Adventures in Thesis Writing: Sad Girl Theory and Radical Softness as a Weapon

This year I’m attempting to write an honours thesis in amongst keeping my day job, going to Japan for a bit, running Slink Chunk, eating and sleeping (maybe). And, not only am I an enthusiastic overcommiter,  I’m also a notorious follower of tangents. So I thought, in the interest of maintaining my mental health (and having a bit of fun doing it), I might spend a bit of time following these tangents in blog form, and get them out of my system. This is adventures in thesis writing.

So, in the last installment I was talking about Medea, about Strong Female Characters, and about vulnerability right? WELL, I’ve since done a lot more reading and have come to some more developed ideas and conclusions about the lack in the Strong Female Characters that has been troubling me so much. 

I've been doing a lot of reading about forms of female resistance, and in particular how this resistance functions within traditional story arcs of classical literature. Margery Hourihan’s Deconstructing the Hero (a book recommended to me by Allie Speers, who is now my hero, because it is SO INTERESTING AND USEFUL) talks a lot about the narrative arc of the hero’s journey (I’m not going to sum that up because it's done much better here), and one of her arguments that I found particularly useful concerns the rewriting the hero’s journey, and in particular the subversion vs the inversion gender.  Hourihan argues that in order to subvert the patriarchal structure of the hero’s journey (ie. white cis-male sets out to conquer and claim land and lady alike), a writer cannot simply flip the gender of the protagonist from male to female. All this does, she argues, is reinforce the idea that traditionally masculine acts of heroism are of a higher value than feminine ones.

And this sparked something in me in regards to two things I’ve seen cropping up around the internet (tumblr); the first is visual artist Audrey Wollen’s Sad Girl Theory, and the second is Lora Mathis’ theory of Radical Softness as a Weapon

This section of a interview Audrey did for Oyster magazine explains the crux of her theory quite nicely, I thought; 
“Sad Girl Theory is a proposal — a gesture, a question — that's structured around the idea that girls' sadness and self destruction can be re-staged, re-read, re-categorised as an act of political resistance instead of an act of neurosis, narcissism, or neglect. This opens up an entirely new history of activism: what happens if we understand "revolt" as something that can be internal, personal, performed on our own bodies instead of anothers? Girls' agency has been so dispersed and diluted throughout history; it makes sense to me that maybe the way we fight back has stopped mimicking the masculinised tactics of past revolutions. We can redefine what violence, activism, and autonomy can mean for girls by looking at the actions that are already so pervasive in girl-culture (self-hate, sorrow, suffering, and even suicide) and asserting them as scenes of protest.”

Screenshot from Audrey Wollen's now defunct Instagram account. Sorry the text is too small, but you get the idea. 

I kind of love this. Giving women, and particularly girls, the ability to resist in ways other than that of traditional masculinity blows open the discourse and allows for the construction of interesting, complex characters. Allowing female characters to be emotional in a capacity that that is powerful, that isn’t dismissing them as ‘neurotic’ or ‘mad’ or ‘hormonal’, is, I would argue, a true subversion of the misogyny embedded in the hero’s journey narrative arc. 

Lora Mathis theory is founded on a similar attitude to Wollen's, yet her theory focuses not just on sadness, and not just on women. Lora argues for the practice of emotional vulnerability by all gender identities, binary or non-binary. She explains it in a way I liked on her recent Pateron account; "I created the term "radical softness as a weapon," to describe my personal life/artistic approach of being unapologetically vulnerable in-order to heal myself and combat the idea that emotions are a sign of weakness." This idea that emotions are power strikes at the heart of patriarchal binary rational; that women are considered inferior because of their capacity for unbridled emotions, and that men should not express their emotions because it makes them seem weak, like women.

 Inside of Lora's Radical Softness as a Weapon zine, which you can purchase from her Etsy store (click through). 

Inside of Lora's Radical Softness as a Weapon zine, which you can purchase from her Etsy store (click through). 

You might remember that I talked a bit about vulnerability in my last post. I still think that female characters should be given space within narratives to be vulnerable, but having read more about feminine acts of resistance in the last month, I’ve come identify strongly with the need to divorce weakness from femininity. I guess it comes down to allowing women to be vulnerable in different ways, but also disrupting this idea that vulnerability is a weakness, a weakness explicitly linked to all things feminine. A woman that allows herself to be emotionally vulnerable as a form of resistance is, to me, just as interesting (if not more so) as a Strong Female Character that can fuck shit up like a dude (although don’t get me wrong, I still love a woman who can throw a punch and/or swing a sword).

Of course, this argument also begs the question; why must acts of physical resistance be explicitly tied to male sexed bodies? Well, you’ll be pleased to know that I have SO MANY thoughts on this too, but that’s something for next time …