‘Brave’ and ‘necessary’ or just regressive? How sad girls with bad boyfriends took over the internet – The Independent

'Brave' and 'necessary' or just regressive?  How sad girls with bad boyfriends took over the internet - The Independent

Bbeing a young woman is traumatic. Especially if you are a smart young woman, or a creative young woman, and especially if you have relationships with men. These relationships are places of trauma. Chasing them will destroy you. To fix yourself, the first and most essential step is to tell your story. Speak your truth. Make known all the ways the world – and the men in it – have harmed you. This is a political act. This is a feminist act. At least that’s what the most popular personal essays of recent years have taught us.

Think of the multitude of first-person, “confession” stories of women that have recently gone viral. Less than a month ago, The protector ran an essay with the headline “My boyfriend, a writer, broke up with me because I’m a writer”. In it, the American writer Isabel Kaplan tells how her boyfriend at the time was threatened by keeping a diary and then by her literary success. She denounces the way he “spoke derisively of the plethora of novels about women and their feelings, as well as the way women speak of feelings in general.” She writes that he called this phenomenon “militarized vulnerability.” She compares herself to Nora Ephron, a literary hero of his, describing her as “the patron saint of militarized vulnerability.”

Essential to Kaplan’s piece is the idea that this personal story of her broken relationship is not just about her and her ex, but symbolically: a case study of gender roles. Kaplan explicitly states at one point that “the ability to bend inch by inch while appearing to be erect is a useful and gendered skill”. She continues: “Most women I know do it regularly. They bend until they are cracked and then blame themselves for the pain in the body.

Another viral essay in 2019 – this time published in Paris review – charted remarkably similar territory. Like Kaplan’s essay, CJ Hauser’s “The Crane Wife” revolved around a broken relationship, the denial of a woman’s needs and desires, and a woman teaching herself to deny her own needs and desires. At its heart is a story from Japanese folklore of the titular “crane woman” – a bird who tricks a man into believing she is a woman by plucking out all of her feathers each night. “Each morning,” writes Hauser, “the crane woman is exhausted, but she is a woman again.” For the author, like Nora Ephron in Kaplan’s play, this folkloric and abandoned bird trickster acts as another patron saint of militarized vulnerability. It is the guiding spirit of the essay, helping it move romantically from the individual and specific to the general and gender-universal. “Keeping on becoming a woman is so much self-defeating work,” Hauser writes. ‘She never sleeps. She plucks out all her feathers one by one.”

In both cases, the general response to these personal stories of pretzelling, plucking, pain, and self-removal was admiration. On the Internet, women were quick to bestow contemporary buzzwords on the pieces: “Necessary.” “Brave”. “Recognizable”. “Forget your zodiac sign,” one viral tweet declared, “tell me what passages of The Crane Woman you immediately took a screenshot to show your therapist. In many ways, that tweet is a nice summary of the modern woman these essays seem to address and advocate for. She is drawn to stories that explain and categorize her personality, experiences and emotions; she is extremely online; she goes to therapy; she denounces and valorises therapeutic jargon in equal measure. Most importantly, she connects with other women through mutual emotional pain, along with the shared understanding that “men suck”.

Over the past year, a handful of critics have begun unpacking and unraveling this style of confessional writing, and the model of contemporary femininity it embraces. Most are themselves millennial women in the creative industries – the very group that should, supposedly, relate to these depictions of smart and successful but endlessly submissive, self-effacing girls. Instead, an increasing number of people are calling for an end to this overly simplistic view of gender and relationships.

In August, journalist and author Rachel Connolly criticized Hauser’s collection of essays, The Crane Wife: A Memoir in Essays. Connolly wrote of the collection’s tendency to weed out subjectivity in favor of “broad generalities that don’t quite add up – especially in statements about the way women are and how they act, and hence the form heterosexual relationships often take. ” Connolly returned to this subject in a piece Slate two weeks ago, suggesting that the trend for essays like Hauser’s and Kaplan’s is to applaud “not female honesty … but female contempt.” In a patriarchal society that delights in and demands the submission of women, contempt is, as Connolly points out, “a much-prized commodity”.

Register The protector, journalist Moya Lothian-McLean also denounced contemporary culture’s taste for stories that frame relationships through the reductive roles of victim and villain. Lothian-McLean labeled this genre as “romantic victimization”, writing that these stories are also based on “sweeping generalities … concerning the way men are and how they act in romantic relationships”. In these contemporary confessionals, when women bow and pretend, men insult and neglect. Essentially, the one-size-fits-all “bad relationship” narrative requires a depiction of men as inherently selfish, callous, and abusive, in order to construct a picture of womanhood as selfless and long-suffering. How exactly is this gender essentialism brave, bold, or politically radical?

Another piece of personal writing published in The protector this year revealed the regressive core of many modern personal essays. Written by journalist Phoebe McDowell, the piece revolved around her “shock and confusion” over her then-boyfriend’s revelation that they are trans. In her first-person account, the experience of someone coming to terms with their own gender identity is somehow transformed into a kind of marital abuse. Throughout, McDowell not only focused her own experience, but misused her ex-partner and showed a clear anger and disgust at their transition — even going so far as to wish them infertility. “If I can’t have his baby, no one should be able to,” McDowell wrote. This is where the reductive gender essentialism at the core of these popular personal pieces really leads: to a transphobic moral panic that rests on the portrayal of cisgender women as unique and innately vulnerable.

Because this type of confessional story is so popular, it can be tricky to try to criticize or dismantle it. To discuss them at all, it is necessary to clarify that these are not stories of abuse. Yes, they are usually stories where a romantic partner cheats, lies, or is dismissive and casually unkind. They are stories of bad relationships, where at least one of the people involved feels unsupported and unloved. But, despite how often they are received, they are not “#MeToo stories”. In this era of trauma and testimony, these things seem to be intertwined. This was conclusively proven when, after the publication of her Guardian article, Lothian-McLean was condemned as an apologist for social media abuse. Her apparent crime? Simply suggesting that feminists should operate on the belief that men, and the patriarchal society that privileges but also destroys them, can change.

“Relatable,” simplistic ideas about trauma and abuse may have influenced Amber Heard’s treatment by many this year


To write for The New Yorkers in January – in an essay that went viral – the critic Parul Sehgal described the dominance of “the trauma plot” in fiction and non-fiction, and that “to question the role of trauma, we have been warned, is tantamount to suppression”. She quotes writer Melissa Febos, who suggests in her book Bodywork: The Radical Power of Personal Story that anyone skeptical of trauma narratives replicates the “classic role of the perpetrator: to deny, discredit and reject victims to avoid being implicated or losing power”. The problem is that the newfound understanding of trauma theory and the language of abuse in the wider culture has led to its being applied to situations and relationships that – while undoubtedly shocking – are both consensual and more complex than a strict division into the roles of “ perpetrator” and “victim”. Millennials have been raised with the intertwined ideas that “your trauma is valid, your feelings are valid, your experience is valid” and “the personal is political”. Yet the radical roots of these teachings seem to have coalesced into a single script that conflates all kinds of relationship anxiety with abuse. An easy line is then drawn between villain and perfect victim – the one who bends like a metaphorical pretzel and plucks like a mythical bird.

It also does a disservice to the complicated and varied nature of trauma and abuse to applaud these stories. Because if someone’s experience – or their reactions to that experience – deviates from the script, they are often rejected. Just look at Johnny Depp’s defamation case against Amber Heard this year, the actor sued his ex-wife for damaging his reputation by alluding to domestic violence in their marriage in a newspaper op-ed. Hordes of people flocked to mock and discredit Heard’s testimony, despite the vast amount of evidence in her favor and Heard already winning a UK court case finding it to be “substantially true” that Depp could be referred to as a “wife beater”. According to many online, Heard did not play the role of the hurt woman to their expectations and taste.

If “recognizability” is the dominant rubric used to judge and praise contemporary writing, and if much of it revolves around women’s capacity for trauma and degradation, it should make us question the kind of suffering we should sympathize with. For example, why are so many of today’s sad girls and unsympathetic women conventionally attractive, young, cisgender, and white? Does clinging to a narrative of perfect, pretzelling victimization help hide power structures that actually give these women significant influence and personal agency?

Ultimately, the prevalence of the tortured white girl trope in contemporary culture suggests that grief and suffering make these women valuable, interesting, and worthy of attention. That the traumatic confessions of beautiful, young white girls are lucrative. Looking at the book deals and semi-influencer status bestowed on the viral confessors of the modern moment, it seems that “militarized vulnerability” is less accurate than “monetized vulnerability.” What is clear is that it is a trend that needs far fewer patron saints in the future.

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