When I joined the studyblr-sphere in 2014, the dark academia aesthetic was a popular, if not the most popular, photo and photo editing style in the community, though it’s worth noting that it was not called that at the time. But the images were pretty much the beginning and the end of it. Over the years, that style fell out of popular use in favor of the brighter, crisper editing we see tons of today. For the past year or so, however, dark academia has been back with a vengeance. At first sight it encompasses pretty much the same things it did when I was first introduced to it: low lit pictures, a focus on classical and gothic architecture, and a general appeal to subjects in the humanities. I find this and basically any other aesthetic harmless in and of itself, and I even appreciate many of the images associated with it. But there are new characteristics to the trend that I don’t like, and I’m surprised they receive as little criticism as they do.
One of my greatest criticisms of dark academia is the people included in the photo posts. Though most of them focus on books, buildings, and other inanimate objects, the occasional picture of a person is pretty invariably of a thin person. A lot of the pictures used in these posts are not taken by the poster and are found online. Frankly, I have seen many of the same pictures used in eating disorder tags as “back to school thinspo” posts. I don’t mean that the people creating these dark academia posts are advertently supporting disordered eating in the slightest, just that a community that regularly posts the same images as the ED community as a part of its ‘aesthetic’ should certainly reflect upon itself. More to the point, associating these consistently thin people with the word ‘academia’ creates a definition that in my opinion has much more to do with an aesthetic than with academia itself. I would also like to add that this is not a criticism of thin people who themselves pose in their own pictures in the dark academia tag, though I do think having a body that more closely resembles those in reposted aesthetic pictures likely makes them more comfortable serving as the subject of their own original pictures. That aside, I think the following photo set, which contains pictures I found in both the thinspo tag and the dark academia tag, should be concerning to anyone.
Another feature of note of all the people pictured above, and in most dark academia posts, is that they are all white. Not only that, but the vast majority of the markers of the trend are European in some way. The styles of architecture, the books written by a list of authors that would have you believe there are no countries (or at least none with written language) east of the Mediterranean, the style of dress, the narrow scope of classical composers, even the foods included are so distinctly European you might think that’s the only place academics come from. Oh wait. Again, I don’t mean that the people who post or enjoy dark academia content are in any way personally attempting to exclude certain races or nationalities. One person posting a picture of a white girl in a tweed blazer does not make them responsible for the 100 other pictures of a white girl in a tweed blazer. But it’s worth taking time to think critically about an aesthetic that almost exclusively features white people and the work of white people in its representation of academia.
Another key feature of dark academia’s representation of what it means to be an academic is that this identity is, above all, purchasable. Buy the right drinks (red wine and coffee), buy the right clothes (plaid skirts and turtlenecks), buy the right books (Oscar Wilde and Leo Tolstoy), buy the right foods (for some reason only croissants (?)). This provides another qualifier for what an academic is according to the examples provided by dark academia- not poor. I have even happened across multiple posts advising fellow fans of the trend on how to fulfill these standards on a budget. To their credit, some of these posts end with a note that none of these props are necessary to be a part of the dark academia crowd, but what is dark academia really beyond these signifiers? When I originally saw this trend in 2014, I believe it was significant that it was not known by its current name. Yes it involved many of the same visuals and interests, but to tie them to the word ‘academia’ is a wholly other thing.
Often there is an appeal to a sense of rebellion made by fans of dark academia. The idea of forbidden knowledge and love for learning in Dead Poets Society is drawn upon frequently. But I have to ask, what is rebellious about making thin, upper and middle class, European, consumerist representations of academia? I’m not too sure. Has that not been the standard of academia for centuries? I find one of the best characteristics of dark academia to be the idea that the most important intelligence comes from a place of passion. It does not matter where or whether you went to university, what you look like, or who you know. As long as you have something interesting to say about the poem or song in question, you are, by the standards of some dark academia posts, an academic. Why is this then contradicted by the microscopic view point of what academia looks like as represented by the same people? I think both the aesthetic and the ideology would be better served separately.