With the increasing popularity of works featuring unconventional or complex female characters, I’ve recently come to question whether this is damaging to teenage girls. Does this interest in these flawed characters reflect the cultivation of a culture that promotes wallowing in grief and depression? However, it would be unfair not to acknowledge that my own consumption of media has been influenced by this significantly and I’ve come to enjoy reading and viewing complex women struggle with grief, mental illness, love and family. It thrills me to see my own thoughts strewn out on a page, or repeated in dialogue by a character I connect with. It allows me to feel seen, and it seems that only flawed characters are able to provoke this type of reaction from me.
This type of media is associated with “dissociative feminism”, a term coined by Emmeline Clein in 2019. This references a growing voice in pop culture that prioritises an over-sharing-from-a-distance type of expression, which women often utilise when narrating tragic life experiences. It’s also commonly associated with nihilism and the approaching of pain from a passive perspective, while, at times, romanticising self-destruction.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ was originally released in 2018 but received widespread praise in 2021, with many teenage girls discovering the novel and taking on the unnamed narrator as someone they admire or relate to. The book follows a young woman wallowing in her grief and her eventual use of prescription medication. Attempting to sleep for an entire year, she hopes for a renewed outlook on life afterwards. Certainly, the narrator is not healthy in her choices, still, I wonder how many teenage girls took on her self-destructive behaviours after reading the novel.
Objectively, the unnamed narrator is not a pleasant person.
She treats her friends poorly, is often offensive and seems to be motivated by entirely selfish reasons. There is also a depiction of an unhealthy relationship between the narrator and her older on-again off-again boyfriend, though Moshfegh does acknowledge the toxicity. But I have to ask – did her audience view this depiction as a critique in the way that she intended it to be? The author’s satirical style is purposeful; Moshfegh attempts to criticise the entitlement that privilege and wealth often breed within the affluent. However, she also paints an extremely vulnerable and realistic image of grief and mental illness.
As a teenage girl, I can very much understand why other young women have connected so deeply with the book and its narrator. In a context where our lives are exhausted by capitalism and labour, it’s unsurprising that so many young women would relate to the tiredness and dispassion of the main character, yearning for their own year of rest and relaxation.
Although, it is worrying that such a flawed character has become someone that teenage girls aspire to be like. It concerns me that this character may cause many of these young girls to sink deeper into their sadness, claiming they are ‘just like’ the unnamed narrator as a coping mechanism as opposed to doing what is truly best for them: seeking help from mental health professionals.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ‘Fleabag’, a widely acclaimed tv series which spanned over two seasons is similarly popular with many young women. The show surrounds a woman in her early 30s attempting to navigate love and family following a tragic event. The main character, Fleabag, often breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the audience, building intimacy and developing a personal relationship with the audience. The effect of this is unlike any other show that I have ever viewed, and the closeness I felt to this fictional character by the series’ end is evidence of Waller-Bridge’s genius.
I watched ‘Fleabag’ last year because I had seen many people praising the show and I was also encouraged by a friend to watch it. Going in with high expectations, but still still reluctant to take the praise the show had received too seriously, I was unsure about what my opinions of Fleabag would be. Unsurprisingly, I loved it.
The raw and tender representation of womanhood and depiction of attempting to find your way in life through grief and troubled relationships is truly beautiful. Waller-Bridge effectively strikes a balance between comedy and tragedy, creating an exceptional viewing experience. At times, while watching the show, I felt as if the director had shaken my head vigorously, picked up whatever fell to the ground and included these specific thoughts or feelings, however mundane or unique I suspected them to be.
Nevertheless, due to the show’s popularity, many young women on social media such as Tik Tok and Twitter now refer to themselves as being in their ‘Fleabag era’, often signifying a struggle with mental illness or turbulence in their lives. This may be problematic - these viewers would rather subscribe to this label, a caricature of their mental illness, rather than taking the time to heal themselves. And yet, it does not shock me that so many young women have felt so understood by this piece of media, and like me, fostered a deep connection to both Fleabag and the series itself.
“This feeling is real because I have something to compare it to,"
Rayne Fisher-Quann states in her own essay about how women commodify and editoralise their pain. Young women and especially teenage girls, have difficulty defining their identity and will often incorporate the media that they consume into their identities. This is definitely true in the case of both ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ and ‘Fleabag’. Ultimately, although there are risks that come with the depiction of these characters, it is also true that flawed characters are vital. They mimic the very real people who exist, and are also flawed. I will likely continue to consume media featuring complex female characters, forever searching for characters to relate to, perhaps just like the young women of the 70s who related to Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’.