There has been many a critique of the Tumblr slash TikTok Dark Academia community floating around across different platforms. I’ve read such critiques on mainly Twitter and Tumblr, probably most accessible due to their word-centric interface.
Now the topic of Dark Academia as an aesthetic community has resurfaced so to speak upon the release of a NY Times article about young adults filling the void of online schooling through sharing online material all surrounding Dark Academia.
I was surprised that such a publication would pick up a topic like curated online teen aesthetics but also unsurprised that the article didn’t go in depth of the inner workings of the community itself and barely touched the surface by simply describing and discussing the visual aesthetic. Which I guess is something Dark Academia enthusiasts and fervent defenders are relieved about?
Now there are many great critiques already available regarding the number of questionable aspects of Dark Academia such as the glorification of the western canon in academia, the dismissal of the reality of actual modern-day students currently attending these institutions (many of which are unfortunately children of rich assholes who themselves become rich assholes), but I’m going to touch on one particular fascination of the Dark Academia community that I can both sympathize with but also makes my eye twitch: Maurice, the 1987 Merchant Ivory film.
Now Maurice is also a book, but since Dark Academia is quite heavily visual, most ‘Dark Academics’ take inspiration from the cinematography of the admittedly very gorgeous film, so I’m going to talk about the film in particular this time.
I could go on and on but to make this concise, my point can really be summed up in three paragraphs:
“The irony of TikTok Dark Academia kids romanticizing the posh ivy league university setting of Maurice (1987) when the film ends with Maurice running away from bourgeois society with his working class lover,
The irony of the romanticization of the very thing E. M. Forster criticizes with his novel, the very thing that disillusions Clive and rips him away from Maurice, the very thing Maurice denies further participation in at the end and instead dedicates his life to a working class man,
Also to my knowledge Maurice never graduated??? Hshdjsj he quit after he got pissed when his professor told him off for skipping lectures to go on romantic escapades with his paramour. Maurice is literally an anti-establishment gay and we love to see it.”
Here are some great posts that are much more in depth than mine that explain their stance on the critique of Dark Academia:
- Critique on Dark Academia as a whole
- Critique on the popularity of Maurice specifically within the community
But now onto the point where I explain why I said I can sympathize with this fascination: a lot of the kids in this community are queer. And I get it, I get the constant search for your tribe, I get the feeling of community you get from participating in online niche spaces. I also get the allure of queer love in traditionally ‘sacred’ settings, there’s something inherently rebellious and satisfyingly iconoclastic in the pursuit of queer love in the walls of the institutions that bar us from being able to do it freely in the first place. For many of us these are also lived experiences; being queer in religious private schools or religious households, or just being queer in this queerphobic world in general. There’s this great Letterboxd review of Maurice that puts this phenomenon in queer experience/storytelling into words:
“…Forster and Hollinghurst understand the aching, almost vibrating thrill of being secretly queer, of furtive touches in the dark with an anonymous man who may or may not be a cop trying to entrap you. There’s thrill in the danger of being queer, surely we would trade that thrill for safety (though this is not a unanimously held opinion; I know personally some queer folk who bristle at the idea of acceptance, at gay marriage, at enfolding by the inescapable and intractable arms of capitalism), but that thrill seems inextricable from queer literature.”
A thrill that can only be cheaply replicated, in my opinion, by our cishet counterparts. Tl;dr gays are the best at yearning thus the best at telling stories about yearning 🤷🏻♀️ I said what I said.
Henceforth, critical consumption of any niche media should be encouraged. I’m not saying these interests should be dropped entirely, I myself love a good tweed waistcoat (and own one myself), leather journal or old library; but the deeper problematic underpinnings of this aesthetic such as exclusionist university culture, whitewashed academia, and more, should not be swept under the rug. Instead, it should be looked straight in the eye. Confront it, will yourself to be made uncomfortable.
Modern teenagers have a knack for getting involved in ‘problematic’ content (for those already in their 20s might I remind you all of our collective erasure of H*talia’s (yes I censored it, yes I refuse to put its full cursed name on my blog) nationalistic and war-apologist propaganda because it’s ‘just a cute anime, right?’), but they shouldn’t be approached with immediate scorn. No teen wants to be outright told that they’re wrong, the harsher your initial approach the lesser possibility of them actually listening to you. But with that being said, teen-dominated media shouldn’t be left uncriticized because ‘they’re just kids being kids’ or ‘it’s not that deep’, because it is ‘that deep’.
A lot of these kids are also those unable to accomplish the aesthetic at all, and use the community as a method of escapism. It only takes a few minutes of scrolling through ‘Dark Academia tips’ Tumblr blogs to find numerous asks about how one can achieve the Eurocentric autumnal look whilst living in a tropical country. Usually the ask is followed by self deprecating comments and complaints about being born in said tropical country; which breaks my heart! I’m from a tropical country too! We have so many beautiful clothing traditions that are so much more accessible to us and is no less superior than western clothing. But once upon a time when I was a twelve year old yearning to be someone else—because no teenager wants to be themselves, it’s just part of growing up—I too longed to dress in knitted sweaters and oxford shoes, because that’s what I thought was appealing due to its aesthetic prevalence in online platforms. So I don’t blame these kids, really. But again, nothing in life should be swallowed whole. Chew that shit aggressively and digest it properly until you’ve learned and acknowledged all the aspects worth questioning that make it dubious or at worst, sinister.