A Lonely Girl Phenomenology

By | 3 February 2024

Diaries’ epistolary form – a mode of address which presumes a listener, whether that be future-tense self or diary as agent – serves as ideal repository for sad and lonely girl phenomenology. In Dear World: Contemporary Uses of the Diary, Kylie Cardell positions the diary ‘as a marginal mode, a ragged edge to erstwhile ‘public’ discourse’. When kept privately, diaries are a place where thoughts can gestate, where they will not be refuted, derided or laid with asinine charges, for example, of navel-gazing. As a genre, however, diaries are criticised for their interiority, solipsism and emotionality – sometimes as products of therapy culture – even as diaries’ assumed privacy and exclusion from public discourse makes them appear transgressive (Cardell). A diary spectates even as Dick averts his gaze: his eyes cannot bear Kraus’s too-muchness. Where some are revolted by excessive sentimentality, a diary can never get enough of secrets, sex, shame or sadness. A diary will hold the world and ask for more.

I’ve been consuming poetic diaries (Amy Brown’s Neon Daze, Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book), diaries of literary greats (Roland Barthes, Helen Garner, Patricia Highsmith, Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag), memoirs which integrate journal entries (Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, Danielle Geller’s Dog Flowers) or letters (Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory, Lucia Berlin’s Welcome Home) and still I cannot get enough of this writing that is so personal as to be borderline forbidden. Even the genre’s omissions whisper secrets. For example, in the introduction to Alix’s Journal, Alix’s surviving spouse Jacques Roubaud mentions excluding items of a private nature, and I am left wondering: Private according to who? Alix’s self-loathing and suicidality are on display but look close enough and you will see what is not: Alix and Jacques’ sex life.

Probably the diaries which best embody a modern interpretation of feminine sadness are Ann Cvetkovich’s ‘Depression Diaries’ from Depression: A Public Feeling. Just as affect theorist Lauren Berlant asks us to veer away from trauma theory (in which trauma is the exception rather than the norm) to acknowledge the crisis ordinariness (or systemic crisis) which is unfolding, sticking us in the muck and mire of a socio-political impasse – so too does Cvetkovich ask us to think differently about depression, to see it as a cultural and social phenomenon, a manifestation of biopower that targets, dehumanises and delivers to populations a slow death. Cvetkovich’s ‘Depression Diaries’ are an answer to her call for performative writing and testimonies that expose a violent culture that makes us feel bad. If we accept depression as a social condition we might also ask what it is that is being sold to us as happiness and why. In The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed writes:

The freedom to be unhappy might provide the basis for a new political ontology, which, in not taking happiness as an agreed endpoint for human action, would be able to ask about the point of action. We might act politically because we do not agree about the ends of action.

Responding to Cvetkovich’s open call to perform depression as politics, I am writing a book called Hermit Crab Diary, where I adopt the dear diary form as hermit crab shell. I collage three strands of narrative: the hermit crab mediates in the historical present between my mother’s 2005–2007 cancer journals and my contemporaneous journals. I am interested in the relationship between the texts, between mother and daughter, in what is said and unsaid, recorded or not, and in the way we communicated vocally, textually and with silences. In one of my diaries from 2006 I found a sticky note my mother wrote to communicate with me when she could not speak: ‘I like your drug Anti-depress.’

I was a Sad Girl, a very depressed girl who at the time refused a bipolar diagnosis because the meds would make her gain weight. Anyhow the anti-depressants made this twenty-something self palatable enough: sad but not unbearably so. In this same pocket-sized journal this Lonely Girl charts her obsession with a French-Canadian director who filmed and fucked her in Morocco, leaving with a curt see you never. She is a Sad and Lonely Girl who funnels her raison d’être into one unsuspecting man, debasing herself like Chris Kraus.

Marion Brown points out the predominant narratives surrounding girlhood: the sad girl, the mad girl (or Riot Grrrls) and the bad girl. Brown notes that the standard developmental models of girlhood erase race, class, sexuality and disability to arrive at a so-called normative feminine ideal; the sad-girl discourse characterises girlhood as threatened by a hostile and oppressive environment which shatters girls’ self-esteem and alienates them from relationships. Where ‘bad’ middle-class white girls tend to meet traditional standards of femininity, ‘arrest and detention patterns provide evidence of particular contempt for girls of colour’ (Brown). According to Melissa Liu, while white sadness is characterised as inherently relatable, for women of colour their sadness links to oppression and historical racial violence. But not even ‘the privileged can-do girl’ who is protected by whiteness can mediate the effects of patriarchy and sexism, thus the (white) sad girl wears her sadness as a form of protest (Mooney).

In ‘Sad Girls and Carefree Black Girls’, Heather Mooney traces the origins of sad girls to the Latina/x and immigrant West Coast communities in the United States. Mooney points to the film Mi Vida Loca (1993) which on the surface is about the life of Latina gang girls, or cholas, but on a deeper level is about the friendship between Sad Girl, with her tattooed tears, and Mousie. The film was criticised because its white director Allison Anders seemed not to understand that ‘Poor people don’t have time to whine; they’re too busy trying to survive’. Mooney looks at the ways that the (white) Sad Girl phenomenon consumes and appropriates Latina/x and racialised spaces, for example, in the music video ‘Tropico’ where reigning Queen of Sadness Lana del Rey wears a Virgin Mary-type costume, dances in a Los Angeles strip club, and features actors wearing sugar skull makeup, brandishing guns and otherwise approximating cholo culture.

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