C Magazine


Issue 132

Artefact: Virgo Woman Matches Tinder Men Only to Criticize their Profiles
by Merray Gerges

Since there is no singular feminism, there ought not to be any set aesthetic qualities for feminist art. Is an artwork’s feminism predicated, then, on the artist’s self-proclamation or exhibitionism of their feminist politics? What typically defines feminist art, Wikipedia tells us, is its reflection of women’s lives and experiences with the ultimate goal of changing the foundation for the production and reception of contemporary art. It is also historically self-organizing – an aspect of feminist art that becomes even more pertinent when most people have access to an Internet connection.

Even though there ought not to be any set aesthetic qualities for feminist art, women’s selfies have come to be a primary constituent of feminist art over the past three years. In “Closing the Loop,” Aria Dean writes about how the selfie’s subject ostensibly asserts her autonomy from the male gaze by wrestling narrative power from him via her repeated unapologetic self-representation. The selfie’s subject seizes visibility to verify and affirm her very existence on her own terms; as Dean writes, “If you could flood the network with something, it would become impossible to ignore.” She identifies artists like Petra Collins, Molly Soda, Audrey Wollen and others, who have all been catapulted into the popular imagination of current feminist art through their significant social media followings and Internet fashion glossies’ declarations of their girl-power feminism. Think of pink suburban bedrooms where teenage girls groom each other, flaunting their body hair in acts of defiant body-positivity. Amongst these artists, Dean says, there is a “shared belief that the control afforded through the act of self-imaging is invaluable; nothing less, in fact, than the primary feminist tool for resistance. The claim follows a logic in which circulation of personal narratives through Instagram and other social media platforms is supposed to provide points of identification for all women, everywhere.”

These feminist selfie artists have been the subject of countless regurgitated profiles and think pieces extolling their radical feminism; with one of the most prominent among them, Audrey Wollen, even labelled as a “Feminist art star.” Wollen coined Sad Girl Theory, which proposes that,

the sadness of girls should be recognised as an act of resistance. Political protest is usually defined in masculine terms – as something external and often violent, a demonstration in the streets, a riot, an occupation of space. But I think that this limited spectrum of activism excludes a whole history of girls who have used their sorrow and their self-destruction to disrupt systems of domination. Girls’ sadness is not passive, self-involved or shallow; it is a gesture of liberation, it is articulate and informed, it is a way of reclaiming agency over our bodies, identities, and lives. […] Sad Girl Theory is a permission slip: feminism doesn’t need to advocate for how awesome and fun being a girl is. Feminism needs to acknowledge that being a girl in the world right now is one of the hardest things there is – it is unimaginably painful – and that our pain doesn’t need to be discarded in the name of empowerment. It can be used as a material, a weight, a wedge, to jam that machinery and change those patterns.1

Wollen superimposes herself taking a selfie in her underwear over Botticelli’s Venus; she reclines like Ingres’ Odalisque but instead of addressing the viewer she’s facing Photo Booth on her Mac. Similarly, the women who embrace Sad Girl Theory represent their thin, white-passing, willowy bodies gracefully drowning in Pre-Raphaelite melancholy set to Lana Del Rey soundtracks. The Sad Girl posts tearful selfies with immaculate makeup; she makes you forget that having the time and the space to wallow is itself a privilege. She spends her days in domestic languor. Her monochromatic Instagram feed is composed of a palette of baby pink and heather gray that almost matches her skin, which her reclusiveness shields from the sun.

Occupying the same social media platforms, the Feminist Anxiety Memer shares the Sad Girl’s drive for catharsis and de-stigmatizing mental illness. The Anxiety Memer’s cry, however, is an ugly cry, unlike the Sad Girl’s, whose cohesive and seemingly curated feed inadvertently appeases the hetero male gaze, as if to illuminate the condition in a way that won’t alienate him, in a way that won’t ultimately diminish his desire for her. By contrast, the output of @scariest_bug_ever, the quintessential Anxiety Meme Instagram account, is erratic, absurdist and abject. Though her memes often describe the conditions of her mental illness in explicit and hyper-personal specificity, they elicit a very visceral “same” from the viewer – from me. When she posts selfies, she’s making a double chin, or grinning with her top lip tucked in to fully reveal her top row of teeth, or both. Her memes dismantle the hyper-controlled, male-gaze-centric narrative of the interior life of a woman.

The Anxiety Memer flaunts her ineffectualness to embrace her alienation. “Try crying for 48 hours straight if things aren’t working out for you,” she tells her Instagram followers, who comment that they can relate. She calls out men who conceal their misogyny and perpetuation of rape culture by proclaiming to be feminist, taking stock images of bro and superimposing them with captions mimicking him, like, “I have really bad anxiety. I think im a good person. But I choose relationships with troubled women just to bolster my savior complex. I’ll probably pretend you’re too good for me then bail asap. Anyways what do you say to some disappointing straight people sex ;) please I bought you four domestic beers.” Or, “when he calls you his muse and makes art about what he assumes your personality is and expect [sic] you to take this as an honor rather than feeling dehumanized and not particularly enjoying the fetishization of your deeply personal human experience.”

The image macro trope that circulates widely enough to achieve meme status often features any variety of reaction images: low-res stock photos—of white men with cargo shorts, spiked hair and Oakley sunglasses, animals in wigs and costumes they’d rather not be in, frogs on unicycles, the Kardashians– captioned with Helvetica Neue Light ironic quips to banal occurrences, or lamenting microaggressions, the misfortune of shooting oneself in the foot, or karma finally rearing its ugly head. The subject matter is nebulous and so is the reader, enabling the meme’s universal appeal – to be #relatable – to Anyone. At once, they make you loathe yourself for the flaw that they’ve articulated like no one has before, and yet provide relief that other people share it with you.

The instant and infinite reproducibility of the Anxiety Memer’s personal-is-political consciousness-raising might have the capacity to resist capitalist and misogyny-related alienation. The standardized visual language is easy to mimic, with an image formula that anyone could replicate using free browser meme generators. When they become viral, they circulate in the relatively public but definitely-non-academic sphere, making mental health conditions less isolating. The Anxiety Memer’s disembodied articulation of her mental illness is considerably more relatable – and, to borrow a classic Sad Girl term, “empowering.”

The Anxiety Memer is anti-self-care. Instead of succumbing to the medical-industrial complex, she makes memes. Her despair is not designed to be covetable or enviable or palatable. And because the Anxiety Memer’s output is so dissonant – its humour too fragmented, its despair in self-deprecation too unyielding, too unwavering – it resists branding. Unlike the Sad Girl, the Anxiety Memer’s Instagram bio does not contain a link to the latest interview on her output. She has not been bestowed as an Artist. Anxiety memes cater, first and foremost, to those who can relate to them, those who are most likely to circulate them.

If self-imaging and the circulation of personal narratives are “the primary feminist tool for resistance,” but the Sad Girl is the most pervasive representation of the neuro-atypical woman, then the Sad Girl is meant to embody the woman whose articulation of depression and anxiety is supposedly radical enough to constitute feminist art. That radical self-representation is now benign, aestheticized then de-politicized, subsumed by capital-F Feminism, and, as Dean argues, it echoes white feminism’s narcissistic claim of a universal female experience. If the Sad Girl is the prototypical subject of feminist art now, then the body of artwork that Sad Girl Theory propels perpetuates the exclusion of the bodies of women of colour across the gender spectrum, mirroring the barriers to healthcare that these bodies tend to have. And while the Anxiety Memer’s feminism may not translate to anything beyond stating the obvious – especially in her call-outs of misogyny and rape culture – it steers clear of proselytizing to non-white women that they ought to be empowered by their sadness, with the assumption of a Universal Woman who has access to what she preaches. And while requesting the meme hold emancipatory potential over-taxes it, the messiness of Anxiety Memes might open up narratives – in memes and in art – about de-stigmatizing mental health as a feminist practice that are less monolithic, homogenous, white. Returning to Dean, “If there is liberation, it will not take place on corporate platforms.”