sad girl media lana del rey aesthetic coquette

The Facade of the Sad Girl Aesthetic

3 mins read

The sad girl aesthetic, reigning over all four seasons with different color palettes, romanticizes sadness as beauty. Micro-trends like the coquette aesthetic, characterized by bows, pastels, and a sad facial expression, boil down to the quintessential Sad Girl. The sad girl aesthetic glorifies sadness as beautiful and encourages its participants to wallow in endless despair. While some defend the sad girl aesthetic as a healthy and productive expression of emotion, it romanticizes women’s misery as a surface-level trend. 

When turned into an aesthetic—a beautiful, visualized style—the Sad Girl becomes an intentional performance of pain, not a reality of mental health issues. The Sad Girl is an all-consuming identity: there’s Spotify’s ‘sad girl starter pack’ boasting 1.5 million likes; a ‘Sad Girl Winter’ candle (which smells like “cotton clean fragrance with lavender,” by the way); Lana Del Rey’s “Pretty When You Cry,” an anthem emphasizing the beauty of suffering; and “crying girl makeup,” a blush-heavy look mimicking post-cry glow.

When turned into an aesthetic—a beautiful, visualized style—the Sad Girl becomes an intentional performance of pain, not a reality of mental health issues.

A TikTok edit to a Lana Dey Rey song.

While music offers a creative outlet for vulnerability and sympathy, the sad girl music label confines artists and listeners. Sad music by men is portrayed as cathartic, intentional vulnerability, while sad music by women is trivialized and subject to romanticization.

Lucy Dacus, a member of the popular sad girl band boygenius, said in a now-deleted tweet, “Sadness can be meaningful, but I got a bone to pick with the ‘sad girl indie’ genre, not the music that gets labeled as that, but the classification and commodification and perpetual expectation of women’s pain.”

Audrey Wollen coined the term Sad Girl Theory in 2014, stating female sadness is an act of protest against the patriarchy. In an interview with Nylon, she said, “Girls being sad has been categorized as this act of passivity, and therefore, discounted from the history of activism.” Wollen calls for a revision of this history and the embrace of continuous sadness as the inherent reality of being a woman. 

When female sadness is romanticized by the sad girl aesthetic, it becomes a performance instead of an expression of one’s true emotions. Emily Yoshida’s essay “Sofia Coppola and All the Sad Girls” connects the Sad Girl Theory to the vivid trope of Coppola’s work (including Virgin Suicides and Priscilla): a girl gazing out of a window. Yoshida said, “The romance of the Sad Girl is the dream of being a woman who sees far more than the people around her, even if circumstances allow her to do so little.”

The tragically beautiful woman has been around since Cleopatra, but the media exploits this trope by glamorizing sadness. Sylvia Plath’s writing about her depression and psychological breakdowns has been transformed by girls desiring to adopt her tragic life and death.

Still image from Coppola’s film, Marie Antoinette (2006).

UCLA Psychology Professor Francis Steen offered one explanation for the rise of Sad Girls: “It’s always been possible to look around and think, ‘I’m not the most beautiful person in the world.’ A young girl could look at paintings of beautiful people that are idealized. The difference is now we have empowered people to access these things all the time on a device they keep in their pocket; Social media doesn’t convey all the different dimensions of a person.”

The sad girl aesthetic oversimplifies a larger issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 57% of teenage girls reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, up from 36% in 2011. Steen said, “If you’re feeling sad, maybe it’s comforting to some degree to see that you’re not alone and other people feel this way. But there’s a limit to that. It’s not such a nice thing to find out that lots of people are feeling sad and lonely, and it’s actually an epidemic society is not getting a handle on.” 

Labeling media about heavy themes such as depression, coming of age, toxic relationships, race, and sexuality—and songs’ complex melodies and lyricism—as sad girl media reduces and underappreciates its complexity. The sad girl aesthetic normalizes women’s sadness as default, harming mental health movements and reducing Sad Girls’ emotions through a lens of beauty. As Plath’s daughter said, “The point of anguish at which my mother killed herself has been taken over by strangers, possessed, and reshaped.”

Celeste is a junior in her second year of journalism. She is the co-writer of the weekly column Bears Doing Big Things, featuring alumni. She also is a copy-editor and manages the publication's Spanish translations and social media. She enjoys covering issues affecting the M-A community through features and writing Bear Bites about local restaurants. Her story on La Biscotteria was recognized as a top-10 NSPA Blog Post of 2023.

Latest from Blog