'Girl Power', that slogan once associated with 90s pop acts, has now become the blueprint for being a woman in the world. These days, it's easy to believe the route to feminist empowerment has less to do with bloodlust or punk-rock anarchy than with signing up to an all-female career network, complete with an art-directed Instagram presence, using Beyonce's self-titled album as a motivational soundtrack. Or gifting your daughter a Barbie, thigh gap replaced with curves.
We live in a time in which 62 million girls don't have access to education, one in six Australian women suffer violence at the hands of a partner and men's rights activists stage clandestine meetings as part of a mission to legalise rape. Forgive me if relentless positivity doesn't seem like an alternative for women's suffering, but like an elaborate and well-packaged lie.
Audrey Wollen is an advocate for female pain. Last year, the 23-year-old, LA based artist conceived 'Sad Girl Theory', a movement that reframes sorrow as a weapon against this pressure to celebrate the female experience rather than accept the everyday ways it hurts.
"Sad Girl Theory is the proposal that girls' sadness and self-destructive behaviour should be re-read as an act of political resistance," says Wollen, who built a cult following via Repetitions: a series of images in which she inserts her naked body into arresting recreations of classic paintings like Botticelli's The Birth of Venus and Ingres' Grand Odalisque.
"I think we can restage every girl who is depressed, hating her body, crying her eyes out on a bus, as a political activist. Often the only corner of the universe girls have real agency over is our own bodies, minds, and feelings; to throw your body down in despair is the same gesture as throwing a brick through a window in anger. Girls understand that our bodies and selves are public, political objects and how we treat our bodies and selves should be understood as public, political gestures."
Despair doesn't sell face cream or leadership seminars as well as celebrity figureheads or pro-women platitudes, but history proves it's a subversive force. From Sylvia Plath, whose poems are so unsparing in their depictions of 1950s motherhood that the world feels leached of colour when you read them, to Frida Kahlo – who broke her spine in a tram crash and painted her injuries on autobiographical canvases – the queens of the sad girl movement understood that working within tragic circumstances could be quietly revolutionary.
Wollen, who's currently working on a body of artwork about the patients of La Salpêtrière – the 19th century French hospital that incarcerated women believed to be 'hysterical' – says her own sad girl icons include Lana Del Rey, Kathy Acker, Brittany Murphy and Elena Ferrante (the anonymous Italian author whose Neapolitan Novels are a study in the violent realities of women's lives). She also believes that the ways in which sad girls are sidelined in our culture points to their ability to disrupt the status quo.
"The fact that girls have been literally imprisoned over the course of centuries for being sad just proves what an amazing weapon it is already, how frightening it can be to those in power," says Wollen, who's writing a book based on Sad Girl Theory and was named among the 10 new faces of feminism by Teen Vogue this year.
"The history of girls is the history of sorrow, from the very beginning. The stereotype of the hysterical girl, driven mad by sorrow, is used to warn girls: don't turn out like her, don't be a drag, don't complain, don't go crazy. If we all collectively admitted that being a girl sucks in this world right now, that it is scary and sad, that these are unliveable, unacceptable, conditions: what then? Something would have to change."
Wollen is equally committed to reclaiming 'girl' – a word that stands in for youth, foolishness and vulnerability – as a badge of pride. She says girls often "can't live up to the demands of contemporary feminism – to have high self esteem, a lot of money, great sex, fearlessness – and end up in a shame spiral as if we could just pull up our bootstraps, work a little harder, and fix things!"
Sad Girl Theory reverses the impulse to put the responsibility for empowerment on individual girls, rather than the system itself, Wollen adds: "Sadness is not narcissistic or foolish: it is an informed, rational, articulate, and embodied response to a devastating set of circumstances.
"Hypothetically, you start out as a girl and you level up, to become a woman. But when does womanhood actually happen? When we are of childbearing age? When we are in charge of our own lives? When we're free? I never saw girls level up, the way they promised us we would. Under the patriarchy, it doesn't matter how old we are, we're all still girls, and we can work with that."