It’s 2021, and you happen to have a tremendous amount of free time due to being holed up in your apartment. You decide to whip up a new subculture from scratch. The subculture then moves on to gather a cult-like following with its own Wikipedia page and sellers on Depop, which you didn’t really expect.
This is the typical itinerary for viral TikTok trends over the lockdown. Phenomena like soft boys and egirls have become TikTok’s latest excuse to keep viewers engaged within the confines of their own home.
So what’s up with TikTok’s recent obsession with boarding schools, tweed jackets and Vivaldi? Let’s start by breaking down various realms of this brooding aesthetic.
Dark academia is an aesthetic that romanticises classic literature with a passion for knowledge and learning. Stemmed from European culture, it targets nostalgia for the 19th and early 20th century private schools in England. Followers of dark academia are drawn to greek architecture, ancient arts and mythology.
The aesthetic was first picked up by TikTok users between the age of 15 and 25 as a response to the physical shutdown of schools and colleges during the pandemic. The trend, which is credited with over 400 million views on TikTok and 400,000 posts on Instagram, brings students studying from home a sense of community that they once found at school.
While the aesthetic is not inherently negative, it has come under scrutiny for alleged encouragement of nihilism, classist attitudes, caffeine addiction and insomnia. However, the aesthetic which started out on Tumblr has now evolved into a subculture where followers mutually suggest books, movies and music along with study tips and fashion inspiration.
Major fashion inspirations for dark academia revolve around the 1940s prep school uniforms—tweed blazers, plaid skirts, black turtlenecks and argyle sweaters are often paired with oxford shoes, knee-high socks and wire-rimmed glasses. Black, brown and tan are the go-to colours for dark academics.
While the trend heavily relies on thrift stores and second-hand finds, dark academics on Tumblr often recommend brands like Ralph Lauren, Brandy Melville, COS and Uniqlo to help nail the look.
Think about what teens at Ivy League did during their free time in the 19th century. Now switch that up with modern-day video games and crafts.
Apart from chess and rummy, dark academics adore video games like The Last Door, Bully and Hitman. They are self-taught knitters, painters and gardeners. An ideal outing for them includes museums, art galleries, libraries and graveyards—remember: yes, they’re intellectuals but they’re also edgy. They love writing poems, reading philosophy, playing an instrument and practising calligraphy. A necessary sight in a dark academic’s room consists of stacked books, cups of tea and antique postcards written with ink.
You can probably guess some of the authors and directors dark academics would love. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, A Study In Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Shakespeare Secret by Jennifer Lee Carrell are some must-reads before initiation into the subculture. The works of Scott F. Fitzgerald, Maya Angelou and Edgar Allan Poe are also well appreciated along with other authors of classic literature.
Dead Poets Society, Pride and Prejudice, Mona Lisa Smile, Hugo, and The Great Gatsby list among the top five movies to watch while TV shows include Brideshead Revisited, Sherlock, A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Queen’s Gambit.
An aesthetic that is the emotional opposite of dark academia. It consists of lighter themes and visuals. Keeping the love for classic literature, art and history of dark academia intact, this sub-genre focuses on enjoying the little things in life.
The aesthetic revolves around the love for art, sculptures, paintings, photography and calligraphy. It has similar roots in learning and interests as dark academia but is unique for its focus on visual arts.
This academic movement intends to normalise haphazard routines, messy habits and banned literature. In comparison to other sub-genres, chaotic academia primarily focuses on learning without any considerations for fashion and appearance.
Also known as gothic academia, the sub-genre is a serious and mature take on dark academia. It focuses on gothic studies, art and literature, aiming to find beauty in the darkest of places.
Dark academia has a dedicated LGBTQ+ following and Tumblr features millions of posts on how to date a dark academic.
“Write them letters and seal the envelopes with fancy wax seals,” writes one user. “Quote Shakespeare, listen to their 3 am rants on how we could’ve heard Oscar Wilde’s voice if he’d had lived just a tad longer,” a second one comments. Another silences the thread with “just tell them you’ll get your own little library if you move in together.”
If, like me, you spend a worrying amount of time on TikTok and Instagram, you must have seen the ‘Hiiii’ vs ‘Bruh’ videos going around. For those who haven’t—this is a recent trend where new gens on the internet compare ‘girly’ girls with ‘tomboy’ ones. Here’s why this new trend stinks of internalised misogyny.
The ‘Hiiii’ girl (also known as the ‘🥺’ girl) typically embodies conventional traits that have been long associated with traditional ‘girliness’, such as liking the colour pink, makeup and clothes—characteristics that are not representative of any gender, and yet here we are again. She is fragile, cordial, and gentle (notice how these qualities are frustratingly archetypal to the patriarchal expectations imposed on women). The ‘Bruh’ girl, on the contrary, is more of a tomboy—she likes sports and video games, she is ‘low maintenance’ and has a quirky sense of humour. She is ‘one of the lads’, but with a vagina.
This trend initially started off as a fun way to compare different hobbies and personalities, which allowed TikTokers to relate to strangers online and create a greater sense of community on the video-sharing platform. But because this is the internet, it was soon taken wildly out of context, as users on TikTok started pitting the two types of women against each other, portraying ‘Bruh’ girls as superior, because they do not engage with any traditionally ‘feminine’ hobbies or activities, and are ‘not like other girls’.
Each of these tropes limits female complexity and uniqueness as it unintentionally portrays both the ‘Hiiii’ girl and the ‘Bruh’ girl as one-dimensional persons. Newsflash: you can be a female athlete who is also amazing at makeup. You can be an aspiring professional gamer and still be pursuing a career in fashion at the same time. You don’t need to select one main category. You don’t even have to identify as female to enjoy or do any of these things. Skills and hobbies are not exclusive to the gender binary, times have thankfully changed—we should do what we can to keep it that way.
So, why are we shaming teenage girls for their hobbies in 2020? The issue with people’s dislike of ‘Hiiii’ girls is that it is deeply rooted in internalised sexism and misogyny. It inaccurately portrays traditionally ‘feminine’ girls as tedious, passive, and superficial, without even taking into account that femininity is pushed onto women from a young age. It also makes an attempt in presenting traditionally masculine hobbies as superior.
Many argue that the entire trend exists as an attempt to gain validation from men, and there are a lot of comparisons that can be drawn between the gen Z ‘Bruh’ girls trope and the millennial ‘Pick me’ girls. ‘Pick me’ girls are described as women who try to distinguish themselves from other women, or pretend to not get offended by sexist things in order to appeal to men—the same girls who say they prefer to hang out with men because they represent “less drama.” Ironically in this new situation, it is the ‘Hiiii’ girls that are being ridiculed for seeking validation from men. Even self-proclaimed ‘Bruh’ girls are turning against other self-proclaimed ‘Bruh’ girls by branding them as fake.
For a generation that is considered as the most progressive, this trend doesn’t seem to reflect that, it certainly is odd how popularised it has become among teenagers. How can we judge women for internalised misogyny and sexism, if we ourselves as a society continuously impose these onto them? Teenage girls are constantly labelled and categorised into boxes: we call girls basic bitches (commonly referred to as VSCO girls among gen Zers), there are egirls, indie girls, ‘alternative’ girls, Instagram ‘baddies’—you name it, we categorise it. And while internet subcultures are great most of the time, there is no need to put any of them against each other.
Here’s the thing: it is impossible for anyone to just be one thing. Humans are well-rounded individuals with unique feelings, personality traits and hobbies. None of these are exclusive to sex or gender identity. And while this is just a silly TikTok trend, let’s remind teenage girls that they are not each other’s competition. After all, we’ve all been there and I can imagine none of us want the new gen to go through the same toxic scrutiny.