Lobotomy memes and beauty trends continue to proliferate online thanks to the rise of ironic, nihilistic feminism, but the real history of the procedure is much darker – so why can’t we look away?
In 1946, Walter Freeman performed his first ice pick lobotomy on a 29-year-old housewife from Washington DC, who was suffering from severe depression. As a major advocate for the procedure, Freeman would soon be performing more than 20 lobotomies in a single day. His youngest patient was just 12-years-old. One might wonder what Freeman would make of the way we talk about lobotomies today. The cultural perception of this invasive procedure has been flattened, sanitised and aestheticised, becoming more associated with the frail femininity of The Stepford Wives, The Bell Jar or Chloe Cherry’s wide-eyed dissociative pout than with the true horrors of psychiatric abuse that so many were subjected to during the last century.
A lobotomy is a type of brain surgery that became popular in the 1930s which involved severing the connection between the frontal lobe and the other parts of the brain. It was performed on thousands of people with mental health conditions like schizophrenia and depression before falling into disrepute in the late 1950s. It was also performed disproportionately on women. “Effective lobotomy would lower inhibition,” explains Andrew Scull, sociologist and author of Desperate Remedies: Psychiatry’s Turbulent Quest to Cure Mental Illness. “People would often become lazy and more passive which could be interpreted by some as an improvement, but it was adding a different kind of mental deficit to their pre-existing illness.”
If you’ve spent much time online over the past year or so, you will have likely stumbled upon phrases like, “Live laugh lobotomy”, “I got a lobotomy at Claire’s” or “Get in losers, we’re getting a lobotomy.” The hashtag #lobotomy has 467m views on TikTok while #lobotomychic has 9.7m. “I wish it was 1952 so my husband could just take me to get a lobotomy,” reads one viral tweet. “i don’t want to be a girlboss anymore, i want to take pictures of the cows while my husband drives me to my lobotomy,” reads another popular post. TikTokers show off their lobotomy tattoos featuring medical tools or graphic images of ice picks going behind the eye or up the nose and into the brain. Lobotomies have slipped into cultural parlance, reflecting the rise of ironic, nihilistic feminism that has helped propel the trend alongside the rise of bimbo and coquette aesthetics.
A key element of the obsession is its aesthetic element. The dead-eyed lobotomy chic look, in which the subject puts on a blank stare and disaffected pout, has become a go-to Insta pose for everyone from Billie Eilish to lobotomy chic posters girls Chloe Cherry and Gabriette. The pose is often accompanied by messy minimal make-up, preppy clothes and ironic Catholic symbolism all captured in close-up selfies or using digital cameras with the flash on. The aesthetic has become shorthand for meta-irony, nihilism and detachment. It’s coded as cool and sexy as long as those embodying it look like they’re too detached to care about being either.
Like heroin chic before it, lobotomy chic turns a numbed emotional state into a disaffected beauty trend, romanticising mental illness through aesthetics. It’s an expression of apathy in the face of an increasingly uncontrollable world. In her viral essay “The Smartest Women I Know Are All Disassociating,” Emmeline Clein argues that performing extreme levels of detachment is a way to cope with modern life and living in a patriarchal society. Lobotomy is shorthand for emotional indifference, which seems like a useful tool to deploy if you often feel in a state of despair.
The lobotomy obsession is part of a wider cultural nostalgia that romanticises psychiatric remedies of the past while ignoring their context and negative side-effects. “The worst thing about depression is knowing that 150 years ago my treatment would have been vibrators and heroin,” reads one widely circulated tweet. “If we must suffer through These Trying Times then we need to re-normalise fainting chaises and parasols and convalescing by the seaside,” says another.
i don't want to be a girlboss anymore, i want to take pictures of the cows while my husband drives me to my lobotomy— pictoria vark (@pictoriavark) June 29, 2021
“The culmination of recent events like the pandemic, and the current state of politics and the economy have left many individuals feeling like they have had enough,” says Umair Akram, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Lincoln who has researched how memes might serve as a coping mechanism for people experiencing symptoms of mental illness. “With that in mind, the lobotomy would be the ultimate opiate. The obsession lies under the premise of reduced tension, increased apathy and lethargy, an almost sedated feeling which is easy to romanticise and perhaps crave in current times.”
It is estimated that more than two thirds of lobotomies were conducted on women. Scull explains how, “there was a sense that women’s brains didn’t matter as much as men’s. Walter Freeman argued that women could go back to being housewives and a decorative feature around the house. It wasn’t as demanding a job, in his opinion, as men who had to go out into the workforce.” Lobotomies were used to control women who were seen as being ‘too much’ and they were given much less leeway than their male counterparts who might have behaved in the same way. For example, in 1941, JFK’s father Joseph Kennedy Sr arranged a lobotomy for his 23-year-old daughter Rosemary in an effort to “cure” her erratic and rebellious behaviour which he thought could cause embarrassment and scandal for the family. It left Rosemary with the capabilities of a two-year-old, she was permanently incapacitated and unable to walk or speak intelligibly.
It was a time when women were expected to be “calm, cooperative and attentive to domestic affairs” so it’s unsurprising that a surgery that “rendered female patients docile and compliant, but well enough to return to and care for their homes,” became so popular. Queer women, too, were sent for lobotomies to ‘cure’ their sexuality. “I think women who acted out or misbehaved were seen in much more hostile terms than their male equivalents,” Scull continues, “even though men were often more physically threatening.” People of colour were targeted, too: in the late 60s or early 70s, several physicians were awarded a grant from the government to explore doing lobotomies, which they performed on Black prisoners whose politics they did not like. Similarly, Black boys as young as six with “behavioural problems” were given lobotomies in Mississippi by Dr Orlando J. Andy.
The romanticisation of lobotomies is often tied to privilege. The lens through which we view them focuses predominantly on how they affected white middle-class housewives. Online depictions of empty-headed housewives and disaffected pouts largely erase this part of the history and ignores how lobotomies were weaponised against LGBTQ+ people and people of colour as a tool to violently enact homophobic and racist ideologies.
While joking about lobotomies might seem like a fairly harmless trend, it’s coinciding with a troubling rise of trad wife idealism that glamorises women not being able to make their own decisions – #tradwife currently has 223m views on TikTok. Not having to think for yourself or make your own decisions can sometimes seem liberating in theory, but returning to a time when women couldn’t open bank accounts by themselves or order a drink at the bar without a male companion is not something to idealise, particularly when women in many states in the US are having their reproductive rights taken away thanks to the rollback of Roe v Wade, or when women in Iran are being killed for protesting the country’s morality laws.
As long as the feelings of powerlessness felt by many young women today continue, however, so will the daydreaming about lobotomies or Valium prescriptions or convalescing by the sea with vibrators and heroin, says digital culture expert James Cohen. “This meme isn’t going anywhere,” he concludes, “unless we make positive systemic changes that show young women they have power and agency in their waking, non-lobotomised lives.”