Celebrities’ ‘Misery Chic’ Aesthetic Flows From Their Spiritual Poverty

Published May 8, 2024

The Federalist

Pop star Billie Eilish has supposedly found her true self, so why does she look so miserable? In a Rolling Stone profile to promote her new album, Eilish confirmed that she is into girls and presented herself as a suffering artist, with accompanying photos showing her looking dirty and unhappy.

This echoed another Rolling Stone profile from earlier this year, in which Kristen Stewart portrayed herself as loudly and angrily gay, proclaiming, “I want to do the gayest f-cking thing you’ve ever seen in your life.” The accompanying photos also showed Stewart looking unhappy and almost aggressively unattractive (which takes some doing for her).

These profiles are reminiscent of other female celebrities such as Ellen Page, whose photoshoots after transitioning to “Elliot” tend to be portraits of unhappy androgyny. Instead of showing their rainbow identities as sources of liberation and joy, these women are marketing themselves as angry and even miserable.

And it is marketing. Interviews and photoshoots don’t just happen. They are carefully arranged to promote celebrities and their projects. Thus, it is odd that these women are presenting themselves as wretched. As Eilish puts it, “My whole life, I’ve never been a happy person, really. … I experience joy and laughter and I can find fun in things, but I’m a depressed person. I’ve suffered with a lot of depression my whole life.”

The most remarkable part of these interviews is the apparent consensus that wretchedness will resonate with fans. Misery may love company, but it rarely advertises for it in direct terms. Yet these profiles don’t just strip off the glamor to present their famous subjects as authentic and relatable; they go all the way to an anti-glamor — a valorization of unhappiness and a deliberate cultivation of ugliness. Call it misery chic.

Emphasizing Ugliness and Unhappiness

There is no real articulation of the ideas behind this. It is more a vibe than a philosophy. Nonetheless, some themes may be teased out from this emphasis on ugliness and unhappiness.

One is that beauty is unfair and exploitative. It is unevenly distributed, and those who have it are presumed to either be using it to exploit others, or being exploited for it, or likely both. Another is that there is no real hope. Previously, the narrative would have been that embracing the supposed authenticity of a rainbow identity would bring happiness; now it is presented as offering only a more authentic unhappiness.

It is tempting to dismiss this trend as just another angsty pop culture pose, but Americans really are increasingly lonely, depressed, and despairing — devoid of purpose and disconnected from community and family. And young women — especially young liberal women — are among the most afflicted by mental health problems. Eilish and the others are just amplifying this vibe.

There are good reasons for this misery, for both ordinary young women and ostentatiously unhappy celebrities. Social media, for instance, has multiplied the viciousness of paparazzi culture for celebrities and recreated it in miniature for ordinary girls. Everyone is always under scrutiny and on display, and the only thing that might be worse than being the subject of cruelty is being ignored, which is social death instead of social torture.

Furthermore, relationships between men and women are a mess, and there is no longer even a model for what they should be or any real framework for how to improve them. With ubiquitous porn also normalizing sexual violence, it is no wonder that an increasing number of young women want out of being attractive to men, or even out of having to be women at all.

The Pain Is a Warning

These problems are endemic in our culture, afflicting both those in obscurity and those glittering with fame and fortune. However, the pain does provide an indispensable warning that we are on the wrong path. As Lutheran pastor Hans Fiene recently put it on Twitter:

A lot of people who have depression don’t really have mental illness. They’re having the appropriate response to leading a life that’s antithetical to happiness. So antithetical, in fact, that they’d be mentally ill if they were happy. If you live a life of solitude, existing only to work for someone who doesn’t care about you, no spouse, no children, no exercise, porn addiction, weed-cope, hostility or apathy towards your God, you need to see a doctor if you feel like you’re crushing it.

Unhappiness, and the misery chic that symbolizes it, is a natural result of spiritual and relational poverty, against which worldly success offers no shield. It should not surprise us when public figures suffering from despair make a public display of it.

Of course an actress who can’t make it through an interview without getting drunk and high is in a bad place. Of course a pop singer who insists on telling the reporter all about her masturbation rituals is a mess. These are signs of suffering.

Authentic suffering may be preferable to a false glamor, but it is still bad. While suffering may have a purpose — even if it is as banal as enduring a grueling album cover photoshoot — most of the anguish of our culture is meaningless. The promises of the world have proven false. Our secular idols, from material prosperity to technological progress to sexual liberation, have been unable to make us happy or to provide meaning and consolation in our suffering.

The cultural and spiritual wreckage around us makes clear that finding our true selves will not make us happy. Amidst this miserable culture, those of us who have reasons for hope should boldly proclaim that we don’t need to discover our authentic individual selves; we need new, transformed selves that are in right relation with God and man. We don’t need to find who we really are in ourselves, we need to find Jesus and who He really is.

Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has included work on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on a study of Kierkegaard and labor. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.

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