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Deconstructing Dark Academia

As a senior in college, my educational career is quickly coming to an end (until, of course, I put more financial strain on myself to go to graduate school). As a person who genuinely enjoyed school, I always romanticized the idea of going to college. I remember as early as fifth grade, I’d think about reading in coffee shops and writing papers in dorm rooms. Though I wasn’t familiar with the “dark academia” trend until recently, I definitely subscribed to the culture at a young age. 


What is dak academia? It is an aesthetic-based subculture inspired by the worlds of prep schools and higher education. Have a hard time visualizing it? Think dark and dusty libraries, French coffeehouses, and white marble Greek and Roman statues. Drunk and mad college-aged writers trying to create masterpieces. 


Taking cues from mid-twentieth century fashion, the dark academia hashtags on popular social media sites are full of teens and young adults in white blouses, tweed slacks, and round thin-framed glasses. Few looks deviate from the neutral color pallet of creams and browns. 


Though the title was only popularized recently, many “core texts” of the subculture have some history. As I mentioned, this romantic notion of higher education has been in my brain since I was young. However, I think my first “proper” introduction to something in the dark academia canon was the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. For those who have not seen the film, Dead Poets Society follows a gang of boarding school lads who take an interest in literature after being encouraged by their eccentric English professor (who is, of course, played by Robin Williams).


I originally saw this film around age 14. Soon after, I found similar tropes in the books I was assigned. First, the novel A Separate Peace, another coming-of-age story about an all-male prep school. Then came The Catcher in the Rye. 


I was enchanted by this dream world of angst-ridden boys in elite education. And I think that’s where some examination is needed. 


Despite being a subculture supposedly valuing education, art, and existential thinking, sometimes style overtakes substance. In a sense, it’s an aesthetic built upon “daddy’s old money.” 


The culture is held together by both popular media about school-life and classic literary canon. Due to its popularity in queer spaces, and its generally androgynous look, I doubt many self-proclaimed dark academics would admit there is an “ideal beauty standard” present within the group. However, who are the main characters in these modern stories? Pale, slender, sensitive white boys. Female characters, if present, are underdeveloped. BIPOC characters are even more rare. 


And if a person instead chooses to focus on the literature-based side, we know academia still prioritizes and protects the works and thoughts of white, cisgender, able-bodied white men. The aesthetic falls victim to seeing the Western tradition as the highest form of writing, art, and architecture. 


Don’t get me wrong. I do like this trend. I’m still going to geek about Shakespeare and (when it’s safe to do) I’ll still sit in coffee shops with some highbrow poetry, hoping to catch someone’s eye. And, of course, I believe anyone can participate in the “professor chic” style of dark academia. But I remind everyone to be critical of why this trend is appealing and how the appeal is drenched in privilege. 


To conclude, I’ll leave you with some examples of “digital academia,” to keep you motivated in the final weeks of Zoom University’s fall semester: music blaring through headphones, burnt homemade coffee, and the soft glow of a laptop in the dark. 


Sabrina Merritt is currently studying for an English degree with a concentration in professional writing and rhetoric. Her highest passions are tabletop role-playing and learning about how to be an environmentally-friendly consumer.
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