Commercialising your favourite media trope
You’ve seen her before. Countless times. If you’ve been to Arts One at all in the last four years, you’ve probably seen three different iterations of her in one hallway. Who is she? She’s the Sad Girl. My bet is she has wide legged jeans, Doc Martens, a big jumper, and either a keep cup or headphones. Or both (guilty). She’s probably around 20, through to about 25. She probably has a Sad Girl Starter Pack playlist recommended to her on Spotify every five minutes… and blasts it constantly.
The Sad Girl isn’t something we’ve conjured up to haunt the halls of humanities buildings, she’s been around for centuries. She’s a highly-curated trope, one we’ve been perfecting across many forms of media. It’s hard to find an exact literary or media-based origin—Emily Dickinson wrote about her, as did Sappho. Nico’s 1967 Chelsea Girl evokes images of cigarette pants, actual cigarettes, and an overwhelming sense of melancholy. More modern iterations might include The Virgin Suicides, Fleabag, and, of course, Sally Rooney.
Sally Rooney released Conversations with Friends in 2017. It’s an ever-so modern “love” story. We follow Frances and Bobbi, two best friends navigating Dublin’s literary scene, falling in and out of love (and situationships) along the way. It took off, as Rooney’s presentation of young women as multi-layered, autonomous, and online people seemed revolutionary to some. They were flawed, sure, but that made them all the more relatable! Rooney had cracked the formula. Now, with a clear example of the Sad Girl, they seemed to be everywhere you looked. There was finally a defined subgenre for the women who’d grown up at the online turnaround! Tongue-in-cheek references to Instagram models and 2011 Facebook messaging, mixed with running mascara and some $8 Sauvignon Blanc… just like us, right?
One of our most intrinsic things as humans is our desire to find community. At the end of the day, all we want is to find people who feel like we do, the Sad Girl trope helps that happen. Julien Baker, in this Harper’s Bazaar article said that actually, being a Sad Girl isn’t entirely sad. Being melancholic is an important, necessary part of human life, and if we write songs about it, if we make films and write novels about it, then surely there’s some community, even comfort, in that.
However, icons in the Sad Girl space, like Sally Rooney, Dolly Alderton, Phoebe Bridgers, Taylor Swift, and even Olivia Rodrigo have started to capitalise on their sadness a bit. Of course, we’re in the later stages of capitalism. Pure enjoyment, completely for the sake of catharsis or a release, can only last so long. Everything we love gets picked up, over and over again, to be franchised, re-franchised, rebooted, and revamped. We’re seeing TV adaptations of books we read throughout lockdown, just so we can go through the emotions of it one more time. We’re seeing an emphasis on self-care in products we buy, because who’d want to interrupt their Sad Girl lifestyle with having bad skin? Corporations have figured us out, team. The unapologetically sad, feminine aesthetic has been co-opted into formulating products that we absolutely have to buy, otherwise we’re a fake.
It started for me with those Spotify daily mixes. If everything I listen to is nicely packaged into a daily playlist with enough running time to fill my commute over the bridge into uni, then the work I would have needed to do to find new music has already been done for me. If Facebook and Instagram algorithms have taken the time to find books that I might want to buy that are eerily similar to Sally Rooney, then that’s another thing I don’t have to do. Suddenly, my entire experience online’s been packaged for me, all I have to do is take it in. And the algorithm has decided, for better or for worse, that my identity, and what I consume, is centred around the Sad Girl. The other good thing: it’s infinite! Even as I’m writing this, Spotify’s decided I should listen to Pure Heroine, because I haven’t for a while, and the effort of actually searching it up is just unthinkable.
None of these things are new truths, we all know these things happen. We know how sponsored ads work and how if we’re not paying for a product or service online, we’re the product. We know this. Why, then, is it still so unsettling? It’s like parts of our day-to-day wardrobe have been specifically picked out for us online, even if we’re the ones going to our wardrobe and picking out the clothes. Parts of us have become inextricable from the online sources we draw from. For all these technological innovations over the past twenty years, it feels more and more like young girls are losing a space only for them, we haven’t got anywhere completely isolated from commercialisation anymore.
It’s easy to see the cynicism, the marketing, the financial backing in this. But we don’t have to—instead we can embrace her for what she is, what she does for us. These Sad Girls make room for these stories to be told, for our voices to be heard. If she exists, then young women finally have a space we can completely call our own—one that we can make sure avoids the jaws of cynical capitalisation, at least for a while.