About Me

My photo
Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Tuesday 9 February 2021

I'm Like Other Girls

 So, people who remember the 90s and early 2000s, or even the early 10s, might remember the recurring cultural fixation on being "unlike other girls." A Youtuber I particularly enjoy just put out an excellent video essay on the topic, and it covers a really interesting angle that isn't necessarily being talked about much. 

A quick note about gender to preface things - some of the people who look like "other girls" are either transgender or non-gender conforming, and the issue of gender for trans people, especially re: gender performance for both personal reasons and survival reasons, is really complicated. I don't experience dysphoria for my presented or physical gender, but I wanted to mention that when I say "women" and "men," I am primarily talking about cis people - but I am aware trans people can also experience periods of trying desperately to conform while hiding their inner selves/real gender. (The real gender is the one by which someone identifies, just to be clear; also, genders and the expression/performance thereof can shift over time.)

So, with that note out of the way, kindly consider the latest iteration of feminine cannibalism.

Where it comes from 

It seems as though a lot of the people who talk about this are baffled about the causes of this hate. A millennial who remembers the brief period of modern society before the internet can confirm that it was very possible to be bullied for failing to conform to societal beauty standards - something that was particularly common in the 90s and 2000s. 

The thing is - it wasn't so much the actual "popular girls" who were nasty. It was mostly their seconds-in-command or the girls who wanted to be them. The invisible middle-layer of girls who were neither social outcasts nor truly universally liked. In the brutal hierarchical world of junior high (and sometimes high school), clawing for attention, especially from guys, is a vicious game. 

The thing is, parents also made some of these comparisons. Something absolutely burned into my mind is the moment in the Muppet Cinderella, featuring Brandy, when her aunt says, "you look like a girl from one of those rap videos!" in a dismayed and scolding tone - and the character's uncle comments, "you look like a girl from one of those rap videos" in a significantly warmer tone, while looking his niece (!) up and down. It was a tiny moment, but I can still recite those two lines of dialogue from memory roughly sixteen years later...and that says a lot. 

Authors, we need to knock it off

Being that I'm not only a writer, but that I also edit in the industry, I can absolutely confirm that a ton of romance books written for adults and by adults still have this internalized misogyny - including books by queer men. A lot of people are starting to unpack this deep-seated and knee-jerk hate, which is pretty great, but quite a few people still don't - and it sucks. A nemesis who may be promiscuous, blonde, shallow, vicious, or all of the above crops up quite often. Romance movies are so, so bad for this - and what shocked me was that most of those terrible romantic comedies I saw growing up were written, directed, and produced by men, especially men who sneered at the whole format. So...basically, men were presenting a "cool girl" and saying that she was better than other women. And as Aonso and some of the other creators linked in this essay put it, we wonder why women hate each other and themselves.

When it changed for me 

Two things happened when I was a teenager that made an important crack in my understanding of other women - first of all, I started to be attracted to girls. It's possible to hate people you're attracted to; look at incels, for example. Hell, that term was coined by a bi woman and was used by her and other queer people who felt undateable, and were trying to fix themselves so they could find love. (As usual, the worst kind of men invent nothing, and make what they steal, worse.) 

The other thing was - after a terribly unpleasant stint in private school in eleventh grade, which was a terrible five-month period, I returned to public school - but I started to dress the way I had always secretly wanted to. That meant (sigh) the boy-jeans that fit me under sarongs, long circle skirts with embroidery, peasant shirts, and that kind of thing. I had always loved clothing like that, and a brief stint of wearing a uniform made me decide firmly that I was going to wear the clothes I loved, damn it. 

And somehow, people not only thought that was cool - but they liked me and were friendly. It helped that the high school had a reputation for being nerdy and academic, but it was still an inner-city school, which made for a diverse population. And here's the twist - not only did I not get bullied, I had a great year and a half there, and I even friendly relationships with some popular girls. Finding out that pretty girls, even actual teen models, could be fun, smart, and sweet changed everything. 

I had a bad period with my counselling faculty in university as well, which sparked a nearly fatal depression - but that didn't make me hate all other women. The thing is, "nerdy" and "unconventional" girls can be just as vicious and mean as the "popular" ones - and to my later surprise, men can be every bit as petty and vicious and underhanded. I've seen it in professional communities, both my own and in the medical and business worlds, and I've even seen this kind of backbiting in queer communities. So why does it keep happening?

The core of the problem 

In psychological terms, it appears that most girls and plenty of women (and men) seem to not only view others based on their external interests - but as Aonso puts it, they assume that other people aren't as genuine about their interests, and are either "faking it" or doing it for "clout" or "attention". The thing is - a lack of theory of mind, understanding that other people have their own inner worlds, combined with a presumption of an external locus of control (i.e. letting the world's judgements determine what's important to you and what you should do), perfectly describe the things we assume about other women. But - it's easily disproven by talking to these "other girls". One of the greatest revelations of my life was discovering just how many "dumb" girls were pretending to be stupid just to avoid intimidating men and others. 

A fundamental lack of empathy for "other girls" is the justification for hating them. In the earlier decades, bullying definitely was an issue, but it doesn't fully explain why this hatred for the "other girl" is so deeply encoded. 

Combined with the mournful loneliness of societal prejudices experienced for failing to conform, as well as social rejection, plenty of "not like other girls" girls/people turn inward and try to find something about themselves to like. Being unlike one's tormentors is generally the first thing to notice - and accepting one's differences, especially if they result in being othered, can be comforting. 

However, just because it's a coping mechanism doesn't mean it's healthy. Destructive social dynamics are the price of being a member of a social species. The only way to deal with it is fighting the internalized social protocols of Western culture (i.e. don't talk about what's Important to you, don't say things that will make waves, even if they're really nice compliments; be innocuous but not too boring, etc). The patriarchial standards based in the most toxic core of North American culture, especially WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) and whiteness culture, are killing all of us. But they don't have to, because we are already more than what we've been taught to be.

What I think now

In addition to this, a memorable social psychology class of mine focused on the ways that "alternative" people - which, I suppose, includes yours truly - still conform to dress codes within their own subcultures. When one considers an "alternative" girl next to, say, a sports team, of course she looks different. But stick that girl on tiktok and look under the right hashtags, and it's easy to see more visual similarities between clothing styles of alternative people. So - those "other girls" just need to band together and enjoy each other's company and similarities, and with the internet, that's possible like never before.

So, other girls? They're great! Finding out that first of all, pretty girls aren't actually vicious monsters out to destroy relationships and friendships, was wonderful. There are a lot of other people who adore reading, writing, talking about social justice issues and politics, tabletop RPGs, knitting, moody folk and rock music, true crime of the cult and con artist variety, history, shiny rocks, magic, making jewelry, baking and cooking, fashion, drawing, tea, and learning languages (to cite most of the interests I can think of at this exact moment). Not only that, I've learned to present my interests more appealingly in conversation, so they're more approachable and so I can hit the highlights for people who are interested but less knowledgeable. Discovering the joy of shared interests and the skill of sharing my interests has made my adulthood a rich and socially satisfying period, and I can only hope others can attain this level of warmth, friendship, and support.

Next time that little nasty whisper rears its head, or next time some guy mentions that a woman is "not like other girls" - ask, "what's wrong with other girls?" Embracing the shadow-side of other-girlness, and learning how to do makeup, dress provocatively, and appreciate one's own sexuality (or lack thereof) will not magically turn a woman into a brainless zombie or a soul-sucking, seductive vampire. If anything, we should explore these societally-shamed tropes, and appreciate the diversity of people who both identify under and branch out from the feminine gender. We have barely even begun to create societal roles for nonbinary people, but trans and nonbinary folks are also bringing forth a lot of creativity and wonderful content. Masculinity and femininity should be umbrellas, not cages - but self-hatred has never unlocked a cage from within. 

Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer and editor. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and their cats. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and learning too much. She is currently working on other people’s manuscripts, the next books in her series, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.
Find her all over the internet: * OG Blog * Mailing list * Magpie Editing * Amazon * Medium * Twitter * Instagram * Facebook * Tumblr * Paypal.me * Ko-fi