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.
So, in those moments when I’ve just put both kids down for a nap and I’m exhausted, but shouldn’t nap because I have things to do, but also don’t quite have the energy to do those things at the moment, I sometimes wile away a bit of time watching Booktube videos. While much of Booktube seems to focus chiefly on YA books (not my usual genre) I just really love watching people discuss books. And I like watching their book hauls too. It gets me so excited about reading.
It reminds me of when I was a kid. We lived a brisk 10-15 minute walk from a small local library in my home city and, of summers, we would go there and just stack our arms with all we could carry, and walk home…we would grab more than a 10 year old could reasonably get through in the two-week time period. But, either way, I would walk home and show my mom each and every one of the books I got with the same giddy excitement I recognize in many booktuber’s eyes as they do their book hauls: the books they bought, received as ARCs, or were given as gifts.
Of course, it made me want to go to a library or a used books store or ANYWHERE and stack books high up to my chin. But since the library is not the most convenient trip to take at the moment, and one cannot just buy books willy-nilly, I decided to do the practical thing and do a monthly “haul” of my own bookshelves. I have quite a number on my shelves that I have not read, and I am going to pretend each month that they are brand new books (which, in the meaningful sense, they are!).
Moreover I am going to present my “haul” to my husband, who will probably smile and roll his eyes a little and say “I already knew you had that book” or “You’ve already told me about that book.” However silly that may seem (and it is undoubtedly silly) it actually does give me that fresh, just-got-back-from-the-library excitement. Plus, it’s motivation to get through more books in a month than I’d originally intended.
And, although I have just said that this is silly, maybe it’s not quite so silly, because I am reminded of something C.S. Lewis said–I think it was in Surprised by Joy–about the thrill of those brown paper packages which contained new and exciting books. This is a time-tried pleasure, clearly. It’s hard not to get excited. Of course, there have been books I was giddy for that ended up being extremely disappointing, but there have also been books I picked up with a shrug and casual interest that ended up making me cry, or sticking with me for years and years.
So here ’tis. I scanned my shelves and picked these books for the month of April. (I am still reading The Brothers Karamazov, The Republic of Fear, and المجتمع العراقي throughout, bit by bit, until I finish them).
Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone: I’ve heard good things about this and, while I am NOT a fan of urban fantasy, I’m going to give it a shot.
The Slave, by Isaac Bashevis Singer: Historical fictions set in 17th century Poland about a “devout captive Jew who falls in love with his master’s daughter.” I know nothing else. Found it for 3 dollars in an airport years ago, then never read it.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley: Classic dystopian about the way in which empty pleasure and distraction can tyrannize and destroy quite as thoroughly as force, violence, or war. Always wanted to read it, so now I will. If I like it–well, and even if I don’t–I have another Huxley on my shelf from years ago.
Saddam’s Secrets, by Georges Sada: From the front cover “How an Iraqi General defied and survived Saddam Hussein.” Was a gift from friends, signed by the author.
Letters to Malcom, Chiefly on Prayer, by C.S. Lewis: My favorite author, and a book of his I have not read. Enough said : )
If I can get into the groove of doing this every month while simultaneously reading the big ones in the background (Middlemarch comes after B. Karamazov!) then I will have worked my way through much of my own shelves and far outstripped my current goodreads goal!
Monsoon Wedding is one of my all-time favorite movies. I have surely seen it more than a dozen times, and I’ll likely see it many more…and I’m going to tell you why, because this is some good storytelling.
For those who have never seen or even heard of this movie, it is, at first glance, exactly what it says on the tin. The only daughter of a wealthy-but-actually-having-money-troubles Punjabi family is getting married–an arranged marriage–and the whole extended family is coming into town for all the sundry wedding-related events. Sounds simple, but it’s so much more than that.
There are several main threads followed throughout the story (SPOILERS: all of them):
-The mother and father of the bride are stressed and tense and are feeling disconnected from one another.
-The bride, Aditi, has a former lover (a married man) she can’t let go of
-Two of the young relatives (from different sides) have a flirtation.
-Aditi’s little brother is not interested in school or things stereotypically masculine and this creates conflict with his parents.
-PK Dubey, wedding organizer, and Alice, who is a maid at the house, have a subtle romance between them.
-Most importantly, the story of Ria, Aliya, and the Uncle (Tej) and what happened to Ria in the past. We’ll get back to this.
This last thread is the heart and soul of the story, in my opinion, and has wrung tears from me before. But I will explain why the whole story is beautiful to me.
The Story Threads
I’m going to focus mostly on Ria, but I want to give a few good nuggets about each thread.
Aditi’s parents, Lalit and Pimmi: One of the most beautiful scenes in this movie is after a terrible, terrible revelation, Lalit (the father) is at a loss. He feels a failure and he is confused. He breaks down. Every time before when Pimmi reached out to him, he was too tired or too distracted. They’ve been at odds. But now he reaches out to her, seeks comfort from her. “I’m falling Pimmi,” he says. And she helps hold him up. And, in that action, she too is comforted because she is able to offer strength and comfort when it is most needed.
Aditi might actually be my least favorite character for all that she is the bride of the titular wedding, but that’s okay, because the narrative acknowledges her immaturity. She is having an affair with a married man and she clearly doesn’t know what she wants out of life. There are subtle hints that she is a bit shallow and has a lot of growing up to do. The best part of her storyline is when she realizes that being “the other woman” and trusting a man who is willing to betray his own wife are two of the stupidest things imaginable. And then, she takes a daring step and is honest with her husband-to-be: “I don’t want to start something new based on deceit and lies.” She makes a first step towards real growth then, and gives her new marriage a much stronger foundation. I also appreciate how realistic it is that her fiance flies into a rage, at first, because he is deeply offended: but he is able to check himself and realize how much courage it took for Aditi to be honest with so much at risk.
The two young loves, Ayesha and Rahul, are part of a very minor plot, but the final result is that Rahul has to learn, in very minor fashion, a lesson best summed up by the following quote “Oh darling, you have to be standing up in order to even fall…’only brave warriors fall from their horses in battle; how can kneeling cowards know what a fall is?”
Aditi’s little brother gives up on doing the thing he loves (he wants to dance in the item number) and it is clear that he regrets it. This storyline is unresolved, but this makes sense as he is still young, and can still learn to both be responsible while still enjoying the things he loves.
PK Dubey and Alice are sort of handled as the “downstairs” people of the story, if this were Downton Abbey, but their story is beautifully, sweetly told. Dubey is a little ridiculous, and Alice from Bihar is the calm, quiet, reasonable one. Perhaps the most poignant scene with them is when they get married soaking wet in the monsoon rains, under a little marigold umbrella with just a few fellow working friends in attendance–quickly contrasted by the huge, lavish wedding put on by the family for the daughter. I think it is so easy for everyone to assume that the stereotypical lavish wedding they’ve seen in all the Bollywood movies is all there is to see or know about. They forget that perhaps not everyone can or will have such a wedding. But then, of course, Dubey and Alice are invited into the tent to celebrate at the end, and it all ends with dancing.
RIA!!!!!!! This movie is really about Ria. What happens to her and how she deals with it, and how the family deals with it–this is what this movie is really all about. Ria deserves her own heading.
So it is clear from early on that Ria has some discomfort with Tej Uncle. She freezes up when he enters the room. She is not happy, as one might expect, when he offers to pay for her education. She turns into a plank of wood when he touches her. But she says nothing, and the viewer does not know for some time what the problem is. Not until Ria finds Tej Uncle chatting with Aliya, who is about nine years old, do you begin to guess the problem. Tej Uncle is not to be trusted.
Ria’s heart stops when she sees Tej Uncle alone in a room with little Aliya. You can see it in her eyes: deep, deep dread for fear that something has happened and for fear that you have failed to stop it.
After a moment’s fearful pause, Ria bursts into the room, glaring at Tej Uncle and berating Aliya for being in that room. She breathes a desperate sigh of relief when Aliya explains she simply asked for Tej Uncle to reach something from a high shelf.
The crucial culmination of this is when Tej Uncle offers to take Aliya for a drive during one of the wedding events because she is tired and cranky, Ria rushes to stop him, stepping in front of the car. The courage it takes for her to do this is tremendous. Still more courage is required for her to admit to Lalit, her Uncle who raised her, that Tej Uncle molested her as a child, so that they will get him away from Aliya.
It is because everyone else loves and trusts this man that this is almost insurmountably difficult for Ria. No one wants to believe her because it means accusing someone they have thought of as family. Someone they have known for so, so long. Someone who has gotten them out of desperate financial straits before.
Lalit doesn’t know what to do. He is torn between his dear friend (Tej Uncle) and Ria. Ria leaves the wedding event, feeling abandoned by those she loves most, suspecting (reasonably) that they will want to just brush the whole thing under the rug.
And they almost do.
Ria comes back because Lalit begs her to, but you can see she is in turmoil. She is made to sit near to and take family photographs with the man who molested her. He is getting away with it, even though now (because of his attempts to target Aliya) they know Ria is telling the truth.
Finally they go to honor the deceased, Ria’s father. You see her terrible sorrow as she places a smudge of red paint on his old photograph.
Lalit cannot take it anymore. He sees her hurt. He loves her. He sees what he must do. He cannot allow a man who harmed Ria to carry on as if nothing has happened, nor pretend to honor Ria’s father in front of her very face.
He stops Tej Uncle and orders him to leave. And it is so, so hard for him to do this. He is very much beholden to this man. That is what makes it powerful. Now it is easy to say that that is what he should have done in the first place, but in the context, if you have empathy, you can see that what he is doing takes courage as well. “These are my children,” he says. “And I will protect them even from myself if I have to.”
It isn’t a fight. Lalit just quietly stands his ground and makes that man leave.
You see the love and gratitude in Ria’s eyes in that moment. She is worth the breaking of deep ties, she is worth losing face, losing security, losing comfort. She is worth all that to her family. The joyfulness she exhibits at the final wedding scene is that of someone finally freed from a great horror. She is safe. She is loved. She has hope for the future (The newly arrived and handsome Umang, perhaps?)
Other points of interest:
Obviously this movie is about family. Ria giving Aditi advice. Lalit and Pimmi’s love for their daughter and their niece. Their complicated love for their son who is not living up to their expectations, whom they do not fully understand. Mothers, Fathers, Daughters, Sons, friends, family, all coming together to celebrate.
The director, Mira Nair, said that she wanted to make her own version of a Bollywood film. If you watch Bollywood films, you will be familiar with the more typical aspects, mainly the impromptu dancing and singing, item numbers, and the occasional fantasy sequence. This film is not a musical, however, and nothing happens in it that would not happen in real life. But, oh so cleverly, there is a great deal of dancing and singing, and even a few moments that feel like a fantasy sequence.
-A hired singer sings during the henna painting ceremony
-The family, jokingly, sings half a song at the dinner table
-One of the family members is asked to sing as they sit on the ground during the Sangeet
-Ayesha practices a dance number with Varun (Aditi’s little brother) for the Sangeet
-Ayesha performs the “item number” with Rahul and, eventually, the whole crowd, joining her on the dance floor.
-When Dubey eats marigolds, marigold leaves are falling in a haze, and the music and cinematography gives the impression of something magical happening.
This film’s soundtrack is fantastic. Just a perfect mixture, somehow.
Little, Subtle Things
I do not profess to know very much about Indian culture broadly, or Punjabi culture specifically, and rest assured this movie is not “educational”: what I mean is that this is a beautiful story, rich in nuances, not designed to be “Indian culture 101” for those curious to learn. However, by the nature of being such a good story, and so well-grounded (and by virtue of my having watched this film SO MANY TIMES) there are little cultural things to be gleaned and appreciated.
Alice is from Bihar. Where is Bihar? What is unique about that region?
Lalit challenges Dubey’s cost assessment by saying, hey, look, “I’m not an NRI” (Non-resident Indian). What are the cultural perceptions about residents vs. NRIs?
The beautiful things Pimmi has been collecting for Aditi’s wedding since she was born.
The Verma (main family’s) very fine house which feels like an estate versus PK Dubey’s smaller, much less modern house…very different styles of living, and also interesting to observe, because Dubey is notedly not poor, yet might seem so to Western eyes.
All the traditions and ceremonies…some, admittedly, with the sheen rubbed off of them because of all the personal turmoil and real conflict.
Ria and her Bengali friend arguing about the stereotypes of their respective regions.
And so much more. But it’s just naturally there, and the story is so full and so very much alive with details.
There is certainly sorrow to be had in this movie, but the joy is present to, and I might as well tell you that it wins the day.
*I apologize in advance for all the mixed metaphors
I always get a thrill when I hear of a slew of new books with genius premises…and then a sigh of discouragement swiftly follows. You see, I have been burned by premise before.
I hear of a book that has a simply BLAZING, brilliant premise. I admire the author for simply coming up with that idea all by itself. I can’t wait to read it. I think about how awesome it must be, how clever they were, what fun there is to be had, what drama, what joy!
And then I read the book and the brilliant premise is wasted on a generic plot, lackluster characters, half-hearted themes, and everything feels forced, forced, forced. The best part of the book turned out to be the pitch.
Now this could happen to a book touted for other reasons, aside from the dashing premise or the cool concept. Someone could say “the plot is brilliant,” and other facets would disappoint you. Someone could say, “I love the characters,” but you don’t connect to them at all. One might insist the writing is “gorgeous” but you find it too purple. Someone could tell you, “this book was profound!” and you find it pretentious. People have different tastes, obviously, and different ways of measuring quality. Some things are objectively good or bad, but many, many others are subjectively so.
But here’s why it galls me when a book is pushed on premise alone, more so than any other potential selling point: it’s the tactic of the used car salesman. It’s a gorgeous sleek car that has every chance of having a crap engine–not just the engine I don’t like, or an imperfect one, but one that doesn’t even have all the working parts. The thing looks fantastic on the lot, and is full of bells and whistles, but no one bothered to make sure it could drive.
It’s a dish that is presented as a rare and intriguing combination of flavors, and could have been good…but it tastes terrible. So gorgeous on the plate, such an enticing list of ingredients, but all thrown together in a thoughtless rush as if the constituent elements were good enough all on their own without being put together properly.
It’s the “could have been” that bothers me so much. I fully understand that there is a lot of room for subjectivity here, but peruse some goodreads reviews for books with those juicy premises and you will see that one of the commonest critiques is that “it had so much potential” that it “sounded just like something I would love” and had “all the elements I adore in a story.”
It’s steak cooked well-done. The raw material–the premise–was as good as could be found. It was perfect. Everyone is jealous they didn’t think of it first! And now it’s bone-dry, tough, and chewy in all the wrong ways. Hard to get down.
Now if the raw material wasn’t all that impressive to begin with–a simple premise, nothing new, or a cheap, normal car–then if the author fails to work wonders, we are not so disappointed. On the other hand, if the author takes what looks like “nothing” or even “something we’ve all seen before” and works magic out of that? If they whip up something delectable out of the commonest of ingredients, or get that old, boring car’s engine to rev and purr?
We love that. We try to get everyone to read it, even though it’s hard because it doesn’t pitch as clean or easy as the one with the super-shiny premise.
I’m not going to give an example of works that disappointed me in such a fashion, because I’m not here to rag on stuff to no purpose. But I will say that it has happened enough–either by direct experience or word of mouth–that I would be hard-pressed to ever buy a book based on a cool premise ever again.
Of course that is why we use reviews, personal recommendations, and time itself as sifters…but this premise thing frustrates me quite apart from any time or money I myself may have invested in a book that didn’t live up to its potential. What I mean to say is that it frustrates me because I feel that I must instantly cut myself off from any hope or excitement that a premise-promoted book will fulfill the desire it strikes up in me, and I will usually assume at the outset that it will fail on its enticing promises. So why even bother? And, on the whole, isn’t that a very sad outlook? To assume that, the shinier the cover (so to speak) the duller the content? Judging the book by its cover in reverse, as it were?
I mean, it hardly seems fair. I’m bound to be missing out on things, right?
And yet, I think this is where people are coming from when they swear off all new works. (Not a thing I have done or intend to do, but not a wholly irrational thing either). Something new and clever-sounding piques their interest, but it turns out to be all talk, no walk. Let this happen a few more times and they may give up on the whole endeavor, which is a pity.
The reason this is not as much of a problem with less high concept works is because, as I mentioned above, they do not promise the same thrills. We approach common premise books with common expectations. We do not soar so high before we thud to the ground, as Anne of Green Gables would have it. And the reason it is not as much of a problem with older or classical works is because, even if we read them and don’t like them (which often happens) we can usually still see why they have the longevity that they do, and take something from them.
I do not have a solution to this conundrum of mine. It came to mind only because I recently came across several different books with such exciting premises that are coming out this year or the next, but immediately slapped my own wrist and told myself “No, don’t bother! Remember what happened last time? You’ll only be disappointed. It’ll be all garnish and no meat.”
I don’t want that to be true. And, I know, I know..nothing ventured, nothing gained. But let’s just say, these days, I flinch a little at the awesome premise because, far from throwing a mean punch, I’m worried it will just walk away without ever saying anything at all.