First published by Open Democracy 28th August 2015
Pop culture tropes of ‘the girl who isn’t like other girls’ might seem subversive but they reinforce old sexist ideas that women are frivolous and exist for the male gaze.
‘I’m not like other girls. I’m more like one of the guys’. This is my voice. This is me speaking, before I discovered feminism. My hair changes colour every couple of weeks. I prefer writing and reading to applying fake tan, watching Zoella, or spending hours getting ready. I’m different, dammit. I’m not like other girls. How many of us are guilty of uttering those words? The poisonous phrase that immediately degrades other women, whilst elevating and separating us from them.
Who are these ‘other girls’ that we’re so keen to distance ourselves from? Many women might have a couple of the tastes or characteristics we associate with stereotypical femininity, but no woman is in and of herself a stereotype. There’s no such thing uniform ‘femaleness’. The idea that femininity is characterised by weakness or triviality is a patriarchal construct, and ties into the misogynistic belief that women are somehow lesser than their male counterparts.
As women, we grow up in a world where we are already ‘other’. The man, as Simone de Beauvoir wrote in the key feminist text The Second Sex, “represents both the positive and the neutral, as indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general”. Maleness is considered standard in politics, finance, science, sport, and tech. Many music genres are dominated by men. Men are rarely relegated to the status of ‘sexual object’ and don’t have to use their sexuality as a tool to gain traction within various industries.
Pop culture doesn’t often help, mainly due to the fact that the majority of writers, producers, and directors are male. In films, men make up the bulk of action heroes, police officers, gangsters, spies, and ‘neutral’ characters. In games, men are much more likely to be the hero of the story and not a non-playable character with a limited, sexualized function. Men can fulfil a variety of roles, often without being stereotyped or forced to be part of a romantic narrative that’s crowbarred into the story. Women are too often tokenized, still the exception rather than the rule. There is no need to deny the individuality of women and ‘other’ them further by insisting on our difference.
Desperately not wanting to be ‘like other girls’ shows how sneakily patriarchal values can be internalized. It’s a form of sexism that we slip into as easily as a cosy, well-worn coat. In the most part, we don’t attempt to distance ourselves from other women due to a sense of gender dysphoria. We do it because we’ve realised that the prescribed idea of homogenous womanhood doesn’t look like us, and we don’t know how best to articulate this.
The ‘Only Girl’ and other isolating female tropes
The ‘Only Girl’ is very common in popular culture. She’s Evey in V for Vendetta, Marla in Fight Club, and Clarice in Silence of the Lambs. She’s important to the male-dominated plot, but it’s not her story. She represents another way that pop culture ‘others’ women, inserting them into stories as props to facilitate male character development, to be love interests, or to represent ‘all women’.
The stories available to us are crucial in terms of how we navigate the world around us, particularly when we’re young and trying to form an identity separate from our parents and friends. Consuming media that presents women as the ‘Only Girl Surrounded By Boys’, contributes to the I’m Not Like Other Girls or ‘Megan Fox aka Wendy from Peter Pan’ syndrome.
The latter term was coined by Molly Lambert, who describes it as “the delusion that you can become an official part of the boys’ club if you are its strictest enforcer, its most useful prole. That if you follow the rules exactly you can become the Official Woman”. Being the ‘official woman’ or the honorary boys club member often leads to other women being barred from joining the club.
In order to be the exception to the rule and the only woman in the club, you may be compelled to exclude other women to maintain your place. This can manifest itself in the spouting of ‘ironic’ sexist language, ‘rating’ other women because you’re one of the guys, or complaining about how needy and trivial the majority of the female species is. This behaviour is a kind of internalized oppression. It’s a survival tactic for women who realise that they are part of a marginalized group, and take on the discriminatory values of the dominant group to prove their exceptionality.
The ‘Only Girl’ comes in other shapes and forms. She’s also available in models such as the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ and the ‘Cool Girl’. The term ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ was first coined by critic Nathan Rabin in his review of the 2005 film Elizabethtown, when he described the character played by Kirsten Dunst. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is quirky and interesting. She’s not like other girls. She helps the sensitive, moody male protagonist figure out how to enjoy life and fulfil his potential. Unfortunately, as cute and oddball as Zooey Deschanel’s character in (500) Days of Summer might seem, she and other MPDGs like her are completely devoid of an interior life. As Laurie Penny writes in her excellent essay for New Statesman, “instead of a personality, she has eccentricities, a vaguely-offbeat favourite band, a funky fringe”.
It’s important here to mention that MPDGs are characters written by men. They might be vaguely quirky or subversive in terms of their music taste or dress sense, but they’re still seen through the lens of the male gaze. The normal power structure of man as subject, woman as object is still in place here because a male writer has created a shallow, cut-out woman, and she’s a muse rather than a fleshed-out character.
The term ‘Cool Girl’ was popularized by Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl. The Cool Girl, according to protagonist Amy, means being the “hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding”.
In the Guardian, Bim Adewunmi argues that the Cool Girl trope, just like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, doesn’t describe a whole person. “She is a collection of attributes, a list of someone’s favourite things. Womanhood is a broad church; call us legion, for we are many. The real issue is that we are still being boxed into narrow definitions of what we can be.” Although Gone Girl has a female author, the ‘Cool Girl’ described is a part that Amy Dunne plays to put the men in her life at ease. She is as unreal as the MPDG, but unlike many Manic Pixies, Amy’s performance unravels within the story and reveals the lie that is her ‘Cool Girl’ persona.
The decline of sisterhood?
It sounds a bit cheesy to talk about ‘sisterhood’ in 2015, and the notion that all women should be friends and love one another is both cringeworthy and unrealistic. However, the concept of solidarity remains important when it comes to fighting patriarchy.
In the 1970s, Conservatives were pretty frightened of female solidarity because they figured it could result in the mobilization of half the human race.
Unfortunately, despite the current mainstream status of feminism, we don’t seem to be very close to mobilizing half of humanity. This could be because we’ve become increasingly individualistic, particularly in Western nations. Thatcherism might be a distant memory to many of us, but her ethos of individualism and free market capitalism has forever altered the political landscape in Britain. She hacked away at the post-war consensus, dug chunks out of the welfare state, and promoted the idea that people should care about themselves and their family units at the expense of all others.
Thatcher is a striking example of a woman who rose above the glass ceiling, but kept it in place for others. She was a pioneer, but not a feminist. She climbed up the ladder, only to set it on fire afterwards so her female peers could not clamber up. In eleven years, she avoided female-friendly policies, promoted only one woman to her cabinet, and demonstrated an “utter lack of interest in childcare provision or positive action”.
Have capitalism and individualism co-opted feminism and made it more about ‘equality for me’ than ‘equality for everyone’? The ‘I’m alright Jack’ Thatcherite approach might allow some women (mostly white, wealthy, straight and cisgender) to get to the top and imagine sexism as something that happens to other people, but it does nothing for women who suffer most at the hands of the patriarchy. If your feminism doesn’t include women of colour, working class women, disabled women, trans women, queer women, and sex workers, it isn’t a feminism worth having.
Taylor Swift recently described herself as a feminist, and yet the sum of her feminism appears to be inviting a white parade of shiny famous friends onstage with her. It’s the perfect meeting of feminism and capitalism. As Dayna Evans wrote for Gawker: “Swift isn’t here to help women—she’s here to make bank. Seeing her on stage cavorting with World Cup winners and supermodels was not a win for feminism, but a win for Taylor Swift. Her plan—to be as famous and as rich as she can possibly be—is working, and by using other women as tools of her self-promotion, she is distilling feminism for her own benefit.”
When Nicki Minaj called out the VMAs for failing to properly recognize and celebrate black artists, Swift accused Minaj of ‘pitting women against each other’. This is ‘individualistic feminism’ at its most obvious, even while dressing it up in the language of solidarity. Swift failed to listen to a woman of colour’s experience of racism (basic intersectionality), and imagined that Minaj’s concerns were directed at her (‘it’s all about me’).
If we are committed to combating the patriarchy in all its forms, we need to address the bits that we internalize. This means giving up the idea that we’re ‘not like other girls’ or ‘more like one of the guys’. All women are individuals, so there really is enough difference and quirk to go around. It means seeing through idealistic female tropes in pop culture, largely created by men. It means really supporting other women and adopting a feminism that’s inclusive and intersectional, and not merely championing friends or fellow wealthy, white women a la Taylor Swift.