searching for female complexity
Around this time last year I was very sad. The insanity of what happened acquainted me with the fact that life will always still look tame from the outside. I went to school, studied for my classes, then came home and lifted. Eventually I began listening almost exclusively to The Smiths and Radiohead and No Party for Cao Dong. My style turned monochrome. On TikTok they called this the female manipulator aesthetic. It’s a riff on the male manipulator trope: if a man listens to Weezer and his favourite movie is American Psycho, run. The allure of the female manipulator: she knows herself and wants to wear her complexity, then obscure it under layers of contradiction so that only people perceptive enough to detect her neuroses are worthy of accessing her rich inner life. Rayne Fisher-Quann wrote one of my favourite essays ever, which, when I read for the first time, I was like this was literally written for me. She writes:
it’s become very common for women online to express their identities through an artfully curated list of the things they consume, or aspire to consume — and because young women are conditioned to believe that their identities are defined almost entirely by their neuroses, these roundups of cultural trends and authors du jour often implicitly serve to chicly signal one’s mental illnesses to the public.
I listened to music made by men who harboured internalized rage. I read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. My mother texts me instructions to cook silken tofu made me cry. The thing is, although I identified with my consumption, I wasn’t trying to be a specific female character, like a Joan Didion/Eve Babitz/Marlboro Reds girl. My style and music taste followed the female manipulator ethos, but the female manipulator, to me, was still too vague to be an ideal. I was instead identifying with the poetics of my consumption - how the art made me feel. I didn’t see myself as a sad-girl-playlist-the-smiths-indie-taiwanese-doomer-bands-ocean-vuong-poetry girl, but a girl who could be more than just rage, and more than just softness. I wanted very badly to be noticed for my fluidity: the way a relatively calm and unimposing girl could also be very crass and hardened by grief, yet still be cracked open to reveal tenderness, again, inside. I didn’t think I needed love anymore but I was always thinking about doing love better. I fantasized about someone stopping me on the streets and explaining how my entire life led up to this moment (lmao) because I wanted to watch myself in third-person.
The days I sat at the bottom of grief were ugly and draining and tedious, but I hoped that they’d turn me into a more complex, therefore, more interesting, person. But feelings don’t give people those qualities. People are already complex because they have unresolved feelings and believe contradictory things. That’s hard to romanticize. So complexity isn’t actually always interesting. I think when I wanted complexity I just wanted my feelings to have form. Which is why people listen to sad music when they’re sad: they’re looking for actualization. What feelings can do is ask “what now?” Like what am I going to make of it? I chose to write. Because of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Because I loved how suffering helps people access the stories that were inside them all along.
I think people become interesting when they pay close attention to everything around them and give it form. As novels, essays, art, philosophies, worldviews, even jokes. Reality becomes irresistibly detailed when you slow down to take a look. When I realized this I was taken out of myself. I became disinterested in inventing complexity and found everything around me more compelling. I’ve been writing in my journal everyday for almost two years, but I didn’t always document it all. In the beginning I mostly wrote about what I did that day or how I didn’t do anything. Day after day. So life felt like it was dragging on forever towards nothing. It doesn’t feel that way anymore. I’m trying to get better at writing down everything because, like anything that’s generative, writing in my journal is how I can notice more. My life is so ordinary but it’s not boring. I can always observe more, analyze more. Why did the Cheryl Strayed quote about the useless days adding up to something speak to me? Why did I feel pessimistic after seeing the houses behind the evergreen trees? The Smiths is still my favourite band ever because I love purple irony and self-deprecation in art even if I don’t look for myself in it. Lately I’m happier and more emotionally stable. I feel in control. I turn to beauty and understanding, like sunflowers tending easterly towards the sun.