In which I join in the killing of a trope
Happy March, all! It’s been a couple weeks. I’d intended to acknowledge Leap Day in any number of ways (insert Pirates of Penzance reference); but Nature had other plans, namely laying me up in bed with a cold.
Now that I’m back up and running, allow me to dwell for a moment on women. We’ve been on my mind a lot lately—not only because today is International Women’s Day, and not only my mind. Between election-cycle drama and the categories of female characters I handle in my job, I’ve had to recognize and reconsider the roles women play in life…and particularly in media.
Women in media, particularly film, have spent much of their lives being molded by male fantasies. The idea of the “cool girl,” named and lacerated by Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl, has long been a staple of male-centric stories: a woman who performs interests and activities traditionally associated with masculinity while presenting as conventionally feminine (and attractive) in appearance. This trope reached its cringeworthy apex in the late ’90s and early ’00s, and, although it still took another decade to be explicitly diagnosed (Gone Girl was published in 2012), I’ve noticed a nice decline in the depiction of this particular stock character since then. On the other hand, the “manic pixie dream girl,” named by film critic Nathan Rabin almost a decade and a half ago now—the quirky, again conventionally attractive girl who inspires a pseudo-depressed, pseudo-intellectual male protagonist to LET GO and ENJOY LIFE a little more spontaneously—seems to be maintaining her grip on the cultural consciousness through YA fiction, especially in the rash of Netflix originals (or novel adaptations) we’ve seen over the past few years.
Whatever distinguishing feature the main girl of these stories possesses, the category from which she is distinguished is always “the other girls.” She’s not like them.
Have you ever stopped to think about what that phrase means? You won’t get far. It’s a minefield of dichotomies. Does it refer to a woman who’s down to party when “the other girls” aren’t? A woman who isn’t interested in partying when “the other girls” are? A woman who wants to learn things for herself? A woman who doesn’t want to be an overachiever? A woman who eats hamburgers and drinks beer and stays Hollywood-thin? A woman who is vegan and turns her apartment into a greenhouse full of succulents? A woman who is flexible enough to go with trends or a woman who is free-spirited enough to reject them????
Despite the holes this idea (and it is an unattainable idea) presents, many girls grow up trying to master it, trying to become it. Then, amidst the other disillusionments of adulthood, they have to unlearn it. I think I unwittingly bought into it until the latter portion of college. Did I want to fit in, or did I want to stand out? And whom exactly did I want to notice me for it? Whose approval was I seeking?
The films and books which support this trope would have us believe that we want men to notice us and approve of us, and that men’s attention and approval will finally make us whole. Not only does this exclude and invalidate a whole spectrum of gender identification and sexual orientation, it isn’t even true. At least not in my experience.
Guys have called me “cool.” I recall the circumstances. And although the guys I’m thinking of were kind people who meant it in a kind spirit, it didn’t get me anywhere. I took it as a compliment because I’d been conditioned to. But for all the status it was supposed to confer, it didn’t unlock the relationships I wanted, nor did it fulfill me the way I had imagined it would. In fact, it only threw into starker relief whatever insecurity and loneliness I was grappling with and left me all the hungrier to be truly understood.
Such understanding and companionship I’ve found, both retrospectively in the long term and specifically in my postgrad life, in—you guessed it—women. I’m thankful to have formed close relationships with many women: some related by blood, some from childhood, some from quite recently, some contemporary, some much older. Whether I see them every day, or every week, or talk to them once a year when we happen to be in the same place, or pick up right where I left off with them even though we haven’t seen each other in multiple years, my life has been infinitely enriched by their communal presence. I hate to imagine what would have happened if the “other girls” mentality had infiltrated our worldviews to a point where we regarded one another as rivals rather than supporters. After all, someone is only an “other” until you take the time to talk to them.
In short, there’s no such thing as “the other girls.” No girl I’ve met is like any other girl I’ve met. We all make our unique contributions. And we’re all better off when we choose to contribute to one another’s lives. The sooner women, men, and others get on the same page about this, the sooner we can start representing the values we deserve in the media we love.
(Of course, I adopt the same attitude toward the men I know, and I’ve reaped some fruitful relationships that way as well. But there’s a Women’s Day for a reason!)
Image: me, gazing at the Arno near the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, February 2011, much like every other girl who has been there