How girls are finding empowerment through being sad online

This artist is using Instagram and selfies to subvert the objectification of women throughout history – and she's calling it Sad Girl Theory

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Audrey Wollen The Rokeby Venus
Photography Audrey Wollen

Self-proclaimed tragic queen and Instagram artist Audrey Wollen came to our attention last year, marking out her own digital space with Judith Butler/Sailor Moon mash-ups, a twitter account documenting her physical ailments and recreations of renaissance paintings – one of which was the victim of Richard Prince’s recent Instagram pillage. But if there’s one thing the LA-based artist has done that you need to know about it’s Sad Girl Theory.

She proposes that – despite things being on the up for women these days – sometimes being treated as the lesser sex still sucks, and as an act of political resistance we should acknowledge that and be as goddamn miserable as we want. “The shade of feminism that’s chosen for media attention is always the one most palatable to the powers that be – unthreatening, positive, communal,” explains Wollen. “I felt kind of alienated by contemporary feminism, because it demanded so much of me (self-love, great sex, economic success) that I just couldn’t give.” Taking cues from her knowledge of art theory, Wollen's work aims to reframe the sadness of women throughout history as a way of fighting back. Below, we got the 101 on Sad Girl Theory alongside her throughts on Virginia Woolf, Brittany Murphy and reclaiming objectification via the medium of selfies.

How would you explain what Sad Girl Theory is?

Audrey Wollen: Sad Girl Theory proposes that the sadness of girls should be recognised as an act of resistance. Political protest is usually defined in masculine terms – as something external and often violent, a demonstration in the streets, a riot, an occupation of space. But I think that this limited spectrum of activism excludes a whole history of girls who have used their sorrow and their self-destruction to disrupt systems of domination. Girls’ sadness is not passive, self-involved or shallow; it is a gesture of liberation, it is articulate and informed, it is a way of reclaiming agency over our bodies, identities, and lives.

Who are your favourite sad girls?

Audrey Wollen: Sad Girl Theory is born out of the cult of tragic queens that have always fascinated young girls: people like Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath, Frida Kahlo, or Virginia Woolf. My favourites change all the time, but right now I’m really into Brittany Murphy, Hannah Wilke, Elena Ferrante, Clarice Lispector, and Persephone, queen of the underworld.

Why is Sad Girl Theory necessary right now, and why should we all be sad girls? 

Audrey Wollen: I think Sad Girl Theory has a resonance now because feminism has made such a big “comeback” in the media lately. I feel like girls are being set up: if we don’t feel overjoyed about being a girl, we are failing at our own empowerment, when the voices that are demanding that joy are the same ones participating in our subordination. Global misogyny isn’t the result of girls’ lack of self-care or self esteem. Sad Girl Theory is a permission slip: feminism doesn’t need to advocate for how awesome and fun being a girl is. Feminism needs to acknowledge that being a girl in the world right now is one of the hardest things there is – it is unimaginably painful – and that our pain doesn’t need to be discarded in the name of empowerment. It can be used as a material, a weight, a wedge, to jam that machinery and change those patterns.

“Girls’ sadness is not passive, self-involved or shallow; it is a gesture of liberation, it is articulate and informed, it is a way of reclaiming agency over our bodies, identities, and lives” – Audrey Wollen

Was there a specific moment you were responding to? I feel almost like it would be relevant at any point in history.

Audrey Wollen: Totally! Before history, even! The patriarchy is the oldest system of power there is. Sadness, tears, even self-harm have been considered symptoms of femininity for centuries. A symptom, of course – never an autonomous act. It’s so rewarding to dig deep into history and find artefacts of women’s liberatory gestures that have always been cornered away as “madness.” It’s comforting to know that we were never not fighting.

How are self-identified Sad Girls relating to – or subverting – the cliché of women as weak and sensitive? 

Audrey Wollen: I think that those clichés of the weak, sensitive women are just there to psych us out, because we get stuck in a catch 22: if you act “strong,” you’re a bitch; if you act emotional you’re weak and pathetic. Once you’ve accepted that you are going to be affirming a sexist cliché no matter what you do, because those clichés are designed to swallow our entire existence, you can do what you actually feel like. It’s dangerous to have your radical politics caught in a cycle of reaction – trying to “disprove” the patriarchy, as if the patriarchy actually has some logic or evidence behind it.

What current projects are you working on?

Audrey Wollen: I’m trying to write a book, which will be the culmination of Sad Girl Theory, or at least the materialisation of it. I’m also researching and working on a new body of artwork about the early hysteria patients of La Salpêtrière, the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, the erotics of the hospital, and my resemblance to 1990s Nicole Kidman.

What inspired your series of repetition photographs?

Audrey Wollen: It started with a purely aesthetic love for classical paintings that ended up spiralling into a semi-erotic wish to destroy them, sublimate them. By re-performing those images, I wanted to position myself as part of a lineage – a history of anonymous, naked girls. Part of that is a desire to re-claim the image, to take it back from the male hand, but I also accept that I am unable to escape the original: we are all followed, haunted, by these representations of girls. They set a standard for femininity that most girls mimic unconsciously every day, that control our understanding of what is beautiful, what is sexy, what is powerful.

So, there’s the pleasure of interruption (of stealing, of smearing) but also of identification and fantasy: I want to be the girl in the painting, I’ve always wanted to be the girl in the painting. By inserting my body into the image, I could jiggle it out from the very strict confines of history, let it breathe a little, and actually look at what was happening there, what those bodies were living through, what ideals they were promising. That gave me a way to think through every kind of image, not just classical paintings but conceptual art of the 1960s, fashion photographs, anime TV shows, etc.

They kinda remind me of what the art critic John Berger said about representations of women in art – how they’re always looked at or acted upon. How does your work respond to that?

Audrey Wollen: Yes, exactly! Berger is basically saying women don’t appear in art as subjects, only objects – we talk a lot about the objectification of women in the media or in artwork, but I don’t think we really grasp the implications of that kind of representation. When you are an object, you are incapable of your own actions, and you are vulnerable to anyone’s actions upon you. You are a hollow receptacle for other people’s desires and movements. The painting is a scene of real horror and violence, even when it is just a nice picture of a pretty girl lying on a bed. 

What can 21st Century Instagram girls learn from art history?

Audrey Wollen: I think the Instagram girl is already part of art history; she’s submerged in it. The selfie is slightly different because it is mediated by tech and the internet rather than a man with a paintbrush, but it still serves a similar function. I’m really interested in how porn, painting, and technology have blended together to create a whole generation of girls who endlessly repeat their own image. I really believe that we can use the products of the patriarchy as tools to dismantle it: the objectification of girls can be re-staged and read differently. So let’s flip it around: what if the naked horizontal girl wasn’t a symbol of subordination, but a symbol of rebellion? What about the nature of objects can be used to our advantage? In anime, there are a lot of characters who are half robot, half girl, who are totally infantile and eroticised and still totally deadly. What can we learn from her and her use of object-ness?

See more from Audrey Wollen here

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