This Spotify Wrapped season, my most streamed genre has been pop, with a total of 17,000 minutes of pop music. Within this, a recurrent theme emerges across various albums and artists: the mental health of women. Grammy-nominated artist Olivia Rodrigo delves into the complexities of girlhood, young adult angst, heartbreak and body image issues in her sophomore album, GUTS. Billie Eilish, sings “I used to float, now I just fall down” in her song, What Was I Made For, expressing a similar sentiment, questioning her identity and purpose. In Cobra, Meghan Thee Stallion cuts to the heart of her feelings of vulnerability and her mental health struggles.
From cinema, “Depression Barbie” (from Greta Gerwig’s Barbie) became popular, crossing over to the female internet audience. Described as donning sweatpants, incessantly scrolling on Instagram, and re-watching the same movie (BBC’s Pride And Prejudice) until falling asleep every night, Depression Barbie resonated with many millennial women to the extent that many felt “called out”. In the Amazon Prime Video series Made In Heaven, Tara transcends her role as wedding planner, often engaging in personal conversations that are almost like counselling sessions with brides, and refrains from advocating a fairytale ending for any of them.
These feelings or the “angsty girl archetype” are not entirely new, but this canvas now appears to feature shades of indifference and exhaustion as well. Mellisa Brown, assistant professor at the department of communication at Santa Clara University in California, US, and a scholar of black feminist thought, digital sociology and sexual politics, explains that the themes seen in popular culture in 2023 reflect the burnout of women.
“In digital media, there’s a discernible narrative of burnout among women, which is a response to the compounded pressures women face in a patriarchal society that demands their labour in both the domestic and professional spheres with minimal acknowledgment or reward. This engagement with Depression Barbie symbolises a broader recognition of these systemic pressures and the resulting mental toll,” she says.
In the world of Instagram and TikTok, a cascade of trends echoes parallel themes. Lazy girl jobs (jobs that allow a healthier work-life balance), the demise of the girl boss (who was characterised as someone “doing it all”), the rise of stay-at-home wives and girlfriends, and a resurgence of the tradwife subculture (traditional wives who believe in conventional gender roles and marriages)—all microtrends emerging post-pandemic—underscore the same sentiment encapsulated in America Ferrera’s speech in Barbie: “the performance of womanhood has been exhausting”. These trends that emerged in the West, took over Indian audiences too where being “delulu” (read delusional) was thought of as the best way to cope with the rapidly changing world.
TL;DR: If pop culture and media are to be believed, something isn’t quite right with women, and female artists across platforms and genres are saying so.
Raksha Rajesh, a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist, believes that media and culture are valuable tools of research and inquiry to understand broader trends, especially for young people. “The popularity of certain trends or cultural phenomena often reflect societal shifts. The widespread discussion of mental health on social media now can indicate growing awareness and openness about mental well-being within Indian society.”
Research findings echo similar sentiments. An article, Does Your Hybrid Culture Really Work For Everyone?, by analytics and advisory company Gallup in 2023, points out that despite the aim of hybrid working policies to provide workers more flexibility and control over their time, women consistently experience higher levels of burnout compared to men. Lazy girl jobs, as Gallup explains, are therefore on the rise.
A study by consulting firm Deloitte also indicated that Indian women demonstrated a higher likelihood of reporting feelings of burnout compared to the global average. Within the younger cohort (aged 18-25), 63% experienced this elevated level of burnout.
But what has caused these feelings of burnout and exhaustion?
Shaurya Galhawat, a psychologist and psychotherapist based in Gurugram, Haryana, explains: “The increasing burnout among women, even with flexible work cultures, can be attributed to several factors, but primarily to the pressure to ‘have it all’, which has been historically imposed on women, leading to the constant juggling of professional and personal responsibilities. The blurred boundaries between work and personal life, exacerbated by technology, are contributing to this burnout.”
In her book Radical Intimacy, published earlier this year, Sophie K. Rosa details the link between capitalism and mental health through a series of examples. She writes that burnout may not be an individual’s inability to cope, but a manifestation of “a growing mass of existential misery among people” attributable to the current economic systems.
Burnout and despondency among Gen Z women may emerge from a sense of their work not yielding expected outcomes, says Kathryn Coduto, assistant professor of media science at Boston University, US. With the rising costs of everything from housing to groceries, the disillusionment with work becomes evident. She notes, “When work isn’t getting you what you thought it would, why would you prioritise it?”
This anti-work movement is symbolic of a refusal to engage in the perpetual climb up the corporate ladder, as depicted in the popular #softgirl narratives that prioritise self-care and the slow life over working to build a career—a trend that emerged in the West, and is now seen across Indian social media too. These trends might not necessarily be a retaliation against the earlier #girlboss culture, but rather a re-evaluation of priorities. “This adoption can be a way of asserting that femininity and intelligence are not mutually exclusive, challenging the societal tendency to pigeonhole women into specific roles,” explains Shaurya.
There is a discernible shift away from a culture of consumerism, with individuals expressing a willingness to forgo higher salaries in favour of leading more balanced lives. Chandreyi Bandyopadhyay, a media consultant based in Goa, recently made the choice to move to a small firm at a lower salary and limited opportunities for career growth “to discover greater joy in my life.” She explains that “wanting material things was never the goal for me, and if I have to give up on those to have more time for me, to do things I like, I am okay with that trade-off”.
Creating content on these ideas on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, and engaging in discussions about it on Reddit emerge as a form of catharsis for many. “People are turning to social media to make sense of their changing world. These platforms are helping people feel better about their struggles. While this means you end up with an influx of content, it can be a way for people to say, ‘I know this is a bad system but I have to deal with it’,” explains Coduto.
So where do we go from here? Many digital creators convinced us that 2023 was the year for the girls—with Taylor Swift’s and Beyonce’s record-breaking tours, the Barbie movie, and Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani portraying an ideal partner from a female gaze, in addition to several Hindi movies with actors like Rani Mukherjee (Mrs. Chatterjee vs Norway) and Kareena Kapoor Khan (Jaane-Jaan) in the lead. But even with micro-trends on social media using the word “girl” (think: girl maths, girl dinner), within the larger social context, women’s choices of staying at home, going to work, marrying rich, or not marrying at all are always met with scepticism and criticism. To truly make it a year (or a world) for “the girls”, it will be useful to replace judgement with empathy. Understanding these choices as responses to a collective experience of navigating societal systems can help us understand each other better—rather than ending up at either extreme of pursuing a toxic hustle culture or advocating a return to traditional gender norms.
Devika Oberai is a psychology graduate from Delhi University, now working in the development sector.