In a graduate seminar I’m teaching, one student chose to explore the connections between the tumblr #sadgirl and 19th-century images of sick girls, of which there are many. Her hypothesis was that since most 19th-century images were painted by men – such as the British Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais’s famous Ophelia (1852) in the Tate Gallery, London – and #sadgirl images are selfies, that the suffering women who post them possess agency unavailable to 19th-century women. That made me think.
Millias’s Ophelia, an illustration of one of the more dramatic moments in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Ophelia, driven insane by the murder of her father following her rejection by Hamlet, falls into a stream and drowns. Ophelia was a popular subject for 19th-century Victorian painters and reflected the contemporary fascination with two intertwined delusions: that women are psycho-emotionally weaker than men and that they committed suicide in greater numbers. Neither was true.
A belief in women’s psycho-emotional frailty escalated during the 19th century and seems linked directly to men’s feelings of loss of control in the wake of political instability and the Industrial Revolution, an event that caused livelihoods viable for centuries to become obsolete virtually overnight with a new cadre of bare subsistence factory and mining jobs taking their places. Men exercised control over the lives of women with greater vigor as they lost control of their own. In addition, Arthur Schopenhauer popularized a belief in female inferiority in his detrimentally famous tract “On Women (1851).” There he wrote: “Women are…childish, frivolous, and short-sighted…they are big children all their lives – a kind of intermediate stage between the child and the full-grown man.”
Because of their perceived physical and emotional frailty and intellectual inferiority, middle-class women were discouraged from working. They also could not – among many other restrictions – seek medical help or open bank accounts without the permission of the man (father, husband, elder brother) under whose control they lived. Women could not serve on juries because of their tendency to lie, and when sick, were kept ignorant of the reason for their illness. Married women often contracted syphilis from their husbands and were given mercury and other toxic substances as medicine without being told why, which expedited their decline. Otherwise, tuberculosis was the most common illness (remember Edvard Munch’s Sick Child?). A belief in the weak constitution of women resulted in treatments for females (red meat and sunshine were considered too harsh) that frequently accelerated enfeeblement. The fact that Elizabeth Siddal, the artist-colleague who modeled for Millais contracted pneumonia after her three-weeks after her modeling sessions ended, a period during which she spent many hours lying in a bathtub of tepid water, seemed somehow appropriate to the subject and further demonstrated female frailty. No wonder inscription numbers at convents in Roman Catholic countries soared as did the number of co-habitating women – women were desperate to find ways of retaining agency in societies where they could not vote and where their legal rights were severely limited.
The abundance of female suicide imagery in writing and painting conveyed an erroneous impression of female suicide’s magnitude and methods. Consistent with the perception of women as one nudge away from psychosis (hysteria was a common female malady), they were often described as jumping theatrically from bridges, a tactic more often chosen by men – when they didn’t shoot or hang themselves. Women preferred quietly to fill their pockets with stones and walk into the nearest deep water, usually in discreet locations. Men, in fact, committed suicide in far greater numbers than women, evidence that their coping mechanisms were poorly equipped to negotiate a seismically transforming world. But they had louder voices as well as greater physical strength and legal rights, and fear induced them to conceal their own weakness by foisting it onto women.
Victorian images of sick girls painted an inaccurate – if socially expedient – picture of 19th-century women while #sadgirl images purport to be autobiographical and authentic (although there may be imposters obsessed by #sadgirl aesthetics). Inspired partly by the lyrics of the LA garage band SadGirl, Tumblr’s #sadgirl feed offers graphic evidence of self-harm and displays the tools of suicide in an unavoidably self-conscious, if empowered, manner. One can imagine it as both a challenge to self-fashioning in a competitive sort of way (how can a selfie convey sadness most compellingly?) and as a way of joining a (virtual) community for those who feel isolated and misunderstood.
It reminds me of one of my favorite contemporary novels, A Charming Mass-Suicide (original title simply Collective Suicide) by Finnish author Arto Paasilinna. It opens with a man living in the Finnish countryside selecting an abandoned barn in which to unobtrusively hang himself. On the appointed day, he hears noises inside as he approaches, and discovers he wasn’t the only one with that idea. He and his fellow sufferer decide to form a club for individuals who intend to commit suicide, an act one doesn’t necessarily have to accomplished in solitude. It’s Finland, where both solitude and community play crucial roles, so many eagerly joined.
Although an arguably safe space for troubled young woman to find community, Tumblr’s #sadgirl also reinforces Schopenhauer’s idea about feminine psycho-emotional fragility. Self-harm may be practiced more frequently among women than men, but even today men commit suicide at twice the rate of women, suggesting that male coping mechanisms continue to be less robust than female ones. After all, men, too, are burdened by the legacy of gender stereotyping.