Let’s Talk—The Myth of the Not-Like-Other-Girls-Trope

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 chat.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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36 thoughts on “Let’s Talk—The Myth of the Not-Like-Other-Girls-Trope

  1. I hate that trope, BUT for me it’s only when the heroine is specifically hating on other girls and/or the narrative stereotypes all the other girls as sluts. I agree that putting girls who don’t follow traditionally feminine traits in the not like other girls wagon is not okay and can be very damaging, however.

    It reminds me of the way people only see “kick-ass” MCs as strong and feminist, as if 1)we couldn’t be strong without fighting and 2)being a badass made a feminist out of us instantly (AS IF). Maybe these stereotypes were needed in the past, because of the lack of fighter type women in fiction, but now in my opinion the way they are seen as the ONLY kind of strong women is part of the problem. Same with the not like other girls trope, I believe.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep. And of course all the “good strong women” have many traits that are often seen as masculine, and that’s just so convenient, right? I mean if they wanted to fight patriarchy without actually fighting it they couldn’t do better.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a brilliant post! I, for one, would love to see a much wider variety of heroines in YA (and, frankly, all literature!). And also maybe to see a heroine who’s super femme-y and loves that about herself and is full of confidence, or one who’s totally butch and also cries at sad TV adverts. I want all the heroines!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this post. I think the problem with “masculine vs. feminine” heroines is that a heroine has to look conventionally feminine, but only typically masculine-coded skills such as strength and logic are valued. So she has to look like a female supermodel, but can only be a warrior/fighter (but not too much of a fighter, because good forbid she has muscles), and has to be in a leadership role. A heroine whose skills are traditionally feminine coded (e.g. healing, dressmaking, homemaker) are seen as weak and boring. So while I definitely think there needs to be a movement away from feminine looking heroines, I think these feminine coded skills need to be recalibrated as strengths too.

    I found this particularly when I went to an Uprooted book club discussion. Most of the men in the group felt that Agnieszka’s magic was way too overpowered because it ‘didn’t follow the rules’ of the other magic in the world. But the thing I love about uprooted is that a lot of the magic mirrors male dominated academic structures (critical thinking, very logical, has lots of naming conventions and categorising, and is based in an authority figure with a title – not to mention that most magic systems in fantasy generally are based in the male dominated systematic D&D culture of the 60s), but Agnieszka’s magic is more feminine coded, with its roots in community and the home and love and friendship. It’s a matriarchal line of magic that blows all that’s ‘known’ about magic, according to male gatekeepers like the Dragon, out of the water. And it’s allowed to be overpowered, in a way that these gatekeepers can’t comprehend.

    So yeah, basically the point of this essay of a comment is that I wish the strength in femininity was acknowledged more in YA – and I don’t mean in that faux positivity manner of “I look sexy by all Western beauty standards so I’m a fierce queen” which simply reinforces unrealistic beauty standards.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I totally agree! This is part of why I really enjoyed the Pretty Little Liars books. They’re not without issues, sure, but it was refreshing to me to have female protagonists who aren’t ashamed of the fact that they care about hair, makeup, clothes, etc. and put effort into those things. I’m much more used to characters who are like “oh I’m not that pretty and I don’t care about clothes or do anything with my hair and what even is makeup gosh WHY is every dude in this book is drooling over me?”

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  5. I love this post! I think I agreed with EVERY single thing you said 😀

    Have you listened to the song “Most Girls” by Hailee Steinfeld?!?! Its one of my favorite songs and I think it fits really well with your post! Make sure you listen to the Youtube version with the non-song intro of Hailee and a boy where he compliments her on not being like “Most girls”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is super interesting and so intelligently written! I know that as a feminine woman, I probably notice more that there are no super feminine girls in YA as opposed to super masculine girls, and I like that you pointed out how it goes both ways 🙂 I think the one trope that gets me is how YA girls always seem to HATE dresses, how pants are more comfortable and dresses are silly and pointless. As someone who practically lives in dresses and feels constricted in pants, I simply can’t wrap my head around it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, yes. I think we talk a lot about how feminine women are erased and then ignore that the community really isn’t safe for masculine or gender non-conforming women as well.

      And yeah, the dress thing happens a lot too – I think the dress thing is meant to make the other girls seem frivolous by connecting them to dresses, which are “Impractical” while pants are “Practical”.

      Like

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