I’M BACK AND I’M BITTER.
This post is meant to be a discussion of the tendency on book twitter / goodreads / etc etc etc to say a book exhibits the I’m-Not-Like-Other-Girls trope when the heroine is not very feminine. And I’m here to argue that a specific character not being feminine is not somehow problematic — buuuuuut also, there is a problem with heroines in YA and we need to talk about it.
Let’s start with some definitions. The I’m Not Like Other Girls trope is when a female character, usually fairly feminine but not too feminine, exhibits hatred for another girl who is coded as a slut or as being somewhat lower intelligence. Often there’s a false dichotomy set up around the lead not wearing makeup but the other female character gobbing it on [how awful], or a dichotomy set up around the heroine not knowing she’s pretty while the other girl does, or the other girl flirting with people’s boyfriends while the heroine does not. Ho hum.
Here’s the thing that defines the I’m Not Like Other Girls trope: the narrative has to actually imply that other girls are slutty or not as smart. You know what’s not the I’m Not Like Other Girls trope? A heroine who doesn’t comform to Western beauty standards.
And yet there is something to the complaint that your typical YA heroines are almost never super feminine. So let’s talk about that.
This trope originated from the need for publishers to market their books to younger girls. And let’s be really honest: reading is often considered a very out-of-the-mainstream thing, and a lot of us who read as kids felt very alienated by our classmates. Readers come in all shapes and sizes, but let’s be real, a lot of us weren’t very popular in elementary school. So when you come across a heroine that doesn’t seem to fit the mold of society, who isn’t quite the blond popular girl, who says they don’t like makeup and that’s okay? That can be really inspiring. Especially when we’re still young enough to lack the critical thinking skills to criticize tropes.
Perhaps even more importantly, feeling like an outsider is a really universal thing. A heroine being an outsider in any way can be really validating if that’s how you feel. And thus, the unpopular girl narrators took over YA.
Let’s talk about what these heroines actually are, ‘kay? Because they’re not actually threatening to any social dynamics. I see so many posts about the need for more feminine heroines in YA [yes, important, good post] that go on to imply that most heroines in our current state of YA are super masculine. Aaaaaaaaaaand I’m sorry, but how many stereotypically masculine heroines actually show up in YA? Really, really think about this. Red Queen’s Mare Barrow, Daughter of Smoke and Bone’s Karou, Shadow and Bone’s Alina Starkov, pretty much any popular YA contemporary [with maybe one of Rainbow Rowell’s many books serving as an exception]. Even characters such as Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger aren’t exactly masculine. And that’s fine! Single characters can be feminine. But there isn’t room for much else.
So I posit a theory: the problem with heroines in YA is not that they’re too masculine or too feminine, it’s that they can’t be masculine or feminine. Heroines in everything from YA books to action movies have to kick ass and preferably say something kind of feminist once so they seem like they’re threatening to gender roles. And yet they also have to conform to gender roles in every way possible. They must have boyfriends [i.e. they must be heterosexual—bisexuality, you say? does popular media know that exists?] and often are in relationships that are somewhat controlling [i.e. they must conform to traditional gender roles for girls in relationships with boys]. They have to be somewhat sexually appealing and effortlessly beautiful; they cannot have traits that are considered bad by Western beauty standards [i.e. they must be white and abled]. Often, heroines if this type will state that they aren’t beautiful, but be described as conforming to every Western beauty standard possible— i.e. they can’t be beautiful because girls who are beautiful are bad, but they can’t not be beautiful because girls who aren’t beautiful are bad. They cannot be feminine because that’s bad, but they cannot be masculine because that’s bad. In other words, they reflect the roles we enforce for girls in our society.
And the thing is, the issue doesn’t lie in any of those character traits either! The problem lies in the refusal of literature to acknowledge that girls can be anything but those things. The problem with the I’m Not Like Other Girls trope is the explicit demonization of these other character traits. The problem with the trend of not-feminine-but-not-masculine heroines is that it leaves no room for girls who are ultra-feminine and no room for girls who are ultra-masculine, or for frankly any girls that don’t fit this one specific mold we have for heroines. Which is every single girl to varying degrees.
Okay, here’s my thesis statement. A character not being feminine does not automatically mean they fit the Not Like Other Girls trope. But there is something to the continuous barrage of complaints about how no YA heroines are ever super feminine— it’s just that the characterization of heroines is a worrisome trend rather than something you can explicitly pin on one specific book. I think if we’re going to really change the status quo in YA heroine culture, we need two different names for this phenomonen.
And that’s the tea.
Do you agree with this post? Do you disagree? Did you change your mind on something? Do you want me to go away and never post again? Let me know down in the comments!