The Smartest Women I Know Are All Dissociating

I’ve noticed a lot of brilliant women, real and fictional, giving up on shouting and taking a darkly sarcastic approach to their grievances instead.

Recently, I screenshotted a tweet and sent it to all my friends. Most of them had already seen it, because it had 70,900 likes and 17,900 retweets, including some from feminist writers I respect and admire. The tweet said: “what i love about my friends is that 70 years ago we all would have been lobotomized.”

I sent it to a group chat I had ironically named “Female Hysteria” all the way back in the fall of 2016, when we thought we might be reclaiming the word. We were eight women diagnosed with various mental illnesses, though the name felt fitting for reasons beyond our officially disordered minds. “Lmao same,” I wrote under the screenshot in the group chat, even though something about the tweet made me vaguely uneasy in the same way a lot of the feminist media I’ve been consuming and screenshotting lately has.

I’ve noticed a lot of brilliant women giving up on shouting and complaining, and instead taking on a darkly comic, deadpan tone when writing about their feminism. This approach presents overtly horrifying facts about uniquely feminine struggles and delivers them flatly, dripping with sarcasm. Maybe it’s a curdling of the hyperoptimistic, #girlboss, “Run the World (Girls)” feminism of the aughts, characterized by an uneasy combination of plaintive begging and swaggering confidence that gender equality was just past the horizon line. But Sex and the City and Cosmo tutorials on how to come didn’t make much of a crack in the bell jar. So instead we now seem to be interiorizing our existential aches and angst, smirking knowingly at them, and numbing ourselves to maintain our nonchalance. Let’s call it dissociation feminism.

We now seem to be interiorizing our existential aches and angst, smirking knowingly at them, and numbing ourselves to maintain our nonchalance.

Twitter is perhaps the perfect medium on which to dissociate, utterly removed as it is from the body and the image. Dasha Nekrasova, a controversial actor, podcast host, and Twitter celebrity, has a second account devoted to tracking what she eats and how she feels about it, where she writes things like “nice and dissociated after pilates and a Brazilian wax.”

I know what she means, as someone who has dissociated — which is to say detached my consciousness from my immediate bodily and emotional experience — during both. These activities involve incredible physical discomfort in the service of impressing a future outside observer, so dissociating is essential both to gritting my teeth and getting through it and understanding why I am doing so. I am flapping my arms in a crunch position alongside 20 other people who also want to “strengthen the core” (read: have the outlines of abs). I am getting hot wax applied to and then ripped off the most sensitive part of my body, just so someone else will touch it.

Most girls learn to dissociate early, usually in early adolescence but really whenever we first notice the way our outfits and makeup or lack thereof can provoke reactions. Quickly, we adopt the daily, quotidian dissociation of getting dressed in the morning or prepared to go out at night, a process that involves stepping outside your body to see it from the outside, and dressing it depending on the occasion. We are witches, dissociating into fortune tellers, predicting whether an outfit will get us asked out, or taken seriously, or simply left alone.

Soon after, many women — particularly those who engage in relationships with men — learn to dissociate during certain types of sex. In Kristen Roupenian’s viral 2017 short story “Cat Person,” during sex the protagonist does not want to be having, she “imagined herself from above, naked and spread-eagled with this fat old man’s finger inside her.” She leaves her body to watch herself. The story went viral, with women of all ages proclaiming on Twitter that they have had this sex. I have too, many times, most recently last month with a boy from an app who “needed to charge his phone in my apartment” after drinks. I’d like to name a new sex position called the “bird’s-eye view,” where you watch the scene from inside the fluorescent light on your ceiling.

What I am calling dissociation feminism began with the denial of a trope: women irritated at the assumption that we were always on the verge of opening our laptops, gazing out the window, and monologuing like Carrie Bradshaw about our oppression or the man who just left us. Leslie Jamison called it “post-wounded,” a state characterized by “jadedness, aching gone implicit.” She saw it in the girls of Girls, insulting each other for wallowing in their self-pity, and in a feminist scholar who told Jamison she was bored of Sylvia Plath.

The characters of Sex and the City and Girls — not to mention Nekrasova, Jamison herself, and even Plath — belong to a subset of women who undeniably have it much easier than most. They are white, attractive, have a certain amount of class privilege, and are intelligent and witty. As Shannon Keating put it in her analysis of Three Women, Lisa Taddeo’s 300-page ode to heterosexual female despair, what is most “dispiriting” about the “swirling conversation around women’s loneliness and fragility and heartache and unhappiness” is that it revolves around women “with the whole world at their feet.” Rebecca Liu pointed out a similar trend in the “archetypal Young Millennial Woman” of Girls, Fleabag, and Sally Rooney novels, writing that this woman is “pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive. Often described as relatable, she is, in actuality, not.”

There seems to be a platonic ideal of the beautiful, depressed woman, and I find that her unrelatability is an integral part of both her appeal and her unpleasantness. These women are both vindicating and distressing: If Sally Rooney’s skinny, precocious Irish beauties are this upset, then certainly I have every right to give up on the world. On the other hand, giving up on progress is perhaps the epitome of white feminism, and promotes a nihilism that is somewhere between unproductive and genuinely dangerous.

Rather than “post-wounded,” I actually found the girls of Girls pretty openly wounded and addicted to picking at their scabs. Hannah Horvath didn’t dissociate but instead lived fully within her skin, no matter how uncomfortable it was. She sobbed and bled, stuck her fingers deep inside herself and Q-tips too far down her ear canal. She begged people to love her and contorted her body according to the instructions of the men she went to bed with. She whined. She obsessed over petty insults and passing slights.

If Sally Rooney’s skinny, precocious Irish beauties are this upset, then certainly I have every right to give up on the world. 

When Girls was on television, from 2012 to 2017, almost everyone found Hannah Horvath (and the rest of the show’s characters) annoying, self-centered, and simply gross, from the highbrow critics to the masses. Hannah Horvath was included in the Atlantic’s list of worst TV characters ever (No. 10) and HuffPost called her “one of the most disliked characters on television, and that’s including all the villains, anti-heroes, and sociopaths.”

In 2019, we watch Fleabag, the title character of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's series, engage in much of the same “bad behavior” Hannah practiced: drinking to excess, picking fights with people close to her, fucking near-strangers and her friends' lovers, diving into a seemingly infinite well of desire and emerging dripping in her own self-interest. But Fleabag deftly evades the accusations of whining and wallowing that Hannah received because, instead of complaining during moments of turmoil, she simply dissociates.

Fleabag is constantly leaving her body during climactic moments (sex, breakdowns, fights) and turning directly to the audience with snarky commentary on whatever debacle is unfolding. In the series premiere, Fleabag’s boyfriend tells her not to “turn up at my house drunk in your underwear. It won’t work this time.” Her boyfriend is tearful, but Fleabag turns to the camera with a half-smile and tells us, “It will.” Where Hannah’s voice would have cracked, Fleabag purrs.

Perhaps because Fleabag never whines or feels sorry for herself, only mocks herself from afar, we love her. Both seasons of the show have been released to almost universal acclaim, with Fleabag herself widely hailed as the apotheosis of the damaged woman protagonist. New York magazine named Fleabag the best show on TV in 2019, and the New Yorker praised the way she “whispers a quip from the corner of her lipsticked mouth” while the Atlantic called her the “Lovable, Filthy Antiheroine TV Deserves.” Creator and star Waller-Bridge took home multiple Emmy Awards this year for the series.

While Fleabag and Hannah both get fucked up and fuck around, Fleabag would never blame society for her specifically female emotional traumas. Instead, she blames herself and makes a joke about it, which is much easier for the viewing public to swallow. Hannah Horvath called herself a capital G Girl, told us that we weren’t watching TV but were instead looking in a mirror, and we threw a knife at it in self-disgust. Fleabag describes herself as a rotting, insect-infested pile of trash, and we applaud, smug in our new understanding of womanhood.

The dissociated girl of Fleabag might be the cool girl or chill girl’s cousin, the same way the desperate girl of Girls might be the hysteric’s. While the hysteric shrieks, the chill girl speaks slowly, raspy. She is coughing on the weed smoke. I have heard boys describe her as “down.” This is a chilling adjective for the chill girl: It requires that she have no conflicting plans of her own, no strong desires to counter his. At its etymological core, down means subjugation. Is a chill girl laid-back? Maybe, but she is probably also pretending, and bored.

I have tried to be her. I have tried to become agreeability distilled to a fine cognac, my compliments so potent they could get the strongest boys drunk. But I am much closer to Hannah Horvath than Fleabag. I can’t totally dissociate even in blackouts and am always being told I called someone crying or waking up to see I sent craven, abject texts I have to delete because I can’t bear to read my own words.

Rachel Syme, writing about Natasha Stagg’s 2019 essay collection Sleeveless, finds that “dissociation is always better than desperation.” She admires Stagg’s emotionless, out-of-body ruminations on being a woman in New York City for their winking refusal of self-pity. In that collection, Stagg seems to find feminism that demands too much change from the world just a little bit desperate; she describes an ideology that “rushes in and trips over itself, the fast-talking blowhard.” Stagg seems embarrassed of the shrieking sisterhood of her forebears, but she is not denying that they had a point.

Speaking of blowhards: A 2017 study of heterosexual behavior on dating apps found that advanced degrees are correlated with a decrease in desirability for women. My own dating profile lists my occupation as “grad student” in self-effacing lowercase. It also lists my favorite foods, a performative assortment of the fried and fattening things I eat in front of boys to make them think my body is an accident. This is part of the chill girl act, but it is also a rejection of the optimistic feminism of wellness. When we thought happiness was a possibility, we thought it might be nice if our bodies were in a healthy condition if we ever achieved it.

In her 2016 novel Problems, about an anorexic opioid addict, Jade Sharma — who died in July — writes that “smart women are supposed to say certain things,” and one of those things is that they care about being healthy, not skinny. This is the perky influencer Instagramming her acai bowl with her yoga mat visible at the edge of the frame, and claiming the image represents her quest for mental equilibrium, and is unrelated to her desire for a certain body or a certain image.

Instead of starving in silence, these women tweet jokingly about the ways they live up to our unfair standards.

The dissociative feminist, in contrast, simply refuses sustenance and lives sometimes within and sometimes outside the craggy body society adores, subsisting on men’s lustful gazes and other women’s jealous ones. Instead of starving in silence, these women tweet jokingly about the ways they live up to our unfair standards. Cat Marnell, replying to a troll who tweets that he would not invite her to a cookout: “i don’t want to be at your cookout; i don’t even eat.” Nekrasova, tweeting, “delirious anorexic coming through.” A friend of mine, responding to my invitation to a dinner party, texting me that she will come late and bring wine, but won’t eat. Sharma describes the experience of starvation as “empty and light,” hunger as “the vibration you felt under your feet on a train.” I know that when I was starving, my tongue found sensation in things that were not strictly food. Air tasted like gasoline, crispy. Compliments tasted bittersweet like dark chocolate, left me wanting more.

In her 2017 book Literally Show Me a Healthy Person (recently spotted in the hands of cool girl Kendall Jenner), writer and Twitter celebrity Darcie Wilder writes sentences like “plan b is kind of a party drug” and “i angHave to be Prettyty.” It’s not that these statements are wrong. The emergency contraceptive Plan B isn’t not a party drug, when your definition of partying involves forgetting to use a condom in a blackout or acquiescing to not using one with your inhibitions down, which mine often does. The misspellings in “I angHave to be Prettyty” read like text messages mistyped drunk or high, clawing at a deeply ingrained mindset. Wilder also wants to know “how come ‘put me out of my misery’ only really means one thing,” which is death, the ultimate dissociation.

A disturbing corollary to the trend toward dissociation might be the trend toward suicide. Between 2007 and 2015, the suicide rate doubled for US teen girls. In 2015 Madison Holleran, a varsity sprinter at the University of Pennsylvania, killed herself, leaving behind a suicide note and a perfect Instagram feed. The story was covered breathlessly by ESPN. Teenage suicide rates surged in the month after the 2017 premiere of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, a paean to girl suicide. Season 3 aired this August.

If all this is getting overwhelming, you might just start dissociating on drugs. In Problems, the narrator’s friend uses heroin to numb her feelings and says that “death would only be a welcome side effect on the way to her goal.” Lena Dunham herself has been seduced by the lovely daze of life on benzos. The first season of the new HBO show Euphoria opens with the 15-year-old protagonist Rue (Zendaya) getting picked up from rehab by her mom. She is a perfectly dissociated chill girl, lanky and relaxed, with an opioid addiction. She spends the season slowly getting sober, only to relapse after a breakup. The final scene is an otherworldly dance sequence — an attempt to render the dissociation of an opiate high onscreen.

Juliana Huxtable, an artist who often tweets about her predilection for mind-altering substances and whose Twitter display name used to be “YUNG LIMINAL CRISIS AKA ABJECTION DOLL *SOBBIN*,” creates art from the dissociative space, birthing her gallery shows and poems during out-of-body experiences. She has said that she likes to write in “a schizophrenic voice: one that can’t reside with any stability in the first person, third person, and so on,” and that mental illnesses like schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, and bipolar disorder, which count dissociation as a symptom, are “clinical designations of structures of thought that at this point are inherent to the social and epistemological conditions we’re in.”

During my starvation phase, I developed a weekend routine of blacking out at night and taking a Xanax mid-morning, when the questions about what I said or did began to gnaw at my brain, which was tender already from the chunks I had taken out of it the night before. Once I was benzo content and basically lucid dreaming, I recounted my hijinks to friends from a safe distance, wove threads of my nights into cogent narratives of the girl who goes out at night and sometimes goes awry.

I’ve been realizing that utterly rejecting reality might not be the avenue to a higher plane I once thought it was.

Women using intellectual detachment to dull pain or avoid emotion isn’t at all a new phenomenon. Mary McCarthy’s “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt” featured a woman dissociating during sex in 1941. Elizabeth Hardwick was distancing herself from Adrienne Rich, whose poems wallowed in their pain and blamed the world for most of it, in 1951. Clearly embarrassed by her friend, a fast-talking blowhard or a sniffling girl, she dismissed her: “She deliberately made herself ugly and wrote those extreme and ridiculous poems.” Simone Weil was dissociating in the ’40s, starving herself as part of what Thomas Nevin, in his 1991 biography, described as her life’s work: “distancing herself as others might see her, as a woman.” Chris Kraus, writing about Weil in her 2000 book Aliens and Anorexia, sees Weil's journey toward dissociation as part of what made her a female mystic and a masochist.

But the rise of the internet as a means of mass communication — along with all the opportunities it’s offered women to work through feminist concepts in real time and to assert the importance their own experiences — does also seem to have opened up a lot of new ways to practice dissociation. In 2017, alongside a photo of her bruised body, the young journalist Helen Donahue tweeted “sux men in media hate women yet write abt feminism n masquerade as allies but its sadder this happens. 2015 I screamed @ my own reflection.”

This might be the apotheosis of a sober dissociation: giving the internet access to an old version of your body, one someone else violently left their mark on, and captioning it in the modern language of abbreviations, both of words and of emotions. Writing for N+1 last year about the experience seeing accusations of abuse she made on Twitter published by the Daily Mail, Dilara O’Neil describes “a disturbing multimedia collage” that “reads strangely stilted, as if not written by a human at all.” This is the dissociation of tweeting your trauma, and suddenly realizing that you allowed it to be swallowed up and regurgitated by an algorithm.

The Daily Mail could drive anyone to dissociation, and according to my younger sister, it is where a lot of teen girls get their news these days. She has told me that on most days the Daily Mail’s Snapchat story tells her what Emily Ratajkowski is wearing and then something along the lines of MIDDLE SCHOOL TEACHER SPIED ON TEEN STUDENTS IN BATHROOM. When I clicked through recently, I saw Emily Ratajkowski in a high-waisted bikini, as promised, and then I saw a photo of Adele overlaid with the words “Adele’s slim & sleek: ‘I used to cry but now I sweat,’” and then “Jordyn: Being called fat broke my heart: Model reveals how an insult when she was 13 pushed her to shed 30 lbs,” with before and after photos. All of this tells my sister that she should try, above all else, to be hot — but if she succeeds, her teachers might spy on her in the bathroom. This lesson is objectively upsetting, but it is not wrong.

When she won all her Emmys for Fleabag this fall, a photo of Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who also happens to be Vogue’s December cover model) went viral. She reclines with a cigarette in one hand and a cocktail in the other, surrounded by her trophies; her eyes are almost closed, and her dress glints in the flash. When I looked at that photo, I saw a woman who was far from the maligned desperate blowhard feminist. I saw a feminist mid-dissociation, perhaps practicing what Fleabag preached: the virtues of living with the world kept at arm’s length. But maybe that reading doesn’t tell the whole story.

While the first season of Fleabag was unapologetically and aggressively dark, the show’s second season took an unexpected turn toward the optimistic, verging at points on heartwarming. Over the course of the season, Fleabag goes where most viewers never imagined our grief-ridden, substance-loving heroine would: on a journey of self-improvement. She supports her sister emotionally, encourages her café patrons to converse with one another, and embarks on a complex, intimate relationship with the famous hot priest. As he becomes the first love interest we’ve seen truly get to know Fleabag, he also becomes the only character who notices her dissociative tendencies and even calls her out for them. We see Fleabag vulnerable and — finally, painfully — in touch with her emotions. Could Waller-Bridge be suggesting that genuine human connection might be able to render reality bearable, and dissociation unnecessary?

I still find myself dissociating episodically, overwhelmed by the depth of an outsize depressive hole or crippling moment of insecurity, but I have also been trying to inhabit my body more fully and allow myself to experience my emotions physically. When I notice a fleshy fold or the slick of anxiety sweat, I attempt to put the feeling into words. Instead of bingeing on exercise or alcohol in a bid for a high, I’ve been realizing that utterly rejecting reality might not be the avenue to a higher plane I once thought it was. I might be actively un-chill and even a little bit hysterical, but I’m here. ●

Emmeline Clein is a New York–based writer and a graduate student at Columbia University.

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