Essay | A Masochistic Education: Lana Del Rey, White Femininity and the American Dream by Christiana Spens

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Christiana Spens


A Masochistic Education: Lana Del Rey,
White Femininity and the American Dream


Western society has long persisted with its telling, and retelling, of the ‘fallen woman’ narrative. From Madame Bovary to Shamina Begum, this archetype presents a cautionary tale to keep ‘the fairer sex’ in line, whether in literature or the political stage. In music, too, there remains an obsession over these women and girls, and their inability to resist the temptations of men, leading to inevitably tragic ends. Lana Del Rey’s characters – for she has played many, over the years – are nearly always a version of this hopelessly romantic victim of an American Stockholm Syndrome. It’s never fully clear whether they have true agency – and freedom – or not; instead, there is a flirtation with the sense of being trapped, and of masochism. Whether playing Lolita or a desperate housewife, or a dealer’s girlfriend, or a groupie, Lana Del Rey is consistently in love with the baddest boyfriend of them all: America. 

In many ways, she – or at least, the characters she plays in her songs – embodies a sort of conflicted white femininity; feeling guilty and yet numb behind the panes of the country club, in the passenger seat of an Aston Martin, on the leash of the bad man she loves so much. She knows it is bad for her, but she does it anyway. It is a mood, as they say. It is an era that has never left us. It is an eternal masochism – and often faith – that remains, often ambiguously, beyond sense, reason and science. It is a form of pop Romanticism — dying for love, masochism, self-sacrifice. It is pain. It is love. It is political. 

The masochism that Lana Del Rey sings of is a very privileged one; she tells sad stories, without necessarily having to live the reality of the situations her characters are in. She sings of being white trash, endearingly, and it makes her very rich. Are these her sisters? Are we sisters? Class becomes an affectation, something put on and off depending on the track.  

This rich, white femininity is confused, stuck in a feeling of precariousness and co-dependency, as well as the guilty privilege of sleeping with the enemy, and of never being truly free. It is to experience genuine victimhood and sexism, but also to be attached to the nostalgia of the past, by association. It is to be scared of solidarity, genuine solidarity, for fear things may get even worse. It is to believe the stories, on some level, the romantic stories about being special and beautiful, and to worry that by losing these illusions, these flatteries we have grown fond of, we might lose everything. It is always wanting someone to save us, and yet knowing, reasonably, that we can only save ourselves.  

It is to be precarious and fearful, primed for submission. This white femininity bleeds into ‘white feminism’, in which white women struggle to understand where they stand in relation to each other, let alone anyone else. It is to have one’s identity damned as inherently problematic, but to see no other identity that fits either. It is this jarring co-existence of genuine desire for change, with exterior demands of often very superficial adjustments. It is to not really trust anyone, even – and perhaps especially – each other. It is to assume that individualism is the only real option, politically, because no one else can be trusted. 

This identity, this ideology, which has been constructed all along so that we distrust and compete, is inevitably splintered and precarious. This white feminism is a legacy of the ‘divide and conquer’ approach to everyone subordinated by white men; it is an internalised state of being. It is perpetual confusion and precariousness. 

However, merely to dismiss it as such – to flag up ‘white fragility’ – is to miss the point, and miss the opportunity for progress. It is important to understand why people feel fragile and under threat, and why they accept a worldview, ideology and culture that perpetuates it. We all need to challenge this state of anxiety and fragility, but also offer compassion, and a way forward that takes into account the individual anxieties, delusions, desires, and genuine pain that keeps people in this (sometimes gilded) cage of gas-lighting, isolation and fearfulness. 

So what keeps people in a state of perpetual exclusion and isolation, fearing solidarity and progress? What keeps people in toxic relationships, whether in a political sense, or in friendships and romantic relationships? How, in these contexts, does fear operate in a way that prevents better lives and communities? Is this really a wider existential crisis, splintered into individual ones? 

In moments that are fraught with anxiety and precariousness, people become defensive and avoidant; they cling onto life as it leaves them, desire as it fades, and a glance as it moves to someone else. They are mourning through the spectre of another, or obsessed that if we open our lives to other people, they will hurt us. This fear, this paranoia, exists on every level of society, and it is what sabotages progress and true unity and happiness.  

We fear dying and losing those we love. We are scared of a back turning, of nothing else after that, of an abysmal sense of nothingness — of having, and being, nothing. And this – what we fear – is exactly what we are enabling, when we get stuck in this paranoid sense of fragility, this Stockholm Syndrome. We invite our fear — our pain, loss, humiliation, guilt — and we play it out at the expense of others, and the expense of ourselves. We fear the intimacy and love we think, and therefore ensure, we cannot have. We scorn peace for something more familiar. We invite over friends who never liked us and then cry when they confirm that fact. Avoidant types attract anxious types, underlining the emotional distance they both fear and secretly crave. 

Many of us shut out other people to avoid being hurt, being vulnerable again, therefore. But this avoidance of vulnerability is exactly what makes us fragile. It is exactly what makes our lives precarious. We do, after all, need other people. 

This is a typical existential crisis that so many of us fall into, regardless of race or gender (but more damaging, of course, when played out by the more powerful and privileged in society, whether or not they are aware of their relative status), and it drives many of the social divisions we see today. When we decide to cut ourselves off emotionally from one another, and become too defensive, we become individualists, and we become atomized from one another. This is also a symptom of liberalism – we become splintered, separated individuals, intent on fulfilling our ambitions as singular people, not as genuinely inclusive communities. This ideology breeds competitiveness and contempt; it thwarts real solidarity and love, it undermines genuine and lasting friendship. 

Perhaps this is why Lana Del Rey’s music is so compelling: we see the gilded cage, the familiar masochism, but beneath all of this toxic behavior is a desire to love, to be with other people, as much as it is to be free. It is to be dissatisfied with the modern world, with individualism, just as much as it is to be disillusioned with codependency and romance. 

Whatever the case, Lana Del Rey’s music presents the messiness of our modern existential crises, our human weakness, our internalised, toxic behaviours. While perhaps we’d do best not to glamorise it all perpetually, we can nevertheless learn something from it being said out loud, admitted, even cried over —from the raw pain and the endemic emotion it opens up and admits. 

We can progress not only if we admit our fragility, but delve into it, interrogate it, and face up to it. Why are we so scared? Do we really not think there is anything out there that is better than how things are now? Dare we dream of something else — better friends, better love? Lana, like perhaps so many of us, seems to edge us towards that, however ambiguously, and romantically. But there is still so far to go.

Christiana Spens has published several books in the past, and writes about culture and politics for publications such as The Irish Times, Art Quarterly, Studio International, Prospect and Elephant Magazine, among others. She is represented by Akin Akinwumi at Willenfield Literary Agency.


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