Confessional dating essays: How sad girls with bad boyfriends took over the internet

BBeing with a young woman is painful. Especially if you are an intelligent young woman, or a creative young woman, and especially if you have had relationships with men. These relationships are sites of trauma. Chasing them leaves you devastated. To fix yourself, the first and most important step is to tell your story. Tell your truth. Disclosure all the ways the world – and the men in it – have hurt you. This is a political act. This is a feminist work. At least, that’s what the most popular personal articles of the past few years have taught us.

Think of collections of first-person “cult” stories by women that have recently gone viral. less than a month ago, Watchman He published an article titled “My Boyfriend, a Writer, Broke Up on Me Because I’m a Writer”. In it, American writer Isabel Kaplan relays how her boyfriend was threatened by her keeping a journal, and then her literary success. She criticizes the way he spoke “ironically about the abundance of accounts about women and their feelings as well as the way women talk about feelings in general”. I wrote that he called this phenomenon “military weakness.” She compares herself to Nora Ephron, his literary heroine, and calls her “the patron saint of military weakness”.

Central to Kaplan’s essay is the notion that this personal story of her broken relationship is not just about her and her ex-partner, but is symbolic: a case study of gender roles. Kaplan explicitly states at one point that “being able to lean an inch at a time while appearing to be standing straight is a useful and gendered skill”. She continues, “Most of the women I know do this regularly. They bend over until they’re brewed and then blame themselves for the body aches.”

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In 2019, another viral article – this time published in Paris Review Draw a remarkably similar area. Like Kaplan’s essay, CJ Haus’s The Crane Wife revolved around a broken relationship, the denial of women’s needs and desires, and the woman’s teaching herself to deny her own needs and desires. At its heart is a story from Japanese folklore about a “crane wife” – a bird that tricks a man into believing it is a woman by plucking all its feathers every night. “Every morning,” Hauser writes, “the crane’s wife is exhausted, but she becomes a woman again.” To the author, this hapless folkloric trickster and birder acts, like Nora Ephron in Kaplan’s essay, as another saint with a military weakness. It is the guiding spirit of the essay, helping it to move romantically from the individual and the specific to the public and gender. “Going on to become a woman is a lot of self-effacement,” Hauser writes. “She never sleeps. She cuts all her feathers, one by one.”

Either way, the general response to these personal stories of adulation, plucking, pain, and self-effacement has been adulation. Online, women were quick to pepper the pieces with contemporary buzzwords: “essential.” “brave”. “Dhussah”. “Forgot your zodiac sign,” one viral tweet declared, “Tell me any clips from Crane’s wife I took a screenshot right away to show your wizard. In many ways, this tweet is a neat summary of the modern woman these articles seem to be talking about and talking about. She is drawn to narratives that explain and classify her personality, experiences, and emotions; she is very online; she goes to therapy; she mocks and values ​​healing terms in equal measure. , that she connects with other women through mutual emotional pain, along with a shared understanding that “men are trash”.

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Over the past year, a few critics have begun to deconstruct and de-opt this style of doctrinal writing, and the contemporary femininity paradigm it espouses. Most of them are millennial women in the creative industries — the very group that is supposed to be associated with these perceptions of smart, successful, but endlessly submissive girls. Instead, a growing number are calling for an end to this overly simplistic portrayal of sex and relationships.

In August, Hauser’s collection of essays was criticized by journalist and author Rachel Connolly, Crane’s Wife: Memoirs in Essays. Connolly wrote of the group’s tendency to dismiss subjectivity in favor of “sweeping generalities that don’t quite sound right—particularly in statements about the way women are and how they act, and hence the form relations between the sexes tend to take.” Connolly returned to this topic in a piece for slate two weeks ago, suggesting that the trend for articles such as Hauser and Kaplan praising “not women’s honesty…but female insolence”. In a patriarchal society that delights in and demands women’s submission, abuse is, as Connolly points out, “a very valuable commodity”.

Writing Watchman, journalist Moya Lothian MacLean, also decried contemporary culture’s taste for narratives that frame relationships through reductive roles of victim and villain. Describing the genre as “romantic victimization”, Lothian MacLean writes that these stories are also built on “sweeping generalities … regarding the manner of men and how they act in romantic relationships”. In these contemporary cults, if a woman bowed and recoiled, the men were insulted and neglected. Essentially, the one-size-fits-all “bad relationship” story requires portraying men as inherently selfish, unfeeling, and abusive, in order to create an image of womanhood as selfless and long-suffering. Just how brave, daring, or politically radical is this gender essentialism?

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Another piece of personal writing has been published in Watchman This year revealed the regressive core of many recent personal essays. The piece, written by journalist Phoebe McDowell, is about her “shock and confusion” at her then-boyfriend’s revelation that they were transgender. In her first-person account, the experience of someone coming to terms with their sexual identity somehow turns into a kind of spousal abuse. All the while, McDowell focused not only on her own experience, but abusive gender with her ex-partner and showed visible anger and disgust at their transition — to the point of wanting sterility on them. “If I can’t have his child, then no one can,” McDowell wrote. This is where the reductive gender essentialism at the heart of these truly popular character pieces leads: a transphobic moral panic based on imagining cisgender women as uniquely and innately weak.

Because this type of sectarian narrative is so common, trying to criticize or dismantle it can be thorny. To discuss them at all, it is necessary to make it clear that these are not stories of abuse. Yes, they tend to be stories involving a romantic partner who cheats, lies, or is dismissive and rude. They are stories about bad relationships, where at least one of the people involved feels unsupported and unloved. But they are, despite the way they’re often received, not “#MeToo stories.” In this age of trauma and testimony, these things seem to have mixed up. This was decisively proven after its publication guardian According to the article, Lothian MacLean has been denounced as an advocate for abuse on social media. Her apparent crime? Simply suggesting that feminists should act from the belief that men, and the patriarchal society that characterizes them but also destroys them, can change.

Simplistic ideas of trauma and abuse may have been ‘attributable’ to Amber Heard’s treatment by many this year.


write to The New Yorker In January—in an article that went viral—critic Parul Sehgal described the predominance of “trauma plot” in fiction and nonfiction, and that “questioning the role of trauma is, we are cautioned, repressive.” Author Melissa Phoebus cites it in her book Physical Action: The Radical Power of the Personal Narrative That anyone who questions accounts of trauma is repeating “the classic role of the perpetrator: to deny, discredit, and drive away victims in order to avoid involvement or loss of power.” The problem is that the culture’s newfound broader knowledge of trauma theory and the language of abuse has led to this being applied to situations and relationships that – while undeniably disturbing – are consensual and more complex than the rigid division of the roles of “perpetrator” and “victim” allows. Millennials have been raised with intertwined ideas that “your trauma is right, your feelings are right, your experience is right,” and “personality is political.” However, the radical roots of these beliefs seem to have congealed into a single text that merges into all sorts of relationships fraught with distress from abuse. Then an easy line is drawn between the villain and the perfect victim—one that curves like a metaphorical biscuit and plucks like a mythical bird.

It also does a disservice to the complex and diverse nature of trauma and abuse to pay tribute to these narratives. Because if someone’s experience—or their reactions to that experience—deviate from the script, they tend to be left out. Just look at Johnny Depp’s defamation lawsuit against Amber Heard this year, in which the actor is suing his ex-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 overwhelming amount of evidence in her favor, and Heard having already won a court case in the UK found it “pretty much true” that Depp was referred to as a “wife-beater”. . In the view of many on the Internet, Heard did not perform as the damaged woman to their expectations and admiration.

When “relativism” is the dominant criterion for judging and praising contemporary writing, and when so much of it revolves around women’s capacity for trauma and degradation, it must make us question what kinds of suffering we are supposed to empathize with. Why, for example, are so many of these modern sad girls and unlovable women traditionally beautiful, young, cisgender, and white? Does clinging to the idealistic and bewildering narrative of victimhood help obscure the power structures that actually give these women so much influence and personal agency?

Ultimately, the prevalence of white girl torture in contemporary culture suggests that grief and suffering is what makes these women valuable, interesting, and worthwhile. That the shocking confessions of young, beautiful white girls is lucrative. Given book deals and the semi-influential position accorded to sectarian writers prolific in modern times, “military weakness” seems less accurate than “critical weakness.” What is clear is that it is a trend that, going forward, needs far fewer saints.


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