Why a Sub-genre about Privilege has such a Cult Minority Following
Dark Academia isn’t new, in fact, it’s centuries old. The genre is predicated on a few things, it involves a school setting (usually college or private in nature), a group of friends, and extremely dark themes such as murder, violence, deceit, suicide, etc… Many Greek tragedies are considered Dark Academia simply because they usually take place in a scholarly setting and examine deep, philosophical questions about nature, humankind, and more. Historically, these themes have only been examined, for the most part, by white males, particularly of European or Anglo-Saxon descent. So why, then, does this genre currently have such a cult following of minorities?
Here are my thoughts on the matter as a queer woman:
Evil isn’t personified but still recognizable
In a lot of other genres a finger can be pointed directly at the thing or person who is evil. It’s a dark force of nature or a malicious deity or a wizard bent on destruction. In Dark Academia, often times, there is no point blank evil force, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t evil. In Dark Academia, evil resides in the people and things we recognize all too clearly, the young college boys who harass and demean women but never face consequences for it, the institution that turns a blind eye to evil acts because it benefits from them. Dark Academia gives us the opportunity to explore those lives we often love to hate. The rich, the elite, the tone deaf, the only difference is, most of the time the evil characters are bookended by characters we HOPE exist in these places, working against the system they were born into. Darlington from Ninth House is a perfect example of this.
Characters face consequences for their actions outside of the law
While the evil is identifiable that doesn’t mean Dark Academia is black and white. Often times characters will act against other characters who have done evil or malicious things in a way that is also evil or malicious, taking the, somewhat, twisted, role of a vigilante. I find this particular plot point so interesting to read because, as minorities, we tend to know that there isn’t much the law will do to help us. Rape kits sit untested in evidence rooms for decades, reports of harassment go undocumented, the list goes on and on. Dark Academia gives us a place to see those privileged, maligned characters get their “just desserts”, even if the revenge is just as morally repugnant. An example of this would be The Secret History by Donna Tartt and also Alex Stern’s revenge blackmail of a college frat boy who raped her friend in Ninth House.
Heavily implied homoerotic subtext
One of the thematic elements that you can find in almost all Dark Academia is homoerotic subtext. Historically there aren’t usually “out” gay characters or gay relationships, but because MOST of the characters tend to be men, there is a lot of subtext and interpretation that could be construed as homosexual in nature. In recent decades, however, that has started to change and writers have begun to include actual LGBTQ+ characters, for instance Ronan and Adam in The Raven Cycle series. But older examples like The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dead Poets Society just heavily imply it.
It’s fun to hate characters sometimes
I don’t always need to like a character and support all their decisions for me to recognize that they are a good (ie well written) character. Sometimes it’s fun to hate characters and watch their actions like an on-going trainwreck. I know this a matter of preference but I think it also really lends itself to why Dark Academia has such a cult following. The characters inspire such strong emotion, it’s hard not to want to talk about it with other people and discuss what happened. If there’s one criticism I see from people who don’t like Dark Academia it’s that none of the characters are likable and I have to say, I just don’t understand that. A character doesn’t have to be likable for me to like them as a character, in fact, them being wholly unlikable usually makes it more exciting.
Dark Academia Recommendations
Interested in trying out the genre? I have a few books listed below that I have personally read that I’ve ranked from “easiest” to “hardest” in terms of how difficult they can be to get into if you’re new to the genre. This is by no means an exhaustive list as it only includes books I’ve read, but I highly recommend all of these.
- The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater
- Vicious – V.E. Schwab
- A Great and Terrible Beauty – Libba Bray
- Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo
- Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
- Hamlet – William Shakespeare
- The Secret History – Donna Tartt
- The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
- Frankenstein – Mary Shelley