Photo via Paramount.
Smudged mascara, messy hair, cigarette butts stained by a deep raisin-coloured lipstick, and perfect tears streaming down her face, the sad girl might be in deep emotional distress, but at least she is pretty when she cries.
With the release of Lana Del Rey’s newest album: Did you know that there’s a tunnel under Ocean Blvd, discussions surrounding the impacts of Del Rey’s persona on her young audience have resurfaced. Since the release of her sophomore album Ultraviolence in 2014, the singer has faced heavy criticism from many for romanticizing mental illness and abusive relationships through her songs. Del Rey has always denied any attempt at the matter and asserts that she writes from personal experience, using her art to process her feelings and complicated relationships with men. However, for the last decade, an alarming online aestheticization of melancholy, often tied to Del Rey’s lyrics, gained significant popularity on platforms such as Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and TikTok. The #prettywhenyoucry, referencing a song from Ultraviolence, accumulating over 104 million views on TikTok, begs the following question: Is the glamorization of sadness an issue for which Lana Del Rey is responsible, or is our society just darkly obsessed with the idea of a pretty girl suffering?
Throughout history, evidence of a societal fetish for female pain is undeniable. Quintessentially, dating back to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia’s drowning has been and continues to be romanticized through countless artistic renderings of the play, treating her death as elegant, poetic, and almost beautiful. Similarly, an aestheticization of sickness as Western beauty standards trace its origin back to the late 18th century and early 19th century when tuberculosis was widespread across Europe. Women who contracted the disease were deemed as beautiful, as tuberculosis “enhanced” their natural beauty by giving them flushed cheeks, pale skin, a skinny waist, silky hair, rosy lips, and sparkling, dilated eyes. Feebly marching towards their death, women were depravedly fetishized. Likewise, the neighbourhood boys’ obsession with the emotional distress and suffering of the Lisbon sisters in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is nothing short of perverted.
But what does the 21st-century sad girl have to do with all of this? The online glamorization of sadness becomes yet another way to romanticize female pain. It endorses the idea that, as a woman, your pain is only valid when it can be aestheticized or that, even when you are at your lowest, you must appeal to the androcentric gaze. The irony lies in that, for centuries, women have been belittled for their “emotionality,” deemed inferior to men’s “rationality,” yet have still been turned into objects of desire for it.
Moreover, in our day and age, the aestheticization of any behaviour inevitably gives capitalism an opportunity to creep in. The sad girl of the Internet comes with her own set of aesthetic expectations: dainty and lacy dresses, pleated skirts, cigarettes, Dior blushes and lipsticks, Clinique’s Black Honey Almost Lipstick, a love for the vintage, etc. Other than having nothing to do with true melancholy, those standards speak to our own overall societal definition of beauty. Because, of course, only conventionally attractive, young, thin, White girls can truly embody the sad girl archetype. With Hamlet’s Ophelia, The Virgin Suicides’ Lux Lisbon, Lana Del Rey, and Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting Portrait of a Young Woman in White representing iconic figures of the movement, the sad girl is clearly designed for a specific type of woman.
However, the line that we must beware not to cross is when the sad girl starts promoting toxic and self-destructive behaviours such as disordered eating, self-harm, and substance abuse. This image, often wrongly attributed to Lana Del Rey and her lyrics, can become dangerous when reaching a young and impressionable demographic. When she writes “he hurt me, but it felt like true love,” Del Rey is arguably denouncing and reflecting on the toxicity of being so blinded by love to the point of accepting abuse more than promoting it. Our duty as a society is to reflect on and aim to understand our bizarre attraction to female pain rather than deflecting the blame onto Del Rey at any opportunity we have.