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The Girly Girl Trope, Explained

The Girly Girl: lover of puppies, shopping, and the color pink. At least, this is how Girly Girls have largely been written by people who don’t care about them. But when we conflate “girly-ness” with passivity, vacuity, and victimhood, it not only devalues Girly Girls; it devalues all women. The Girly Girl can have as much depth, drive, and strength as any tomboy if she’s written with care and empathy. Here’s our Take on the Girly Girl: her wants, her role in fiction, and why we’re seeing everyone get a little girly today.

TRANSCRIPT

The Girly Girl: lover of puppies, shopping, and the color pink. She is fancy, she is vain. She is queen of Girl World. If we look at the Girly Girl across Film & TV, we can spot some common characteristics that define this type:
At least, all of this is how Girly Girls have largely been written by people who don’t care about them. But when we conflate girliness with passivity, vacuity, and victimhood, it not only devalues Girly Girls — it devalues all women, and robs both men and women of experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion.

  • She’s materialistic. The Girly Girl loves pretty dresses and of course, jewelry.
  • She’s in touch with her feelings, sometimes to the point of melodrama. And she’s figured out how to weaponize those tears.
  • She only likes girly media. Comic books? Gross. Math? Not unless you count calculating a buy-one-get-one deal at a shoe store. If you want to distract a Girly Girl, try a chick flick. It’s her kryptonite (a reference the Girly Girl will not understand).
  • Other girls may like to get dirty or have a career. You know, boy stuff? Not the Girly Girl. Her goals in life are simple: look cute, get a man, and live happily ever after.

The Girly Girl can have as much depth, drive, and strength as any tomboy — if she’s written with care and empathy. Here’s our Take on the Girly Girl: her wants, her role in fiction, and why we’re seeing everyone get a little girly today.

Why We Mock Girly Girls

The Girly Girl can feel like a regressive trope. In movies, TV, and literature, she’s often portrayed as a character that holds other women back. But for much of western history, girliness was the default. Historically, the nobility had very exacting standards of dress that to our modern eyes look pretty girly, and Girly Girls were status symbols for families. Girls acquired status through performing girliness and converted that status into marrying well; in other words, their job was to be pretty and marry whoever their dad said they should marry. It was an essentially passive life plan, one where having too much individuality or drive would get in the way

Buffy Sumers: “I was brought up a proper lady. I wasn’t meant to understand things. I’m just meant to look pretty, and then someone nice will marry me. Possibly a Baron.” - Buffy the Vampire Slayer

That’s why in the 1920s setting of The Great Gatsby, Daisy wishes her that daughter will grow up to be:

Daisy Buchanan: “A fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” - The Great Gatsby

Meanwhile, if you were poor, tomboyish, or not white, this Perfect Girl Ideal was inaccessible — as girliness is, at its essence, both a product and signifier of wealth and class. It takes training to hold yourself in a feminine way, to look and speak and behave in the correct, refined manner.

We can still see this link between girliness and money in 1995’s Clueless, where Tai (who’s implied to be less wealthy) is singled out for failing to present as sufficiently girly. Her interest in skateboarding, her accent, and her clothes are mocked and corrected for not fitting the template of the Beverly Hills elite.

Even today, it costs money to look girly. And if you want to perform the girly lifestyle into adulthood, you can’t have a taxing, manual blue-collar job.

The ultrafeminine ideal was also long completely off-limits for women of color, as being a “lady” was defined by whiteness. The social obsession with protecting white femininity was the justification for horrific violence against people of color. And until recently, if we ever even saw a nonwhite Girly Girl onscreen, she had to be fabulously, cartoonishly wealthy.

As feminism made inroads in society, though, different expressions of womanhood have gradually become viable. The Gilded Age saw the popularization in culture of the “New Woman”, a term coined in 1894 by writers Sarah Grand and Maria Louise Ramé, describing a woman who pursued things like education and the right to vote. New Women fought to have careers, to play sports — to never get married, or to engage in relationships with other women.

From this point forward, there were two versions of girlhood: the normal Girly Girls, and the pioneering gals. No longer outlier characters, girls with gender-defying ambitions became protagonists.

Where First Wave Feminism sought legal rights for women, Second Wave Feminism — starting in the late ‘60s — tried to rectify cultural wrongs against women. And shunning girliness came to be seen as a key part of this liberation. It was a feminist’s duty to rebel against gender norms, as seen in Jo Freeman’s

BITCH Manifesto:

Jo Freeman: “Our society has defined as male, and female as something other than male[...] Because she has insisted on being human before being feminine, on being true to herself before kowtowing to social pressures, a Bitch grows up an outsider.” - BITCH Manifesto:

In this view, being feminine is the same as agreeing that you are subhuman, and therefore holding the rest of the sisterhood back.

By emphasizing a rejection of gender norms, Second Wave Feminism left Girly Girls behind. And to this day, our society as a whole kind of hates teen girls. Their interests are mocked, their moods are pathologized, and their clothes are policed. This judgment of a girl’s interests actually starts much earlier, as we lay the gender binary on everything almost from birth. We’re told that boys like trucks, girls like dolls.

Boys like blue, girls like pink. Boys like sports, girls like makeup. Boys are angry, girls are sad. Boys are active heroes. Girls are passive victims. Boys are the protagonists of stories, girls are objects to be won.

Jasmine: “How dare you, all of you. Standing around deciding my future. I am not a prize to be won.” - Aladdin.

And of course, in all these dichotomies that persist in our culture, the girly stuff is seen as lesser. Even parents of young kids who try to escape these limiting binaries more frequently do so by encouraging their girls to adopt boyish interests, rather than vice versa — affirming the implicit message that to spend your time liking pink, princesses, mermaids or anything else coded as explicitly “feminine” isn’t as good.

And our stories reinforce the same assumption. Writers of female protagonists often feel they have to give her stereotypically un-feminine hobbies and pursuits, just to make her seem like a lead character we can all approve of.

So where does that leave the Girly Girl?

Girly Girls as Plot Accessories

In popular narratives, the Girly Girl often finds herself paired with a Tomboy. It’s the girl equivalent of the jock-nerd dyad. Contrasting your girl characters in how feminine they present is a simple, immediate way to distinguish one girl from another. The problem is that these two characters tend to receive very uneven storytime and characterization. Often, the Girly Girl is just an accessory to the other girl the writer wants us to emotionally invest in.

Since girliness has long been the default, the Tomboy automatically draws our attention for her originality and courage. The Tomboy actively defies social norms, while the Girly Girl appears to be passively conforming. And when the romantic lead applauds our Main Girl for being “not like other girls,” the Girly Girl is those other girls.

Jessica in the Twilight series is a normal high school girl who crushes on both Edward Cullen and Mike, but both prefer bookish, unconventional Bella. In the movies, Jessica exists mainly to create background noise: while Anna Kendrick is talking nearly every minute she is on screen, her words are drowned out by Bella’s melodrama. That’s how unimportant her thoughts and feelings are to the directors of the Twilight series. The movie wants us to think, “Well, Bella is reorganizing her life around a guy who said he wants to kill her, but at least she doesn’t care about prom.”

We’re supposed to take it for granted that the Girly Girl’s priorities are out of whack. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn Monroe’s gold-digging Lorelei motivates the plot. Yet we’re encouraged to look down on and laugh at Monroe’s character because she is so one-dimensional in her attention to her looks and her attraction to wealth. If we’re paying attention, we do get clues that there’s more to Lorelai than meets the eye. She understands clearly that women in the ‘50s aren’t able to be good earners, and her class mobility is reliant on being able to nab a rich man. On the other hand, what most viewers are likely to remember is that she sings a love song to jewelry.

In Pride & Prejudice, Lizzie Bennet’s youngest sister Lydia risks her personal safety and her family’s honor by running away with bad boy Wickham. It’s not really explained why she would do something so rash, except to show that Lydia is the shallow “typical girl” everything Lizzie is not. Where Lizzie is self-possessed, Lydia is gushy. Where Lizzie reads, Lydia flirts. Where Lizzie turns down two proposals, Lydia elopes with Wickham without a second thought.

Yet why should her falling under the spell of this bewitching man be so hard for us to sympathize with? After all, Lydia isn’t the only one who’s tempted by Wickham’s charms — Lizzie herself also falls for him without knowing him well, and she lets this attraction blind her to the deeper character of her true love, Mr. Darcy. And while in most adaptations, Lydia is given no deeper motivation for her impulsive behavior, in the web series adaptation The Lizzie Bennet Diaries Lydia gets her own vlog to explain her side of things. We see that she acts out of insecurity about being compared to Lizzie, and a desperate need for affection and validation that her family just doesn’t give her.

Girly Girls are so automatically discounted, they’re often the first to go when a longer-running TV show loses its grip on character development. In seasons 1 and 2 of 30 Rock, Jenna’s vanity is shown to be the practical professional awareness of an actor on a TV show, whose boss is closely monitoring her looks and weight. But as the series gets more cartoonish and packed with jokes, Jenna Maroney quickly goes from being a believable best friend for Liz to an over-the-top parody of the narcissistic celebrity.

Shallow depictions of the outsized Girly Girl exist mainly to put on a little distracting dance for the audience and — crucially — to draw your attention away from any character flaws your Protagonist Girl may have. Girliness is made into an aberration, something wrong with a person that makes them less-than.

Reclaiming the Girly Girl

From the 1990s on, third-wave feminism examined the ways traditionally feminine things had been devalued. Both riot grrl and girl power reclaimed pink, works like Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice validated women’s emotion-based reasoning, and sex-positivity examined how women could take pleasure in their bodies and appearance.

In this environment, our culture’s aversion to girliness was interrogated. As Yael Cohen wrote in New York magazine, “[W]hat’s wrong with girly, anyway? Rolling our eyes at pink feels like another way of treating female culture on the whole as a niche interest, somehow secondary to male culture — a.k.a. the mainstream.”

Likewise, in fictional works with a deeper commitment to character development, we can see this interrogation of our attitudes to girliness at play. In Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women, Amy March is at last given the character depth she’s been denied for over a century. In the novel and adaptations, Amy is portrayed as selfish, vain, and petty, and she’s maligned by audiences for stealing Laurie from Jo — who, incidentally, never wanted him. But Gerwig understands Amy as both a gifted artist and a pragmatic young woman of her time. Florence Pugh’s Amy knows that she has to marry well in order to provide for her family since none of her other sisters will. She has to give up her pipe dream of becoming a professional artist. Thus, far from being a marker of flighty thoughtlessness, her girly presentation is a sign of her worldly savvy and realism.

On Mad Men, we’re encouraged to invest in non-girly girl Peggy — an embodiment of second-wave feminism’s mantra that women can do everything a man can do. But refreshingly, this doesn’t mean that the girlier girls in the story are discarded as one-dimensional. Don’s wife Betty is fleshed-out as a victim of her society’s old-fashioned ideas of “girliness,” which she can’t admit don’t actually make her happy And through Mad Men’s femme-iest character, Joan, the show fully explores both the benefits and limits of playing to gender stereotypes. Joan starts out upholding ideas about traditional marriage roles and continues even after her fiance assaults her. But as the show goes on, Joan negotiates her way through femininity, recognizing her deeper longings for independence and professional success, and picking up and discarding parts of womanhood as they suit her. By the end of the show, she’s a satisfied single mother running a company.

The well-developed Girly Girl also gets to show off other parts of her personality that have nothing to do with her gender. Newer versions of Daphne on Scooby-Doo usually give her something other than “damsel in distress” to portray. In Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, she’s an ambitious reporter, and the live-action movies gave her martial arts skills.

Girly Girl Rachel Green goes through a decade of character development on Friends, arguably more so than any other character on the show. She starts the show as a spoiled rich girl who buys new boots with her daddy’s credit card rather than find a job. But even in the pilot, her ambition for more shines through.

Rachel Green: “All my life, everyone’s always told me, ‘You’re a shoe!’...Then today I just stopped and said, what if I don’t want to be a shoe!” - Friends, s1x01.

Rachel finds career fulfillment in fashion, marrying her ambition and girliness into one package.

Today’s films and shows increasingly feature Girly Girls of color, Girly Girls who get to drive their own stories, Girly girls who might be into other girls, and Girly Girls who are differentiated from less girly girls but aren’t reduced to this one aspect of their personality. When we allow Girly Girls to be more than just the butt of jokes, it makes room for different types of people to be seen as competent and rational human beings. Someone can take pride in their makeup and be competent at their job, as well as have complex, mixed feelings about the role femininity plays in their life. Meanwhile, giving girliness respect onscreen also makes room for men to embrace their feminine sides without risking losing all their status in society.

CONCLUSION: Girliness for everyone!

As the gender binary continues to break down in pop culture, we’ve seen an increasing number of celebrities refuse to identify with any one gender, and that’s made room for people to explore girly pursuits as more than just the default territory of people who are assigned female at birth. Girly girls continue to display hidden depths, and we’re even getting to see some Girly Boys and Girly Thems in pop culture.

Bob’s Burgers has Gene Belcher, who is defiantly one of the girls. And Steven Universe’s titular character is the girliest one on the show. His whole life is pink-themed, he loves cats and romance. But what sets Steven apart is the way his girliness is his strength. Whereas his superpowered foster moms use violence to solve problems, Steven always tries to befriend his would-be enemies, and his compassion for all living things may be his greatest superpower.

Through shows like Pose and Orange Is the New Black, femininity has also been claimed by women who have previously been doubly denied the Girly Girl label: black trans women. Girliness for the women of Pose is a political statement, affirming that they deserve as much compassion and protection as white cisgender women.

As we continue to erode the divisions between what is masculine and feminine, the negative assumptions that girliness is inherently weak, stupid, or necessarily rooted in societal pressure have started to fall away as well. But we still live in a world where people are mocked for embracing their girly side or even subjected to violence. And it remains all too easy for creators to fall into the trap of mocking Girly Girls without interrogating what they’re really mocking. Still, for every show or movie that treats the Girly Girl as its punching bag, there’s one that gives her brains, heart, and bouncy hair. We need to cherish these girly guys, gals, and nonbinary pals. Their ability to be vulnerable, their love of beauty, and their compassion are much needed in a world that too often fails to reward these special gifts.

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