On Tumblr’s Romanticization of Depression

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Before really diving into talking about this, I’d like warn you that I am going to get angry. Also, huge trigger warning for depression, addiction, self harm, enablement and romanticization of mental illnesses– all that fun stuff.

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Tumblr–

Look, baby, I love you. You know that, seeing as I’ve wasted at least a little time on you nearly every day for the last three years. And this isn’t a break up letter, you’ve just kind of started scaring the shit out of me lately. There’s this part of you, this, dark, freaky part– that really loves to romanticize mental illnesses. It’s the Soft Grunge part of you. I don’t like it. It’s really dangerous behaviour. You’re worrying me.

Text me or something, alright?

-Sarah

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If you’ve been following my internet adventures then you probably know that I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety a while ago. I’ve tried to be fairly forthright about it recently, because 1) it’s pretty obvious anyway, 2) the shame that so many people feel about their mental illnesses is really really awful, and I’d like to be part of the admittedly small portion of people trying to end that stigma, and finally, 3) I’m trying to do this thing called Get Better, which for me involves embracing it.

Also, I really love Tumblr. And teenage girls. Not in a Humbert Humbert kind of way, more in a, “we are young, smart, strong ladies, and we’re going to take over the whole damn world one day,” kind of way. Discovering feminism has made it pretty hard for me not to be bursting with girl love.

Which is probably part of why the soft grunge craze makes me so angry– this is my own kind, severely disappointing me.

“Soft Grunge” isn’t what happens when you put a Nirvana CD in a washing machine with some fabric softener. It’s a term that evolved to describe a specific type of aesthetic common among teenage girls on Tumblr in recent years. Lana del Rey is basically the human embodiment of this phenomenon. This Urban Dictionary definition is condescending, but also pretty accurate:

[They] create a “hardcore” persona on Tumblr by reblogging pictures of inverted crosses, dip-dyed hair, ying-yang symbols and toilets. They like to pretend that they listen to grunge music by wearing stylish Nirvana tees that match their $200 pair of Doc Martens. If you were ask them who the Misfits were, they’d probably say anyone who isn’t sporting spikes this season.

This breakdown, however, misses out on the really weird romanticization of mental illnesses, especially depression, that runs rampant in these blogs. I creeped a few Tumblrs (that I would normally link to, but I’d really rather not encourage more people to look at this stuff, but reverse image searching is a thing if you really care) and found a lot of seriously fucked up imagery– it’s wildly popular, too, judging by the notes these posts get.

77493 notes at the writing of this post.
1164 notes.
7089 notes.
77709 notes.
2137 notes.

You see this, right? You’re seeing these pictures?? They’re there in front of you and you can see them??? Or am I just losing my mind completely???? Do people not find this messed up????? I also found a lot of pictures of bruised knees and bleeding cuts in my travels to the terrifying side of Tumblr, but looking at them makes me want to vomit even more than the above images, so I’m not posting them here.

I’ve tried to describe what depression feels like a thousand times before, and I can never really get it right. Sometimes, depression feels like nothing. It’s the absence of feelings. Which is why to people who’ve never really learned about it, someone with a severe, life-threatening mental illness can just kinda look like some dude who sleeps too much and won’t do stuff.

Notice how the words “pretty,” “beautiful,” “romantic,” or “#pale” didn’t show up in that description. Because it’s none of those things. It just sucks. In one of my vlogs I described depression as “kind of like a 24/7 party inside your brain, where everybody that you invited is a sad drunk, so really you’re all just sitting on a couch together, like, sobbing over nothing, and it’s like, hey, brain, wanna… not? Maybe? That would be cool.” And I’d say that’s still right. Although the sobbing part isn’t always apparent in people– it’s indicative of a marginally less severe form of the illness than an apathetic kind of depression.

Basically, no matter how it manifests, depression doesn’t really tend to look like decorated cigarette boxes and artfully running mascara. And I’m willing to bet money that a huge chunk of these girls have no diagnosed illnesses.

Which isn’t to say that no girl with a soft grunge blog is actually diagnosed with depression (or any other mental illness), because I’m sure many are. And I think I can kind of understand the appeal. Feeling like you’re a part of something can be comforting, and so can seeing that other people feel the same way you do. When you’re in the healing stages of a mental illness, having support isn’t just important, it’s a necessity. But the soft grunge subculture doesn’t support the “Sad Girls” it idolizes, it enables them.

Every time you reblog pictures of a computer screen that says “stupid sad girl” or Marlboro cigarettes with sticky notes pasted on them saying “because you broke my heart,” every time you contribute to a culture that makes depression seem like a quirky thing to add to your “about” section instead of a serious disorder with one of the highest death rates of any illness, you are actively making it okay for people to ignore their health problems and just be sad. That’s enablement.

People need to stop posting pictures of pills and tagging them #death, #suicide, #self hate, #soft grunge, and #pale. Trust me on this one, overdosing on pills: not really a good time. It’s nothing like the pictures of parties that are scattered all over your dashboard. A pretty blue-eyed boy will not come up to you when you’ve been lying in an ER bed for four hours because you can’t walk and tell you how beautiful you and your sadness are. Maybe that’s because you won’t be wearing pants at the time (I wasn’t), or maybe that’s because you’ll barely be able to speak because your mind is so distorted by the drugs. He won’t kiss your fucking scars. In fact it’s likely that nobody ever will, because seeing the mutilated flesh of someone you love is terrifying.

I think that’s something that needs to make its way back into our perception of mental illnesses: terror. I don’t mean that we should regress to a state where as soon as someone tells you they’re depressed, you run and hide, but we can’t look at depression as something that’s beautiful in any way. I would never want anyone to be afraid of a loved one of theirs with depression, but they should probably be a little bitafraid of the depression itself. Because in my experience, the fear is really what winds up getting people to get help. The things that depression can drive people to are terrifying. The way your own thoughts turn against you is terrifying. The shitstorm that your life turns into is terrifying. I’m gonna go full white girl for a second and quote some really beautiful Kendrick Lamar lyrics from Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst

In case I’m not here tomorrow, I’m hoping that I can borrow
A peace of mind, I’m behind on what’s really important
My mind is really distorted, I find nothing but trouble in my life

The song isn’t about depression, it’s about growing up in Compton, California, and trying to resist the magnetic pull of gang life and violence, but I remember the first time I heard those lines they hit me like a slap in the face because they were just so easy to identify with. “My mind is really distorted” basically sums up depression in half a sentence. And before this rant turns into a post about how much I love Kendrick Lamar, let me just say this: creating a space where depression is so accepted that it verges on being promoted is just as dangerous as creating a space where depression is unaccepted. Much like everything else in life, we need to find a balance.

 

And really, it’s not that fucking difficult to just stop reblogging shit that promotes unhealthy views of mental illness.

 

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31 Comments

  1. This is really great. I am not from the Tumblr generation, so I don’t see the kind of crap you’re talking about, and it is a little shocking to me how grotesque some of it is. Thank you for speaking up. I’m glad you appear to have the upper hand over your own depression these days.

  2. I, too, have anxiety and depression and seeing these pictures makes me so sad and angry. I have struggled with the stigma of having a mental illness for so long…I am 38 as of 2 weeks ago and, if I look back at my life honestly, I should have been diagnosed with depression around the age of 12. I still find it hard to tell people about it, yet it is such an important part of who I am. It is something I struggle against, and take medicine for, and yet it is always a part of me. And it is not romantic!!

    I guess I’m trying to say that I understand why you are so upset by these things and I am too.

  3. I think also this idea of romanticization of depression has to be linked with this idea of eternal youth, that is promoted in our societies.
    Some people react with this “F*ck this shit let’s party, take drugs, get drunk” thing and some others react with this romantized depression.
    I was a bit like that, especially when I was listening too much of Lana del rey and Marina&TheDiamonds, but now I’m more like “Yes we”ve got one life, let’s get my shit done. Do something with your life.” I don’t mean like being successful, but doing something that passionate you. That’s how I tried to think now 😀

  4. Hi –

    I came here from your most recent vlog – it’s good to hear that you’re getting better, that you’re not just feeling something, you’re feeling happy. That’s really, really wonderful.

    Because depression is terrifying; it terrifies me – I am not terrified _of_ the people who suffer from depression, I am terrified _for_ them. Depression is terrifying. It isn’t, as you know and say, sadness; it doesn’t have a reason. Depression is the absence of any reason, the absence of feelings, of emotion, of finding meaning – it is the absence of much of our humanity. Of course it is terrifying, how can it not be?

    Romanticization is a way of coping with this fear – like humour would be, but socially acceptable: instead of making mockery of the people suffering, it appears to elevate them, likening them to Woody Allen, Beaudelaire, Dickens, Hemingway, Wilde. And in doing so, it is alienating them, it is Othering.

    It is easy. And it is insidious.

    I am so very glad to hear and see that you are getting better.

  5. This is such a good article/post and made me ‘lol’ in the genuine manner too. The romanticisation of mental illnesses in general has been bothering me lately and this really sums up what I was thinking. It is absurd why it is made into some weird quirky trait on tumblr and as someone who spent a fair bit of time in adolescent psychiatric wards, it really isn’t glamourous. If anything, i and other patients wore a lot of fucking ugly clothes in hospital because your life isn’t the truman show and no one is watching.

    Love the blog and hope you are well/dealing with your brain gremlins

  6. yeah the thing is, i have a “soft grunge” blog on tumblr. I have a serious depression and when I reblog something it is because I really feel that way about life, I want to take pills and end my life, I take acid, I smoke, I think life sucks and I hurt myself. You should be happy some people only reblog those pictures of killing themselves or self harm or whatever smoking, except from actually killing themself.

    1. I’m also depressive and on tumblr but never heard of “soft grunge.” (I would have thought it was just a kind of music if I didn’t see this page.)

      @Janne: The thing is not all forms of self-expression are healthy. Whatever else this kind of imagery does, it reminds me the romanticization of war in the mainstream media, where most of the time instead of gravely discussing the bleak reality of maimed or killed civilians and military personnel, the US mainstream media gushes about the accuracy of airstrikes and what kinds of missiles are in use, like they’re reviewing the latest gadget for their tech talk segment. It’s glorification without considering the human cost of making these things sound cool.

  7. There’s also a thing in society as whole for romanticising suicide, or rather romanticising the people who choose to die by suicide. Someone kills themselves and all of a sudden they’re a saint, an angel without whom the world will be a darker place and everyone’s full of love for them… after they’re already dead. My sister killed herself at age 17 and we had relatives who had cut her off and refused to have anything to do with her wanting to come to her funeral. My mother told them all collectively to piss right off because where were they when she was alive? People have all these wonderful things to say about suicide victims after they’re dead but where were all these kind words while the person was alive? They don’t need a bunch of people talking about how special and wonderful they were after they’ve swallowed a tonne of pills or put a rope around their neck, they need that shit while they’re still alive so they might see a good reason not to do it in the first place.

  8. I have depression ( I know there are people out there who say that a person with a real mental illness never talks about it. True, in real life I don’t, but the internet is anonymous) and I have to say, the romanticizing of this disease is not the way to go. It’s not fun, and I’m not a strong person because I have to deal with it, I’m a person who needs help and goes looking for it though the proper channels. I do believe that people who genuinely have this need to speak up and get rid of the stigma, but treating it like it’s trendy draws away from it’s seriousness.

  9. This article is very interesting. My best friend is clinically depressed and it’s tough at times to see life through her eyes; She’s one of the strongest females in my life and she actually gives people advice as her profession. Don’t get me wrong, she’s excellent at giving advice and she’s a brilliant person (none of her clients know she’s 17 however, their guesses go for about 25) but seeing her when she gets down kills me. I’ve known her for most of my life and I would always look up to her for help….now it seems like she needs the help and it’s a struggle to help her out not knowing exactly how she feels. Do you have any advice on what you’re friends may do to help or what makes you feel better in general? I know not everyone is the same but any advice is good to try I’d say.

    -Rosemary

  10. This has got to be the best thing I have ever read in my life. Thank you for putting my only feeling-my frustration, into words. I completely agree when you say depression has no reason or feeling. Its just NOTHING, you know it and I do too. and when people post this shit it makes me so angry. I like to label it chronic attention seeking. this has made me feel so much better already, thank you xxx

  11. Yes.

    Yes, yes, yes.

    THANK YOU, for writing this.

    I’m on tumblr a lot and these “soft grunge” blogs have really been bothering me. I just get so mad when I see a blog with an all pastel flowery background and posts about the “beauty” of depression, suicide, anxiety, etc. Also these pictures with things like “suicidal” inside of a heart. This romanticization of mental illnesses, drugs, smoking, starving yourself and such is just pissing me off.

    It is not romantic.
    It is not beautiful.
    It is not something to desire.

    If someone suffers from a mental illness, any mental illness, it’s not going to be easier for them to get better and get help when all you do is romanticize it. Making it look like something beautiful is not going to help whatsoever. And yes, I do understand that some people wants to vent their feelings but this is not an appropriate way to do it. I just think people needs to keep in mind that these kinds of things should never ever be put as “beautiful” in any way. Instead of promoting these things to other people, please talk to someone. Go see a therapist and please get help. Of course I wish for everyone who suffers from mental illnesses and such to get better, but please keep in mind what exactly it is that you’re promoting. I’m sure it isn’t people’s intentions to affect other people negatively by posting these kind of things, but they need to realize what they’re doing. Also, if you don’t suffer from it, you shouldn’t post about it. You do not understand how it feels. Just stop it.

    I’m sorry if I’m coming off as a rude bitch but this subject just makes me so frustrated. I myself suffer from anxiety which affects my life every single day. It sucks. It really fucking sucks. Not being able to do what you want to because you’re scared feels awful. I can’t even ask my teachers for help if I need it. I can barely order food at restaurants. It is not quirky or cool or hip in any way to have anxiety. It just makes you feel miserable.

  12. Can I just say that this is one of the best and honest things I’ve ever heard? I was diagnosed with clinical depression earlier this year and it truly is nothing like tumblr makes it seem. It is not fun, it is not artsy. It is terrifying and dark. When people make it into an art project with some cigarettes, it completely undermines what depression is, which is a seriously dangerous mental illness.
    I’m SO glad that it isn’t just me who sees things like this. Thank you.

  13. I am glad I found someone put into words, thank you so much. I know someone who I follow anonymously to see how they’re doing and they reblog all sorts of stuff like this. I don’t know what to do and I know how old this is but I need to help them actually heal instead as you say continue this cycle. Any advice?

  14. Thank you so much for posting this. Admittedly, I used to actively maintain a “soft grunge” (I never heard of this term until reading this so please excuse me if I didn’t use it correctly) blog. Despite no longer using the account, I still have romanticized views of mental illness (and I know this sounds stupid and like an excuse but I’m doing my best to make myself no longer have those views), however, reading writings like this has really helped opened my eyes to the reality of mental illness. You’re wonderful and I am definitely going to visit your website more. 🙂

  15. Hello, I am writing a paper in my writing class about suicide, and how it seems to be romanticized. I ran into this post while googling ideas and was wondering if I could feed off of it. I very much agree with you and would like to use some quotes from this post in my paper, but before doing so, I would like to ask for permission. I will, of course, give you credit and site my sources but I just wanted to ask you personally as well. Thank you for writing such an impressive and inspirational piece. I really enjoyed it! I’m not sure how this works so if you could please email me with an answer that would be great, my email is sabrinaasuarez1@gmail,com. Thank you so much!

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