Young women on Tiktok are embracing self-destruction and nonchalant fatalism. Is it all a big joke or a sign of something more serious?
We all recognise her, the woman in her “Fleabag era”. We know that she is prone to showing up at work in last night’s make-up, smoking two cigarettes for breakfast or experiencing the “feminine urge” to fuck her sister’s boyfriend. We have spotted her everywhere, from the listless Rachel in Virginia Woolf’s Voyage Out to the checked-out narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. We know that she performs her pain as if it were a form of art; something outside herself that can be controlled, and yet chooses to revel in it regardless. This woman is a mess, a menace to herself and others, a self-raising red flag who would sooner die than communicate an emotion directly – and she’s the face of a new strain of feminism that has risen to prominence over the last few years. But, for all her crimes, is she even real?
The term “dissociation feminism” was coined by Emmeline Clein in 2019 in reference to a growing voice in pop culture – an oversharing-from-a-distance mode of expression used primarily by women when narrating their tragic life experiences. Think: Euphoria’s Rue, or any of the “skinny, precocious Irish beauties” in Sally Rooney novels. Described as “a curdling of the hyperoptimistic, #girlboss” feminism of the aughts, Clein’s dissociated feminist is dry and deadpan. She details “overtly horrifying facts about uniquely feminine struggles” in offhand jokes, of which she is always the punchline. And now, after a lifespan of three years, she has been sentenced to death.
“The nihilism, passivity, and destruction inherent to the ‘Fleabag era’ and dissociative feminism are damaging to the entire feminist movement,” Sophia Peyser writes in a recent article titled The “Fleabag” Era of Dissociative Feminism Must End. The riposte comes after “dissociative feminism” and “Fleabag era” gained traction on TikTok, resulting in a trend of young women posting about “wearing bathing suit bottoms as underwear”, “seeking vengeance for fun” and other things that men will never understand because they are not “A WOMAN WITH PAIN BUILT IN”. Like Clein, Peyser sees this as a symptom of something gone wrong. That, rather than fighting for progress as a movement, women are languishing in individualised malaise.
“For me, the ‘dissociative feminist’ is the archetypal cool girl,” says Ione Gamble, editor-in-chief of Polyester, who discussed dissociative feminism in a recent podcast episode. “She’s a bit messy without trying, doesn’t give a fuck about anything, very dejected about the world and apathetic about her future. But also, on the flipside, very aware of her emotions. I don’t think we’d be seeing these TikToks if there wasn’t a certain amount of self-awareness there.”
It’s worth noting that the critiques Clein and Peyser have put forward also exist on TikTok, where users are posting counter-definitions of what a “Fleabag era” is (i.e. destroying your life from the inside out, not free-bleeding in your Calvins) or lamenting the dangers of entangling romanticism with self-destruction. It’s also worth remembering that the “Fleabag era” trend comes from a side of TikTok that, while taken at face value like other forms of social media, often has more in common with entertainment. These usually aren’t the literal thoughts of actual people, but a form of abstract humour that speaks to things in the zeitgeist that may not feel personal at all. There is a very fine line between “Fleabag era” TikToks and a post you’d find on an absurdist meme page like @patiasfantasyworld. In fact, the dissociative feminist is very much the foil to another pseudo-ironic social media-born persona: the socialist bimbo. That is, a big-titted babe often seen reading out Marxist quotes in a sexy baby voice while holding a fluffy pink pen, like Elle Woods of the online left.
What we’re seeing here are signs of fracture, as the tone of feminism in a cultural sense splits between earnestness (the defining mood of the 2010s), and bitter irony (which has come to bookend it). It’s no coincidence that the dissociated feminist has ‘revived’ around the same time we’re seeing a resurgence of Effy Stonem standom, chaotic celebrity behaviour and indie sleaze – all of which share a similar nonchalance. The fatalistic tone of dissociative feminism, rather than anything new, has been the default tone of posting for years. The last decade was defined just as much by “hyperoptimistic, #girlboss” feminism as it was by dejected meme formats like ‘my parents at 25 / me at 25’. It’s just that now, rather than being applied to all life under late capitalism, they’re being applied specifically to the femme experience (call it the yassification of inequality). Clein’s article itself was a product of this type of posting, prompted by a viral tweet that said “what i love about my friends is that 70 years ago we all would have been lobotomized”.
“We do accept that a lot of different feminist movements coexist, whether it’s abolitionist feminism, fat liberation feminism – all these things intersect with each other and exist separately,” says Gamble, who examines the relationship between political and cultural feminism in her upcoming book, Poor Little Sick Girls. One thing she does note about dissociative feminism is that, despite arriving in response to “empowerment exhaustion”, it’s still being defined within feminism, rather than outside of it. “The girlies are more informed. They’ve grown up on the internet in a way none of us have, so they’re used to seeing every TV show they watch picked apart and everything they listen to have feminist undertones,” Gamble explains. “It makes sense that instead of saying ‘I hate all of this’, they find a way to see themselves in it.”
Though the term “dissociation feminism” is a relatively new one, the concept has been around for much longer, sometimes referred to in academia as “nihilistic femininity” or “womanly nothingness”. In a book called Modern Feminism and the Culture of Boredom, Allison Pease looks at Woolf’s Voyage Out through the lens of boredom as political commentary. “On one level, Woolf protests [...] women’s difficulty in achieving meaning in the male-formed world and presents boredom, often quite humorously, as a side effect of this confrontation. On another level, however, Woolf presents boredom much in the way that Martin Heidegger described profound boredom in his 1929–1930 lectures on the Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, as an indeterminate mood that undoes all interest and possibility and in which time becomes an empty, yawning expanse.”
The same, really, is true of the “Fleabag era” TikTok trend. On the one hand it’s fun to indulge the Joker within as a way to alleviate the doom of the pandemic, climate disaster, and endless political turmoil that pose a greater threat to younger generations. On the other hand, there is nowhere to go from there. “With Tumblr feminism, there were clear A-to-B’s: people making art on the internet became artists, or people who were doing activism online became activists, or they were being influencers and started profiting,” Gamble cautions. “I think dissociative feminism is interesting to talk about and gives people language to understand things maybe. But what would the next step be?”
Realistically, there isn’t one. The logical end point of dissociation isn’t revolution, it’s the void – and that’s a very dangerous thing to sleepwalk into, politically speaking. But it seems to me that young women on TikTok are more than aware of the void, if only due to how unavoidable it has become. And if you do accept that there’s a sense of self-awareness involved, as Gamble suggests, then perhaps we’re better off looking elsewhere for the future wave of feminism, and seeing the “Fleabag era” trend for what it is: a performative self-own. Not Fleabag the woman, but Fleabag the show.