Popular culture has always been interested in women who become obsessed with other women. The trope has been re-imagined and re-skinned over and over, from Single White Female to Notes on a Scandal, from “Jolene” to “Girl Crush,” from late Sylvia Plath to approximately 500 of the plot threads on Pretty Little Liars. The stories generally boil down to two explanations for this pathology: secret sexual attraction to other women, or competition for a man’s attention and affection. Sometimes the lines between those two things blur, but there’s rarely any other explanation.
One recent exception is Christian E. Christiansen’s 2011 thriller The Roommate, which has a lonely college freshman striving to take over the identity of her pretty, well-adjusted roommate, hoping to make herself whole. This movie’s primary plot device and sole impressive production trick is that the two leads — Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester and Friday Night Lights’ Minka Kelly — are simultaneously recognizable stars and almost identical, with the right wardrobe and lighting. The adrenaline rush of the third act comes from the realization that perhaps Meester really could succeed at becoming Kelly. Who would notice? As a horror movie, it’s rote and boring, with predictable casualties and an obvious ending. As a nearly intentional investigation into the very gendered way that image informs identity — coincidentally released the first full year Instagram was available in America — it’s a small marvel.
Now, finally The Roommate has a logical successor, and some company in the genre of modern obsession. Matt Spicer’s debut feature, Ingrid Goes West, co-written by Bad Sports’ David Branson Smith, sent a small ripple through the summer by pinning down exactly what it feels like to fall for an Instagram influencer’s lifestyle mirage. The avocado toast, the conveniently located neon sign, the perfect artist husband and beautiful friends — it turns out it’s all staged, which gives the film the first of its many messages about online popularity.
Ingrid Goes West stars Aubrey Plaza at her dramatic and comedic best as Ingrid, a loner whose mother dies of a terminal illness and leaves her with a lot of money and no roadmap. Lonely, confused, and certainly in need of grief counseling, she turns to Instagram and develops an obsession with lifestyle blogger and Instagram influencer Taylor Sloane, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Ingrid picks up and moves to California to manipulate Taylor into becoming her best friend, and to mimic her aesthetic, which she confuses as interchangeable with happiness.
Ingrid Goes West isn’t the only horror story to deal with social media and female obsession in 2017. There’s also Tyler MacIntyre’s Tragedy Girls, Anita Rocha da Silveira’s Kill Me Please, and Simon Verhoeven’s Friend Request, films that dabble in the same themes with varying levels of attentiveness, empathy, and success. Together, they suggest a growing interest in exploring social media obsession, sometimes even beyond the usual demonization of women as shallow or self-obsessed. It makes sense: for a majority of the population under the age of 29, growing up involves dealing with Instagram, and this sort of pathology now feels like a standard trial in a coming-of-age story. It’s not just something a narcissist experiences.
But Ingrid Goes West remains the standout, addressing the dark side of social media with a level of care that gives its subjects a way into the conversation, too. The Cut interviewed Instagram influencers who were shocked to see their lives reflected back to them in Ingrid Goes West. “This is my life, and it’s psycho,” said one. The film struck a nerve, not just with its canny specificity, but with its slapdash, wild gestures at something that feels true about life online. Even women for whom Instagram is not just a lifestyle, but a livelihood, were ready to step back from posting to the app after watching the film. “It was almost like looking at yourself in a mirror,” one said. “I had to ask myself if I was crazy, too. Like, ‘Why are you doing this to yourself, why do you keep doing this?’”
By now, people know that Instagram is a highly curated version of a real life, and one where the in-between, banal moments have no place. That doesn’t prevent it from having power over our emotions. When Ingrid Goes West came out in August, I asked the director what he thought the protagonist really needed from Instagram. “I don’t think Ingrid knows how to ask for what she needs in terms of validation or human affection,” he said. “So she starts looking for it the only way she knows how: through her phone, because she’s alone.”
It’s not surprising that filmmakers would start looking for basic human truths in stories about Instagram. They have every incentive to make movies about buzzy, controversial topics, and social media is one of the biggest of the decade. Zan Romanoff’s recent novel Grace and the Fever charts a young woman’s coming-of-age alongside the delineation of online and IRL personas. Romanoff told me in May that the internet is a perfect jumping-off place for a story about growing up: “The question of coming-of-age is the enormous question of ‘how can you be yourself?’ So really anything, almost anything relates to that. How do you be yourself is such a huge question, everything is involved in it.”
Da Silveira’s Kill Me Please is about a young woman’s slow realization that her fascination with her own image was instilled in her by the community and the culture around her. The world only sees the girls in this movie as pretty things on Facebook, and archetypes rather than people. Da Silveira seems to set up four choices for young women in her fictional town: they can be invisible; they can be aestheticized in death as martyred virgins; they can be beautiful, delicate survivors; or they can be imaginary, described only as fantasy or urban legend. The teenage protagonist’s fascination with Facebook makes sense — it’s where she’s going to go to figure out which prescribed box she fits in, and wriggle around to see what, if any of it, is up to her to decide.
These good-faith attempts at understanding a turning point for coming-of-age stories make it all the more disappointing to see satires as rudimentary as Friend Request or Tragedy Girls. The first is supposed to be campy horror, featuring a demon girl with crippling FOMO and a life-destroying tactic predicated on depriving victims of their Facebook friends. The second is centered on two anti-heroines who crave online fame to the point where they’re murdering classmates and town figureheads in order to boost traffic to their blog. In both, there are elaborate, bizarre explanations for how the girls developed such fervent obsessions with violence — necessary backstory, sure — but not a whisper of why social media became so important that it took over their lives. The implication is that social media obsession is just a natural, gross part of the girl experience, an inherent flaw in the girls themselves. Even if that were true, it’d still be unfeeling and boring to state it, then leave the statement unexamined.
The age of Instagram (and Facebook, which acquired the site in 2012) has created legitimate concern about how social media affects the mental health of young women. Between 2005 and 2014, a Johns Hopkins study found that rates of depression rose significantly in America, and disproportionately among girls. Speaking to NPR, psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair speculated on one possible cause: that women and girls saw net gains during that same time period for employment, education, and salary, but are still “bombarded by media messages, dominant culture, humor and even political figures about how they look — no matter how smart, gifted, or passionate they are."
This spring, a Royal Society for Public Health survey of social media users between age 14 and 24 found that of the available social media outlets, young people described Instagram as the most detrimental to their mental health. The report’s author told CNN that Instagram was associated with anxiety, depression, and issues with self-identity and body image, saying that the platform encourages women to “compare themselves against unrealistic, largely curated, filtered, and Photoshopped versions of reality.” In January, a Common Sense survey found that teenage girls are particularly susceptible to anxieties around social media, with 35 percent saying they worry about being tagged in unattractive photos, and 22 percent saying an unsatisfactory number of likes on a photo made them feel “bad about themselves.”
This summer and fall, that knowledge has given rise to a batch of films that try to tackle what social media platforms really do when integrated into the center of young women’s life. What do we need from them? If we’re broken, and looking for something to fix us, why do we think to go online? In an August essay for The New Republic, titled “Against Instagram,” Josephine Livingstone argued that Ingrid Goes West revealed Instagram’s basic moral bankruptcy. “In satirizing Taylor Sloane’s pretty, empty, commercial life, Ingrid Goes West points a finger at the proximity of Silicon Valley and venture capitalism to domestic aesthetics,” she wrote. “Instagram is owned by Facebook, and both companies trade in the currency of normal people’s images and information.” Here’s where the lines between “normal” and “influencer” — Ingrid and Taylor Sloane — blur. You don’t even have to follow “influencers” before you can be influenced by an aesthetic reinforced by a secret algorithm, and following influencers can feel as intimate as following the people you know in real life.
Being a person is hard. Connecting is hard, showing affection is hard, deciding what to wear and what to eat and how to live is hard. We look to people in our daily lives for examples of how to do it better. When friends and family fail, or aren’t available, why not look to the millions of girls on the internet? It might not actually make women happier, but the impulse to seek happiness and fulfillment is understandable, and social media pretends to offer those things in abundance. What makes us want to believe in things we consciously recognize as crafted illusions? We might not know yet, but we’ll continue to get more interesting stories — and certainly more interesting movies — if we think of social media obsession as human and relatable, not just a plot device to mark a character as shallow and dumb.