The existential despair began when I went down a “dark academia” rabbit hole.
For the unenlightened, dark academia is just one of the plentiful strict aesthetics that abound on the Gen Z internet. Adherents live their lives in various shades of tweed and plaid. They haunt used bookstores and elite boarding schools. They watch movies like “Dead Poets Society” and, most importantly, they have read the bible of dark academia — Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel, “The Secret History.” They post pictures of lattes and Byron poems on Instagram; they are enviously profound thinkers who excel at school.
If dark academia isn’t your style, there are plenty more aesthetics to try on for size: cottagecore, grunge, e-girl, vaporwave, witchcore, art hoe, VSCO girl and royalcore. (Gesundheit.) There are breakdowns of the color schemes and clothing brands that correspond to each category and how each disciple should behave once they don the mantle they have chosen.
On the surface level, I get the urge to grasp for an aesthetic. I, too, have fostered fantasies of being a dark and mysterious stranger who wears long coats and furiously annotates my copy of “Wuthering Heights.” When you want to become someone else, or you’re otherwise unsure of just who, exactly, you are, it’s alluring to yearn for one of these bottled personalities. The problem is that it is fake — all of it.
When you search “‘dark academia”’ on Pinterest, for instance, about half of what you’ll find are text posts with tips on how to achieve this aesthetic, ranging from fairly innocuous ones such as “always carry a book around” to borderline-ridiculous orders such as “quote Oscar Wilde to your house plant” and “wear a brown coat filled with papers.”
These lists read, to me, like a prescription for a personality. Go to the doctor, tell him your favorite book and color, and he’ll tell you to listen to some Bach, buy a stack of Penguin Classics and put on a blazer. Abracadabra: you’re an interesting human being. In an age where everyone seems infinitely more fascinating and well-rounded than you will ever be, you are now Instagram-ready.
I worry for that exact reason — because my generation seems, to me, irretrievably performative, and aesthetics are a key part of that generational attitude.
Gen Z didn’t invent aesthetics, of course; we are carrying on a long tradition that can be seen in everything from “The Breakfast Club” to “Gibson Girls” to the court of Versailles. The instinct to belong fuels humanity. It is the reason why we mimic others on the way to discover who we truly are and why we all have an era of our lives that we reflect upon and cringe. (Paging middle school emo phase!) Our journey through the gauntlet of human development seems tainted, however. It is as if Gen Z cannot reach self-discovery because it is caught in a feedback loop of imitation rather than outgrowing the mimicry phase.
Today’s internet culture is that it is the most extreme form of choosing your own adventure. You can play as yourself or as a fictional character — though in most cases, the two often become one when faced with social media. When faced with the new digital frontier, we kicked the phrase “all the world’s a stage” up to ludicrous speed and held on for dear life.
When life becomes this public, it follows that it also becomes more of a performance. We want people to think the best of us, whether we admit it or not. We all want to seem cool and interesting to strangers; we all want to be adored. What Gen Z can’t understand (or accept) is that these feelings of admiration and adoration from other people come, more often than not, from true individuality — not a lifestyle that has been mass-produced in the factory of Pinterest and distributed nationwide.
Gen Z’s weltanschauung of “if you don’t have your own personality, store bought is fine” has the unfortunate side effect of extreme rigidity. It draws borders where there should be bridges. In all of these commandments and tips, there is no wiggle room for individual expression. They categorically refuse to accept the richness and variability of a person’s inner world, demolishing a forest and paving it instead, and we are left cheaper and more shallow in its wake. How are we ever to grow as individuals and forge a new path if we are too busy looking over our shoulders? How can we lead if we only ever imitate?