Not like other girls : young women in YA fiction

Recently, I sat down with a cup of hot chocolate and a new young adult release in hand for what I hoped to be a relaxing afternoon of reading. I had enjoyed Jesse Andrews’ debut novel, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, very much and had bought his follow-up novel with the hopes that it would be at least half as good. Unfortunately, The Haters fell down in almost every way that his previous book stood up. It had a promising start – three teenage friends on a music-fuelled road trip that seemed to set up a classic coming of age tale. But when the protagonist developed romantic feelings for the main female character, it came to an abrupt halt with how he chose to describe her, ‘Ash was the least girl-like girl that either of us had ever met. She had memorised multiple Angus Young solos and was completely indifferent to the cleanliness status of her own hair. It was impossible to imagine her, for example, Instagramming herself in a bathroom.’

Andrews is very clearly presenting the protagonist’s love interest as a girl who is ‘not like other girls’ – a literary trope that is currently covering the pages of young adult books. It features a male protagonist who falls for a girl with surprisingly similar interests to him and next to no interest in anything overly-feminine. She’s into alternative rock music or obsessed with science fiction or likes physics or is super intelligent. She doesn’t cry or cause a fuss at little things or insist on going to prom. She wears combat boots and plaid shirts and doesn’t have time for doing her make-up or buying dresses. This sets her apart as some kind of super-girl who is special and unique. But it all relies on a very harmful idea: this girl is special not because of her interests or her personality or any of her traits – she is special merely because she is different from the stereotypes of her gender.

This trope has become so pervasive that it now reads like a formula to girls interested in young adult fiction. Because they read story after story about the male heroes falling in love with the same type of girl, they take that assumption out into the real world and try to become that type of girl. This is harmful because girls shouldn’t all be wanting to be the same type of person – they should be taught to celebrate their diversity, to appreciate their uniqueness instead of feeling like they will not be loved unless  they fit the cardboard cut-out model they think is their only option.

A common example of this trope within fiction is the character of Cinderella in the seemingly endless modern remakes (see Hillary Duff in A Cinderella Story, Selena Gomez in Another Cinderella Story, Lucy Hale in A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song, etc). In these remakes, Cinderella is set apart from her ugly stepsisters in the eyes of Prince Charming because she spends her time reading and thinking about college compared to her stepsisters who obsess over boys and fancy balls. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Cinderella being smart or putting effort into school, but it becomes a problem when stories never seem to pair intelligence together with more traditionally feminine traits. The description of a female love interest as being ‘not like other girls’ is effectively a backhanded compliment – Cinderella is great, but the rest of her gender is too obsessed with appearance and clothes and this is why the prince likes her above the rest.

The ultimate problem with this trope is it argues that the best thing a girl can be is not like other girls. Who are these ‘other’ girls? Essentially, they are the ones who do conform to feminine stereotypes, who like dresses and make-up and the colour pink. There shouldn’t be any incompatibility between femininity and desirability, as it reinforces the binary system of gender by saying that if a girl is more like a boy then she is automatically above all other girls. It is just perpetuating the idea of these girls as ‘other’ and women as subordinate.

It also continues to reinforce the stereotype that certain domains – intelligence, sports, science – are masculine by default, and any girl who excels in these areas is an exception. Because these books treat girls who play guitar or do well at school as ‘special,’ they are also saying that this is not normal for their gender. While it’s progress that girls don’t have to fit the model of a perfect housewife to attract a potential husband, it seems as though that idea has gone too far the other way and female characters are still stuck in a vicious stereotype.

Additionally, some may argue that this is good since if girls wish to be desirable, it will encourage them to work hard at school or pursue science. But this is merely perpetuating the idea of the male gaze further – of course it is great for girls to study and break into male-dominated fields, but the intention needs to come from a much better place. We should not be teaching girls that being smart is good because that’s how they will attract a boyfriend or husband. We should encourage girls to be smart just for the sake of being smart. Girls should be making their choices based on their own views, not what they think boys will like.

It would be better if every time I sat down to read a new young adult book, I was greeted with a fresh, new love story. I want to read about girls with all sorts of different interests, of all colours and races, different sexualities, backgrounds and back stories, so that the girls who are reading these books know that all girls are lovable. Essentially, I’m asking that female characters not be written as stereotypes or tropes, but as people. There are books that have managed this task, such as Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park and E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, so hopefully that trend will continue.

Just because a girl likes to take care of her hair and use Instagram does not make her incapable of being loved. Young adult writers need to diversify their female love interests and stop perpetuating the idea that the worst thing for a girl to do would be to conform to the norms of her gender. The need for more diverse female characters is still ever-present, especially when a harmful trope like this still exists. Girls shouldn’t feel like they have to fit into a box for a boy to like them and the stories that they encounter plays a big part in finally putting an end to that idea.

And the next time I come across this line in a young adult book, I think I will just stop reading it.

Image: Unsplash

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20151109-IMG_9823Julia Faragher is a current university student with a passion for writing across all mediums, from novels and short stories to films, plays and poetry. Her adventure with writing began in November 2011, when she competed in National Novel Writing Month for the first time. Three years later, she had written three novels of more than 50,000 words each and fallen in love with writing. Since then, she has also had success writing in other areas, such as co-writing a play that won her high school competition and placing in the top 4 of last year’s ANU Interhall Poetry Slam. She also has a love for film, and served as the director, producer and writer for Dear Jasmine, winner of ‘Best Student Film’ at the Lights! Canberra! Action! Film Festival 2015. Other festival credits include Tropfest Jr, the All-American High School Film Festival and the Screen It Festival. She currently studies English, Gender Studies and Law at ANU and runs her own short film company, Skybound Productions.

This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.

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