Even bad tropes, the ones we can all agree are pretty weak or even actively horrible, have an origin. Now, one might say, why bother discussing the reason behind a bad trope? They’re just bad!
Because there’s a reason behind everything, and it is always worth questioning and investigating. We study history, the good and the bad, we want to know why scientific innovations happen, but we also want to know why war broke out. So it actually does matter why a bad trope exists. Because most “bad tropes,” like many a bad thing, are good ideas gone wrong.
That little explanation out of the way, the trope I want to talk about today is the dreaded “not like other girls” trope. It’s where the author, whether in the mouths of other characters or in the mouth of the protagonist, is constantly telling you that she is not like all those other girls, with the clear connotation that all those other girls are worthless and stupid.
Common elements/facts regarding this trope:
-it is found most commonly in Young Adult books. Love YA or hate it, it is prime breeding ground for this trope since it consists exclusively of teenagers (the natural age for such comparisons to one’s peers), and is dominated by girls over boys which…
-it is girls, as far as I can tell, not boys so much. You may see that once in a while (“he felt so different from the other boys”), but it’s not as commonly seen as the “not like other girls” spiel. Not by a long shot.
-it usually implies several assumptions: that other girls are shallow and boring and stupid, but our girl is deep, and bright, and clever. That all girls are The Plastics in Mean Girls or want to be them, but our girl doesn’t even care about all that, and has vast and meaningful interests.
-it often inadvertently isolates the character from meaningful relationships with other girls/women.
-sometimes it is told from the mouth of a love interest, wherein he is the one telling everyone else that she is “not like other girls,” in which case there is more complexity, because attraction can put a unique light on someone, but which ought to be proved to partly due to that sheen of attraction within the narrative.
Let’s start with the obvious: this is usually a device designed to make our heroine seem special and unique, to draw us in and make us admire or empathize with her, for perhaps we, at times, have felt that we were “not like other girls.” (more on that in a moment).
The author is rarely if ever intentionally denigrating other women in order to lift their heroine up, but that is what almost always happens. Frankly, this is usually a result of laziness, as are most failed or bad trope usages: the author wants to show us how wonderful and interesting their girl is, but rather than doing so by showing who the heroine is in and of herself, the author shows us who she is only by comparison to others.
I think this happens because we so often (and so foolishly) compare ourselves to others. Some may compare beauty or wealth–that is more stereotypically seen in books and movies–but most of us actually compare our wit, our intelligence, our charm, our savvy, our sense, our unique interests, our strengths and weaknesses. This is just as unwise, but, strangely, doesn’t get the same bad rap as comparing the surface material.
That is why this trope fails: it seeks to make a pond seem deep by making everyone else into puddles, rather than allowing that everyone has their hidden depths even if we cant always see them right away.
Some people are smarter, some are more creative, some are prettier, some are stronger (physically or emotionally). Sometimes you may feel you are surrounded by geniuses, sometimes by idiots. This is perfectly reasonable to depict, but not to accept as unfiltered reality.
All this to say, perhaps even more than authorial laziness, this is manifested from our own personal insecurity. But, since it is a bit presumptuous to speak on behalf of anyone but myself, I will use myself as an example and we’ll see if it applies elsewhere.
I often felt like I was “not like other girls” growing up. Well, honestly, I thought I was not like pretty much anything. Not in a particularly good way. Not in a particularly bad way. “It’s just that I am what I am, and I’m me!!!” would sum it up pretty nicely (in case you’re wondering that’s a line from the Peter Pan musical stage play…Peter Pan was the sole source of all my childhood goals). I found myself terribly fascinating and if others found my “fascinating” qualities obnoxious or ridiculous, it made no never mind to me!
Of course, as I grew older, I found that I often misjudged people…assumed shallowness where there was depth, assumed frivolity where there was real joy. I learned that the ways in which I was “not like other girls” so that “other girl” was also not like me! And that was marvelous. We were both deliciously not like each other!
I can do nothing–NOTHING–in the realm of clothes, make-up, and other pretty-making things. Whatever wire in the brain connects all that stuff–the ability to even just match basic colors or do decor, for instance–I just don’t have it. AT ALL. I do not own makeup, not because I think it is silly or bad, but just because I have no interest and no understanding of it. I wouldn’t know what to do with it. But I admire people who apply their artistic talents, and do these things I cannot understand, and they do it with ease and creativity. I have learned to genuinely enjoy the things about others that are “not like me.”
I was never a very gentle-natured child. I was rough and loud and difficult. But I have learned to appreciate people who are quiet and kind and gentle. I love to argue. I have learned (am learning) to appreciate people who know how to make peace.
You get the idea.
The fallacy of “not like other girls” is its inherent implication that the other girls are of less worth, or are less interesting. Furthermore, the “not-likeness” is often in the form of looking down on girls who like traditionally girly things, in favor of a girl who likes traditionally boyish things: a hierarchy of what is valuable is therein implied. This is particularly surprising because you see this trope written by women far more so than by men. Riddle me that.
Not all bad tropes are redeemable but I can think of two instances in which this one can work.
Anne of Green Gables pulled this off. Anne was a strange girl to the people in Avonlea, and it was not surprising because she had a bizarre upbringing, and had never felt the social pressure to be or behave a certain way, so she felt a little freer in her words and imagination. Sometimes L.M. Montgomery succumbed to making the other girls seem “lesser” but she wrote many, many wonderful friends for Anne whom Anne loved and respected and who had their own quirks and their own lives. Ruby Gillis, for instances, started out as a bubble-headed boy-crazy girl…but in Anne of the Island, that was explored a little further, albeit in a tragic way. If your girl is a bit bonkers because of a very different upbringing, that can work very well indeed, but it doesn’t necessitate shallowing everyone else’s waters to show that.
When people are in like or in love, they are going to see the person they are interested in on a bit of a pedestal. My husband thought I was “not like other girls” when he was first interested in me, partly because he was interested in me. So long as the rose-colored classes don’t cover everyone’s eyes, this is perfectly understandable.
Anyhow, that is why I think this trope exists. We are apt to compare ourselves, and we sometimes impart this to our characters and, as we all know, this does not serve to flesh them out, it serves to flatten them and everyone else around them.