In which I set something straight
It came to my attention during a family phone conversation that I have misinterpreted the “girl next door” trope for most of my life. This stock character often appears in visual media as the primary love interest or counterpart (apparently) to the boy next door to her. The premise being that the narrative belongs to the boy, and she is a part of it, if not an entire objective unto herself.
That tracks, right? That computes, despite being problematic? Well, I always interpreted it to mean the girl who is “next door” to another girl, providing the quirky diametrical opposition to the standard beautiful ingénue. There’s the girl whom you expect to be the protagonist, to garner our sympathies, to win the day; and then there’s this chick whom, if you like her, you like for her individuality or noncompliance. Example: in Mean Girls, I was calling Janis Ian the girl next door while the rest of the world must have been applying the term to Cady Heron.
To all my K-12 classmates who considered me a Smart Kid, now you know the truth.
Anyway, this interpretation was influenced in part by Saving Jane’s 2005 song “Girl Next Door.” It’s narrated by an insecure, out-of-place teenager who admits to resenting her popular, well-adjusted classmate. She frets for one (1) line over the possibility of losing her own boyfriend to this classmate, otherwise simply ruminating on the girls’ general lifestyle-based rivalry. Though it’s a one-sided rivalry, as there isn’t much of a comparison:
She’s the prom queen, I’m in the marching band
She’s a cheerleader, I’m sitting in the stands
She gets the top bunk, I’m sleeping on the floor
She’s Miss America
And I’m just the girl next door
A clear precursor to Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me” except that the desire centers on social currency, status, and self-assurance, rather than boys.
I’m pretty sure I had this female-relationship-centric idea of the trope before hearing the song, but it did a lot to reinforce it. Because, honestly, romance wasn’t on my mind until (I suspect) relatively late in the game among my peers; that goes for both crushes and actual serious involvements. I was still too busy getting comfortable in that peer group, still too busy trying to make friends. I was on level one for a long time. As we progressed through school, I identified groups of girls with whom I wanted to be in, girls who represented the safety-in-numbers surety and cool that I craved for myself. It made sense to me that the world was theirs to take or leave, to shape how they thought it should be, and that I was othered, apart, “next door”—sometimes literally shunted to the side. They were the heroines. I was…TBD.
Not that I thought of the situation in quite those terms until one afternoon when I was twelve, in a theatre program where a small cohort of us (all girls) played a typecasting game. One girl would walk in as if to an audition, and the rest would act as a casting team, blurting out knee-jerk reactions to the types of roles we saw her in. Of course, it wasn’t entirely blind, as we had worked together for a while—some of us for several consecutive years—and had previous perceptions of one another’s abilities and histories. Still, appearance-based as it was, it was kind of a twisted activity.
When I got up there, the ideas volleyed at me were consistent with what these people knew of me. Bookish. The brain of the group. The one who figures things out. And then: A sort of…girl next door.
I don’t know how they defined it. My self-doubt and self-deprecation took the sum total to mean not the girl we’re all rooting for. Ironically, I already had—and have since—played my share of protagonists, people at the heart of the stories being told. It should have sunk in that the character need not be a doe-eyed, short-skirted/high-heeled Mary Sue for the world to be hers.
For some reason, it had not sunk in yet. Only later, much later, would I come to understand what that twisted little exercise revealed about the girl next door. She is no less a heroine than her clean-cut-nice-smile alternate. Just a different kind of heroine. And I was living proof, both off- and onstage. Plenty of protagonists, not one ingénue. Never the girl who is led or coerced into danger. Always the girl (or, often, woman) reacting to trauma, repairing damage, rebuilding a life. Hell, my first role was a widowed mid-nineteenth-century schoolteacher relocating to a foreign court where even a modicum of respect is hard-won. And that was at the ripe old age of nine.
A few more cases I’ve racked up:
- Two princesses—one born, one made—who lose everything and are forced to start over and do what they can to survive
- A girl who goes into business giving people advice in what is certainly one of the greatest megalomaniacal displays in musical history
- A girl who resists any and all change until nearly being transformed into a doll, meaning it has taken a brush with death for her to accept the idea of moving house
- A storyteller who exists outside the bounds of her tale but also participates in it
These women have been through some shit. They know too much. They are of varying ages, stations in life, and time periods, confronted with the overwhelming terror of the world before being equipped to deal with it. They are laden with more baggage and armed with more strength than they bargained for.
Who lives next door to them?
Image: Maybe Janis is the girl next door to Cady who is the girl next door to Regina. That movie stretched the trope to within an inch of its life.