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The Girl Next Door Trope, Explained

The Girl Next Door. She’s warm and inviting, and has always been there for her boy next door. But who is she anyway? What really defines her as an individual? In this video we delve into the Girl Next Door, what she represents, what she says about her era, and why it’s finally time for her to take control of her own story.

TRANSCRIPT

Spiderman: “This, like any story worth telling… is all about a girl. That girl. The girl next door.” - Spiderman (2002)

There’s no one as simultaneously comforting and alluring as the girl next door. Through the decades, this figure encapsulates her time period’s particular idea of the “perfect woman,” not just in her looks but also in her deeper nature. If we look at iconic examples of the girl next door in film and TV, we can spot the qualities that define her: True to her name, she often lives near the male protagonist. She’s always been there. The girl next door has usually been in the boy next door’s life for many years, as a neighbor or childhood friend. This familiarity can both inspire and hinder romance. The boy and girl feel totally comfortable opening up to each other, but one of them is frequently friend-zoned or overlooked by the other.

Dawson: “I’ve known you forever, but I feel like I’m seeing you for the first time tonight.” - Dawson’s Creek 1x12

She’s accessible. The girl next door is usually from a small town or an un-flashy neighborhood. Her personality tends to be down-to-earth, supportive, and approachable. For both her main boy and her culture at large, the girl next door embodies an idealized, wholesome femininity. She’s often juxtaposed with a more overtly sexy, glamorous woman.

Yet, the girl next door’s story implies that her innate modesty is part of what makes her special. To paraphrase One Direction, she doesn’t know how beautiful she really is. Perhaps more explicitly than any other character type, the girl next door is seen in relation to a boy — the very phrase labels her based on nearness to him — and this can make her into someone who doesn’t get to define herself for herself.

Here’s our take on the girl next door: what she represents, what she says about her era, and why it’s time for her to bust out of the house next door and take control of her own story.

The Girl Next Door Through the Years

The girl next door represents her time period’s feminine ideal, so in her evolution, over the years we can see what qualities a changing world prizes most in women. The 1940s girl next door in cinema was defined by her deep humility and self-sacrifice, which she didn’t even view as sacrifice. She was the picture of unconditional acceptance.

Judy Garland’s Esther in 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis is defined by her devotion to her beloved boy next door, her family, and her hometown. She and her sisters are devastated at the prospect of moving from Missouri to New York City, highlighting the girl next door’s strong connection to her roots.

In 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Donna Reed’s small-town girl next door Mary is also defined by enduring love for her hometown, Bedford Falls. While Jimmy Stewart’s George dreams of big adventures and traveling the world, Mary’s ultimate goal is simply to settle down and start a family right where she grew up. And ultimately the movie is about George realizing Mary’s outlook was right, that your community, your family, and your sense of decency are what truly make a person “rich.”

Harry Bailey: “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.” - It’s A Wonderful Life

The same year, Wilma in The Best Years of Our Lives also embodied the virtue of wanting nothing more than a modest existence with the man you love. Wilma stands by her beau even though her family doesn’t think he’s good enough and marrying him means a much harder life — a challenge she accepts happily.

The ‘50s idea of the girl next door was most iconically embodied by Doris Day, who was the picture of All-American wholesomeness. Despite her huge popularity in the early 60s, Day’s box-office power faded later in the decade, as her innocently pure image began to feel out of step with cultural attitudes increasingly shaped by the sexual revolution.

One of the 1960s’ most influential girls next door, Gilligan’s Island’s Mary Ann Summers, also revealed the decade’s feeling torn between more traditional and edgy feminine ideals. The Kansas farm girl played by Dawn Wells was an innocent ingenue, based on Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Audiences, both at the time and since, have fixated on comparing Mary Ann with the other attractive woman on the island, the sexy starlet Ginger.

Mary Ann: “I used to be a Girl Scout, and they teach you a lot!” Ginger: “I used to go with a Boy Scout, and they teach you a lot, too.” - Gilligan’s Island 1x2

And significantly, this enduring “Ginger or Mary Ann?” question has tended to be answered strongly in favor of Mary Ann, signaling that viewers (still in the ‘60s and long afterward) have continued to be drawn to the domestically-minded, down-home kind of girl.

1978’s The Deer Hunter radically reevaluated the girl next door’s role in a darkening world. Over the course of the movie, Linda is involved with two different men in her small, working-class Pennsylvania town, but the first disappears in Vietnam and the second returns home emotionally scarred by the horrors he experienced there. Thus, this film examines the girl next door’s lost innocence and the impossibility of serving as an always cheerful, supportive domestic goddess in the midst of national upheaval.

In the ‘80s, teen movie icon Molly Ringwald’s girl next door appeal in movies like Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles was expressed as a stylish, geeky-cool individuality. Ringwald’s characters retained the figure’s relatability, sweetness, and decency, in contrast to the sometimes cartoonishly unrelatable antagonists in these films. But the sense that Ringwald’s roles and overall persona were refreshingly unusual reflected a new emphasis on the girl next door having a strong sense of self and the courage to be different.

‘80s to ‘90s TV examples like Winnie on The Wonder Years, DJ on Full House, Topanga on Boy Meets World, and Laura on Family Matters embodied another new defining quality of the girl next door: being extremely book smart. This development reveals how greater value was being placed on female intelligence. Yet, even as these characters were framed as studious or competitive overachievers, they still weren’t allowed to stray too far from the beaten path when it came to living a truly unconventional life.

Topanga: “Mr. Feeny said I should go to Yale unless I have a really good reason not to.” Cory: “Well there isn’t any good reason.” Topanga: “Actually there is… Will you marry me?” - Boy Meets World

The ultimate ‘90s girl next door on TV was Joey from Dawson’s Creek, whose shy, unpolished mannerisms captured her era’s idea of what it was to be authentic, unpretentious, and down-to-earth. Joey also shows a noticeable independent streak reflecting her times.

Joey: “I don’t even know who I am. I need to find my something.” Dawson: “So go find it.” Joey “It can’t include you, Dawson. It has to be my doing, and mine alone.” - Dawson’s Creek 2x6

The ‘90s and early 2000s increasingly gave us portraits of the girl next door who wanted more for herself, or who got to stop being her story’s love interest and step into the spotlight. Another version of My So-Called Life could easily have cast Angela as the girl next door to her lovelorn neighbor Brian. But the show grounds us in her perspective, exploring her interest in departing from her small, safe life to join an alternative crowd, date the popular bad boy, and be a rebellious teen.

Freaks and Geeks likewise followed bookish, square Lindsey feeling the need to go outside her comfort zone by running with the slackers in her school. Rory on Gilmore Girls also looks like the classic girl next door. But this high school valedictorian prizes her ambition above any domestic dream. When Rory’s boyfriend Dean extols the virtues of It’s a Wonderful Life and The Donna Reed Show’s star Donna Reed, Rory expresses disdain for old-fashioned gender roles.

Rory: “It’s the having to have the dinner on the table as soon as the husband gets home, and having to look perfect to do housework, and the whole concept that her one point in life is to serve somebody else.” - Gilmore Girls 1x14

On Friends, Monica functions as a kind of adult girl next door for Chandler — she lives in the apartment next door, is one of his best friends, and for a long time neither looks at the other in a romantic light. She even has the girl next door’s fondness for keeping a spotless home, down-to-earth attitude, and desires to get married and raise a family. But reflecting her time period, she was an equal partner in the story, and her characterization complemented the trope’s typical qualities with others like independence, career ambition, plenty of neuroses, and lots of experience of the real world that keeps her from being too innocent or pure.

Contemporary girls next door have continued to reject the old confines of this character type. While the Betty of Archie Comics was forever pining for and plotting to win her boy next door Archie, Riverdale’s update to this character moves on from her infatuation in the first couple of episodes, and her journey is about trying to understand the darkness going on inside herself. So in her modern iterations, the girl next door frequently waves goodbye to her trademark supportive role, claiming the right to put herself first and chart the course of her own life.

The Girl Next Door v, The “Other Woman”

Seen through the eyes of her story’s central boy, the girl next door can become a symbol for womanhood in general. Yet frequently in these stories, she represents only half of womankind.

Mary Ann: “Maybe you’re too glamorous — take me, I’m more like the girl who lives next door.” - Gilligan’s Island 1x21

From the beginning, this character has been set up in opposition to another type of woman. Just look at 1948’s A Date with Judy, where innocent girl next door Judy is contrasted with Elizabeth Taylor’s bombshell beauty Carol.

More broadly, the 1940s girl next door was the polar opposite of the sexual, scheming femme fatale that rose to prominence in the same era. The 60s gave us the “Ginger or Mary Ann” debate, as well as The Graduate’s story of protagonist Benjamin choosing between his seductive older neighbor Mrs. Robinson and her sweet daughter Elaine.

Nancy, the iconic final girl (and literal girl next door) of 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, is set up as a wholesome alternative to her friend Tina, who is sexually active and is eventually murdered by Freddy Krueger, following the slasher genre’s infamous tendency to punish teens who have sex. The pilot episode of both Dawson’s Creek and Riverdale show girls next door Joey and Betty each being eclipsed by a sexy newcomer from New York City.

All these examples reveal that the girl next door trope fits into the deeply ingrained idea that there are two fundamental categories of women: the seductress men lust after, and the good girl they view as friend (or wife) material.

Kaye Faulkner: “You’re basically alone on a deserted island with two readily available women: one a seductive, sex goddess type, the other a healthy girl-next-door type with a nice butt.” - Dazed and Confused

Frequently these show-downs between the sexy girl and the sweet one end up working out with the girl next door on top. Joey ends up having her choice between Dawson and Pacey (plus another guy), while her once-rival, the cool and sexy Jen, dies of pulmonary congestion.

Ultimately, this dichotomy is an expression of our culture’s unfortunate Madonna-whore complex, in which all women are seen as either pure, virtuous Madonnas or sinful sexual beings. But obviously real women don’t divide into these two categories. In The Graduate, the final moment when Ben and Elaine look uncertain about their future subtly hints that they’re very likely to fall into the traps of their parents’ dissatisfying suburban life, which means that the sweet girl next door Elaine will develop into the seductive, frustrated older woman.

Meanwhile, the boy protagonist’s idealized, youthful impression of the girl next door can forever put her on a reductive “purity pedestal.” In Forrest Gump, even as Forrest’s childhood friend Jenny struggles down a dark, troubled path, Forrest can only ever see her as the angel she first appeared like to him. And eventually (before her untimely death) his faith manages to briefly turn her into that classic girl next door-esque wife and mother.

The girl next door often feels like a safe place — a port in a storm for the male character, when his outside world becomes too overwhelming. But the boy next door’s view of this girl as so perfectly good can make him incapable of seeing who she really is, in all her complexity and nuance.

Josh: “You’re like the sweet, innocent girl, and he’s a complete dick. I don’t get it.”

Lara Jean: “You know you make me sound really boring, right, Josh? I’m not that innocent.” - To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Narratives both old and new also can send the troubling message that a girl should be willing to wait however long it takes until her faithful devotion is rewarded. Even if her beloved is currently ignoring or mistreating her.

The Girl Next Door, Complicated

When we think of the girl next door, the first thing to come to mind is probably her sweet nature or our own memories of childhood. But casting this character in such a flattering sepia light can also obscure the more complicated aspects of who she is.

Take The Wonder Years, which ran from 1988 to 1993. The show is framed by the now-adult protagonist Kevin reflecting on his youth, including his girl next door and first love Winnie. Setting this story in the ‘60s speaks to the inherent nostalgia of the girl next door trope. Winnie embodies Kevin’s longing for a golden, “wondrous” past that’s long gone.

Kevin: “Once upon a time, there was a girl I knew who lived across the street. Every single thing that ever happened to me that mattered, in some way, had to do with her.” - The Wonder Years 6x22

But actually, there’s a lot more to Winnie than this. In the pilot episode, her brother is killed in action in Vietnam, and over the course of the series, she also endures her parents’ separation as a result of losing their son and is injured in a serious car accident. And many other girls next door are also dealing with some kind of tragedy or secret darkness that isn’t necessarily visible to the world but eats away at them from the inside.

In recent years, onscreen stories have started to examine the dangers for characters who unquestioningly buy into this traditional, unimaginative formula. The Office’s all grown up “girl next desk” Pam starts the show engaged to her high-school sweetheart and, despite her talent for art, dreaming of nothing more than getting married and settling down. But her inertia and tendency to play it safe (which might have been seen as virtues in another era) are painted as Pam’s fatal flaws. Still, like a traditional girl next door, Pam finds ultimate meaning in her life by raising a family with the man she truly loves.

On Riverdale, Betty is a darker case study in the internal damage that can result from trying to fit the messy complexities of who you are into a one-dimensional, oversimplified, and boring category. Her belief that she’s meant to be with Archie isn’t how she feels deep down, but just part of this narrative she thinks she should live up to. And others’ perception of her as an angelic, rule-following good girl forces her to go to elaborate lengths to liberate her more illicit, primal emotions.

Another interesting subversion of this character type is the mysterious girl next door, who is anything but accessible or old-fashioned. Instead, this character sparks the boy’s interest because she’s so close yet eludes his understanding. This person is still being seen through a specific, limited male gaze, but the point of the story is often how much this egocentric observer has failed to really see her or understand the girl.

Quentin: “I wound up living across the street from Margo Roth Spiegelman. From the moment I saw her, I was hopelessly, madly in love.” - Paper Towns

The 2020 Hulu series Normal People gives us a girl next door character who’s far from the figure’s polite and old-fashioned image. The show highlights how powerful a bond can be between young people who’ve known and understood each other since both their identities were still forming. But it also emphasizes that Maryanne’s and Connell’s simultaneous coming of age together is a messy process. Immature young people still figuring out who they are as individuals can make reckless mistakes or hurt each other along the way.

2019 Netflix rom-com Always Be My Maybe’s contemporary twist on the girl-and-boy next door love story focuses on old childhood friends reconnecting as adults, who live in very different worlds. Yet — like for the couple in Normal People — Sasha’s and Marcus’s shared history is a key part of what brings them back together. What these couples have experienced of each others’ early family lives, and the way they’ve watched each other grow up, makes them feel they know each other better than anyone else could.

Sasha: “Thanks for reminding me how it feels.” Marcus: “How what feels?” Sasha: “Home.” - Always Be My Maybe

All these updates to the girl next door story illustrate that trying to fit your life into a limited, culturally-prescribed pop culture mold can hold you back from unearthing your full potential. For all the girls next door we see onscreen, it’s safe to say that few women would describe themselves using this language. To herself, she’s not the girl next door. She’s just the girl. And the specific adjectives, quirks, and dreams attached to that identity should be left up to her.

Margo: “People have always looked at me and seen what they wanted to see.” - Paper Towns