If you need a primer on dark academia—which I only briefly explain—I suggest watching Rowan Ellis's video essay on the internet aesthetic. She talks about the aesthetic as a whole and also some of the glaring problems with it!
Why do gay people love dark academia?
Dark Academia 101
Dark academia is an aesthetic, but also a lifestyle, which to my knowledge first cropped up on Tumblr and has turned into a TikTok phenomenon. A brief dive into the history of dark academia will tell you that it's said to have started with Donna Tartt's The Secret History, sometimes referred to as the dark academia Bible—and also my favorite book. Now, it encompasses a wide range of things, touching every part of a person's life from vintage sweaters and specially curated classical music playlists on Spotify to annotating vintage books with a fountain pen and watching Dead Poets Society through a projector pointed at a sheet on the wall. It's makeshift and ornate, beautiful and harrowing—an idealized version of life focused on intellectual pursuits.
At the height of dark academia, a number of film and TV outlets curated watchlists and guides to the aesthetic on screen. There's also this Letterboxd list to track your progress through the genre (as of writing I've seen 13 of the 58 films). All of these lists seem to recommend an unofficial canon: Another Country, Maurice, Madchen in Uniform, The Children's Hour. These films are not just dripping in the dark academia aesthetic, they're unapologetically queer. Other dark academia films may not be overtly queer, but do have queer subtext like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Suspiria (2018).
Dark academia doesn’t have to be queer, and yet so many of people who know and love the aesthestic, who are deeply ingrained and committed to living out the aesthetic however they can, are queer themeselves. In more recent news, author Victoria Lee (who is queer) released a dark academia novel, which she wrote to share her love of the aesthetic. Queer folks are often the ones submerging themselves in aesthetic; dark academia cousin "cottagecore" has been claimed by the lesbians. Taylor Swift's releases Folklore and later Evermore, both of which have been looked at as cottagecore offerings, led to even further speculation on Swift’s sexuality.
This ideal—a fantastical other universe—is appealing in many ways, especially in the throes of an ever present pandemic and the multitude of injustices in the world. Dark academia is also distinctly historic. The aesthetic is decorated with lit candles and old, dusty libraries. It’s an idealized world and time where things are much simpler—but that’s just not true. All the films I listed in the dark academia “canon” are set in the past, far enough back that being out wasn’t an option. The films, each in their own way, show queer joy captured in small bubbles, a rigid boundary to what is allowed to be expressed publicly—and on screen.
The role of institution
Maurice, written and directed by James Ivory, is based on EM Forster's novel which was published posthumously. The film follows the relationship between Maurice (James Wilby) and Clive (Hugh Grant), who begin a relationship while university students and must learn to navigate both their romance and adulthood in Edwardian England. Clive chooses to reject his love for Maurice and marries a woman, whereas Maurice chooses to live as queer man, despite the oppression he faces at the time. In going through the stages of adulthood, Maurice understands the expansive opportunity and freedom of youth and the restriction and responsibility that comes with adulthood. Though considered a dark academia film, the story leaves the academic institution by its mid-point. Instead, the "institution" becomes these closely guarded secrets that Clive and Maurice share.
There are some other films, of course, that are considered dark (or light or romantic) academia and aren’t attached to an academic institution, like the aforementioned Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Still, though, Portrait takes place in an enclosed space with few external factors. It’s like living on a college campus, a small world with a singular focus. The seduction of dark academia is its insistence on living out a particular cycle of life, the juxtaposition of safety and liberation. Dark academia is often stuck in the kind of youthfulness where the parameters of regular life don’t exist, so actions are large, expansive, and risky. So many dark academia stories hold secrets locked in vaults, these same secrets holding the characters together.
Maybe then, the open-armed welcome of dark academia in queer communities is the joy of living out this safety. In many ways, rules don’t matter; these small communities provide protection from the outside world, allowing people to pursue their wildest dreams, take risks, and not face the discrimination or consequences of queerness in the public eye.
Screen Break: Ace of Spades
by Kati Bowden
Today, we're looking at one of the most acclaimed Dark Academia Young Adult titles of 2021, Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé. With complex discussions of race, class, queerness, and the hegemony of Academia as a whole, Àbíké-Íyímídé's debut novel is a wildfire story of anger, drama, and danger, and is perfect for readers of any age.
Set at the prestigious Niveus Private Academy, we follow both queen bee Chiamaka and scholarship musician Devon. These two have very little in common, save for two things: Both Chia and Devon have been selected as class prefects this school year, and both students are Black. They are, in fact, the only Black students at Niveus. This seems like a non-issue for Chiamaka, who has built herself a space at the top of the social pyramid, thanks to her family's money and her back-biting, competitive nature. And while Devon is acutely aware of the racial inequality of his school--his neighborhood is almost exclusively Black, almost exclusively poor--he's too focused on keeping his scholarship to philosophize on racial inequality in his school.
But almost as soon as Chiamaka and Devon are granted their prefect positions, they become targets. Someone nicknamed "Aces" is sending mass texts to the entire student body of Niveus, and their first targets are our narrators. First Aces outs Devon to the whole school, then Chiamaka gets framed for petty theft, and it only gets more intense from there. What seemed like coincidence quickly exposes itself as deep-rooted racism. Chia and Devon are being singled out as Niv
At first, it seems like a coincidence that Chia and Devon are Aces' favorite targets. Then the attacks get a little more pointed. It becomes clear that, no matter what anyone around them says, Chia and Devon are being singled out because they are Black, and, unbeknownst to most of the school, both are queer. There's an evil plot that keeps Niveus alive, one that repeats itself every generation, and the racism inherent in its procedures means that Chia and Devon could be dead before winter break.
I loved Ace of Spades for many reasons—there were critiques of classism and race that Dark Academia often lacks, ones that are necessary if the genre wants to thrive and continue. That being said, I've had friends suggest that the critique didn't go far enough for their liking, and that they wished that Àbíké-Íyímídé could have approached the story from a more nuanced point of view than she did. But that's the joy of Young Adult novels: We don't expect teens to have things figured out, especially subjects as nuanced and complex as race and privilege. While two Black teens will undoubtedly be aware of the impact of racism in their lives, there are structures so deeply built into every facet of America, especially academia, that take years of study to begin to deconstruct.
Ace of Spades struck a lot of chords with me that most Dark Academia fails to reach, especially Young Adult Dark Academia. While it isn't dripping with candles and stuffed with dusty tomes like many of its peers, it twists the modernity of high-class education so that its darkest secrets become its open face. I can't wait to see what else Àbíké-Íyímídé has for her readers.
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Interested in writing for an upcoming issue? There's still time to pitch for issue no.13!
no. 13: Lacey Chabert is the Queen of Christmas
Release Date: December 2, 2021
Lacey Chabert made a name for herself as everyone's favorite mean girl and now is America's brunette sweetheart on the Hallmark Channel. It's the holiday season...and Ms. Chabert is with us through it all. For issue no. 13, we’re accepting pitches on the teen star to Hallmark star pipeline, high powered executive women & smalltown craft-making guys, the Christmas Industrial complex, why we love Hallmark Christmas movies, and the Vanessa Hudgens Christmas Cinematic Universe.
Pitch Sydney (firstname.lastname@example.org) by Monday, November 22.
Essay due Monday, November 29.