Edited by Janani Mahadevan
The Dark Academic aesthetic is certainly appealing, especially if you’re someone who has always been bookish, nerdy, and passionate about everything that was ‘uncool’. It centres classic literature and music as well as poets and artists like Hozier, Mitski, and Richard Siken. Suddenly, queerness and otherness are the coolest things on the internet. Dark Academia brings into the fold so many people who have been ignored and pushed aside before. However, this is not to say that it does not have its fair share of faults.
Dark Academia is a highly Eurocentric aesthetic. If you were to look up lists of Dark Academia books and movies, you would likely see the works of authors and poets like Oscar Wilde, Emily Dickinson, and Shakespeare, as well as films like Dead Poets Society and Kill Your Darlings, all works made in the Western world by white artists and actors. You could search for ‘cultural’ Dark Academia to find non-white narratives, but the lists are few and far between. Besides, most of them are works that are written primarily for a white audience, even if they are by non-white authors — criticisms that are made of books like The God of Small Things and White Tiger as well as movies like Slum Dog Millionaire, all of which frequent these lists far too often.
Another criticism of Dark Academia remarks on the privilege required for the aesthetic— social, cultural, and economic. Since most of these works are written in English or other Western languages (and often earlier than 1950), most non-native English speakers will find it difficult to access these works, as translations into vernacular languages are so rarely available. Similarly, the dressing aesthetic of Dark Academia relies on things like tweed coats, oxford shoes, and waistcoats — items that would be quite out of place in the warm climate of a country like India. Even if you were to live in a place where wearing these things was considered alright, it would be very hard to find them. While the aesthetic of Dark Academia relies heavily on thrift store and second-hand finds, these are still not cheap and remain inaccessible to most.
Dark Academia also tends to romanticise mental illness as well as unhealthy habits like caffeine addiction and a lack of sleep that borders on insomnia. While the same observation can certainly be made of college students, at least we’re doing it for a reason. Dark Academia idealizes the notion that you stay up engaging in obsessive, depressive behaviours, consuming cup after cup of caffeine and tearing through books like a 4th-year student trying to write citations to their thesis simply because you can, because you enjoy reading and learning and knowing. And you can enjoy those things, but why must you do it with an unhealthy sense of self, no sleep, and enough caffeine that you can feel your own limbs jittering?
Dark Academia would also make it seem as though Dark Academics are the best sort of people, as though you are better than others simply because you know more and have read more than they have. Not only is this clearly wrong, but it is also a dangerous narrative to propagate. It excludes neuro-divergent people who may not be able to completely participate in the aesthetic sensibility as it goes against how they work and learn. There’s nothing wrong with watching videos instead of reading heavy 18th century texts. Moreover, simply because you know more than someone else doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re smarter than them, of course, but someone being less intelligent than you should never mean that they are worth less, a view Dark Academia inadvertently promotes.
A final criticism of Dark Academia is that it centres the bodies of cis, white, and able-bodied people. Personally, I am yet to see Dark Academic lookbooks that centre the appearances of non-white people, fat people, or people with visible disabilities. Dark Academics as a community must come in to fulfil the needs of people who have always been left out of mainstream narratives because it has a long way to go before it is truly such a safe space, rather than another way to cultivate the hegemony of people who have always been part of the socio-political mainstream. There has been some change, but the space for non-hegemonic identities must be created faster if it is to have a real impact on the creation of Dark Academia as a sub-culture.