaped by male ideals. But you were able to find like-minded girl friends among the hell?
AW: I was a mess but I found people to hold on to until the ride was over. We were definitely grasping at each other and screaming with our eyes closed, though. I don’t know if any of us ever really looked at each other that hard… Wait, no! I take that back. Honestly talking about the female friendships I had during adolescence is so emotional that I often want to disavow what I say about them, but they were very primary and formative. Female friendships were my first experiences of love outside of the family. I still feel a lot of grief.
MG: Yeah, female friendships in adolescence hold the same emotional texture for me as actual romantic heartbreak.
AW: Exactly. They were melodramas of attachment and loss. We were all so committed to destroying ourselves that our intimacy was born through that.
MG: Teen girls are able to have really nuanced relationships with each other through the suffering—or maybe because of the suffering—in a way that most men seem unable to do, especially in adolescence. It honestly makes me feel a little sad for men. How are they fulfilled?
AW: Men get everything else. They don’t need feelings.
V. “TECHNOLOGIES OF POWER”
MG: I also wanted to talk a little bit about your experience with chronic illness. There is a long history of doctors not believing women who are sick, and I know that has led to some serious suffering and self-harm, both historically and in the present day. That said, I do think it’s important to be aware of the differences between suffering from a physical sickness and patriarchy-induced suffering, even though they go hand in hand sometimes. Could you talk a little bit about how having cancer affected your life and worldview?
AW: Today is actually my eleven-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis—I’ve been cancer-free for ten years.
MG: Oh, wow. So you got cancer pretty young, huh?
AW: Yes, I was fourteen. The tumor literally grew as a direct result of the rush of estrogen in puberty. Like, the cancer grew alongside my breasts. My woman-body nearly killed me. It’s so easy to metaphorize, it’s annoying.
MG: Going through puberty and cancer at the same time sounds like a uniquely horrifying experience. I can’t even imagine what it might feel like to know that becoming a woman literally triggered a deathly illness. Do you think your specific experience with cancer was a catalyst for your development of Sad Girl Theory?
AW: It was paradigm-shifting, for sure. It made me think about bodies very differently, death very differently, gender differently, et cetera. I was suddenly very aware of the way my body was controlled and sustained by technologies of power, which were embodied by these very kind but also oppressive white-coated, white-haired white men who could treat my body as an object of interest, a scientific specimen, at will.
But I also feel like my cancer was just a very concentrated, high-density version of what all girls go through: the realization that their body is an object that has been manipulated and articulated by forces much larger than themselves. Mine was just being manipulated in a literal sense.
MG: I imagine that witnessing your body going through the natural changes of puberty and having it simultaneously manipulated by modern science could make you feel really powerless. You were forced to surrender to a faceless system and a series of natural events, neither of which you had any control over. I can see how the reaction would be to reframe your own experiences, because you didn’t have the option of picking yourself up by your bootstraps and starting a revolution in the streets. You had to work with what you had. Do you think the realization that you had very little control over your physical being (as a woman and as a sick person) was part of why you developed Sad Girl Theory? Was it a way for you to gain control over what you went through?
AW: Yes, because it also gave me the idea that bodies are just these weird flesh-languages that we could talk through in whatever way we want. It made me see how un-special my suffering was. It made me interested in other forms of protest because I physically couldn’t smash a window, even though I wanted to.
It made me aware of and invested in the common space and the mutual and the shared, which is not to say the universal. It wasn’t about finding a sameness, but about realizing how my differences were not any more particular than anyone else’s differences.
There is nothing more humbling than sitting in pediatric oncology and seeing a lot of sick children, many of whom will die much earlier than anyone should, and their parents playing with them, and thinking, Wow, this space of identification and care is so much more precious than the boundaries that constitute myself as a single unit.
MG: And there is something so inclusive, so inherently femme, about telling people that they don’t need to be able-bodied in order to resist the status quo. That you can participate in a revolution just by way of existing in your own body, and that your suffering, though it’s a horrible and unnecessary burden, can also be a tool to fight the status quo, if you want it to be.