During a moment when the facade of social media seems to be cracking, it’s easy to look to Instagram stars and wonder what’s real and what’s fake. Last month, Essena O’Neill, the Australian teenager who racked up more than half a million Instagram followers, quit Instagram after claiming that social media is “not real life.”
At first glance, you might scroll through artist Audrey Wollen’s Instagram and see another aspiring model-type. She’s tall, thin and beautiful, which could easily make for the beginnings of Insta-fame. Like O’Neill (and many young women on Instagram), her account is filled with selfies. If you take a closer look, though, you’ll see that she’s not your conventional Instagram “it” girl.
Wollen recently posted a painting of a nude young woman staring into a mirror, captioned with, “if u look at paintings of girls and replace each mirror w/ an iPhone in yr head, u will realize that nothing has ever been different.” Overnight, her historical take on selfies and girls’ narcissism got her seven dick pics, a slew of offensive messages, and a thousand new followers (her following is approximately 14,000 at last count).
When I spoke with Wollen at her Chinatown apartment in Los Angeles earlier this week, she said she guesses that the picture was posted on a porn site, accounting for the overnight spike in her Instagram audience. If followers are the main currency of Instagram, this could be cause for celebration, especially considering that the photosharing platform is Wollen’s primary medium for her digital artwork. Or the experience could be a reason to go the way of O’Neill and disappear from social media in an attempt to distance herself from the dark, ugly corners of the Internet.
But Wollen’s reaction, much like her art, was more nuanced and complex than either of these positions. There was no knee-jerk “#Fuckthehaters” response. Why? Because Wollen accepts the experience of girlhood (online and off) as a sad one.
At the center of Wollen’s art practice, girlhood and sadness are inextricably tied in what she has christened “Sad Girl Theory.” It’s the proposal that the sadness of girls should be witnessed and reframed as an act of political protest rather than a personal failure.
According to Wollen, girls being sad has been seen as passive, and therefore, dismissed from the history of activism. When you think about it, history, pop culture and mythology are full of “Sad Girls.” Wollen has previously named some of them -- Judy Garland, Sylvia Plath, Lana Del Rey, Virginia Woolf, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Frida Kahlo, Brittany Murphy and Persephone.
The latter Sad Girl made a cameo of sorts in Wollen’s response to online slut-shamers, trolls and pervs. In a video on Instagram, she can be seen scooping out a pomegranate while talking about the number of seeds Persephone ate, an act that sealed her imprisonment in the underworld. The caption reads, “im interested but also not down. ann hirsch once said, ‘i believe that whenever you put your body online, in some way you are in conversation with porn’ and i would extend that to, whenever you exist, online or irl, as a girl. but if u followed this account just for that conversation im afraid yr in for a v bumpy ride ;)”
In my IRL conversation with Wollen, the artist discussed her Internet presence, shedding light on the murky performative space of social media we all inhabit.
On the “fakeness” of social media
While Instagram star O’Neill rejects the so-called “fakeness” of Instagram, Wollen doesn’t believe in such a strict binary of fake versus real. Clad in a custom black sweater adorned with white script reading “tragic queen,” the artist explained her perspective on the nature of truth on social media.
For her, performance isn’t necessarily negative and authenticity positive. As Wollen’s post of the 19th century painting pointed out, girls looking at themselves isn’t anything new and neither is the culture that places value based on a woman’s looks above anything else. When girls are expected to live up to the standards of their gender from birth, performance is inevitable and not something that should be punished.
“Everyone that exists online is part of a performance or is being performative,” she said. “I don’t think [a strict version] of authenticity exists -- we are mediated by technology and language.”
Earlier in her career, her friends suggested to Wollen that she create a clear alter ego for simplicity’s sake as well as a sense of self-preservation. “But I like the idea of Audrey Wollen performing Audrey Wollen without the space of a clearly artificial title or stage,” she explained.
On being a woman online
From the kitchen table where we were sharing a pot of green tea, I could see Wollen’s laptop sitting on her bed, an object that serves many purposes -- her studio, her mirror, her tool -- but most importantly her portal to the public.
“A woman in public at all is an intense, brave thing to do -- not like public, left your house -- but public discourse, a space that is not individualized and not set within boundaries of the home. It can be dangerous to do on a basic level,” said Wollen.
She asserts these statements as someone with deep investment in the issues she’s addressing but rarely comes off as sad or downtrodden. In a no-nonsense tone, Wollen admitted that the block button is her best friend. Yet, she added that she never wants to be impenetrable.
“I don’t want to have so much armor on that I don’t witness abuse and male entitlement -- most girls online have experienced that.” By letting down her guard, she wields her vulnerability as a weapon against the same oppressive system that categorizes that trait as a weakness.
“When people abuse a girl online, the moment when the patriarchy reveals itself at its most brutal, is generative and good. Now it’s witnessable -- it’s not just in the secret corners,” said Wollen.
This is Sad Girl Theory in action -- recognizing the moments when you feel the most powerless and imbuing them with power. The experience of doing so, however, is admittedly not an easy one.
“If your feminism isn’t painful, you’re not doing it right,” said Wollen as she stirred a spoonful of honey into her tea cup. “Because it’s a painful thing to witness how things are and your own participation.”
On where feminism lives
Throughout our conversation she apologized for rambling, joking that an accurate portrait of her daily life would involve Wollen sitting in her bedroom, speaking out loud to herself about these topics. I believe her, not because she strikes me as unstable or incoherent, but quite the opposite -- she speaks with the calm authority and articulation of someone who has spent hours upon hours ruminating on these ideas.
While Sad Girl Theory has been pegged to pop cultural icons such as Lana Del Rey, it speaks volumes that one of Wollen’s major influences is Valerie Solanas. The feminist author wrote the SCUM Manifesto, which proposes to "overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex." Like Solanas, Wollen has created an experimental gesture to shift our paradigm rather than provide the key an egalitarian utopia. Historically, she explains, the latter has not worked out well.
“I’m not invested in the practicalities of fixing things but the playful possibilities,” she said.
Even with its roots in radical feminism, some of Wollen’s harshest critics are other women who claim that Sad Girl Theory does not help feminism. They, perhaps along with some of mainstream media, claim that we need an archetype of a woman who is brave and strong, who can take over the world, explains Wollen.
“But I don’t feel like that goddess figure,” Wollen said. In fact, she admits that she doesn’t necessarily even feel like a woman. “I’m interested in undoing that kind of linearity,” says Wollen. “When does womanhood happen? When do I stop being a girl?”
Her choice of using the term “girl” rather than “woman” is a conscious one, stemming from that ambiguity. She added,”If patriarchy is constantly infantilizing me, I don’t want to reject my situation. If you’re going to be a girl forever, how can you use that to your advantage -- what parts of that can we weave into our politics?”
Those parts are mainly things that, according to Wollen, are considered distinctly feminine, such as motherhood, makeup, fashion, intimacy, crying, gossip, self-harm, and of course, sadness.
“Even if you can have that moment of coming to consciousness, you’re still mediated by experiences before that. We all have to negotiate desires that on the surface aren’t in line with our politics,” said Wollen. “Feminism doesn’t live in the set of beliefs in contrast to dark desires but in their negotiation and their conversation. Politics should be coming from the paradoxical space.”
So for Wollen, in the lived experience of women, the moment of “pure” feminism never happens -- and that’s okay.
Wollen counts Shulamith Firestone, the author of “The Dialectic of Sex,” as a major influence in the development of Sad Girl Theory. The writer coined the term “a revolutionary in every bedroom,” reflecting the second-wave feminism slogan of “the personal is political.” The dissolution of the line between the political and apolitical is essential to Sad Girl Theory. The idea of self-destruction as a political gesture is simple, but it has huge historical implications, according to Wollen.
“What if we could reframe any girl that killed herself, starved herself, was unhappy -- as an activist?” she asked. “By placing them as activists, we now have a story of a war that wasn’t being considered as such.”
To be clear, Wollen says she is not encouraging girls to harm themselves -- she doesn’t have to. She cites a statistic from a 2014 report by the World Health Organization stating that suicide is the number one cause of death for adolescent girls ages 15 to 19. Sad Girl Theory is an invitation to girls to look at an action they’re already taking, from crying in public to feeling horrible about their bodies, and restage it as a political situation, not a personal failure or problem.
On the other end of the spectrum of self-destruction is the notion of self-care, another form of feminine behavior that is often dismissed or belittled. As radical feminist writer Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
“Asking girls to think of themselves as activists is such a subtle, interior thing -- it can’t be measured,” said Wollen. She says this without a hint of defeat in her voice.
The tragic queen says she is glad that Sad Girl Theory is not a sticker or a distinct movement you can join. She’s fine with it taking hold and happening solely in girls’ heads -- well, there and on Instagram.
On being a so-called “Internet artist”
If you read a few more articles on Wollen, you’ll likely see her called an “Instagram artist” or an “Internet artist,” but she views Instagram more as a tool than a self-identifier.
“I’m much more likely to reach the 12-year-old girl who hates herself on Instagram than in a white cube gallery space,” Wollen said.
While it may sound like she has a contentious relationship with traditional art venues, the choice of presenting her work online is born out of her goals as an artist as well as her financial reality.
“I can’t really wait around to be invited to have a gallery show. When you make [art], you have to put it somewhere, and that somewhere is usually the Internet,” she explained. “Internet artists are sometimes artists who don’t have any money, because they can’t invest a lot of money into making a massive sculpture.”
The potential downside of posting her work on Instagram is twofold -- her lack of ownership of her Instagram photos and the uncertain nature of social media platforms. But neither of these facts seem to faze her at all. Instead, she embraces them.
"Everyone says that it’s a horrible evil [that social media companies own our content], but in Marxist terms, people didn't even own the chairs they were making in factories,” says Wollen. “The Internet didn't invent this kind of exploitation."
Unlike others who have achieved some degree of social media fame, she doesn’t have any delusions about her permanence as an Internet presence.
“I’m aware of my own obsolescence -- Instagram is temporary like all technologies,” Wollen added. “I like the idea of Instagram falling away and being aware that [my work is] going to be degraded or totally inaccessible like my old Xanga… My identity and work aren’t precious in any way. Explicitness is valuable -- to face the reality of the situation -- instead of living in a fantasy.”
She speaks with a surprising calm about the harsh realities that most people might try to avoid. The issues that Wollen faces as a woman, as an artist online, and as a woman artist, could be enough to make a girl set her hair on fire out of frustration.
A day before our interview, Wollen did literally set her fire-red hair on fire. No, she wasn’t trying to recreate Sad Girl Joan of Arc’s demise. It was an accident, she explained, while boiling some water for our tea over the same stove that did the damage. As a result, she had to chop off a good length of her long locks.
The next day, she posted a picture of her new ‘do on Instagram, a perfect embodiment of the Sad Girl. On the surface, she looks like a young woman who underwent a mere cosmetic transformation, but underneath, she’s just another girl posing in a memento of self-destruction.
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