The Sad Girls of Tumblr

[Content note: mental illness, depression, self-harm, suicide]

I’ve written before about the potential dangers of presenting depression and other mental illnesses as somehow attractive or appealing or more “real.” In a blog post dealing with the same issue, Spencer writes:

We love to romanticize depression. On Tumblr, browse the “#soft grunge” tag and you’ll find artfully edited photos of scars and Instagram-filtered pictures of cigarette cartons with phrases like “You’re going to die anyway” superimposed. “Soft grunge” treats depression and suicide like beautiful black roses–twisted, painful romantic ideals. We do it off of Tumblr too, like when we associate our favorite comedians’ or authors’ mental illnesses with their genius. Half the time, it seems, “tortured soul” is uttered in awestruck, not empathetic tones.

That post also links to another post, called “On Tumblr’s Romanticization of Depression,” by a blogger named Sarah:

Every time you reblog pictures of a computer screen that says “stupid sad girl” or Marlboro cigarettes with sticky notes pasted on them saying “because you broke my heart,” every time you contribute to a culture that makes depression seem like a quirky thing to add to your “about” section instead of a serious disorder with one of the highest death rates of any illness, you are actively making it okay for people to ignore their health problems and just be sad. That’s enablement.

People need to stop posting pictures of pills and tagging them #death, #suicide, #self hate, #soft grunge, and #pale. Trust me on this one, overdosing on pills: not really a good time. It’s nothing like the pictures of parties that are scattered all over your dashboard. A pretty blue-eyed boy will not come up to you when you’ve been lying in an ER bed for four hours because you can’t walk and tell you how beautiful you and your sadness are. Maybe that’s because you won’t be wearing pants at the time (I wasn’t), or maybe that’s because you’ll barely be able to speak because your mind is so distorted by the drugs. He won’t kiss your fucking scars. In fact it’s likely that nobody ever will, because seeing the mutilated flesh of someone you love is terrifying.

In a general sense, I agree. Spencer and Sarah make the point that seeing depression presented as sexy and alluring may discourage people from viewing it as an issue to work on, and while it should always be an individual’s choice whether or not to consider themselves “mentally ill” or to seek treatment for a mental illness, normalizing such pain and suffering probably doesn’t help.

But then I started thinking–how many of the people posting these things are depressed themselves, and how much moral responsibility should we assign to a person in the depths of mental illness to avoid presenting their own condition in a way that may encourage others to follow suit?

Sarah allows for this possibility, including a caveat:

Which isn’t to say that no girl with a soft grunge blog is actually diagnosed with depression (or any other mental illness), because I’m sure many are. And I think I can kind of understand the appeal. Feeling like you’re a part of something can be comforting, and so can seeing that other people feel the same way you do. When you’re in the healing stages of a mental illness, having support isn’t just important, it’s a necessity. But the soft grunge subculture doesn’t support the “Sad Girls” it idolizes, it enables them.

However, I’m not sure that really answers my question.

First of all, I take issue with the term “enablement” as used here. Professionals and others usually use this term to mean doing things that encourage someone else to behave self-destructively. For instance, someone may “enable” a friend’s problem drinking by constantly offering them alcohol or inviting them out to bars; a parent may “enable” a child’s preoccupation with getting high grades by grilling them about their grades and expressing disappointment at anything less than an “A.”

But I’m not sure what exactly Sarah thinks is being “enabled” here. If it’s depression itself, then that doesn’t make sense, because depression is not a risky or maladaptive behavior that can be enabled. It’s a mental illness. It could also be not getting treatment for depression, but I’m not sure that makes sense as a behavior that can be “enabled,” either. Not getting treatment for depression is, sadly, the default. True, if people’s Tumblr feeds were filled with age-appropriate, compassionate advice about seeking help for emotional distress, they might be more likely to do so. But in that case, the entire way the dominant culture approaches mental illness qualifies as “enablement.” In that case, every time a friend told me to “just cheer up!” or “just come hang out with us!” when I was feeling sad, they were “enabling” my behavior of not seeking treatment, because they were suggesting that depression is something that can be fixed by choosing to “just cheer up” or go to a party.

More to the point, I think that this view somewhat discounts the very realistic possibility that the people posting these “soft grunge” images are themselves depressed, and what this means about “enablement.” Who are they enabling? Themselves? Each other? Others who are more or less depressed than they are? Younger Tumblr users?

It’s complicated to me because I view this type of self-expression–the romanticization, the preoccupation with death, the attention-seeking (which I do not mean pejoratively)–as part of the mental illness itself. As a symptom, even. I haven’t seen any studies about this and have no idea which Google Scholar keywords could possibly help, but anecdotally, my experience with people who suffer from mood disorders is that some of them cope with the illness by viewing themselves and the illness in this way. Not all, obviously, but almost no mental illness symptom is shared by everyone who has that diagnosis, so to call something a symptom is not to imply that it’s a universal symptom.

It is sometimes comforting, especially when you’re scared and don’t know what’s happening to you and lack the knowledge to label it “depression,” to think of it as something special and even positive. This is especially the case when you’ve been steeped in a culture that glorifies a certain type of disaffected sadness, and ties it causally to greatness in art, music, and literature. So, even if the girls of the soft grunge subculture are enabling others, that’s only because they were first enabled themselves.

Some of it is a sort of sour grapes thing, too. You try to be happy, you can’t, everything hurts, and you think, fuck it, who wants that boring shit, anyway?

When I was in high school, I didn’t have a Tumblr (I don’t think it existed yet), but I definitely found these types of images appealing in some way. Maybe if something like Tumblr existed I would’ve even shared them. The reason they appealed to me was because they made me feel like the way I felt was a way of being more alive, not a way of missing things that other people got to have–joy, security, optimism, hope, self-esteem. And even if I didn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for depression at the time, I certainly did just a couple years later when I was diagnosed with it.

I don’t think that any of this necessarily makes promoting such memes and images ethically okay. Most of us have no problem condemning pro-ana/-mia blogs and forums, for instance, and this is really the depression/bipolar disorder version of that. (I suppose, though, you could argue that pro-ana/-mia materials are more dangerous than “pro-depression” materials, if you could even call these Tumblrs that.)

But it does mean that it’s not as simple as telling people to stop doing it.

I think the first step would be to start taking adolescent mental health seriously. It’s a serious issue. Most people know this, I think, on some level. But we still don’t take a preventative approach.

It’s expected that parents start taking their children in for dental checkups as soon as they have teeth. It’s expected to start seeing an ob/gyn for checkups as soon as you become sexually active. Why not taking that sort of proactive approach to mental health in adolescence–or even in childhood?

(Of course, all of that is bound up in issues of privilege and access, but even teenagers whose parents can easily afford and access mental healthcare often fail to receive it until things become very bad.)

So, yeah, in short, I don’t disagree with either of the perspectives I linked to. I just think it’s a little more complicated than I ever realized before. It’s easy to say, “Don’t romanticize depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.” It’s harder to say, “Don’t show symptoms of your depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.”

What the “Women Against Feminism” Get Wrong About Feminism

I finally responded to that Women Against Feminism Tumblr in a Daily Dot piece.

It’s not news to anyone when men oppose feminism. When women, do, though, it goes viral. Call it the man-bites-dog of political news.

The Women Against Feminism Tumblr is a fascinating catalogue of grievances that largely argue against a feminism that few women (if any) actually profess. Now, I won’t claim that every woman who claims to be “against feminism” just doesn’t know what it is; there are obviously people of all genders who accurately understand feminism and still oppose it.

For instance, you may be a genuine non-feminist if you think that there is no sexism anymore, that catcalling should be taken as a compliment, that the only women who get raped somehow deserved it (and men just don’t get raped, I guess, or they deserved it too?), and that there are circumstances in which people owe each other sex.

Congratulations! If you believe any of the above, you are probably not a feminist. But your beliefs are still wrong.

Others, however, clearly misunderstand it. Many of the posts on the Women Against Feminism Tumblr parrot silly myths like “feminists hate men,” “feminists think that women and men are exactly alike in every way,” “feminists won’t let me be a stay-at-home mom,” and “feminists think it’s wrong that I ask my husband to open jars for me.” In fact, a Vice article by Allegra Ringo has pointed out how many submitters to WAF seem to think that opening jars is the ultimate feminist litmus test.

There is no One True Feminism, and I can’t speak for anyone but myself. There are feminists who hate men and feminists who think that men and women are exactly alike in every way, sure. There are all sorts of people in the world with all sorts of beliefs that may or may not be based on empirical evidence.

But the feminism that the women of WAF are rejecting doesn’t sound like any I’ve encountered. Here’s what they miss.

1. Feminism is not about who opens the jar.

It is not about who pays for the date. It is not about who moves the couch. It is not about who kills the bugs. It is not about who cooks the dinner. It’s not even about who stays home with the kids, as long as the decision was made together, after thinking carefully about your situation and coming to an agreement that makes sense for your particular marriage and family.

It is about making sure that nobody ever has to do anything by “default” because of their gender. The stronger person should move the couch. The person who enjoys cooking more, has more time for it, and/or is better at it should do the cooking. Sometimes the stronger person is male, sometimes not. Sometimes the person who is best suited for cooking is female, sometimes not. You should do what works.

But it is also about letting people know that it is okay to change. If you’re a woman who wants to become stronger, that’s great. If you’re a man who wants to learn how to cook, that’s also great. You might start out with a relationship where the guy opens all the jars and the girl cooks all the meals, but you might find that you want to try something else. So try it.

Read the rest here.

Disclaimer, for the curious: I do not title my Daily Dot pieces.

“Tumblr Social Justice,” “Social Justice Warriors,” and Their Discontents

I wrote a Daily Dot piece about the weird Reddit subculture that hates on social justice Tumblr bloggers obsessively:

Most people don’t like to think about social justice because it’s rarely pleasant to think about. Unless they pause and ask themselves why their initial reaction to reading a social justice Tumblr is so negative, that reaction is likely to remain a superficial annoyance rather than a more nuanced disagreement. It’ll be closer to “This is so dumb” than “I don’t agree with this view because [reason].”

Of course, while important and nuanced social justice discussion can and does happen on Tumblr, most of the examples you see on subreddits like r/TumblrInAction were never meant to engage or educate outsiders. They’re meant to vent about individual struggles and build community among like-minded people, which isn’t that different a goal from the one pursued by many subreddits and other types of communities.

Reading these Tumblrs and calling them “social justice activism” is like overhearing a conversation between a few friends about books they like and calling that “literary criticism.” Mocking such a casual conversation as shallow and non-educational misses the entire point of it. It’s not necessarily there for you; it may be there for the participants.

“But Tumblr is public!” you may retort. That’s true, and the fact that blogs on Tumblr are public is what helps people find each other and connect. (Twitter works similarly.) Just because a blog is viewable by the public doesn’t necessarily mean its intended audience is literally everyone who happens to stumble across it.

Read the rest here.

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Won't Someone Please Think of the Sluts?

[Snark Warning]

I was bemused recently by the reaction when I mentioned on my Tumblr–in the context of a larger conversation–that I’m proud of the fact that I’m not, for lack of a better term, “promiscuous.”

I was promptly accused of “slut-shaming,” which, according to this blog, is constituted by the following:

the idea of shaming and/or attacking a woman or a girl for being sexual, having one or more sexual partners, acknowledging sexual feelings, and/or acting on sexual feelings.

The word “slut” has recently undergone a revival of sort, and was used for the infamous SlutWalks of this past spring and summer. Naive as I am, I’d assumed that the point of this new discourse on slut-shaming was to emphasize that everyone should be free to choose–and to take pride in–whatever sort of sexual life they desire. This would be an idea that I would support till my dying day.

Apparently, though, the hidden side of this message is that it’s no longer fashionable to be sexually abstinent or to reserve sex for serious, loving relationships, and that anyone who takes pride in their decision to do so is necessarily shaming sluts.

Well, needless to say, I don’t subscribe to that notion. Here’s why.

I love my major (psychology). I’m proud of the fact that I’m studying to be a psychologist and would not have it any other way. Does that mean I look down upon everyone who chooses a different major and think that everyone should study psychology? No.

Another example. I’m proud of being Jewish. Although I’m not observant, I take a lot out of the Jewish tradition and would not want to belong to any other faith. Does that mean I look down upon everyone who has another religion? No.

But for some reason, when we’re talking about sexual politics, everyone seriously loses their heads. This entire branch of the social justice movement is subject to the very same dichotomous thinking it despises (i.e. the virgin-whore dichotomy, and others). A bunch of people simply assumed that just because I’m proud of my own decisions about my sex life, I look down upon all other possible decisions and therefore am taking part in slut-shaming.

Sorry to complicate things for you, but no. As I’m constantly posting things on my Tumblr regarding sexual freedom and related topics, and as I’m a member of a campus organization dedicated to, among other things, promoting sex positivity, I think I can safely vouch for the fact that I don’t deplore anybody’s personal choices as long as they do not involve harming others.

But that simply does not mean that I don’t take pride in my own actions and decisions. I think people are assuming that “pride” implies a moral stance, but it doesn’t. I’m not proud of my abstinence from casual sex because I think I’m more moral than others. I’m proud of it for other reasons, such as:

  • it’s a rejection of college social norms, and I’m always happy to reject some social norms;
  • it’s a way of observing my beliefs about sexuality and spirituality–beliefs that are not necessarily religious in nature, but that I hold very strongly (for myself);
  • and, most importantly, it’s the healthiest choice for me, and in a culture where psychological health plays second fiddle (hell, last fiddle) to everything else, I’m proud of doing what’s healthiest for me.

You might have noticed that in the preceding list, I italicized “for myself” and “for me.” This is because I’m acknowledging that the choices I’ve made, and my pride regarding those choices, reflects the fact that this is what’s right for me as an individual, and not necessarily what I’d wish to impose on the rest of the general population.

I realize that this distinction may have been lost on some people–namely, the ones that accused me of “slut shaming”–in my original post, but that’s why I’ve dedicated this entire article to illuminating it.

The end result of all this is that I’m no longer quite so enthusiastic about participating in a movement that denies me the right to take pride in my lifestyle just because it’s not what the cool kids are doing these days. That’s not even considering the fact that, as difficult as “sluts” have it, my decision to abstain from casual sex hasn’t been entirely free of consequences either. Where’s the discourse on virgin-shaming? Or, in my case, people-who-hate-hooking-up-shaming?

(Just recently on Tumblr, I witnessed dozens of people ganging up on a girl who declared in a completely judgment-free way that she wishes to remain a virgin till marriage. To these sexually liberated but mentally stunted morons, I only have this to say–for shame.)

So I’ll end with this: to any self-described sluts who are reading this and feel shamed by my personal lifestyle choices, I offer my sincere apologies. However, I’ll also advise you to learn how to derive your self-esteem from internal pride rather than external approval. I’ll keep advocating for sex-positivity because it’s what I believe in, but I’m sure as hell going to live my life the way I want to and be proud of it, with or without your approval.

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Who Has it Worse?

There’s a game we progressives sometimes inadvertently play. I like to call it “Who’s More Oppressed?”

You can probably guess what I’m talking about here. It’s the tendency of social justice-oriented people to engage in lengthy polemics regarding “who has it worse.” Is it Black lesbians? Is it transsexual Hispanic men? Is it lower-class white teenage mothers?

In fact, some (quite liberal) friends and I recently tried to figure out which identities the hypothetical most oppressed person in the world would have. (I’ll leave the conclusion up to your imagination.)

I encountered a less dramatic form of this argument recently on (where else) Tumblr. A male user had responded to a graphic against slut-shaming with the comment, “Try to nail every girl you know? Douchebag. Try to be civil with every girl you know? Fuckin friend-zoned. It works both ways.”

A user named, of course, “stfuconservatives” reblogged the post and added some commentary to it, claiming that being called a slut is worse than being “friend-zoned” and that women have it worse than men. Further comments on that post agreed with stfuconservatives and generally bemoaned the preponderance of sexism in this world.

Let’s step back for a minute. Yes, being called a slut is awful. Nobody should ever call someone that. Period.

Besides which, what this guy wrote and the way in which he wrote it is definitely quite presumptuous and entitled-sounding. However, for the sake of argument, I’ll play devil’s advocate and take his perspective. First of all, he never said that this men’s issue is worse than being called a slut is for a woman, which is what the responders claim he says. But in fact, he specifically says, “It works both ways.” What does that NOT imply? That men have it worse. This man never said that he finds it appropriate to call a woman a slut, or that he doesn’t think this is a problem. Let’s not put words into his mouth.

Furthermore, why this immediate assumption that this man’s claim does not deserve attention? Several commenters immediately point out that they themselves have never “friend-zoned” a guy for being nice. Perhaps not. But this issue is one that I have heard mentioned by guys many, many times, and it strikes at the heart of the conflict between masculinity and sensitivity that most (if not all) American men have to face. This culture glorifies the “Bad Boy,” and men are taught from an early age that being a man means being callous and aloof. Rape culture permeates through our society, teaching men that inducing women to have sex with them is a worthy goal.

On a personal level, every “nice guy” I know has experienced at least one situation in which a girl he liked picked an asshole over him. In fact, when I was younger, I did this all the time. I don’t know why women do it. But it happens. There’s no need to pretend that this isn’t an issue, because it is, and it should be addressed.

Finally–and this relates to a topic I’ll be addressing in a later post–the name “stfuconservatives” (means “shut the fuck up, conservatives,” for those who aren’t familiar with chatspeak) is just so damn wrong. How will progressives benefit from silencing those who disagree with us? Argument and debate not only causes us to strengthen our ability to defend our own views, but it also reminds us that we might not be right about everything, and that many different perspectives exist in the world. These perspectives should be valued, respected, and engaged with.

But back to my original point. What good, exactly, does it do to argue about who has it worse? Why can’t we acknowledge that even groups that we associate with privilege can have issues, and that different kinds of privilege operate in different social contexts? There are so many different kinds of prejudice and stereotypes.

For what it’s worth, I’m glad that I’m a woman, and I can act as kind and generous with men as I want without them relegating me to the status of friend (and nothing more). I’m glad that when it comes to dating, being the person I truly want to be–caring, sensitive, and witty–actually helps me get dates and find relationships, rather than hurting my chances.

Ultimately, I think it’s unfair to make any claims about who has it worse. Each of us sees the world through our particular lens. In terms of things like access to employment opportunities, salaries, historical discrimination, and reproductive justice, women undoubtedly have it worse. But how about being expected to get a job that can provide for a family? How about being drafted to fight in wars? How about being expected to show little emotion, to know how to do practical things around the house, to love sports and be athletic, to propose marriage?

Who has it worse is irrelevant. Let’s fight for social justice without trampling on any group, whether it’s traditionally “privileged” or not. What this comes down to is choosing to speak, write, and argue in ways that are inclusive, rather than exclusive. Like it or not, about half the world is men. There’s no need to make them feel like we don’t care about their viewpoints.

Periods and Misogyny


This is what I hate.

This is from a Tumblr called, appropriately, “Fuck Periods.” It exists solely to bitch about various feminine problems, most notably, periods. As a woman, I’m all in favor of bitching about periods, but the stereotypes that are often expressed are pretty problematic.

First of all, this isn’t even accurate. I don’t know about any other women who may be reading this, but personally, I don’t “sit in one fucking place for fear of leakage” when I’m on my period. I also don’t get pissed the fuck off by “anything with a face.” When I’m on my period, I go to class, do homework, hang out with friends, go shopping, work out, eat, and sleep just like I do when I’m not on my period. Shocker! Women don’t stop functioning just because it’s that time of the month. Life goes on.

Second, this whole public period-bashing thing makes it even more likely that others (notably men) will attribute any negative mood or opinion expressed by a woman as simply a consequence of her menstrual cycle. If you’re female, chances are you’ve said something negative or gotten upset or angry and had a (again, probably male) friend say, “Are you just on your period or something?”

Honestly, there are few things more offensive than that. The idea that a woman has no legitimate, external reasons to ever be angry or upset–only the internal vicissitudes of her hormones–is preposterous.

Third, and most importantly, rants like these only reinforce the stereotype of women as crazy, overemotional beings controlled entirely by their hormonal cycles. People. Give us a bit more credit than that, please. And I understand that that’s difficult to do when women themselves are painting themselves that way.