I am not a pretty girl
that is not what I do
I ain’t no damsel in distess
and I don’t need to be rescued
so put me down punk
maybe you’d prefer a maiden fair
isn’t there a kitten stuck up a tree somewhere
-Ani Difranco, “Not a Pretty Girl“
We get these ideas from a few different places, I think.
First, we define the Other Girl. We may not even know any Other Girls — I certainly didn’t. Every girl in my class was as smart or smarter, as nerdy or nerdier, as I was, and I can’t think of anyone I knew before college who even got close to the Other Girl stereotype. But the Other Girl is very much what we’re fed as an ideal by all kinds of American media. She’s the Covergirl. She’s bouncing through our movies and our advertising and our books, blonde by hook or by crook and there to attract men. She’s Cosmopolitan, she’s Sex and the City, she’s years upon years of Miss America pageants, she’s Barbie, she’s most of the contestants on America’s Next Top Model.
The Other Girl is presented to us as an ideal — maybe even as the only real option — and so yes, some girls are going to try to live up to that.
Second, we define Me in opposition to the Other Girl, because we know we are falling impossibly short of that ideal.
If you are in middle or high school reading this, let me tell you one thing: nobody feels like they’re living up to the Other Girl standard. Even Regina George is insecure.
And that’s because puberty sucks. Your body does all this stuff you can’t control and your emotions are doing weird things and everyone has a ton of expectations for you that it’s hard to live up to and you know you’re not living up to them and you feel awkward and weird and alone, even through everyone around you is going through much the same thing. Even if you’re blonde, thin, pretty, and economically well-off enough to buy Starbucks every day of the week, you probably still have moments where you feel inadequate.
So being the opposite of that ideal becomes a point of pride — something to embrace, something to celebrate. Hell no, I’m not blonde! Hell no, I don’t wear makeup! Hell no, we won’t go (to prom)!
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with celebrating being counter-cultural. There’s a lot that’s right about it. Recognizing and embracing the fact that you don’t match up with the teenage white* girl that society tells you to be, and saying “Screw what society says, I’m going to be my own person” — that’s awesome.
The problem is that when we look to media that portrays girls who are Not Like Other Girls, the Other Girl is still there, generally as the villain. It’s Regina George versus Cady Heron in Mean Girls, Cheer Captain versus On The Bleachers in “You Belong With Me,” everyone versus P!nk in “Stupid Girls,” So Whatever versus Avril in “Girlfriend,”** Jessica versus Bella in Twilight, Marguerite versus Danielle in Ever After, Willow versus Cordelia in Buffy the Vampire Slayer . . . et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. (Ooh, speaking of Julie Andrews, the sensible and plainly-dressed Maria versus the fashionable and out-of-touch Baroness in The Sound of Music! Can’t forget them.)
By setting up a “You’re not like those other girls” situation, these kinds of stories imply that there’s a wrong way to be a girl — that there’s a bad way to be a girl. And that’s to be the Other Girl. As Tina Fey points out to my right, though, woman-against-woman aggression just makes it that much easier for man-against-woman aggression to be normalized.
And what interests me, as an aspiring author or whatever and especially as a long-time fan of YA lit, is how and why we see this trope getting reified in YA lit aimed at teenage girls. Because I don’t think most women writing YA want to encourage girl-vs-girl behavior — sure, maybe some of them are getting literary revenge on people who treated them badly in high school, in the fine old Dante Alighieri tradition, and maybe some of them just don’t realize what they’re doing. But there are a lot of smart women writing smart YA that are nevertheless repeating this trope — I think with the best of intentions.
So here’s my theory.
*I specify “white” because the overwhelming majority of American YA media is about white people, and the examples I’m examining are all about white girls. Working through the implications of the lack of diversity in YA is another incredibly important discussion to have, but the focus of these posts is more on gender and gender roles than race and if I start to bring in race I’m going to have to write another 5000 words. For now I’m going to leave it at this: when we don’t see ourselves represented, we start to devalue ourselves. When black and Hispanic and Asian and Indian and First Nations girls only get to read books about and watch movies and TV about teenage white girls going through high school, isn’t the implication that the only thing to be is a white girl? Isn’t it just taking the Me vs. Other Girls conflict, and making the defining characteristic not something malleable like makeup choices or internal like preferring Tori Amos to Taylor Swift, but something external and immutable like skin color and ethnicity? And then if the Other Girls are all white and the Me’s are all white . . . where does a girl who’s not white get to fit in?
(Hat tip to lollard on Tumblr for the link to Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll experiments.)
**Side note: all three of these music videos feature the singer playing both the preppy/popular/girly/slutty/etc rival and the nerdy/smart/genuine/ambitious/etc girl. (“Girlfriend” is something of an outlier, since Avril’s rival in that video is more of the geeky type that Taylor sings about “You Belong With Me,” but the pink frilly skirt vs. pop punk ripped jeans means it qualifies as far as I’m concerned.) Psychoanalyzing the way thin white blonde female pop singers who match the American ideal of beauty choose to play the roles of social outcasts in videos like this is a) beyond the scope of these posts and b) would probably stray into exactly the type of girl-on-girl social violence territory I’m trying to avoid, so I won’t do that. I just think it’s interesting that it’s always the singer vs. herself. Maybe the directors just don’t want to hire another actress?