The trope of the ‘emo girl’ has made a comeback in the past few years. Last month, it was perhaps solidified into mainstream culture with the release of Machine Gun Kelly’s track Emo Girl ft WILLOW. At first glance, the revival of the stereotype seems like a celebration of the alternative — a nostalgic throwback to the Y2K days in which Myspace reigned supreme.
Through the lens of the male gaze in pop culture, the emo girl is a muse. She’s intriguing — exotic, even. Her aesthetic is dark and mysterious, and so is her outlook on life. Characteristics of the emo or alternative girl often include depression and mental illness, casually lumped together with eyeliner and fishnet stockings. Mental illness is not just a characteristic of the trope, but a key feature of its appeal. It’s a disturbing insight into the way mental health can be objectified; reduced to an accessory like a stud-choker or a septum ring. It’s a reminder that through the male gaze, anything can become a commodity. Even pain.
The prototype emo girl of the 2000s was the epitome of a social outcast. In pop culture at the time, the goth/alternative aesthetic commonly framed someone as a misfit. (Think Janice Ian from Mean Girls, or Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Yet the associations that once made the emo girl so taboo, now contribute to the desirability of her late 2010s revival.
It’s a reminder that through the male gaze, anything can become a commodity. Even pain.
The beginnings of her resurgence can be found circa 2016 when the ‘Goth GF’ meme started circulating via Twitter. Thousands of users professed their desire to find a Goth GF, although the attention wasn’t entirely flattering. Perhaps rooted in her identity as an outcast, part of her appeal was that she had a lot to offer, without pressure on her admirers to offer much in return (i.e. this ad seeking a Goth Gf “ready to be emotionally and physically disappointed full time.”).
In his 2019 hit track Hot Girl Bummer (which has garnered nearly a billion streams on Spotify), singer Blackbear brags: “I’m pullin’ up wit an emo chick that’s broken”. I recall women in my life who have confessed to feeling broken. They spoke of the total paralysis of grief and how it can cause an inability to maintain livelihoods, relationships or basic self-care.
Elaborating on the meaning of the lyrics in a Genius interview, Blackbear said, “I’m pulling up with that cool sad-girl, and it’s like… It’s a look, it’s a mood”.
The emo girl’s depressed mood is valued for its ability to translate into ‘a mood’ for the guy she’s with. In the fantasy, a man with an ‘emo girl’ on his arm can experience the perceived ‘edginess’ of her mental illness by proxy. He gets the ‘cool points’ for associating with her depression, without actually having to suffer through depression.
It’s in this sense that the trope of the ‘emo girl’ parallels the ‘manic pixie dream girl (MPDG),’ endemic to indie film. Like the MPDG, 'emo girl' is an object of male desire — her primary role is to enhance the lives of the men she dates. Not through her whimsy or her free spirit; but through her pain. Although those who objectify her pain may rebrand it as something else; edge, mystique, enigma… sexual liberation.
“Ain’t no daddy issues, then I won’t even bother” growls musician Corpse on his 2020 trap-metal track E-Girls Are Ruining My Life! Ft Savage Ga$p. The sexually-charged song, which centres goths and e-girls as objects of desire, reflects the boom in the alternative scene that sprouted online during the pandemic. The song went viral and was so popular that it won a billboard in NYC Times Square thanks to fan support.
Pop culture representations of the emo/alternative girl are indicative of an increasingly normalised view that trauma, mental illness and pain are in some way desirable. It stems from a devastating misconception that pain makes women more ‘interesting’. But pain is just pain, and there are no upsides to mental anguish. Any positive elements are found in the process of pain’s healing, not its prolonging.
Through the lens of this cultural philosophy, a woman is encouraged to wear her suffering like seductive lingerie — even though it feels more like a straight jacket that one is constantly trying to escape from.
The objectification of mental illness isn’t limited to depictions of the ‘emo girl’ in pop culture. Instagram page @beam_me_up_softboi comedically captures some of the awfulness that men, specifically ‘softbois’ (an emotional manipulator with indie tastes and a superiority-complex about it) espouse in the world of online dating. Among other things, the page charts the rise of the shocking phenomenon of objectifying mental illness as a desirable commodity.
But pain is just pain, and there are no upsides to mental anguish. Any positive elements are found in the process of pain’s healing, not its prolonging.
In this example, a softboi draws an idealised comparison to Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman and his girlfriend Jane, who struggles (fatally) with drug addiction. The lack of self-awareness of such a suggestion is rather hilarious. But unfortunately, it’s also emblematic of the way women's suffering is perceived. Her struggle, no matter how severe, can always be reduced to a ‘quirk’. It’s in this way, that the gut-wrenching reality of her suffering doesn’t get in the way of a man’s desire for her. Through the male gaze, a woman’s trauma is there for consumption, and the man who fetishises her is like a dark tourist in her pain.
It’s almost tempting to turn the male gaze inwards and objectify one’s own feelings of distress. It’s tempting for the same reason men do it — mythologising the pain shields them from feeling the reality of it. By recasting it as allure, mystique or whatever, it becomes an accessory to one’s image. Only at the end of the day, it can’t be taken off as easily as dark eyeshadow or black nail polish.