As I recently read S. Jae-Jones’s YA novel Wintersong, I noticed something troubling. The book seemed designed to appeal to me: it was a fantasy romance with strong (really strong) inspiration from both the movie Labyrinth and my favorite poem, Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market. However, something about Liesl, the main character, bugged me, and it took me a while to figure it out. Not because it wasn’t obvious, but because I thought that, in this, the Year of Our Lord 2017, we had done away with the “not like other girls” trope.
It’s a tale as old as time: a girl who’s just ~not like~ the other girls around her, against all odds, wins the day. These stories are appealing to us because these girls are framed as the outcasts; we can relate to their being bookish or plain or unpopular. But a problem that uniquely affects the female characters who fit these roles is that they often succeed or achieve victory at the expense of other women and girls, or by denigrating traditional femininity (or both). Liesl is an on-the-nose example of this trope: she is terribly jealous of her sister’s physical beauty, a trait Liesl lacks and constantly laments. Liesl is a genius composer, but her skills are downplayed or overlooked because of her gender. Meanwhile, it feels like her gorgeous sister is set up to be resented, as she at least can win men’s attention with her looks.
However, when offered a beautiful fae gown by the servants of the Goblin King, Liesl instead chooses a plain dress, and this is played like Indiana Jones correctly picking the right Holy Grail. But instead of just rejecting the wealth and majesty of the other dresses, it reads as though Liesl is casting a value judgment on the majority of the other women in the book, who did choose to wear frills and finery.
This is just the latest example of this issue, rather than the only one. Pop culture has a long and varied history of celebrating these not-like-other-girls, from formative Disney flicks all the way up to watch-at-your-own-risk premium television like Game of Thrones. These portrayals enforce a terrible message: that there’s only one right way to be a girl, and that it’s totally acceptable to tear down other girls who don’t meet those standards.
The obvious Disney go-to girl is Beauty and the Beast’s Belle. We’re literally introduced to her in a song where we’re repetitively told by the villagers that “She’s nothing like the rest of us” and where we see what the movie considers to be an average, like-other-girls girl, in triplet-icate. These other women are not as good as Belle, because they put far more stock into their appearance, care about male attention, appear more sexually available (see: their significant cleavage), and don’t like to read. Belle is just as beautiful if not more, because her beauty is ‘natural’ and unaugmented; she wears demure, sensible clothing, and rejects talk of real boys in favor of books filled with Prince Charmings. And it’s not enough that the other girls are looked down on by the narrative for being not like Belle; Belle is valorized by the narrative for being not like them, since she gets a happy ending and they don’t even get an ending, period. The story underlines the pervasive cultural idea that there’s only one right way to be a woman, and Belle is it. The other girls are just there for low-hanging-fruit comedic value: laugh at these women because they’re blinded by Gaston’s good looks and can’t see that his personality is garbage. It’s especially gross when you consider that Belle’s only 17, and if these are her peers (similarly young-enough-to-be-unmarried-in-pre-Revolutionary-France), then this hate is being directed not at adult women but at teenage girls.
But this isn’t just a problem in kids’ media. One need only look as far as the prevalence of Arya fans who are also Sansa haters in the Game of Thrones fandom to see that these concepts have been internalized over the course of growing up. Arya fulfills the desires of those of us who were glutted on singing princess stories as children and desired more action-centered heroines. There’s nothing wrong with being excited to have a female character who feels like a closer representation of you. However, it doesn’t take a three-eyed crow to see that the way the fan favorites break down in this fandom are prone to the same sexist trope.
Sansa is hated not for what she is, but for what she is not: she is not a warrior, she never wields a sword nor spurns her feminine trappings. Because she presents herself in such a traditionally feminine way, loving dresses and pretty things, dreaming of a handsome prince to ask for her hand, she is scorned, and these aspects of her personality are deemed incompatible with an ability to successfully navigate, play, and survive the game of thrones. Arya, meanwhile, is celebrated for her bloodthirstiness, for her eagerness to shuck off the decorations of girlishness in favor of sturdy boots and a blade. She very clearly doesn’t have the skills to rise to the top of a poisonous social situation in court, or to manipulate a desired outcome based on someone else’s misconceptions of her feminine ‘weakness’, but she remains more universally beloved than Sansa because of her embrace of traditionally mannish behavior and looks. Note here that I’m talking about the show specifically, but this belief holds true across both the show and the A Song of Ice and Fire books, where both Arya and Sansa are much more richly characterized and sympathetic figures. In the fandoms of both book and show, we’ve taken the lesson from formative movies like Beauty and the Beast that there’s only one right way to be a woman and applied it to these women as well, as there’s a clear theme of internalized misogyny in discussions of Sansa that is not present in discussions of Arya.
In a vacuum, there’s nothing wrong with being Belle or Arya or Liesl, or identifying with the way their differences aren’t accepted by their peers. But when their character type leaves the realm of ‘every once in a while’ and veers into tired repetition, it begins to send a deeply unpleasant message. As I mentioned above, the problem inherent in these portrayals is that these not-like-other-girls women are celebrated not for their own achievements or personalities or desires objectively, but for how those things are perceived in comparison to the so-called “lesser” achievements, personalities, and desires of women who fit more traditional standards. It turns womanhood into a competition for last place, in which every woman is pitted against each other in a “she wears short skirts, I wear t-shirts” race to the bottom.
It isn’t a totally lost cause, though. For the younger crowd, there are movies like Mulan, which show a girl rejecting her femininity only to realize how useful her traditionally girly skills (like makeup as subterfuge, or fluttering a fan to distract during swordplay) can be. For the older folks, there’s Agent Carter, a masterclass in the way traditional femininity can be weaponized without losing its womanliness. Furthermore, Agent Carter (as well as other shows like Steven Universe, movies like Wonder Woman, and comics from Lumberjanes to Bitch Planet) also underscore the importance of lady types from all backgrounds and of all kinds working together and being friends. Lumberjanes in particular is great about this – by showing us the many different ways a person can be a girl, whether that’s rowdy, competitive, science-minded, beauty-conscious, or anything else, it reminds us that no girl is like other girls, because there’s no one right way to be a girl and women are not a monolith. And even more importantly, it goes a step further and emphasizes that sometimes it’s only by working together with women of a variety of skill sets from across the gender-coded spectrum that challenges can be overcome. Media like these reject the idea that there’s only one kind of way to be a girl, and give me hope that we’ll stop with the slut-shamey, femme-shamey, and all-around gross double standard of the not-like-other-girls trope; if not now, then someday soon.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!