She’s a Weird Girl, the black sheep of all-female character tropes. Why do people misunderstand her, or are even scared of her? What secret powers does the weird girl have?
Meet the weird girl, the black sheep of female character tropes, and not just because she often dresses in black. Her sibling tropes, like the cool girl, the tough girl, the smart girl, and the mean girl, all embody some level of aspiration or desirability. But the weird girl? She’s a cautionary tale. That’s because the weird girl confuses people around her. The easiest way to dismiss something you don’t understand is to call it weird, and people do not understand the weird girl.
The weird girl in TV and film is defined by some recurring characteristics:
People may celebrate individuality in theory, but when it comes to a weird girl, they feel she doesn’t exhibit the right type of individuality. Here’s our Take on the hidden powers of the Weird Girl, why she scares some people, and how attitudes about her have evolved over the years.
- She has an unusual appearance. Black offers the easiest visual shorthand for a weird girl, but whatever the specifics, it’s a style that says, “I don’t care what you think.”
- Matching her fashion choices, the weird girl has a contrarian attitude. She goes her own way. Sometimes she does it judgmentally because she has contempt for normal people.
- Meanwhile, the weird girl has unusual interests or affectations that perplex the normals.
- Considering her alternative attitude and interests, the weird girl has few or no friends. That fuels people’s disdain for her, because nobody really knows her.
- She also rarely has a romantic partner. And the weird girl’s sexuality is often perceived with hostility. Her peers might label her as a slut or a lesbian, without this necessarily being based on any of the girl’s actual preferences or behaviors.
“Weird” is a reductive label. And the characters who get pegged this way actually have a lot of variation in their personalities. Broadly speaking, in TV and film, we can see at least five different subtypes of weird girls: goths, smartasses, basket cases, space cadets, and awkward misfits - although some examples may fit multiple categories and be, for instance, a smartass goth.
Type 1: The Goth
Let’s start with the most quintessential weird girl: the goth. Perhaps the most classic Goth Weird Girl is Lydia Deetz of Beetlejuice. This loner draped in black has a flair for melodrama, and a gothic fascination with death, making her the perfect friend for the ghosts who live in her new home. She’s also the only one who can see the ghosts - underlining that the weird girl’s superpower is perceiving and opening up to what most people completely overlook.
Lydia: “Live people ignore the strange & unusual. I myself am strange & unusual.” - Beetlejuice (1988)
Whereas Lydia feels misunderstood by her family, morbid Wednesday Addams of The Addams Family has a mother who not only understands her daughter’s dark temperament but also shares and actively encourages it. In the outside world, Wednesday faces the kind of social discrimination experienced by other weird girls, but her weird family gives her confidence in who she really is. Just as diabolical but less successful is fellow goth Nancy Downs from The Craft. Nancy represents the weird girl unhinged. As she and her friends harness witchcraft for their own ends, she craves total power.
Type 2: The Smartass
Many of our culture’s favorite goth weird girls also arguably fit into our type 2: The Smartass. There’s no more potent weapon in a weird girl’s arsenal than a cutting remark deployed for maximum devastation. It’s a defensive skill built up over the years from dealing with negative comments toward her and fueled by her disdain for the people around her. No weird girl has a more vicious wit than Daria Morgendorffer, who’s been shaped by the less smart and perceptive peers all around her. But Daria’s razor-sharp tongue ends up connecting with people in ways she doesn’t intend. In the Daria season one episode “The Misery Chick,” the death of a former student sends shockwaves through Daria’s high school. Unable to process their grief, students turn to the one person who seems to understand pain the best.
Daria: “The popular guy died, and now I’m popular because I’m the misery chick. But I’m not miserable. I’m just not like them.” - Daria S1 E13
“I’m just not like them” may as well be the motto of the smartass weird girl, who defines herself more by what she isn’t than what she is. Enid, the protagonist of 2001’s Ghost World, has a similar M.O., dispatching withering judgments of the people she sees around her.
Enid: “I just hate all these extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-bohemian losers.” - Ghost World (2001)
It’s telling that she says “extroverted” first. The weird girl has learned not to put herself out there, lest she face more rejection.
Daria: “And I’m so defended that I actively work to make people dislike me so I won’t feel bad when they do.” - Daria S4 E8
Deep hurt drives Mean Girls’ Janis, the acid-tongued weird girl who cajoles her pal Cady into a scheme to dethrone queen bee, Regina. Regardless of the number or potency of her quips, the smartass weird girl remains a fundamentally sensitive person. There’s truth in the old quote: “they say if you scratch a cynic there’s a disappointed idealist.” These weird girls hoped for the best but found the rest.
Type 3: The Basket Case
The third type of weird girl is: The Basket Case. Characterized by chaos and disorder, she tends to be more dramatic and attention-seeking. Take, for example, Fight Club’s Marla Singer. Dressed in black, she goes to support groups for diseases she couldn’t possibly have. She lives recklessly and has a positively gothic credo.
Narrator: “Marla’s philosophy of life was that she might die at any moment. The tragedy, she said, was that she didn’t.” - Fight Club (1999)
One of the most iconic weird girls of the past 40 years is The Breakfast Club’s Allison Reynolds - a self-described basket case. The film goes nearly 25 minutes before she speaks, while she announces her weirdness by noisily chomping her fingernails, tying up her finger, and using her dandruff as an artistic tool. Allison exemplifies how the basket case is the most performative variety of weird girl. She tells sensational lies about herself, betraying the basket case’s need for attention. Director John Hughes offers the key to Allison’s character just minutes into The Breakfast Club. All of the other parents dropping kids off at Saturday detention talk to them a bit, but not Allison’s.
Andrew: “What do they do to you?”
Allison: “They ignore me.” - The Breakfast Club (1985)
Allison eventually lets her guard down enough to reveal the sensitive heart beating beneath the artifice and hair in her face. With that, she opens herself to her peers, who promptly try to change her. Fellow detention student Claire gives Allison a makeover, bringing her face out of hiding but also polishing away the edge she had. Allison even ends up with the jock. And this resolution underlines one of the worst narrative clichés about the weird girl -that her “happy ending” is to be normalized, even saved.
Type 4: The Space Cadet
Next, we have type 4: the Space Cadet. The space cadet weird girl lacks artifice and simply exists in her own world. She’s content to pursue her own path with little regard for what others think. In Frankenweenie, this character is known only as Weird Girl, who sees omens in her cat’s poop. It takes more than cat poop to stand out in the Harry Potter universe, where magic and strange phenomena are parts of everyday life. But even here, Luna Lovegood is weird.
She believes in things other kids consider ridiculous, earning the nickname “Loony Lovegood.” Not that she cares. As Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling said, “The key to Luna is that she has that unbelievably rare quality of actually not giving a damn what anyone else thinks of her.” The space cadet weird girl is often underestimated as a sweet-natured goofball. But she’s often much smarter than people realize, and her outside-the-box thinking is a special strength.
Type 5: The Awkward Misfit
While the Goths have the style, the smartasses the wit, the basket cases the mayhem, and the space cadets the freedom, the last type of Weird Girl isn’t empowered by or enjoying her weirdness. Type 5 is The Awkward Misfit. The saddest take on the weird girl, the awkward misfit is most poignantly embodied by the protagonist of Todd Solondz’s dark comedy Welcome to the Dollhouse: seventh-grader Dawn Wiener. This weird-girl-as-victim gives human form to adolescent awkwardness and the searing pain of early rejection. Her name, unflattering clothing, goofy glasses, and mere existence seem only to invite torment. Even when she rescues a fellow geek from getting beat up, he wants nothing to do with her. Sometimes, life for the weird girl, especially one as profoundly geeky as Dawn, takes a long time to improve.
Mark Weiner: “All of junior high school sucks, high school’s better, its closer to college. They call you names, but not as much to your face.” - Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
All this abuse also doesn’t automatically turn the weird girl into a great person, as some of our glib popular narratives suggest; instead, it messes her up. Dawn turns the cruelty she receives at school on her younger sister, Missy, whom she loathes for being the adorable, beloved counterpart to Dawn’s wounded ugly duckling.
The Evolution of the Weird Girl:
The weird girl reflects the anxieties of her era, which so often center around female autonomy and sexuality. This character is viewed as deviant, going against culturally prescribed norms - depending on the era, that could mean being a tomboy, lacking interest in marriage, having a desire for education or travel. From the beginning of the weird girl’s portrayals, witches have been her natural parallel, because they easily reflect the fear of what isn’t understood, as well as its potential power. After all, one definition of weird is relating to the supernatural or uncanny. Shakespeare’s Macbeth opens with three witches called the “Weird sisters” —and the title character’s ruin comes in part because he fails to fully understand their prophecy.
The first modern depiction of the weird-girl-as-witch came in 1939 with The Wizard of Oz. Twenty years later, Sleeping Beauty gave us Maleficent, another power-hungry witch preying upon an innocent girl. More than 50 years would pass before these characters came to be seen as more nuanced. Gregory Maguire’s book, Wicked, which inspired the hit musical, created a backstory for the Wicked Witch of the West that treats her as a misunderstood weird girl. Lest we forget, in the events of Oz, she’s also in great emotional pain after Dorothy kills her sister.
Likewise, the 2014 film Maleficent gave Sleeping Beauty’s villain a sympathetic backstory. This version of Maleficent acts out of hurt, and she’s deeply feeling. Maleficent lives in forced isolation, rejected by her community, but she also doesn’t need help from outsiders. Independence has long been a hallmark of the weird girl.
Jim Thorne: “I suppose you think you’re too superior for marriage and love and children - things that women were born for. Say, who do you think you are? Are you so drunk with your own importance, you think you can make your own rules?” - Female (1933)
Weird girls are also often associated with deviant sexuality, even though they seldom are what the rumors suggest.
Allison: “I’m not a nymphomaniac. I’m a compulsive liar.” - The Breakfast Club (1985)
Fast forward to today. What would middle school be like for Dawn Wiener now? The awkwardness and cruelty of adolescence remain, but overall our cultural environment has grown more accepting, even admiring, of weird girls. Long-running TV shows have given us weird girls who are well-adjusted and popular with their peers. From 2003 to 2018, one of CBS procedural NCIS’s most beloved characters was goth forensic scientist Abby Sciuto. According to actress Pauley Perrette, NCIS creator Don Bellisario’s intent with Abby was “to take an alternative-style person with tattoos and make her someone who is happy, totally put together and successful.”
Parks and Recreation’s April Ludgate also became a favorite for her frosty demeanor, relentless sarcasm, and affinity for all things kitschy and strange. A persona that might have made her an outcast in an another era, is appreciated.
April: “I found a dead rabbit on the side of the road and I cut its feet off to make a lucky charm.”
Andy: “Baby, you are so creepy! Thank you, I love it.” - Parks and Recreation S5 E13
In a sense, the weird girl has benefited from the rise of nerd culture, which has pushed what was formerly niche into the mainstream. When the biggest movies and most popular TV shows come from areas once considered esoteric, the foreignness of the weird girl stops seeming threatening and starts gaining cachet. Dressing differently or liking something few people know about doesn’t necessarily make someone weird anymore. It just makes them ahead of the curve.
Torrance Shipman: “You’re the best. They know it. They just reject the unfamiliar.” - Bring It On (2000)