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A Multiverse of ‘Madness’ – The Cultural Phenomenon of Being a Young Woman

Written by Verity Monaghan

On a balmy July evening in Brixton, a swarm of tote bags, Dr. Martens, and bleached hair could be seen gathering beneath an illuminated sign reading: PHOEBE BRIDGERS – SOLD OUT.

This marked the death of any individuality complex I may have had before attending this concert. An indie music concert is the perfect setting for a girl who thinks of herself as ‘not like the other girls’, to realise that she is in fact, exactly like the other girls. And with the first strum of ‘Motion Sickness’, a chorus of young, predominantly female voices screaming “I hate you for what you did, and I miss you like a little kid”, welcomes in what will be the most cathartic two hours of my life.

Reflecting upon this wonderful experience, I came to question, what is it that makes me the same as everyone else in that audience, and what had drawn us all there in the first place? I feel that ultimately, it was the fact that Bridgers had created a space in which we had permission to feel. Whether you had the urge to cry, or laugh, any reaction would be appropriate to Bridgers’ lyrics. Songs that combine the cynical and disenchanted with the earnest and self-reflective, encapsulating what it is to be a young woman experiencing the world. Bridgers’ adept ability to depict the anger and pain of life whilst highlighting how ironic and trivial much of the darkness can be, allows the listener to feel validated and able to wallow, whilst providing comforting humour and self-awareness.

I feel that we’re reaching a cultural turning point, where it’s no longer funny to trivialise the experience of girlhood. Instead, we are surrounded by emerging media that is examining what it is to be a teenage girl/ young woman; a movement that arguably is the most in-depth study of the ‘female experience’ since the novels of Jane Austen. Musicians such as Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift, alongside authors like Sally Rooney, and Film/TV depictions including Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ‘Fleabag’ and Greta Gerwig’s ‘Lady Bird’ (2017), are all examples within this multiverse of ‘girlhood’ in which so many young women are finally seeing themselves.

Online spaces have played a large part in forming communities of these young women. Platforms such as TikTok have seen the rise of the ‘sad girl’ trope. Although under criticism for romanticising the pain of young women, I would argue that these communities are rejecting the often-misogynistic labels of being ‘hysterical’ or ‘dramatic’, and instead approach their feelings through a lens of highly self-analysed awareness. The discussion of these feelings also allows participants to realise how valid and justified their frustration and cynicism is within the culture of our society Although girlhood has its beauty, it also has its weight and its burden. There is a sense of catharsis after centuries of composure, we are exploring what is beneath the surface.

The viral song ‘Complex’, by Katie Gregson-Macleod that has taken TikTok by storm in recent weeks, takes the often-trivialised experience of young love and turns it into a deconstruction of the burden that is placed on the woman in young relationships; the responsibility to hold things together and accept the boy’s immaturity for what it is as she sings, “I’m being the cool girl; I’m keeping it so tight. I carry him home while my friends have a good night”. This curse of ‘being the cool girl’ is something that strikes a chord with many young woman – the fear of caring too much. This emotional barrier is perfectly captured: “I’m wearing his boxers, I’m being a good wife” // “I cry in his bathroom, he turns off the big light”. The feeling of having the light ‘turned off’ to your emotions and having to reach around in the dark is finally being quenched by the tangibility that is the emergence of these depictions.

The literary world of Sally Rooney marks another tangible realm of relatability for the ‘troubled’ young woman. In Rooney’s works, a state of highly analysed self-awareness in itself has a kind of redemptive quality. Marianne (of ‘Normal People’) and Francis (of ‘Conversations with Friends’), exist in a state of troubled grace. A neurotic and conflicted attitude is presented as appropriate to the conditions of the contemporary world, its injustices, and the impossible options it places before us as individuals. These characters are a perfect depiction of being a flawed young person; their lofty ideals, shameful desires and acts of selfishness are what allow us as readers to see the world and our own situations more truthfully. Rooney’s characters are made whole by their flaws. She perfectly captures the eerie feeling of watching your life unfold through a two-way mirror. In her most famous novel, ‘Normal People’, she writes “Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her, she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was and become part of it”: The highly relatable feeling of being in your late teens/early twenties and despite intense friendships and romances, feeling deeply lonely.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s TV sensation ‘Fleabag’ shares the temperament previously discussed. She is able to veer unsettlingly between a familiar kind of comical cynicism about the social world and displays of complete earnestness. Despairingly she confesses how she feels to the audience stating, “Either everyone feels like this just a little bit and they’re not talking about it, or I am completely fucking alone. Which isn’t fucking funny”. Worlds collided in 2020 when the Phoebes collaborated, with Waller-Bridge directing a music video for Bridgers. A pairing that seemed to make complete sense, not just due to their alarmingly similar names, but to the way they explore the world in their separate works. Bridgers’ work, much like ‘Fleabag’ perfectly juxtaposes the trivial with the uncomfortably dark. A line in her song Halloween states, “I hate living by the hospital, the sirens go all night. I used to joke that if they woke you up, somebody better by dying”.

What all these women seem to capture so well is the idea that, yes, life as a young woman can be exhausting, but what is far more exhausting is not talking about it. In turn they have created a space in which we can identify. It is not a depressing thing, it is a cultural phenomenon that is cathartic and entertaining, as well as dark. It is comforting and uplifting, as well as emotional. This is how it should be because this is how it is. And as we navigate the turmoil of being twenty years old, these songs, books and films are exactly what we need.

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