Nobody is ‘like the other girls’ and that’s okay

How the patriarchy creates recursive feminism

Upon reflection, I can’t remember a time in which I wasn’t a feminist. I also can’t remember a time in which I wasn’t at war with femininity.
My friends always joke that I have “not-like-the-other-girls syndrome” — a diagnosis pulled from the depths of pop culture tropes, and one that I cannot categorically deny. The “not-like-the-other-girls” girl is, as Alisa Bristow writes, “An outcast but that’s ok because she’s deep. She’s got skills that make her stand out. She’s smart, too — you won’t see her getting hung up on all that superficial stuff like relationships, or fashion, or diets, or make-up, or shoes.” Some popular examples that people throw around include Arya Stark from “Game of Thrones,” Kat Stratford from “10 Things I Hate About You” and Katniss Everdeen from “The Hunger Games.”
Current wisdom dictates that the “not-like-the-other-girls” trope is sexist. I don’t necessarily disagree. It does have a tinge of misogyny about it in the way that things perceived as feminine or primarily created for female consumption are often disparaged, such as boy bands, fruity cocktails and fancy bath products. The idea of there being “other girls” whose personalities and lifestyles are not only common but also inferior is downright belittling. It is no surprise, then, that any self-respecting feminist in 2023 does well to steer clear of any association with that trope, whether it be in the media they consume or their relationship to gender expression.
I am admittedly right at home in the confines of that particular trope. I was never the most popular girl in school, nor did I really want to be. I was happy with my books. I don’t consider myself to be particularly superficial and have had many storied clashes with diet culture. Katniss Everdeen was and still is one of my favorite fictional characters, one that I felt I could really relate to. Does this make me “not like the other girls”? Worse — does this make me a bad feminist? Sexist, even? Groaning under the weight of internalized misogyny and Emma Stone movies?
Until I started truly examining the “not-like-the-other-girls” trope and its subsequent criticism, I thought that I was somehow failing my fellow women by remaining thoroughly disinterested in certain parts of so-called feminine culture they were working so hard to normalize. But the reason the current popular critique of this trope bothers me is not because I am a vehement defender of those girls who claim that they are not like the others — it’s because this critique seems, to me, to only enforce the gendered stereotyping of activities and presentation, ultimately coming full circle and eating its own tail. It’s a social justice paradox, and one I can’t get behind.
For example: I don’t particularly care about getting manicures. Through the “not-like-the-other-girls” lens, I am shirking an unnecessary and highly aestheticized display of vanity because I’m not frivolous or vain. Through the critical lens, I am refusing to engage in a traditionally female activity because I see it as demeaning and well below the feet of my high horse.
The truth is, nail polish feels weighty on my fingertips. I like to keep my nails as short as possible, since I am a writer and pianist that spends the majority of her day pecking away at a keyboard. It has nothing to do with social stigma or perception and everything to do with my own personal levels of comfort and self-expression.
I can’t help but feel that my understanding of gender — much like the rest of society’s — is deeply, confusingly, irrevocably tangled with the gendered roles dictated by the patriarchy. I’ve tried to distance myself from the structure. I’ve tried to subvert it like a good feminist. But even the best, most self-aware feminists fall victim to it at the end of the day.
It’s true; I shy away from feminine things for the most part — hence the “not like the other girls” label I’ve been given by some friends. I’m much more at home in my hiking pants and sweatshirt and I’ll take a day of canoeing over a day tanning on the beach anytime. My resistance to the feminine things I’ve been told I should love is not because I see the “other girls” who watch rom-coms and collect makeup as inferior. In fact, a rewatch of “The Proposal” and playing around with my new eyeshadow palette sounds pretty nice right now.
My resistance instead comes from a deep-rooted red flag. I’m hesitant to engage in a form of femininity that’s so heavily regulated by feminists and patriarchal hardliners alike, one that’s deeply aestheticized and, quite frankly, a bit performative to me. On top of that, at the end of the day, I can’t help when I’m not into something — not for the sake of a trope, and not for the sake of letting my fellow feminists down.
All the popular critique of this trope does is give the patriarchy and its plethora of strict gender roles more power by further drawing lines around what is feminine and, more importantly, what is not. It forces hobbies and interests and media and clothing and even colors into distinct pastures and nails “NO TRESPASSING” signs on the gates. Surely this is not the way to transcend the patriarchy, an outcome which we all claim to desire.
Perhaps the most damning evidence against this critique is if we were to transpose it to men instead. Men are allowed to be quiet, bookish and unfussy about their appearance. They’re also allowed to love sneakers and nice clothes and the value of a good haircut. They can meticulously plan their diets and workouts or adopt a more laid-back lifestyle, all with no critique. Why? Because, when applied to men, tropes fade away and simply become personal preferences. They are not political statements and they certainly aren’t pro- or anti-men. They can contain multitudes with no justification or potential angle required.
Conversely, women are culturally regarded as performers no matter what they’re doing, every move calculated, every sentence premeditated, and all in the service of male attention and approval, which is really the crux of this debate. “Not-like-the-other-girls” girls are regarded as attention-seekers by being deliberately unfeminine, while the “other girls” are regarded as attention-seekers by being deliberately feminine.
A few months ago, a very recent acquaintance told me — after only three short conversations which he dominated, I’ll add — that he had me “all figured out.” He told me that I was smart and a high achiever. Fair enough. Then he told me that I don’t drive, I don’t play sports and I don’t drink beer. I got no small amount of pleasure in informing him that I drive a pickup truck, played soccer for ten years and come from a German family in Pennsylvania — of course I drink beer.
He thought he knew me because I presented as a studious girl who crossed his path and expressed no romantic interest in him. The rest of the pieces fell into place in his mind: I must be meek and delicate and drink only those fruity cocktails I mentioned earlier. Much like the two camps in the “not-like-the-other-girls” debate, this is how he, too, understood femininity: deliberately submissive or deliberately subversive. It’s time to end that silent acceptance once and for all and throw that definition of femininity, whatever it is, out the window.
It’s true. I’m not like the other girls — but only because nobody could ever be like another girl.