THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR She’s All That (1999), Legally Blonde (2001), A Cinderella Story (2004), Angus Thongs and Perfect Snogging (2008) and Frozen (2013).
Most women have been told, at some point in their lifetime, that they’re ‘not like other girls’. And if we haven’t been told this, we’ve heard the line recited on screen. Think Transformers, where Megan Fox is fixated upon not only because she’s smoking hot, but because she knows about cars, unlike ‘other girls’. Think There’s Something About Mary, where the entire plot is centred around a woman that men obsess over and stalk, simply because she’s attractive and into golf and science. For further examples of this trope, check out this video by The Take.
This cinematic type has become known as the ‘cool girl’, following its critique in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The ‘cool girl’ is a woman who doesn’t fit our traditional view of femininity or so-called ‘girly girl’ behaviour. She often fits a stereotyped vision of masculine behaviour, through her rejection of typically ‘female’ hobbies and mannerisms in favour of liking sports, cars and drinking beer.
On the one hand, this character may be treated as someone who deviates from stereotypical gender roles and comes into her own. But her deviation only goes so far. The cool girl straddles the line between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ behaviour, never overtly butch in her physical features, and never seeking out female love interests instead of male ones. She is, importantly, meant to be the object of male attention, and is therefore based on what men, supposedly, like.
This character is placed either as the main romantic fixation or the underdog of the plot. Transformers and There’s Something About Mary provide clear examples of the former, but there are further, more nuanced examples of the underdog ‘cool girl’ who succeeds in the romantic plot through her uniqueness and distinction from ‘other girls’. Think Hilary Duff in A Cinderella Story, the basketball-playing beauty who ‘wins’ the guy at the end.
Another example of the underdog ‘cool girl’ is Georgia in Angus Thongs and Perfect Snogging, an apparently average-looking yet funny teenager. She spends the movie and book series chasing after Robbie and complaining about his girlfriend, ‘slaggy Lindsay’ for standing in her way. While Lindsay fits patriarchal expectations of the attractive woman – blonde, and slim with big breasts – and is barely developed beyond this, Georgia is often told that she’s not what boys are looking for. This turns out not to be true, but because of this ‘underdog’ placement, we’re inclined to support her in being herself and not modifying her behaviour to suit others.
We’re expected to see Lindsay as her natural enemy on this quest, because, as a ‘slag’, (read: exercises her right to pursue consensual relationships and happens to be confident about her body) Lindsay apparently ‘succeeds’ where Georgia does not. As Chimamanda Ngozie Achidie famously commented in We Should All Be Feminists, ‘we raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, […] but for the attention of men’. Georgia’s competition with Lindsay is one of many examples of this.
Ironically, Georgia spends most of the movie engineering her actions and behaviour to appeal to the male gaze. She casts aside friends and family throughout, focusing on convincing Robbie that she is the girl he wants through schemes, tricks and stalking, all while claiming Lindsay is a stuck-up, disingenuous bitch for doing the same thing. Yet because Georgia is different to most girls, apparently beating the odds in receiving male attention, we’re encouraged to see the ending as a victory.
This triumph, however, is dependent on audiences hating Lindsay because she happens to intentionally or inherently embody certain ideals of femininity.
Ultimately, the internalised-misogynistic focus on girls’ behaviour in relationships with boys allows us to forget the major issues at hand. If we didn’t hate Lindsay (for no reason other than she’s a little bit ‘basic’), we would feel sympathy for her as a young girl who got cheated on by her boyfriend, then publicly ditched and shamed. If the focus of the film were not so heavily placed on what constituted a worthy female, we would recognise that Robbie, above the age of consent (at 16), messing around with a 14-year-old who refers to him consistently as a ‘sex god’ is entering some problematic waters. And if female sexuality were not so heavily judged in comparison to male sexuality, we might recognise that the main offenders in this film are not Lindsay, but the young male characters often harassing Georgia and her friends (remember the bit where Peter Dyer pushes Georgia into a bush in an attempt to get with her?).
If this film were not so infatuated with internalised misogyny, it would be notorious for its scandalous portrayal of hypersexualised teenagers harassing and betraying one another.
Why do we focus so much on Lindsay’s ‘slaggy’ villainy and not at all on Robbie’s disloyalty? Sexism is one reason, but another is that we are so used to demonising girls like Lindsay for no reason other than that she fits a female ideal. Setting up Lindsay as the ‘other girl’ and Georgia as the opposing ‘cool girl’ fighting over a boy is such an ingrained trope that we rarely question it in action.
It’s worth stating too, that while reductive female tropes in film are often blamed on the low-level representation of women in the industry (statistics show that in 2019, 80% of all producers, directors, writers, executive producers, producers, cinematographers on the top 100 grossing films were male), Georgia is a character written by a female author, Louise Rennison. The film is also directed by a woman, Gurinder Chadha.
The fact that the ‘cool girl’ mentality and excessive judgement of other women, particularly when it comes to romantic competition, is present in the minds of men and women reflects that this problem goes deeper than a mere film trope that under-develops female characters. It relies on the insecurity and internalised misogyny of its writers and its audiences. Like Lindsay and Georgia, we are all victims of patriarchal structures that pit women against each other in fights for male attention. And as Rennison and Chadha illustrate, being a woman does not automatically rescue us from applying harmful tropes to female characters, especially when female writers are so underrepresented in the industry that they are under additional pressure to prove that women in film can turn out commercial successes.
When a trope is so successful, it’s tough to break free from it. Lindsay is one of a long line of ‘other girls’ demonised not just for their behaviour, but for apparent falseness, characterised as an obsession with their appearance.
Moving on to another noughties’ romcom, the evil step-mother character of Fiona in A Cinderella Story is not only dislikeable because she continually sabotages Sam’s ambitions to suit her, but because she is obsessed with cosmetic surgery. Her frequent Botox use becomes a symbol for emotional coldness, restricting her ability to express emotions. Back in Angus, Thongs…, Lindsay is publicly humiliated for her choice to wear breast enhancements, which are mocked for being like ‘chicken fillets’. Mean Girls’ caricature of popular high schoolers is a group named the ‘plastics’. The defining feature of the ‘other girl’ is to be a hyper-feminised barbie doll, deserving of being taken down a peg.
On the flipside, there are many shallow, false guy types in these movies, but they are rarely publicly humiliated and cast from popularity into obscurity in the same way female characters are. In fact, male characters who lie and double cross others are often the victorious love interests. Take Zack Siler in She’s All That as an example – he executes revenge on his ex-girlfriend by claiming she’s completely fake and could be replaced by any other girl, betting that he can make the dorkiest girl in school popular with a bit of makeup and mentorship. Does Zack ever face unforgettable public humiliation, losing all friends in the process? No, he gets the girl, who turns out to be amazing, and is forgiven for his behaviour.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t forgive people, particularly young characters who are growing up, maturing and changing. I’m saying that there’s a double standard.
It isn’t being a horrible disingenuous person that makes the Regina Georges and Slaggy Lindsays of the film world dislikeable to audiences, it’s being a horrible person and being overtly feminine. In dialogue with one another, the ‘cool girl’ and the ‘other girl’ demonstrate that feminine interests have connotations of falseness and coldness, while masculine ones make you genuine, redeemable and, importantly, desirable.
What does this teach us? If you want to be desirable, don’t be like ‘other girls’. What does that really mean? Don’t behave ‘like a girl’ at all.
The need to ‘not be like other girls’ asserts that acting ‘like a girl’ makes you inferior, and less deserving of attention or respect. It teaches us that we must monitor our behaviour and hobbies to stand out against competition and it reinforces our internalised misogyny.
This internalised misogyny is a knock-on effect of such negative portrayals of femininity in film. Florence Given, bestselling author of Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, reached out to her social media followers to ask what typically ‘female’ things people had denied themselves or felt guilty about liking, and boy did they deliver. I would recommend having a full read of the responses if you are interested (and I suspect you will find many you relate to, regardless of your gender). Responses included the colour pink, acrylic nails, and heels.
I would not be surprised if many have also resisted appearing to love romantic comedies, not because they contain problematic tropes and stereotypes, but because they are ‘girly’ films focusing on topics such as fashion, romance, and family relationships. This genre is often treated as unimportant trash, even though it does a far better job of at least featuring some female characters we can look up to, unlike many action and sci-fi sagas.
Legally Blonde, for example, has Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods ace Harvard Law School, hit back against work-place harassment, win a murder case, and stand up fiercely for her friends, all while wearing the most fashionable, unapologetically pink attire. In fact, instead of demonising Elle as false or high maintenance, her love of fashion is the reason she wins the case – only someone knowledgeable in haircare practices could spot the flaw in the main witness statement, and therefore the attributes that make Elle “girly” become an asset, not a disadvantage. It’s a film that could be examined as a law drama, or a coming-of-age, but is pinned as a girly romantic comedy, because that is how we categorise films that bother to detail the lives of women.
The systemic conditioning of internalised misogyny extends even further than our likes or dislikes, as Florence Given has also picked apart how our cautiousness makes women reluctant to correct others on sexism, homophobia and racism in a bid not to seem the ‘angry feminist’. This cautiousness creates a further separation between us, as not only are we taught to view some women as lesser, stereotypical beings, we also find it difficult to stand up as intersectional feminists because we are taught to try to appeal to the male gaze. The representation of women in film, again, plays into this. None of the films I have analysed here depicts a woman of colour or someone LGBT as a main love interest. When actresses and characters of this demographic are featured, they play supporting characters who only exist to help the main character get the guy.*
Although these barriers to appreciating ‘femaleness’ can and have held us back, we are finally beginning to resist these tropes on the screen. Before its time, Legally Blonde demonstrated how its protagonist, Elle, and its antagonist, Vivian – despite being romantic competitors – could stand up for each other and become friends. Furthermore, they cast aside the male antagonist who was pitting them against each other. Even Disney has improved its depiction of women, through Anna being rescued from death by the power of sisterly love in Frozen.
As time goes on, we’re eradicating this idea of defining ourselves in terms of being like, or not like ‘other girls’, but there is still a long way to go. What needs to change? Firstly, our treatment of femininity. We must continue to challenge what being a ‘girl’ means, whether that’s by treating it positively or throwing these reductive girl/boy stereotypes and tropes out of the window entirely. The more we call out reductive female characters, the more incentive the film industry has to develop them. And the more we ignore reductive films to favour meaningfully representative ones, the more acclaim the latter will get.
Another crucial step is implementing better representation, not just in the writing process, but on the screen. The film industry needs writers that demonstrate an understanding of women that goes far beyond being a ‘cool girl’ or an ‘other girl’. Society is formed of people of all ethnicities, sexualities, and economic backgrounds, who live varied and successful lives regardless of whether or not a man thinks they’re attractive. It’s about time that popular films reflected that.
None of us is “like other girls”. But, if there is one thing we have in common, it’s that we are all adversely affected by this idea that there is one acceptable way to be. Only through uniting against and calling out this common enemy – misogyny, and its neighbours, racism and homophobia – can we bridge the gap to support everyone, be it in real life or on screen.
By Jennifer Roberts
* For those who are interested, this is another, much more complex issue than the ‘cool/other girl’ problem and there is an example of many such characters and tropes in these films. One is Damian, in Mean Girls, occupying the Gay Best Friend trope. Another example is Rhonda (Regina King) in A Cinderella Story, arguably cast in the ‘Black Best Friend’ role. I love both characters (and, admittedly, films) but have since become aware that there is a real tendency to tokenise these identities and offer narrow representation in the form of reductive supporting roles. As someone who identifies as LGBT, I could easily harp on about issues of representation in another article but simply couldn’t ignore it in this one. I’d be hypocritically showcasing my white privilege if I didn’t mention the way this tokenisation also affects Black women, but this simply isn’t my story to tell. I’ve put some links in the Further Reading to articles by Black writers and interviews with Black actresses, as the misogynoir facing them needs to be called out, and their voices need to be amplified by those who have the privilege to do so.
The Best Friend Trope, Explained, The Take.
Videos by ‘BestDressed’, a Film Studies graduate and fashion expert who on many occasions has discussed internalised misogyny and film tropes.
Danielle Henderson, An interview with Regina King, Vulture.
Samantha Cooney, Viola Davis Is Tired of Hollywood Treating Black Women Like Sidekicks, TIME.
Maurice Mcleod, Why the black best friend has had its day, The Guardian.
Follow Jenny on Twitter.