The archetype is familiar: looks like a young adult novel protagonist, journals while listening to her favorite punk-pop acoustic band you’ve never heard of and has a room that adheres to an astute aesthetic: walls adorned with motivational quotes, art posters and books everywhere. An alleged “Tumblr girl” would have recoiled at this title back when the photo-sharing blogging website was gaining steam in the early 2010s, but the moniker nonetheless epitomizes the stigma.
Not always a girl, but always alternative, the Tumblr girl at her worst can be categorized as a stereotypical faux-hipster, cultural appropriation tendencies and all, while at her best, she is a teen with a knack for creating a countercultural blog. Yet the Tumblr girl’s idiosyncratic “alternative” interests, intense emotional prowess, love of emo song lyrics and constant stream of introspection is — brace yourselves — not that original.
According to urban legend, every five minutes another Urban Outfitters-clad teen will lament that she was “just born in the wrong generation.” Petrarch, Renaissance Poet Laureate of 14th century Italy, would immediately concur: “I dwelt especially upon antiquity, for our own age has always repelled me, so that, had it not been for the love of those dear to me, I should have preferred to have been born in any other period than our own,” as he writes in his “Letter to Posterity.” At an impossibly higher frequency, another 20-something in vintage garb condemns society for not understanding him, and worse, that he cannot recover from a tumultuous Tinder date. “It is as though my heart and mind belonged to different people … I feel everything, and I see nothing,” French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau confesses, totally aligned with the self-obsessed Tumblr culture. And it continues on, because Rousseau is just not like the other girls: “I know my heart, and have studied mankind; I am not made like anyone I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality.” For Tumblr girls lamenting their lonely youths, they might consult Voltaire’s “Candide,” who finds that “A hundred times I have wanted to kill myself; but I was still in love with life.”
This is not to diminish the struggles of Tumblr girls and their transparently pirated quotes — their plight might not be original, but their attempts to express the horrors of adolescence and the ascent (or descent, depending on how hard middle school was for you) from naïvety are not the first expressions of existential despair on semi-private, semi-public forums. What is new, however, are the avenues that the modern, waxing, poetic young adult takes to articulate those struggles. This sort of self-expression can be found anywhere and everywhere between Petrarch and Voltaire’s times. Who knows — perhaps the future Poet Laureate might really be the scorned teens and their computer screens. It depends on your level of cynicism to judge whether these expressions are too contrived and too choreographed to be genuine.
So do we borrow phrasing from our philosophers, or, in an attempt to declare oneself as unrelatable, do we too slip into the cliche of the oh-so-misunderstood? On the one hand, learning that the torment of thinking that you were the only one to ever have felt that feeling is, in fact, a farce, is part of the wisdom which comes with age. Enlightenment thinkers, after all, rejected the Romantic’s fleeting feelings as rational, “adult” explanations of their woes. To declare deleting one’s blog and moving to a LinkedIn account to be an act of enlightenment, however, is probably a stretch. Perhaps Petrarch truly did belong in the age of the greats before him, just as Sarah or Maddie should have been dropping LSD in the ‘60s. While Post-Modernists might just claim this to be evidence of the death of originality, less cynical thinkers might find this connection to the philosophical tradition proof of a persisting human spirit that is as equally curious and as troubled as those that came before us.
That might just be the Tumblr girl in me talking, though.