The ‘Dead Girl’ Aesthetic & Ballet Online

fersiniThe popularity of ballet on the internet is one that often (but not always) relies on the idea of ballet as a static aesthetic rather than as a performance. And to be more specific, as a distinctly ‘feminine’ aesthetic. As both a writer about ballet and a researcher working within the fields of Adaptation and gender studies, I tend to look at how certain ways of thinking from one area I work in inform the other. Adaptation studies is essentially the study of how certain works are adapted into different media, in different times and cultures, and why. In the past few years, I’ve increasingly felt that the internet sharpens how and why certain narratives, images and ideas are adapted, and how that reflects and shapes our culture. One of the trends that has struck me, perhaps due to my natural inclination towards ballet, is the aestheticisation of ballet as a static imagery that is ideologically bound up with what I call the ‘dead girl’ aesthetic.

Of course, not all online imagery associated with ballet (or with ballerinas) is a manifestation of our culture’s fixation with submissive, passive, dead-like images of women. You only have to look at some of the blogs featuring the sheer athleticism of dancers’ bodies to know that. However, a large number of this imagery is fixated with more passive representations, which poses interesting questions. But first, what is this ‘dead girl’ aesthetic?

Although in the wider media it is generally preferably to stir up a certain level of panic or concern about the ‘newness’ of internet trends, it often seems like the online world manifests, extends, expands and reworks historical trends. The ‘dead girl’ aesthetic, for example, is not something that was invented by teenage girls on tumblr; and the fact that it is popular with teenage girls on tumblr is not an excuse to be derisive or dismissive of it. In fact, I’ve had to revaluate my own initially dismissive attitudes and actually see what was going on when I began to research this aesthetic world of tumblr blogs. It is a complex, fascinating and intelligent world. What I often see reworked and adapted on blogs is a nineteenth-century literary and artistic aesthetic.

Looking at these blogs and the kind of images of women they both collect and create takes me back to the poetic vampirism of women’s bodies and minds as seductively beautiful art. To me, this is best exemplified by a short story called ‘Ligeia’ by Edgar Allan Poe. A known ‘killer’ of women in his poems and short stories, Poe also had a complex relationship with their aestheticisation – while his women were killed off into beauty, gothic terror, Romantic illusion (or should we say, delusion) and flights of fancy, they also often arose to haunt him and his readers. There is one passage from ‘Ligeia’ that I frequently re-read while thinking of the ‘dead girl’ aesthetic online. Here, the unnamed narrator of the story tells us of Ligeia’s capacities:

the acquisitions of Ligeia were gigantic, were astounding; […] I was sufficiently aware of her infinite supremacy to resign myself, with a child-like confidence, to her guidance through the chaotic world of metaphysical investigation at which I was most busily occupied during the earlier years of our marriage. With how vast a triumph – with how vivid a delight – with how much of all that is ethereal in hope did I feel, as she bent over me in studies but little sought – but less known, – that delicious vista by slow degrees expanding before me, down whose long, gorgeous, and all untrodden path, I might at length pass onward to the goal of a wisdom too divinely precious not to be forbidden![1]

Joel Salzberg summarises the narrator’s representation of Ligeia when he writes that ‘As is so often the case, Poe’s quester after the sublime tends to look upon woman as the vessel of the transcendental’.[2] Such a passage reveals what J. Gerald Kennedy calls the inability to ‘value’ and represent ‘a woman not as “Truth, Beauty, Poetry,” but simply, humanly, as herself.’[3] By being the entity through which the narrator may walk on the ‘untrodden path’ of transcendent and universal ‘truths’, Ligeia is denied that personal, subjective identity that allows one to wield a pen and authority as an individual creative mind; and such is the position of the muse who can personify all things because she is a ‘self-less’ empty space upon which the artist can create personifications and see his existential desires reflected. Notice how Ligeia’s personification of and guidance toward transcendent knowledge and ‘wisdom’ does not create an interiority for herself but rather feeds and constructs the interiority and identity of the narrator. The more he describes her mind the more he moves away from her who he is describing; the narrative is all to do with him, with building for himself a deeply subjective and personal identity that ‘feels’ with an intensity and perception that characterises the poet in William Wordsworth’s words as one who is ‘endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm […] and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind’.[4] As is often the case with nineteenth-century literature, we are presented with the poeticisation of woman into a muse to service the identity, depth and interiority of her man.

When I look at stunningly beautiful images of sylph-like muses online, many of whom are ballerinas whose own interiority is blanketed by the general category of transcendental beauty and grace, I feel as if a collective and anonymous audience, not unlike Poe’s narrator in ‘Ligeia’, is invited to take part in the feeding off of a woman’s body. Many times, these images make me feel deeply, they move me, they are beautiful, but there is also something inherently ‘deadening’ about them because I am being moved, I am being compelled to demonstrate my own creativity and depth, through static and submissive images of women as muses, goddesses, objets d’art.

But then another emotion comes into play, because it seems unfair to neatly summarise these images, and the way they are collected and displayed online, as a one-track ideology. It is also incredibly condescending to assume that all bloggers are doing the same thing, or that the creators of new ‘dead girl’ images online are simply regurgitating the images of the past unthinkingly without adapting them. A prime example is the work of photographer Chiara Fersini. I have to admit that I am personally drawn to her photography and first came across it when I started blogging myself. While in many ways it echoes the idea of women as ‘self-less’ muses, idealised goddesses and objets d’art, it also simultaneously adapts and questions it. There is a latent ‘knowingness’ to these images that makes you question the idea that all imagery of women in this vein is essentially submissive, passive, or stereotypical. Whether I would call this a mood, a tone, a clever use of colour and symbols, or something else, I confess to not knowing at this early stage in my research. But I feel it’s there.

Fersini’s imagery has proven popular online and I’ve seen it featured countless times on blogs. Each time another (typically, young, female) blogger collects and displays her photography, they are also, in a way, adapting the ‘dead girl’ aesthetic. And these girls often know what they’re doing. The best analogy I can come up with to exemplify what I mean by that is to quote you a critical interpretation of Sofia Coppola’s own ‘dead girl’ aesthetic in her film adaptation of The Virgin Suicides:

Femininity has been understood and presented through a set of binaries in western culture. Such binaries often evolve around two (almost opposing) imageries of femininity including Madonna/Whore, Rapunzel/Medusa and Ophelia/Girl Power. The former of each of these dichotomous paradigms embody purity, innocence and docility while the latter types symbolize a sexually mature, dangerous side of femininity. Rather than placing the girls on either side of two extreme poles of femininity, I would argue strongly that The Virgin Suicides [film] fuses and merges the antithetical poles of fragile and assertive girlish femininity.[5]

Widely criticised for her own ‘girly’ aesthetic, Coppola’s films in fact throw in our face that which our culture dismisses (teenage girls, femininity, ‘girlishness’), and in doing so, compel us to interrogate why. Similarly, while there are blogs that unthinkingly echo the submission of girls and women into beautiful consumable imagery of poetic ‘death’, there are blogs that collect, reinvent and adapt it to make all binaries seem silly. Analysing what the online world does with the ‘dead girl’ aesthetic, and how it adapts and shapes it for contemporary culture, is not a process of picking a side, but realising that what goes on is a case of both/and. This is the starting point for what I see happening to ballet as an aesthetic and an ideology online.

The internet has adapted that sweetly pink imagery of ballet that used to adorn little girls’ bedrooms in the form of a pair of pink ballet shoes in a picture frame and the pretty ballerina in her frothy musical jewellery box. What we have instead is an adaptation of that traditional ‘girlishness’ coupled with the latent interrogation of what women’s bodies represent in art, as found in Fersini’s photography. Perhaps my own ideas will change in a few years, when I’ve devoted more time to this topic. But at this stage, it poses a series of questions that I’m dancing around: what is lost and what is gained for the art form of ballet when it is viewed through this creative lens? Is the idea of ballet as a distinct style of online imagery, claimed and reclaimed by young girls, antithetical to its practice as performance?

I don’t have any answers, but only a small example. It is a clip of Suzanne Farrell dancing with Jorge Donn in Maurice Béjart’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Juliet is a favourite ‘dead girl’ of the internet, whose body is widely aestheticised and collected. To think of her in movement is almost a rebellion against this aestheticisation. The same is also true for Suzanne Farrell herself, the famous muse of choreographer George Balanchine whose identity tends to be submerged into his, as if she is his creation rather than a skilled artist in her own right. She is, fittingly, widely circulated on the internet through static imagery that, while conveys the physical beauty of this ‘muse’, fails to demonstrate what makes her enthralling as a performer.

So, back to this clip of her, the muse, dancing the role of the ultimate teenage ‘dead girl’. It is beautiful, at least in my humble opinion. And not because I like the choreography (because I don’t), or even the narrative of Shakespeare’s play itself, but because of the opportunity of seeing Farrell in action. Her fluidity, her inability to ‘pose’ (notice how her hands or fingers move even when her legs don’t), and the sharp lines of her long body, which at times, create angles as few dancers can, are unbelievably beautiful to me. She is vital. I can feel the compulsion to speak about her in general poetic terms when I watch her as Juliet, and yet what stops me from doing so is that her body shows me that this poetry is the product of a very specific body exerting its individual performance on stage. Can the online images of her that I consume, and that others consume, really convey this? Can their generality be mediated by the individuality of her performance? Or will she be lost to an aesthetic, like Juliet, like many other women; will she be remembered as a muse rather than as an artist? Like I said, I have no answers, not yet.


[1] Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Ligeia’, in The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (London: Penguin, 1982), p. 657.

[2] Joel Salzberg, ‘The Gothic Hero in Transcendental Quest: Poe’s “Ligeia” and James’ “The Beast in the Jungle”’, ESQ, 67 (1972), 109.

[3] J. Gerald Kennedy, ‘Poe, “Ligeia,” and the Problem of Dying Women’, in New Essays on Poe’s Major Tales, ed. Kenneth Silverman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 127.

[4] William Wordsworth, ‘Preface’, in Lyrical Ballads, ed. Michael Mason (London and New York: Longman, 1992), p. 71.

[5] Masafumi Monden, ‘Contemplating in a dream-like room: The Virgin Suicides and the aesthetic imagination of girlhood’, Film, Fashion & Consumption, 2.2 (2013), 145.

Image: Sleeping Beauty gave up! by Chiara Fersini. © All rights reserved. Used here with permission.