“Am I a person? Or am I just a bunch of Phoebe Bridgers lyrics glued together?”
Recently, my Instagram feed has been plastered with memes that feature quotes like this one. Some compare indie musician Phoebe Bridgers to therapy, while others comment on how people play her music first thing in the morning and then wonder why they’re sad, all showing that a sizable population of young people find Bridgers’ music deeply relatable.
Of course, Bridgers is not the first emotional white woman to experience mainstream success. She and her peers—Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, and Maggie Rogers, to name a few—are frequently compared to musician Joni Mitchell. And while the 1990s and 2000s gave us Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette, and Amy Winehouse, the 2010s saw mainstream success for Lana Del Rey. There is something about the emotional white woman that captivates us.
As the United States is a fundamentally capitalist society, if we want to understand why emotional white women are so appealing, we need to start by exploring the role that these women play in capitalism. The first place to look is the idea of commodification—when goods, services, or ideas are transformed into objects with economic value. Theoretically, emotion should be difficult to commodify, as it appears to disrupt profit-making. If an individual is taught to prioritize emotional vulnerability, they will more easily question the cutthroat, individualist society in which they participate.
It seems as though emotion and capitalism shouldn’t really be compatible, so why does society love the emotional white woman so much?
The first part of the equation is that capitalism and patriarchy work to uphold each other. In Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, historian Kristen Ghodsee argues that free-market capitalism sustains traditional gender roles because it relies on the free labor and dependence of women. She writes, “contemporary profits are supported by free labor that women provide in the home. This free labor actually ends up trapping women in dependent relationships, largely with men, and that means, ultimately, that women get stuck because they have all these care responsibilities for which they are not paid.” According to Ghodsee, it is no coincidence that the free-market Reagan years corresponded with increased priority on the nuclear family and “family values”; why spend money on social safety nets like child and elder care when you can use women’s labor for free?
This reality has only worsened during the pandemic. American women have disproportionately shouldered the burden of child care and unemployment over lockdown, with sociologist Jessica Calarco stating, “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.” Capitalist individualism prevents the creation of big-government social safety nets like universal child care and paid family leave, and traditional gender roles allow women to serve as the replacement. The idea of the gentle and emotional woman aligns with these traditional gender roles, which makes the emotional white woman palatable to society.
In October 2020, Mary Retta, a Black journalist, published a personal piece attempting to intellectualize her reliance on sad white women’s music during quarantine. In describing the transition from punk music to sad, indie, female-dominated music in American culture over the past decades, she writes, “there began a resurgence of a new sort of angst, led mainly by white women, who expressed their emotions in a more subdued manner. Bass was swapped for acoustic guitar, and words of anger were replaced with quiet metaphor.”
Notably, Retta’s description of white women’s music—the “subdued manner” and “quiet metaphor”—recall traditional ideas of gentleness surrounding femininity. The sad white woman is accepted because she fits the American ideal of femininity.
Retta’s piece ultimately asks us to examine how the sad white woman genre reflects an element of womanhood that is not afforded to Black women. White women have always been afforded a higher level of emotional vulnerability than their non-white counterparts. The “dangerous Black man” preying upon the weak white woman was a common racist stereotype in the Jim Crow era, and it was fueled by white women playing into the racial hierarchy by weaponizing emotional responses against Black men. Shay Stewart-Bailey writes of white women weaponizing emotion, “Perhaps the only thing deadlier to a Black person’s soul and well-being than actually being killed or incarcerated is the tears of a white woman—among other weaponized emotions. White women’s emotions have taken countless lives over the generations.” Stewart-Bailey notes that white women’s tears have played a part in countless lynchings and hate crimes—including the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched after a white woman claimed he had flirted with her. In 2017, the white woman told The New York Times she had lied. This expression of white female emotion hasn’t disappeared: just last summer, a white woman weaponized a false emotional response against a Black man in Central Park, calling the police claiming he was “threatening [her] life.”
The U.S. is both capitalist and structurally racist, and The New York Times’ “1619 Project” examines how American capitalism was built on slavery and the oppression of Black people. The emotional white woman is accepted because her emotion can be used to uphold the social links between capitalism and racism.
But if the emotional white woman is acceptable because she fits into some socially constructed box, is she really expressing true emotion?
According to emotional white women, no. Although Phoebe Bridgers’ music is deeply sad, it is enveloped within desire—in a Rolling Stone interview, she explained that feeling “numb” is a key theme of her 2020 album Punisher. In the song “Chinese Satellite,” she describes having “no faith,” singing, “I want to believe / Instead I look at the sky and I feel nothing.” Bridgers wants to feel more, to be able to connect with the spiritual world on an emotional level. Her music does characterize the emotional white woman, but it’s also about her struggling to process and feel emotion. On 2017’s “Funeral,” she sings, “Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time / And that’s just how I feel.” The song is about depression and death, and by summarizing lots of complex emotion and pain with the single word “blue,” Bridgers shows her inability to completely grapple with presenting and vocalizing emotion. And perhaps that’s the real struggle of the emotional white woman: how do you attempt to reconcile the socially acceptable presentation of emotion with the fact that true emotion is hard to process in a socially acceptable way?
On 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Lana Del Rey explores how the music industry has labeled her with the emotional white woman identity. At first, “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have—but i have it” seems like a sad-girlboss empowerment song; yes, Del Rey has dealt with pain, but she still has hope. However, a closer look at the lyrics paints a different picture. She describes herself as “24/7 Sylvia Plath,” a reference to one of the seminal sad white women, poet Sylvia Plath. And throughout the song, it appears as though she is talking about herself as though she is an outsider looking in: “They write that I’m happy, they know that I’m not… But hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have.”
While examining this identity, the singer simultaneously pushes the boundaries of the emotional white woman identity, albeit very gently. She uses the term “dangerous” to describe her hope. Del Rey recognizes that the industry culture labeling her with an archetype gives her social significance, which translates to social power—over 20 million monthly Spotify listeners is an obvious signifier of power in the 21st century. That power can become “dangerous” when she actively uses it to subvert the restrictive elements of the system that created her—she’s “dangerous” to the men who label her “24/7 Sylvia Plath.”
Del Rey does not go into depth into how the emotional white woman can subvert power structures on Norman Fucking Rockwell! She herself has been repeatedly criticized for racist and problematic statements—including one earlier this year that appeared to devalue and drag down female musicians of color—which suggests that she is not the best guide on how to subvert oppressive systems. However, Normal Fucking Rockwell! does directly challenge the notions of toxic masculinity and male power. We’ve seen other emotional white women use their music to challenge the masculinity that has surrounded them as well: Fiona Apple’s 2020 album Fetch the Bolt Cutters examines women’s relationships to male power and sexual violence, and part of it was written in the aftermath of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing; Bridgers’ 2017 single “Motion Sickness” explores the abuse and gaslighting she experienced at the hands of famous male musician Ryan Adams, contributing to a larger conversation about power and abuse. The emotional white woman’s identity has been historically linked to the stereotype of women as emotional, subservient, and gentle, but artists that achieved success due to this identity are now using their success to push back against the masculine systems of power that influenced their identity. And so the emotional white woman’s expression of emotion becomes nuanced: pulling out her beam will weaken the bridge of capitalism, but she’s only powerful enough to weaken that bridge because she was part of its construction.
By Josephine O’Brien
Photos of Phoebe Bridgers by Frank Ockenfels for New York Mag