“What happened to the tomboy I once knew?” That is what my first grade gym teacher asked me, disappointment in his voice, the one day I wore a dress to school.
I loved that dress. It was blue and sparkly and covered in roses, with pockets that were basically adhered shut with silly putty. That day, I had to do pushups away from the rest of my classmates, my feet pointing toward the wall so they couldn’t see up my dress. For some reason, I felt ashamed. It wasn’t a big deal, but I never wore the dress again. I got the idea that the “tomboy” part of me and the part of me that wanted to wear dresses could not coexist. And, feeling like I had to make a decision between the two, I chose tomboy.
As I got older, the “I’m a tomboy” sentiment took a turn, and evolved into “I’m not like other girls.”
“I’m not like other girls.” That problematic, outdated phrase, brimming with internalized misogyny that my 12-year-old self could not even begin to unpack. It segments women into two boxes: “is” and “is not.” What “other girls” in this sense refers to is actually a stock character of what we are taught to believe a “girl” is in Western culture.
A girl who is “not like other girls” is someone who participates in traditionally “boyish” activities — a girl who plays video games, likes the color blue, reads comic books, swears like a sailor, drinks beer, burps, farts, or enjoys football might be described as “not like other girls.” If I ask any of my female friends if they’ve been described as “not like other girls” or have thought of themselves that way at any point in their life, they’ll likely say yes. How can every girl be “not like other girls?” Must traditionally “feminine” or “masculine” characteristics and interests be mutually exclusive?
After years and years of saying women should be one way, why do we praise the individuals who, on the surface, seem to deviate? If we chalk up femininity to being “girly” — skirts, makeup, flowers, pink — we ignore how multifaceted and complex women are, just as all people are. These kinds of harmful gender stereotypes extend to men as well. It says a lot that men displaying slightly “feminine” characteristics is often considered socially unbecoming or shameful, but women displaying slightly “masculine” characteristics is praised as a sign of their “individuality” and “value” in our male-dominated culture.
Gender is a performance of what culture has divided and policed. In the words of Sut Jhally in his film “The Codes of Gender,” “There is nothing natural or biological about our gender or our gender identities.” Jhally makes the point that “our similarities have been downplayed in favor of highlighting our differences,” which “neglects variability,” as there are different ways to be a man, and different ways to be a woman. He says these “strict binaries and definitions” of what is masculine or feminine have been so ingrained in our society that we often go through life without thinking much about them unless we deviate from them.
As a naive preteen exposed to the chaotic and embarrassing culture fostered in certain early online spaces and media, like Tumblr, I was immersed in these harmful ideas camouflaged as ways to assert your individuality and value in a virtual world bursting with insecurity.
At the time, the internet seemed full of images or memes depicting a contrast between the “superficial” girl vs. the girl with “substance.” There’d be one woman, usually blonde, wearing a tight dress and makeup, and her counterpart, usually brunette, holding a book, and wearing sweats. The implied message was that the blonde woman embodied everything wrong with most women. She was beautiful but unintelligent, she tried too hard, she was an attention seeker, a bimbo sex object. She didn’t care about what really mattered. But the brunette was different. She read books, she didn’t care about her appearance, she was down to earth, she was interesting, she didn’t fit the stereotype, she wasn’t like other girls.
If you are unfamiliar with this contrast, then perhaps you’ve heard of the “manic pixie dream girl” (MPDG) trope. MPDG was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2007 when writing about Kirsten Dunst’s character, Claire, in “Elizabethtown.” The MPDG is the, often one-dimensional, fictitious female character in a story who exists solely for a male character’s development. She’s the girl who’s not like other girls, and she is able to encourage the male protagonist to get out of the passenger seat of his life and take the wheel, while appearing more than happy to keep his former seat warm. Ramona Flowers from “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” and Summer from “(500) Days of Summer” are other characters often referred to as MPDGs. However, many women in Hollywood have criticized the term for being sexist and “diminutive.” Rabin himself apologized in a 2014 Salon article for coining MPDG, and said it should be “put to rest” because of the restrictive nature of the term, and how it would often be used to belittle real actresses or nuanced female characters.
The original phrase, “not like other girls,” is a cringe-worthy meme now, usually only used ironically in online spaces. However, it has taken on a new form on social media platforms today. It has been replaced by the “pick me girl,” a girl who seeks male attention by distancing herself from “feminine” interests, as well as the TikTok-famous lists of “reasons why girls don’t like me,” which usually includes “being one of the boys,” or being attractive, the underlying reason being that boys like them or they’re into typically male interests, and fueled by assumptions that “women are inherently spiteful.”
According to psychotherapist Dr. Ali Shakir in an interview for Into More, “This tendency can also stem from low self-esteem – again a result of society’s programming.” Shakir continues, “It is rooted in both internalized misogyny and constant societal pressures. We are fed messages by a patriarchal society of what a good, attractive, acceptable, feminine woman is, and women themselves police and criticize each other as a result.”
Furthering this point, Medium writer Miranda More says in her article “The Problem With Saying You’re ‘Not Like Other Girls’” that “Women belonging to this new group were poking fun of their own gender for being feminine — they were better because they behaved as the stereotype of a man, and (let’s face it) society deems femininity as ‘bad.’”
For me, identifying as “not like other girls” came from a place of insecurity. It was an invalid source of validation. I didn’t think I was pretty, I definitely wasn’t popular, so what did I have? Well, I had my “boyish” interests. Video games, a disdain for boy bands (what a facade), my love for junk food, but also, being low maintenance, and subsequently having low self-esteem. I ignored every other part of myself so that I would be different from “other girls.” It didn’t work.
What I overlooked was that every friend I had, even if she did fit into the “pretty,” “pink,” and “popular” categories, was a lot like me. My cheerleader best friend in middle school would beg to play Grand Theft Auto when she came over to my house. Who would’ve guessed that a girl who painted her nails pink enjoyed violently stealing virtual cars too?
Often, from a male point of view, it’s supposed to be a compliment. “Wow, you’re so cool, you like the same things as me, you’re not like other girls.” Men who say this seem to be brainwashed by the misogynistic idea perpetuated in society that women are not interesting or sophisticated and we’re typically all the same. Men who say this see us as a category, as outliers to a norm, rather than as people.
The “not like other girls” trope conditioned me to think I was “special” because other women are not complex, and that gender can be fit into boxes of likes and dislikes, interests and hobbies, appearances and stereotypes. It taught me to have disdain for other women.
We need better representation of women to dispel this dichotomous myth. We need to set a good example for younger women and have progressive conversations around gender. I am glad that, overall, we seem to be moving away from putting each other down, and moving toward recognizing each other’s worth outside of a patriarchal context. Despite what the male gaze may imply, this is not a competition.
I want to be like other girls: I want to be whole, complex, and intelligent. Being like other girls means embracing myself for who I am, pursuing my hobbies and interests without fear or shame, and choosing how to present myself for myself. It means overcoming the idea that we must exist to please others. It means that I don’t have to fit a stereotype, and maybe I don’t even have to identify with the gender assigned to me (I’m still figuring that one out).
I think, like “manic pixie dream girl,” it’s time for society to put the phrase “not like other girls” and all of its variations to rest. People seem to find a way to criticize women for practically anything they do, so, girls, why not just do whatever the hell we want?