“Not like other girls” heroines.
In my Unfavorite Tropes series last year, I singled out the Smurfette Principle — the inclusion of a single “token female” on a team of heroes, and sometimes even among a male cast of hundreds — as one I most despise, a habit to which even writers brilliant enough to know better may succumb. But since then I’ve come to question which is worse: including one woman in an otherwise all-male cast, or including multiple women but depicting all but one of them as some shade of worthless (selfish, shallow, stupid, helpless, catty, etc.). The more I think about it, the more I realize it’s the latter. While it’s often responsible for poor characterizations, the Smurfette Principle trope may not be inherently sexist. The “Not Like Other Girls” trope is, though we may not realize it because it’s often, though not always, employed by female authors.
It came strongly to my attention not long ago when, lured by the promise of a dragon shifter heroine (something for which I have an admitted weakness), I decided to give Shana Abe’s YA fantasy romance The Sweetest Dark a try. While I found Abe’s writing style artfully lyrical and the first-person voice employed with skill, I should have taken the almost immediate emergence of that current YA-fantasy-novels-with-female-protagonists cliche, the Love Triangle, as a warning. When two hunky guys fight for the attention of a seemingly “ordinary” girl who is shocked that they would find her worth the bother, said girl isn’t likely to find time for any meaningful friendship with another female character. Still, this would have been tolerable if other girls simply stayed in the background, incidental to the heroine’s story. They don’t.
Bit by bit, the story introduces female characters who are not the heroine, and every one of them, without exception, proves to be despicable. Since the heroine, Lora, is a scholarship student at an exclusive private school for girls, all her fellow students despise and persecute her, the one “exception” being nice to her in fits and starts only because it will annoy her even more shrewish stepsister. Female servants are equally loathsome, sneering at our heroine as a governess-in-training. Female teachers, even the one who seems kind at first glance, are narrow-minded hypocrites. No other halfway positive female figure, not one potential friend or mentor, emerges in these pages. And their depressingly unsympathetic contrast to the heroine we’re meant to adore is too central to ignore. Abe, a talented writer, ought to be able to see how sexist this is, since the implications in this and other “Not Like Other Girls” stories are clear:
No two girls or women can ever trust each other. Since all girls and women but the heroine are sly, cowardly, or both, the heroine cannot hope to forge any friendships with them. A reader may catch herself thinking that with two X chromosomes comes a moral taint from which the heroine has somehow miraculously escaped.
Since girls are inherently petty and deceitful, the exceptional heroine can hope for love and friendship only from boys/men. Because boys are better than girls — more honest, more open-minded, more courageous, smarter, kinder.
Interests and activities coded as “feminine” are worthless wastes of time. Are you a girl who likes to cook? Who likes pretty clothes? Who likes to discuss the social circle and the maneuvering therein? Who daydreams about getting married? Then you’re an airhead. You’re shallow and frivolous. The idea that a girl might care about both fashion and books, or that she might notice social maneuvering but also be compassionate and kind, rarely if ever occurs to authors who employ this trope. The heroine’s lack of interest in any of this “girly stuff” is presented as a sign of her moral and intellectual superiority. Shouldn’t we be wary of any and all suggestions that there is only one “right way” to be a woman?
My impatience with the “Not Like Other Girls” trope is such that I seek out books that subvert it, that show girls and women as true and loyal friends, whenever I can. Since the noxious trope seems to be particularly prevalent in YA, I present some of my favorite counter-examples from that genre:
Cinder. The titular heroine may not be much like her stepsisters, but she genuinely cares about the younger one. She has a firm bond with an A.I. who identifies as female. She even lends a helping hand to the lead of the series’ second novel, Scarlet.
Mechanica, the steampunk Cinderella. Two girls love the same man, but they don’t let that get in the way of their friendship.
Anne of Green Gables. Sometimes the old ones are the best ones, and the unorthodox Anne’s solid friendship with the more “ordinary” Diana is definitely one for the ages.
Spindle’s End. Robin McKinley’s take on “Sleeping Beauty” is worth reading for quite a few reasons, not the least of which is the friendship that forms, despite initial dislike, between tomboy Rosie and girly Peony.