artist audrey wollen on the power of sadness

sad girl theory, explained

Photo via @audreywollen Instagram

L.A.-based artist Audrey Wollen made a digital splash last year with her Sad Girl Theory, the idea she proliferated across social media and in interviews that female sadness and self-loathing is not a singular experience to be ashamed of, but actually a form of empowerment that can ultimately unite women. Using Instagram as her primary platform, the ethereal, red-haired beauty transformed her feed into her very own art gallery, where she is the main attraction. Its provocative and enthralling mix of self-portrait selfies, where Wollen often objectifies her own body, inserts herself into famous paintings, and makes statements about her very particular worldview. We caught up with the fiercly intelligent and highly articulate CalArts student to find out more about Sad Girl Theory, her nuanced relationship with the Internet, and how she plans on spending the rest of the summer. 

How would you describe your artistic aesthetic?
I don’t know if my aesthetic is particular to my artistic practice or just a general methodology for existing or surviving—a way of thinking about “looking” that helps me continue this wavering project of “being”—but my summer aesthetic is currently in transition from “school girl Anime princess in Manchester, UK, 1988” to “18th-Century prostitute discovers Bjork CD on syphilis deathbed.”

What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a book. At least, I’m saying I’m writing a book to justify how much time I’m spending alone in my room freaking out about words. If you’re freaking out about words, say you’re writing a book. If you’re freaking out about colors existing, say you’re making abstract paintings, you know? I count freaking out as a kind of work, so right now, I’m freaking out about girls, our histories and our futures, words, and how they change what girls are, our histories and our futures, bodies, and how they change words, and how they change what girls are, etc, etc.  

How would you describe Sad Girl Theory?
Sad Girl Theory is the proposal that the sadness of girls should be witnessed and re-historicized as an act of resistance, of political protest. Basically, girls being sad has been categorized as this act of passivity, and therefore, discounted from the history of activism. I’m trying to open up the idea that protest doesn’t have to be external to the body; it doesn’t have to be a huge march in the streets, noise, violence, or rupture. There’s a long history of girls who have used their own anguish, their own suffering, as tools for resistance and political agency. Girls’ sadness isn’t quiet, weak, shameful, or dumb: It is active, autonomous, and articulate. It’s a way of fighting back.

Who are your favorite "sad girls?"
Every day, I find new ones or reconsider old icons. I have my familiar classics: Judy Garland, Sylvia Plath, Ana Mendieta, Lana Del Rey. And my new obsessions—right now, I’m really into Little Edie from Grey Gardens, Edie Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Eve herself, as in, Adam and.

What is the importance of sad girls and what is the importance of acknowledging sad girls?
I think it’s important to look very hard at anything that mass culture wants to stay invisible. Sad girls have been kept invisible for literally thousands of years. The number-one cause of death globally for girls between 15 to 19 is suicide, and yet, we still tell every girl that her sadness is individual, her own failure, her own symptom, and to keep quiet about it. Suffer alone. It’s often dismissed as teenage angst, or some narcissistic panic. Instead of trying to paint a gloss of positivity over girlhood, instead of forcing optimism and self-love down our throats, sticking a Band-Aid on this gaping wound, I think feminism should acknowledge that being a girl in this world is really hard, one of the hardest things there is, and that our sadness is actually a very appropriate and informed reaction.

How has Instagram worked for you as a platform? What do you like about it?
I started putting my work on Instagram at first simply because it was available. It’s a free and easy way to show people images that you have made. But I very quickly realized that Instagram gave a lot of young girls a way to control how they represented themselves, to play with their own performance, to construct an identity, alternate identities, and then tear down everything they had just built with a click. I like the little territories of female image-making that popped up: Sometimes they honestly feel like actual neighborhoods or camp grounds, a corner of digital space that girls managed to claim as their own. Plus, I kinda like that Instagram has boundaries that we can push up against. It’s not a utopia—it has obvious censorship problems, it has corporate bias, it profits off of people’s personal work and information. We can critique those issues from within the medium itself, and that’s exciting for me.

Do you ever worry about oversharing on social media?
Yes, of course, I worry. I literally worry about everything that I do, though. Honestly, I’m actually weirdly strict about what makes it onto the Internet. There are huge parts of my life that I don’t like sharing: I don’t like the social hierarchies that can develop, so I try not to post anything that shows off who I hang out with or who I saw at a party or whatever. I don’t post about the specifics of who I’m in love with. But I do talk about a lot of things that we are told should be kept “private” or “personal”: Nakedness, bodies, trauma, alienation, intimacy—you know, girly stuff. One of the most important mottoes feminism has given us is “The personal is political.” Usually, if a part of my life is considered “too personal” to share, I try to think about why that specific part has to be kept secret and who that secrecy is protecting.

Who are your largest inspirations?
I rely on a whole family of queens, past, present, and future, to keep me going. These range from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Grace Jones to my friend and teacher Maggie Nelson.

Who are your favorite artists?
Deee-Lite, Joan Didion, and Edgar Degas.

Who is your favorite new artist?
I love the girl noise duo odwalla88!

If you could have anyone as a roommate, living or deceased, who would it be?
Vivienne Westwood, easy. But Vivienne now, Vivienne at 74 years old.  

What's on your summer playlist?
Kylie Minogue’s album Fever (2001) is the best summer music of all time.

What are you looking forward to this summer?
Summer is actually my least favorite part of the year, because I’m always sweaty and sunburnt and sad, but I think this summer might be okay. I’m going to lie on the floor in front of the fan, and as long as I don’t move at all for three months, it will be okay.