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Let’s Unpack That

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

Every few weeks a different confessional essay goes viral, each one underpinned by gender essentialism and regressive ideas about relationships. Eloise Hendy unpacks the tropes that are rapidly becoming eerily influential

Thursday 29 December 2022 06:30 GMT
The internet is awash with personal stories of women pretzelling, plucking, aching and self-erasing themselves
The internet is awash with personal stories of women pretzelling, plucking, aching and self-erasing themselves (iStock)

Being a young woman is traumatic. Especially if you’re a smart young woman, or a creative young woman, and especially if you have relationships with men. These relationships are sites of trauma. Pursuing them leaves you wrecked. To repair yourself, the first and most essential step is to tell your story. Speak your truth. Disclose all the ways that the world – and the men in it – have harmed you. This is a political act. This is a feminist act. At least, this is what the most popular personal essays of the last few years have taught us.

Think of the swathes of first-person, “confessional” stories by women that have gone viral recently. Less than a month ago, The Guardian ran an essay headlined “My boyfriend, a writer, broke up with me because I’m a writer”. In it, the American author Isabel Kaplan relays how her then boyfriend was threatened by her keeping a journal, and then by her literary success. She rails against the way he spoke “mockingly about the glut of novels about women and their feelings as well as the way women speak about feelings in general”. She writes that he called this phenomenon “militarised vulnerability”. She compares herself to Nora Ephron, a literary hero of his, and describes her as “the patron saint of militarised vulnerability.”

Essential to Kaplan’s piece is the notion that this personal story of her broken relationship is not simply about her and her ex, but emblematic: a case study of gender roles. Kaplan explicitly states at one point that “the ability to bend an inch at a time while seeming to stand up straight is a useful and gendered skill”. She continues: “Most women I know do it regularly. They bend until they’re pretzeled and then blame themselves for the body aches.”

In 2019, another viral essay – this time published in The 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 wife” – a bird who tricks a man into believing she is a woman by plucking out all her feathers every night. “Every morning,” Hauser writes, “the crane-wife is exhausted, but she is a woman again.” For the author, this folkloric and forlorn avian trickster acts, like Nora Ephron in Kaplan’s piece, as another patron saint of militarised vulnerability. It is the guiding spirit of the essay, helping it move romantically from the individual and specific to the general and gendered universal. “To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work,” writes Hauser. “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, aching and self-erasing was adulation. Across the internet, women were quick to bestow contemporary buzzwords onto the pieces: “Necessary”. “Brave”. “Relatable”. “Forget your zodiac sign,” one viral tweet declared, “tell me which passages of The Crane Wife you immediately screenshotted to show your therapist.” In many ways that tweet is a neat summary of the modern woman these essays seem to speak to and speak for. She is drawn to narratives that explain and categorise her personality, experiences and emotions; she is Extremely Online; she goes to therapy; she satirises 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 are trash”.

Over the last year, a handful of critics have begun to unpack and unpick this mode of confessional writing, and the model of contemporary womanhood it espouses. Most are themselves millennial women in the creative industries – the very group that should, supposedly, relate to these depictions of smart and successful yet endlessly subjugated, self-effacing girls. Instead, an increasing number are calling for an end to this overly simplistic depiction of gender and relationships.

In August, journalist and author Rachel Connolly criticised Hauser’s essay collection, The Crane Wife: A Memoir in Essays. Connolly wrote of the collection’s tendency to elide subjectivity in favour of “sweeping generalities that don’t quite ring true – particularly in statements about the way women are and how they act, and hence the form heterosexual relationships tend to take.” Connolly returned to this topic in a piece for Slate a fortnight ago, suggesting that the trend for essays like Hauser and Kaplan’s applauds “not female honesty ... but female abjection”. In a patriarchal society that delights in and demands women’s submissiveness, abjection is, as Connolly notes, “a highly prized commodity”.

Writing in The Guardian, journalist Moya Lothian-McLean also denounced contemporary culture’s taste for narratives that frame relationships through the reductive roles of victim and villain. Labelling this genre “romantic victimisation”, Lothian-McLean wrote that these stories are also built on “sweeping generalities ... regarding the way men are and how they act in romantic relationships”. In these contemporary confessionals, if women bend and pretzel, men insult and neglect. Essentially, the one-size-fits-all “bad relationship” story requires a portrayal of men as inherently selfish, unfeeling and abusive, in order to construct an image 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 Guardian this year revealed the regressive core of many modern personal essays. The piece, by journalist Phoebe McDowell, spun around her “shock and confusion” at 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 spousal abuse. Throughout, McDowell not only centred her own experience, but misgendered her ex-partner and displayed a clear anger and revulsion for their transition – going so far as to wish infertility on them. “If I can’t have his baby, then no one should be able to,” McDowell wrote. This is where the reductive gender essentialism at the core of these popular personal pieces truly leads: to a transphobic moral panic that relies on imagining cisgender women as uniquely and innately vulnerable.

Because this kind of confessional narrative is so popular, attempting to criticise or dismantle it can be thorny. To discuss them at all, it feels necessary to make clear that these are not stories of abuse. Yes, they tend to be stories that involve a romantic partner cheating, lying or being dismissive and casually unkind. They are stories about bad relationships, where at least one of the people involved feels unsupported and unloved. But they are not, despite how they are often received, “#MeToo stories”. In this era of trauma and testimony, these things seem to have become conflated. This was decisively proven when, after the publication of her Guardian article, Lothian-McLean was condemned as an abuse apologist on social media. Her apparent crime? Simply suggesting that feminists should work from the belief that men, and the patriarchal society that privileges but also devastates them, can change.

‘Relatable’, simplistic ideas of trauma and abuse may have influenced the treatment of Amber Heard by many this year (Getty)

Writing for The New Yorker 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 are warned, is to oppress”. She cites writer Melissa Febos, who suggests in her book Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative that anyone sceptical of trauma narratives is replicating the “classic role of perpetrator: to deny, discredit and dismiss victims in order to avoid being implicated or losing power”. The problem is that wider culture’s newfound knowledge of trauma theory and the language of abuse has led to this being applied to situations and relationships that – while undoubtedly upsetting – are both consensual and more complex than a strict division into the roles of “perpetrator” and “victim” allows. Millennials have been reared on 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 tenets seem to have congealed into a single script that lumps in all sorts of relationship angst with abuse. An easy line is then drawn between villain and perfect victim – the one that bends like a metaphorical pretzel and plucks like a mythic bird.

It also does a disservice to the complicated and varied nature of trauma and abuse to applaud these narratives. Because if someone’s experience – or their reactions to that experience – deviates from the script, they tend to be dismissed. Just look at Johnny Depp’s defamation lawsuit against Amber Heard this year, the actor suing his former 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 amounts of evidence in her favour and Heard having already won a UK lawsuit that found it to be “substantially true” that Depp could be referred to as a “wife beater”. In the view of many online, Heard did not perform the role of the harmed woman to their expectation and liking.

When “relatability” is the dominant rubric used to judge and praise contemporary writing, and when much of it revolves around women’s capacity for trauma and degradation, it should make us question the kinds of suffering we are meant to sympathise with. Why, for example, are so many of these contemporary sad girls and unlikeable women conventionally attractive, young, cisgender and white? Does clinging to a narrative of perfect, pretzelling victimhood help to conceal structures of power that, in fact, give these women considerable influence and personal agency?

Ultimately, the prevalence of the tortured white girl trope in contemporary culture suggests that sadness and suffering is what makes these women valuable, interesting and worthy of attention. That the traumatic confessions of pretty, young white girls are lucrative. Looking at the book deals and semi-influencer status conferred on the viral confessional writers of the modern moment, it seems “militarised vulnerability” is less accurate than “monetised vulnerability”. What is clear is that it’s a trend that, going forward, needs far fewer patron saints.

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