Emily the Strange

It was the mid-2000s, I was entering my tween moment, and the internet was populated mostly with websites that looked like this one. I spent a lot of time at home, being trapped in the suburbs and riddled with undiagnosed autism, so it was inevitable that I'd start exploring the internet's possibilities beyond cereal-based flash games and roleplaying on the neopets forums. I don't know where I discovered goth - as far as I can remember I've just always loved spooky stuff - but realising that I could google it and find tons of goth media (for free!) was game-changer. One of my favourite finds - a website I spent many hours at my mum's computer desk browsing - was the official Emily the Strange site.

For those who are unfamiliar, Emily the Strange is a fictional character whose monochrome visage has graced just about every kind of merch you can imagine. She's described as a 13 year old misanthrope who lives with four black cats, and beyond being illustrated with a guitar or a skateboard and saying very daring things like Get lost! and I want YOU to leave me alone!, there isn't much else to her. The cold hard truth is that emilystrange.com was just an online shop, and Emily herself was a character created to sell (quite ugly, looking at what remains of it now on eBay) mass produced crap to edgy teens. This was, after all, Mall Goth's big moment; almost every mall in north america had a Hot Topic or one of its knockoffs (the ones I knew were Amnesia and Arsenic). What had started as a DIY counterculture in the late 70s had evolved into something hugely profitable.

To me at the time, though, the website was an alternate world to escape into after school - a dark labyrinth with cool new shit around every corner, curated by a relatable (if narcissistic - her name was on everything!) older girl. Even by the standards of flash websites, which commonly had unique layouts, chat forums, and games, it was an exceptionally lush ecosystem of images and links, media players and secret pages. It did, of course, have a forum (which I lurked on as halloweenkitty13) and a few simple games, but there were also mp3 mixtapes to listen to, interviews and articles to read, contests to enter. It helped that the illustrations on the website and merch were all jagged and monochromatic, and Emily herself was quite easy to draw; when I wasn't begging my mum to buy the real deal for me, I would make knockoff Emily gear and art with sharpies. The mysterious persons who ran the website even encouraged sending in photos of fan art, which I guess is pretty cool for masters of an elaborate and devious marketing scheme.

It never struck me as odd that I and the website's other frequent users were fans of a character who had no real narrative (until the creatively stale Gorey-esque novels and comic books were published - which, to my GREAT chagrin, I didn't have access to). Hell, it never even occurred to me that I was being very successfully advertised to. To 11 year old me, Emily was just another Lydia Deetz or Wednesday Addams (Christina Ricci ed.) - the breed of character that Emily was, in retrospect, obviously (and lazily) modelled on. Although according to the Emily the Strange wikipedia page, her purported creator, California skateboard guy Rob Reger, didn't even do all of the lazy modelling! Cosmic Debris (the parent company) was sued by the authors of a children's book series from the '70s for ripping Emily directly from one of their pages. The lawsuit was ultimately dropped but the evidence is pretty damning.

Is it disappointing to learn that a character I fixated on so hard as a pre-teen was just a money-printing device that Some Guy filed the serial number off of? As every autistic person likely knows, a subject doesn't need to be original or even good to be worthy of fixation; it just has to scratch an itch. I had pretty much no control over the physical and social environments I lived in, so finding a soothing virtual environment I could explore on my own, where it was cool to be alone and dissatisfied with life, was almost therapeutic. Emily's openly rebellious and anti-authoritarian attitude was superficial - trite lines written by adults to be marketable to teens - but my own obnoxious anti-conformism wasn't.

Earlier this month I celebrated my 29th birthday, and I wore my old Emily the Strange charm necklace, which I was delighted to find only the day before, out to party. It felt a bit like celebrating with that version of myself - the cringey kid doing the best they could with what was available to them, despite all of the confusion and shame. I wish I could tell them that they were way cooler than any fictional goth girl idol for that. And then I'd tell them about thrift stores, and how to mix dollar store acrylic paint with fabric medium to make cheap fabric paint. All the other important stuff would come up at some point or other too, I imagine.