When young women collectively embraced the “selfie,” it was casually dismissed as vanity, rather than a generational initiative to take back ownership of how we view ourselves, and the stories we build up about who we are, how we feel, and how our beliefs and ideas are expressed. In the same way that it’s easy to snap a photo of how cute your makeup looks and slap a snapchat filter over it, there’s something to be said for how social media and smartphones offer a lens of intimacy over how and what we share with the world. We’re in an era of digital exhibitionism that allows artists and individuals alike to bare their souls as easily as one can bare their body.
Public platforms like Instagram allow people to upload what appear to be almost “ongoing” self portraits: a series of head shots or full body photos, landscapes and still lifes in a given color scheme, with provocative or uncanny subject matter. The self, superimposed on a new, vibrant-hued background image or decontextualized for the sake of recontextualization. New meaning is being brought to the notion of being “up close and personal”. There’s this willingness to be vulnerable, but sometimes it feels almost performative: if you reveal yourself with your audience in mind, it’s no longer “candid”; it stops being exactly honest, therefore cancelling itself out.
Further, what does vulnerability even look like? Is it uploading a provocative image? Is it posting a screenshot of a private text exchange? Is it making the details of your trauma accessible to the public via a Facebook status or an offhand tweet? Is it livestreaming violence and tragedy as self-defense? In each of these contexts, there’s a demonstrated trend that implies vulnerability means making your truth and inner self available for consumption, which suggests that self-preservation and emotional nudity ought to be mutually exclusive.
But there’s room perhaps, for this kind of intimacy to be personally empowering. Or even political.
There’s been a surge of contemporary art asserting:
- Women’s right to reclaim vulnerability without being seen as “over-sensitive”
- Vulnerability and emotion can be empowering, resistant and even political
Radical softness is the idea that sharing your emotions is a political move and a tactic against a society which prioritizes a lack of emotions.”
The idea that Mathis presents here — one in which feelings are something to be felt in whole, not diluted or shamed — is a valuable one. But the presentation of a necessary movement has been slightly corrupted by the often short-sighted aesthetic adopted by white femmes. Pairing florals and jewelry with knives doesn’t suddenly make it edgy or radical. It’s this very juxtaposition of femininity with violence, this need for our emotions to be “radical” (a term that crops up a lot lately) rather than just be, that renders Mathis’s photo series tone deaf.
Softness doesn’t need to be “weaponized”. I don’t need to “radicalize” my self-expression. I don’t need my womanhood to become hostile or intimidating. I don’t need it to be fearsome by upholding, for example, tampons and periods as representations of power (a motif that has already exhausted itself as cliche across a number of other #GirlPower photo series.) It’s jarring to see creative work by white femmes that resonates right up until they try to entangle softness & femininity with romanticized violence and anger like it’s supposed to be empowering across the board. It’s not. For women of color especially, our access to delicacy and vulnerability is often limited, challenged, or nonexistent, and it usually needs to be separated from narratives of “anger” and “weapons” to even be respected.
Furthermore, the caveats of masculinity dictate that men should not have access to the same emotional outlets as women. Misunderstandings and struggles in empathy and communication stem from this learned behavior, creating an environment where emotionality is frowned upon, although it would be over-simplistic and inaccurate to divide feelings into a dichotomy of “acceptable” versus “not”. Women aren’t being policed according to whichfeelings they exhibit or how many but often by how much those feelings are an inconvenience / benefit to men. When our vulnerability refuses to be easily consumable or manipulated or exploited, it becomes a problem.
The reality is that girls hurt. Women hurt. Femmes are united, often, in our predisposition to heartache and trauma. Fragility doesn’t need to be toughened up to be valid, it just needs to be acknowledged as one of many possible responses to the hurt that we collectively are subjected to as we navigate the world. My softness isn’t political because I dare to have feelings at all, it’s political because these feelings are fundamental to my very core and survival— they are not something that can be removed or “turned off”. I have tried, in my own way, to make myself robotic and have had it fail miserably, a lesson that has taught me that crying on a regular basis, for example, is a matter of maintaining my health at this point.
Sad Girl Theory | Audrey Wollen
Girls’ sadness is not passive, self-involved or shallow; it is a gesture of liberation, it is articulate and informed, it is a way of reclaiming agency over our bodies, identities, and lives.
Where Mathis presents one narrative, Wollen goes on to assert that sadness is necessary and has always belonged to girls, operating as the backdrop of our very survival in a world where the game is rigged. Wollen argues that modern feminism wants so badly for us to be happy despite the reality that pain is often a pillar of womenhood:
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. — Audrey Wollen, Nylon
Without upholding martyrdom as a feminine aspiration, Wollen attempts to explore further the role(s) — historically, politically, and personally— that sadness plays in our lives. And once again, the body & self-portraiture are used as a framework within which to closer examine the tenets of vulnerability and objectification.
These series all circle back to the same questions: what does intimacy look like? What does [feminine] vulnerability look like? How many ways can the self be utilized as a canvas?
There are no neat and easy answers. But as the lines between ‘personal’ and ‘private’ continue to blur, as contemporary artists continue to forego comfort in their pursuit for catharsis, as our lived experiences continue to be the source material for these experiments in raw candidness — the answers, a testament to our healing processes, are going to grow more nuanced and complex with every contribution.