All Alone in Their White Girl Pain

In college, I had an African American professor who slept with his students or took them on dates in the hope of sleeping with them. He was a likable, charming dude, aside from being deeply color struck (the students he pursued were always white girls, white-passing Black girls, biracial or light-skinned Black, Desi, Ethiopian, or Somali girls.) As one of the dark-skinned girls outside the scope of his predilection, I grew resentful. It wasn’t good or healthy attention, but I assumed it resulted in easy As for the light-skinned girls. 

One day, the professor drew a black woman’s fat buttocks on the board, as a part of an impromptu discussion about Sara Baartman. The image was jarring and vulgar and not in any way part of the curriculum. As I slouched in my seat, next to my class friend (one of his objects of affection), I felt exposed, vulnerable, raw, other. It reminded me of another class, in a different department, in which a white TA said the n-word (hard r) multiple times as part of a lesson on semiotics. The secondary (or perhaps primary) lesson I took away from both classes was that men felt entitled to whittle women’s existence down to abstractions right in front of us. 

And in a way, the advent of visual, performance-based platforms like Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok has only bolstered this reality. On these platforms, there is no shortage of taut faces, puffed-up lips, and sloped noses—what the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino calls Instagram Face—to consume as disembodied objects outside of their proper context of a body, mind, and spirit. Visibility online, as a girl or woman, comes with an awareness of your own othering. For celebrities like Lana Del Rey, who, in a recent Instagram post, spoke of being unfairly scrutinized—and for girls and women at the margins with far less online popularity than her—this is a shared experience. 

Del Rey’s May 21 post, framed as a “question for the culture,” began by name-checking Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Kehlani, Camila Cabello, Doja Cat, and Ariana Grande, artists who’d topped the charts in recent years with songs about, according to Del Rey, “being sexy, wearing no clothes, fucking, cheating, etc.” She highlighted the success of these women, then lamented how the thematic elements within her own music, like femininity and fragility, have been criticized. 

While perhaps some of the criticisms lobbed at Del Rey are unwarranted, the suggestion that the other artists mentioned—all of whom happen to be black and/or racially ambiguous—aren’t victims of the same culture that wounds and bruises women, came across to me as a hostile, self-pitying exercise in revisionism. 

Del Rey doubled and tripled down on her post, with a follow-up letter and grainy black-and-white video. In the letter, she suggested her detractors were trying to start a “race war.” The video captured more of Del Rey’s thoughts: “The need for fragility in the feminist movement—it’s gonna be important.” 

While it’s true women have successfully harnessed their pain to achieve carceral justice in recent years (see Me Too), the act of weaponizing fragility feels ever more fraught in our current political climate and increasingly urgent struggle for black liberation. The fact that Del Rey’s post appeared roughly two weeks after Alison Roman’s similarly troublesome critiques of  Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo’s business strategy makes it feel all the more thoughtless, but it certainly tracks.  In the “culture” Lana was speaking to, a certain strain of white woman villainy has gone mainstream. As of this writing, Del Rey hasn’t amended her statement. 

In her defense, Del Rey is a product of a United States of America rife with multitudinal structures of feeling, competing viewpoints untidily jumbled up into ever-materializing thought bubbles in the zeitgeist. There’s a first America, and then there are the other Americas. The other Americas are systematically eliminated from the collective imagination of first America, reinforcing its own myopia. The same can be said of the internet, particularly social media in the past 15-plus years. There’s the one where white girls are praised for looking at their own reflections, where their white girlness is fawned over in magazines like i-D and Dazed for neatly fitting into insular notions of beauty—or being the offspring of famous academics, artists, actors, and oligarchs. And then there’s everything else.

Despite knowing deep down that it’s steeped in failure, first America continues to pat itself on the back. As a result, the other Americas turn ever more inward, inadvertently fortifying their own cultural erasure. Their pain and injury become a crystallized intelligence of personal history and shared psychic memory. As a Black millennial woman who came of age on the internet, I continually found myself drawn to—and simultaneously erased from—a particular corner of the Internet that flourished in the 2010s, and from which Del Rey emerged. 

Audrey Wollen, the 28-year-old daughter of the film theorist Peter Wollen (the ex-husband of Laura Mulvey, who famously coined the term “male gaze”) zeroed in on this particular corner with a project she calls “Sad Girl Theory.” 

Never am I more aware of the internet I have no part in than when I try to engage with the work of Wollen, who serves as a sort of avatar for the first America. Her “theory” was that internet-fluent sad girls have inherited a legacy from girls who, historically, “used their sorrow and their self-destruction to disrupt systems of domination.” She explained to i-D in a 2014 interview: “I want to stand with the girls who are miserable, who don’t love their body, who cry on the bus on the way to work. I believe those girls have the power to cause real upheaval, to really change things.” 

Her project—a series of self-portraits that self-objectify, often through Wollen embedding herself in famous works of art—appears, to me at least, to be little more than a vibe she intuited while perusing Tumblr.com. It falls in line with the “Teen-Girl Tumblr Aesthetic,” a visual and textual style deeply informed by the social media network’s nostalgia effigies—reblogged images from Sofia Coppola films, Elizabeth Wurtzel or Sylvia Plath quotes, angst-ridden writing, portraits of white girlhood by Petra Collins, pastel shades, selfies, kitschy and whimsical pastiche a la Rookie Magazine, and Lana Del Rey’s fully realized visual and sonic identity—an aesthetic that would later materialize in #GirlBoss marketing ephemera and co-working spaces.

In The Teen-Girl Aesthetic, Alicia Eler and Kate Durbin theorize the style as a reimagining of the “archetypal lusty teenage dream. … They hijack the notion of adolescence, attempting to reinstall it into adults who have already experienced it—the heightened emotions, the epic breakups, the popularity contests, the self-actualizing, the loss of virginity, the sugar-sweet feeling of falling in love again for the first time. American pop culture idealizes the adolescent experience, re-creating it through nostalgia; hypersexualized female bodies; and fleeting, sugary feelings.”

At Tumblr’s peak, a valorization of delicacy and softness, juxtaposed with violence, permeated, and a flimsy case was built for weakness transmuted into a callus or armor, the remnants of which have now collapsed into itself with Lana Del Rey’s recent breaking of the fourth wall of her persona. 

Moreover, Wollen’s “theory” and the Teen Girl Tumblr-cum-Girl Boss aesthetic are both clear examples of invisibilization, a concept put forth in literature like Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, where Ellison’s black protagonist is socially invisible in white society. Sociologist Benno Herzog expands on this idea in his work, showing the complexity and ambiguity of the term. Over Twitter, Herzog explained to me the double consciousness embedded in the concept of invisibilization, how visibility—and representation—is not always positive, that they can function as both mechanisms of control or image distortion. “Often Black women are socially invisibilized. But they are also visibilized in a stereotyped way by our mass culture. I think visibility as an emancipatory concept is much about autonomy. It is about groups and individuals having the power to actively build their public image instead of being the passive object of discourses shaped by others.”

As recent protests erupted across the other Americas in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Wollen quietly posted poems by Amiri Baraka and June Jordan to her Instagram. (She’s since deactivated.) The polite white society virtue-signaling Black poets offer, in particular Baraka who was tokenized in San Francisco during his time, is not lost on Black people. Such posts contradicted and flattened Wollen’s past invocation of protest and upheaval. Those sad white girls didn’t become the agitators as Wollen predicted; but rather, Black girls and women like Teigh Mcgee, Mica Grimm, Oluwatoyin Salau, and Assa Traore did. They’re the cause of the real upheaval and change we’re presently experiencing, and yet they’re erased from Wollen’s entire project. There isn’t even a footnote in her various interviews and Instagram captions mentioning the diasporic version of sad girl internet minutiae: the viral “immigrant daughter” melancholia of Warsan Shire and Rupi Kaur poetry, Melina Matsoukas’ beautifully rendered imagery in Rihanna’s “We Found Love” video,  Two Brown Girl’s Zeba Blay’s assertion of black women’s softness in the pursuit of self-discovery and decolonization, or Black Girls Talking’s Ramou Sarr’s synthesization of pop culture and art. Instead, Wollen’s theory consists only of white girl, first America trappings, which isn’t revolutionary, despite the writer branding herself as a subversive and radical iconoclast.

In my own half-baked rambling, a blog post titled “Girl Pain” from 2013, I attempted to reconcile dissonant ideas within girl culture by highlighting a shared experience—that men, with their mocking and ridicule, were to blame for the collective trauma of celebrity girls and women and their sad girl fans, regardless of race or ethnicity. At the time, I was still negotiating my 22-year-old voice. The lack of style is underpinned by class differences out of my control, as the daughter of immigrants with no formal writing education, but of course, I viewed it as a terminal illness. I coined a term—and a theory, if you will—and my only mistake might have been not marrying it to a thin and white visual identity.

When Wollen proposed her Sad Girl Theory via Instagram and in interviews with reputable publications, the social feeds of many young, sullen white girls in their teens and early 20s (or 40s, in the case of women like Melissa Broder, the poet behind the @sosadtoday Twitter handle) were ubiquitous with a specific kind of aestheticized feminine expression. It was peak White Sad Girl. 

“As a person who enjoys wallowing in pain, I thought [sad girl Tumblr culture] was a leisure activity, not a revolutionary one,” says Nikki Ecklund, a close friend I met in the early ’00s via an internet forum for fans of the film Holes, starring Khleo Thomas and Shia LaBeouf. (She also mentioned that she listens to Lana Del Rey, and identifies with her, for similar reasons: “I feel like Lana Del Rey enjoys being victimized on some level, and so do a lot of us,” she says, clarifying that by “us” she means people who haven’t been actually victimized. “Maybe what she really wants is to stop being criticized for that.”)

While early Tumblr (similar to early Instagram) was mostly a visual medium, it evolved to encompass “social justice warrior” rhetoric as many college-aged women became radicalized on the platform. In 2012, anger and sadness over the death of Trayvon Martin thrust many young black and brown women into the role of the internet’s “id.” The debut of Lena Dunham’s Girls the following year spawned a virtual cafeteria-style food fight between young, extremely online, activist-y women of color and white Brooklynite writers such as Emily Gould. (A 2017 tweet from the Hollywood Reporter stating Dunham sold the show to HBO with a page-and-a-half-long pitch resurfaced in recent days).

By the summer of the following year, critical theorist Jack Halberstam published a critique of Internet activism on their blog, which can be extrapolated to the cultural fallout from that previous year, with how many girls and women of Tumblr wielded language they half-understood to speak to their experiences of injury and pain. Halberstam’s “You Are Triggering Me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma” was swiftly rebutted by Katherine Cross over at Feministing. Both of their critiques hinge on the pesky fact of how the language of abuse and individual trauma became a mainstay of online activist spaces like Tumblr, giving many free reins to unproductively argue, create bully networks that descend like wolves on anyone for minor infractions, vie for impossible ideological purity and problematize the so-called faves, producing information bubbles of bias in the process.

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In an email, writer and editor Lauren O’Neal told me that, from her recollection of that era, emotional rifts were borne out of the rules of engagement that self-styled activist girls and women established. “Any given social justice group starts establishing rules about what is considered racist, sexist, and so forth, and because those issues are so serious, the rules are taken very seriously, even though inevitably some of them don't actually make that much sense,” she wrote. “Then people start competing to show their ideological purity, and people who disagree with anything, even very minor things, are seriously shunned and ejected from the group, and everyone will encourage everyone else to unfriend them because they're worthless trash.”

Jess, a friend of Sanford’s and a black feminist in the medical field, says that social justice is not about avenging our feelings, though it did often feel like it was exclusively about that back then:  

I'm allowed to use anger as one of the tools in my weaponry against prejudice. But I've also seen an ugly side to this approach, where people go into attack mode so swiftly and completely that it borders on abusive. The ironic thing to me is that I've maybe only once or twice seen actual marginalized people cross the line in this way. What I see more often is relatively privileged people usurp the language and tools of the truly oppressed to shut others down. You know the type...who find some "otherness" to cling to, and then they yell about being triggered at every opportunity... the language of "triggering" has largely been co-opted from people who've experienced intense trauma like rape. You've now got people on tumblr claiming they've been triggered by a photo of a hot dog.

Overwhelmingly, the ones who were spared from the mob were those with the most value as a victim, the metrics of which were ever-shifting. This was known as the “oppression Olympics,” an extreme sport where the privileges one possesses are used as a cudgel against a person, as well as weighed against their perceived claims to oppression and victimhood. But the sizing up didn’t stop at monied and famous white women like Dunham. Anyone could get that treatment, including black women who subverted expectations, i.e. were middle class, educated, gravitated toward a hipster sensibility instead of a hood one, etc.   

Over Twitter DMs, Emily Gould explained her instinct to defend Lena Dunham back in the day: “I think my biggest failing as a human being is feeling defensive of women who are getting piled on even when they are in the wrong. It has led me to die on a lot of stupid hills for people who I can’t imagine defending. I think what happened to me in 2008 made me think that everyone who got shat on by the Internet needed me to help them somehow.”

Granted, there’s a bit of narcissism in such a defense, but perhaps it goes both ways—whether it’s a knee-jerk reaction to defend someone you see yourself in, or to feel injured by someone’s view of the world that negates your existence. But when Girls premiered, inserting itself in the cultural narrative of what it means to be a young woman in America, while audaciously excluding black and brown women, to many, it felt like an unexpected twinge of a throbbing, festering wound. The exclusion felt personal, malicious, like women of color were having the news of their devaluation revealed to them via a twisted mirroring. 

After all, women of color, too, could be self-involved, solipsistic, and in possession of the same intangible, unquantifiable feminine genius, but we weren’t even good enough to warrant a side character or two made in our image apparently. That level of cultural erasure can’t be sublimated by dormant vulnerabilities like our white girl counterparts have based entire brands on. For the most part, we are not volcanoes with no promise of eruption; but rather, purveyors of the ecstasy and catharsis of unfettered feminine self-expression online, unbeholden to the white gatekeepers who’ve resisted the death of whites-only media institutions (with the exception of a handful of approved “of color” tokens, usually monied, pedigreed). To witness the perpetrators of this phenomenon—what Racialicious’s Carmen Van Kerckhove termed “hipster racism”—turn around and co-opt the social justice language they previously considered poison in this current reckoning is crazy-making. 

To some observers (myself included), it became clear that the Tumblr aesthetic Wollen exemplified in her work turned obsolete around the same time of her going public with Sad Girl Theory, which only magnified its incoherence, to me and many people who go to the same internet as me, people who belong to my America. It exposed an elitist, selfish, and exclusionary undercurrent within the blogosphere, one I had only previously known in the culture wars of 2013 that unmasked writers like Dunham and Gould as so-called villains. Their unmasking functioned like a heel turn in pro-wrestling, in which a “good” wrestler (or face) switches over to the dark side and becomes a character the audience boos at (a heel). Some of the most cathartic moments of wrestling storylines involve a character switching from one side to the other, making a face turn or a heel turn. The obvious limitations of the wrestler’s character, as originally conceived, is exposed. After exhausting all the possibilities of their character as a Hero of a storyline, the character is then inverted. White women, for years, have struggled to not come across as heel characters to black and brown women. 

Wollen’s theory is deceptively shallow, but to the TLDR masses, it scans as meritorious. I have taken to calling this illusion “third wave scam.” It can take the form of a cultural grift characterized by watered-down modern pop feminism—or a sly rebuke of it. It’s also a soul contract that tethers all the so-called fail-daughters: the boss babes, the Caroline Calloways, the Lenas, the Lanas, together in one big navel-gazing family. Whether the grift is an MLM, a Pinterest course, a cash-grab essay collection, semi-incoherent literary criticism, or a hollow theory propagated by a pretty white girl, the scam would not exist were it not for the leeway their skin color and class affords them to be mediocre, to fail skywards, bolstered by a pedigree that extends back to the inception of the first America. In this America, there is no glass ceiling for them, only an infinite sky. 

Third wave scam is evidenced, also, in cultural criticism and reportage by white women that reinforce the exclusion of black and brown women. Legacy publications give white women critics ample space and free, unadulterated reign to write about their taste for things like Glossier and So Sad Today, but they exclude women of color from the same cultural production. We don’t get to write about the things we specifically derive pleasure—or pain—from, things that tend to signal a working-class, racialized perspective. It’s telling, for instance, that the poet Warsan Shire was only canonized, despite being the most famous poet to come out of Tumblr,  after her worth was validated by a giant cultural figure like Beyoncé, whereas her white girl contemporaries have their hype artificially, and prematurely in many cases, manufactured by white women critics. And through this white, rarified system, a lot of bad thinking is normalized like Wollen and Broder’s fetishization of death, something they don’t have to worry about—at least not systematically. Sad Girl Theory, ultimately, is predicated on making suicidal ideation sexy, but when black girls are being murdered in their bed, what’s the point? 

In the years following Girls’ debut, Dunham’s black and brown women critics have continued unleashing the very real pain of invisibility. As pop culture writer and prolific Twitter user Hannah Phifer put it, “Black women will always be too loud for a world that never intended to listen to them.” 

Aurora Perrineau has Phifer’s quote pinned to the top of her Twitter feed. In 2012, when she was 17, the actress filed a police report accusing Girls writer Murray Miller of rape. Some might recall the joint statement from Dunham and co-showrunner Jenni Konner that followed, claiming that Perrineau’s accusation was “one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year,” something they knew because of “insider knowledge” they had in the case. Dunham later apologized to Perrineau, admitting she’d lied about having insider information. 

Over text, Perrineau, a naturally shy and reserved person, said that the attention from the story made her uncomfortable, ashamed even, but that it taught her how to use her voice. “I didn’t expect anything to come out publicly, but the positive here is I’ve been able to flip the narrative and educate people and work with organizations such as Futures Without Violence,” she says. “Speaking out taught me a lesson that I thought I already knew about black women, and how our stories are often sidelined and ignored, but having this come out and seeing the lack of support from people made me even more aware of the actual statistics of rape cases that go unreported, especially due to race. It’s an ugly reality, but often black women’s bodies truly mean less to some people.”

Konner and Dunham continue to work (so much for cancel culture), albeit in a quieter register. In their relative absence, however, countless other “villains” have emerged, especially among the girlbosses who’ve married feminism and capitalism, setting us all back. 

Sometimes, with so much attention in the culture on white women, it’s hard to stay grounded and focused on us, and how our lives matter, black girls specifically. But then I hear a song like 22-year-old Jensen Mcrae’s “White Boy.” In a silky, honey-doused lilt, Mcrae perfectly captures the sensation of feeling alone in a white crowd: “White girl arrives, I turn invisible/ I don’t like who I am to you, white boy.” There’s a sadness, but also a steadfastness. It’s a reminder that the Gen Z black kids are alright, that perhaps the main benefit of the millennial culture wars has been that they’ve inherited better ways of thinking that thrive outside of weird micro corners of the Internet, despite still having to deal with the same shit we had to, and then some. 

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