Liu ’25: Literature needs more non-white sad girls

From Sylvia Plath to Lana Del Rey, many female artists have embraced a kind of acute sadness that feels both delicately feminine and inseparable from their femininity. It’s not the kind of sadness that can fade away and be forgotten after a few good shouts. It encompasses everything: illogical, inexplicable grief, with no real cause or real solution. It’s complex, petty and pathetic.

I call this exploration of female sadness in art the “sad girl trope.” This trope is particularly common in literature, with modern female authors like Sally Rooney representing similar archetypes of depressed and unbalanced women. Done right, the sad girl trope can be a thought-provoking subversion of the representation of one-dimensional women. But the literary sad girl is almost always white, well-off, and sexually desirable. Thus, instead of empowerment and liberation, the sad girl trope idealizes a type of female mental instability that is only relatable when the subject is not racially or economically marginalized. In other words, the sad girl trope primarily depicts wealthy white women while leaving no room for historically oppressed women of color, a literary trend that plays on the harmful stigmas of non-white mental illness.

In classic literature, “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath is one of the best known and most iconic depictions of female sadness. In “The Glass Bell”, we see the protagonist struggle with depression, loneliness and ostracism from society. Sadness encompasses and defines the novel. More recently, novels like “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh similarly exploring these themes of sadness and mental instability. The novel follows an unnamed protagonist who uses prescription drugs to try to sleep for an entire year in an effort to escape the grief and dissatisfaction plaguing her life. “Beautiful people, where are you? by Sally Rooney and “The Idiot” by Elif Batuman are other modern novels that parallel this trend in their depiction of female protagonists attempting to navigate confusion, loneliness, apathy, and depression. In all these examples, the identity of these women is defined by their sadness. Emotion dictates the illogical and nebulous ways they think, feel and act. That’s what makes them so close – like so many women, they have unhealthy coping mechanisms, lash out at difficulties and struggle to navigate a world where everyone seems to know what they’re doing.

This relatability, however, is unequivocally linked to the whiteness of these characters. When women of color are protagonists in literature, their stories often center on their racial identities and how they are oppressed and reinforced by those identities. In works featuring women of color, therefore, sad female protagonists are almost always shaped and defined by racial trauma – think Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston. This racial trauma is extremely important for the literature to explore. But it also underscores the disparities that exist between representations of mental instability between white women and women of color. For white women, sadness is feminine and relatable with no root cause or single culminating event. For women of color, sadness is tied to centuries of historic racial violence that their pain is representative of. In literature and elsewhere, women of color are not privileged to be sad just to be sad.

The relatability that accompanies feminized mental instability and sadness in literature like “The Bell Jar” exists because the characters these tropes deal with are all white. Whiteness is intrinsically linked to femininity. White women remain the standard of beauty and the default. The trope of the sad girl is therefore inseparable from white femininity. The sad girl trope can only ever represent white women, whose whiteness allows them to be a kind of femininity that women of color could never achieve. White women, as norms of societal femininity, therefore have a right to relate to these complex literary women and see themselves represented in this trope.

On the other hand, women of color have historically been portrayed as undesirable and unfeminine. Unlike the standard femininity of white women, women of color are stigmatized as different or uncommon. The sad girl trope is therefore surprisingly and overwhelmingly devoid of any women of color, as women of color are not seen as inherently relatable or desirable the way white women are.

This absence of women of color in the sad girl trope also has detrimental consequences for how we perceive and stereotype non-white femininity and mental illness. Today and historically, non-white mental illness has been criminalized in political and social spheres. A lack of sufficient funding for mental health and social programs, coupled with the over-policing and over-saturated violence that exists within communities of color, has contributed to a culture of treatment for mental illness among non-white people. with brutality, force and incarceration. The absence of women of color in the sad girl trope, by reinforcing the idea that a woman’s mental illness is only relatable when she is white, is thus complicit in this harmful characterization of mental illness. not white. Without literature that presents women of color suffering sadness for sadness’s sake, it is more likely that non-white mental illness will be viewed as criminal rather than relatable and a reason for ostracism rather than a reason for support. .

Women of color deserve more explorations of female sadness and emotional complexity in literature. They deserve to make bad decisions, to be flawed, and to struggle with mental illness in a way that is not directly related to racism or their racial identity. We are sometimes sad too.

Melissa Liu ’25 can be reached at [email protected] Please send responses to this opinion to [email protected] and other editorials to [email protected]

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