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The Woman-Child Trope, Explained

It’s the Woman-Child’s turn now. She has been living in the shadow of the Man-Child, but now we’re seeing her all over film and TV. What makes her so special and more than a gender-flip of the Man-Child? In this video we dive into the ups and downs of the Woman-Child.

TRANSCRIPT

Ilana Wexler: “I’m gonna be a grown-ass woman and do my taxes for once. Without my mommy and daddy.” - Broad City, 1x2

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of the Woman-Child: the immature, messy, totally un-put-together woman who just can’t seem to grow up. We’re well-acquainted with the Man-Child, who’s been a comedic staple for decades. He’s the incorrigible slacker who just wants to hang with his buddies; the permanent adolescent whose only goal is staving off maturity for as long as possible.

Alan: “I’m a stay-at-home son” - The Hangover Part II

But as with so many other things, it’s different for women. Here are some common traits of the woman-child onscreen:

She has intense friendships that might function as codependent partnerships. And if those friends outgrow her, it can be devastating.

Paige Kearns: “I just wanna meet a guy that I like as much as you, is that too much to ask for?” / “Yes. Yes, it is. I hate everyone but you.” - Life Partners

She has unstable romantic relationships with guys who are noncommittal, unpredictable, and generally add more chaos to her life rather than offering any solution to her woes.

Hannah Horvath: “I like you so much; I don’t know where you disappear to.” - Girls, 1x1

She’s probably coasting in her career, working an unfulfilling job, failing to make headway in her dream field, or plagued by indecisiveness over how to improve her situation.

Yet while she may not come off as a go-getter, deep down she’s usually a dreamer, harboring huge career ambitions that often find her just barely scraping by in a big city she can’t really afford.

Hannah Horvath: “Do you think that I think that this is the best use of my literary voice and my myriad talents?” - Girls, 3x6

There’s usually an undercurrent of sadness to the woman-child. And while we comfortably laugh at the man-child who’s content to wallow in his behavior, many woman-children make audiences feel uncomfortable to some degree.

Frances Halladay: “I’m so embarrassed, I’m not a real person yet.” - Frances Ha

So what is it about this character that makes her more than just a gender-flipped play on all those generations of man-boys? Here’s our Take on the woman-child, and how she’s uniquely suited to capture some of the harsh, universal truths about coming of age today.

The Origins of the Woman-Child

The seeds for the woman-child were planted by women like I Love Lucy’s Lucy Ricardo, who chafed against society’s expectations to be a cookie-cutter wife and mother. While she did have a husband and son, the character floundered through a series of odd jobs, chasing unrealistic dreams of stardom, ignoring her husband’s orders, and sharing everything with her best friend, Ethel.

In the ’60s and ’70s, Lucy’s independence and gumption gave way to revolutionary single women, like That Girl’s Ann Marie and The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Mary Richards. These single ladies were defined by ambition and professionalism more than their dating lives, yet they were strong, self-possessed women. And as the single woman became a more common archetype, most took their cues from the likes of Mary Richards: they were smart, capable, professionals navigating love and career in their own ways.

Looking back, though, we can see some interesting precursors to the Woman Child. Claudia Weill’s 1978 film Girlfriends — about two best friends living, working and growing apart in New York City offered an unusually candid look at the lives of young, single women, without sentiment or compromise. This early exploration of female young adulthood might now appear remarkably prescient to fans of Broad City, Girls, or Frances Ha.

Anne Munroe: “I had an abortion this morning. He doesn’t know. I didn’t want to be talked out of it.” Girlfriends

Mimi-Rose Howard: “I can’t go for a run because I had an abortion yesterday.” - Girls, 4x6

Nineties movies gave us a few memorable female lost souls who acknowledged the hard truths of growing up—like Catherine Keener’s Amelia in Walking and Talking, or Winona Ryder’s Lelaina in Reality Bites. On TV, exemplars for the modern single lady like Ally McBeal and Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw were floundering in their love lives and didn’t always make good decisions. Yet while Ally and Carrie might not have it all together, their glamorous lifestyles and professional success were still aspirational.

Carrie Bradshaw: “I spent $40,000 on shoes and I have no place to live? I will literally be the old woman who lived in her shoes.” - Sex And the City, 4x16

Early 2000s woman-child precursors were a little more down-to-earth. 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon took the Mary Tyler Moore model of the spunky single career gal but stripped away the glamour.

Liz Lemon: “I ate a Three Musketeers bar for breakfast this morning, and this bra is held together with tape.” - 30 Rock, 2x8

Meanwhile, from the ‘90s into the 2000s, the man-child movie became the dominant comedy form, thanks to actors like Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, and Seth Rogen, and directors like Todd Phillips and Judd Apatow. In these stories, the men could be endlessly slovenly and childish while still retaining audience sympathy, but the female characters around them were expected to whip them into shape. So this raised the question — would audiences want to watch a woman who was just as much of a juvenile mess?

Given the man-child’s box office success, it was perhaps inevitable that sooner or later this winning formula would be applied to women. In 2011, the Apatow-produced Bridesmaids marked a cultural turning point for stories about women whose development was just as arrested as the boys’. Before long, the “women behaving badly” comedy became a thriving genre all on its own, in the movies and on TV.

These “woman child” stories can differ a lot from their male counterparts, though. This female protagonist isn’t always crude or cartoonish—the humor of her story may be understated, and likely complemented by darker, dramatic questions about why she’s failing to grow up. And while the man-child tends to be loved or tolerated by the people around him in his story, the woman-child is often viewed with more suspicion, confusion, and discomfort in her world.

Laurel: “I love the way the two of you aren’t embarrassed about where you are in life.” - Ass Backwards

The dominant theme of the woman-child’s story is uncertainty, something a movie like Frances Ha acknowledges can be both thrilling and depressing. Much as Lucy Ricardo first flouted the ideal of the perfect housewife, today’s woman-child is a rejection of those same expectations for women to “have it all.” But what makes her experience so distinct from the man-child, and why are they often received so differently?

The Differences Between Men and Women (-Children)

The man-child is in part defined by his fun “bromances.” But the woman-child’s emphasis on friendships is almost always taken to an extreme where they’re central to her identity and daily life. The lead characters of Frances Ha, Bridesmaids, Life Partners, and more are devastated by the idea of being left behind by their best friends, while shows like Broad City and Girls derive most of their comedy—and drama—from this at-times inspirational and at-times unhealthy form of codependence.

Frances Halladay: “We are like a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex anymore.” - Frances Ha

The woman-child’s story often plays out against the backdrop of a big city, and she’s uniquely characterized by an intense relationship with her setting. Many of our most famous man-child stories tend to take place in a generic suburban sprawl, highlighting the characters’ comfortable rut. But the woman-child struggles in places like Los Angeles or New York City. Her setting is a metaphor for her outsized ambitions. While single-minded drive was a virtue in her old-school predecessors, the woman-child’s choice to pursue her possibly unrealistic dreams is often seen as another facet of her refusal to grow up.

Hannah’s mom: “We can’t keep bankrolling your groovy lifestyle.”

Hannah Horvath: “My “groovy” lifestyle?”- Girls, 1x1

While the man-child is often transformed by meeting the right woman, finding a guy is rarely the solution to the woman-child’s problems. This difference reflects an implicit double standard: For the man-child, falling in love is “settling down,” ending his wild bachelor days by finding a woman who can replace his mother and take care of him. But as usual, we expect more from female characters — before she can be ready for a happy home life, first the woman-child has to learn to take care of herself.

Demetrius: “It was about you taking responsibility for yourself.” - Brittany Runs a Marathon

Audiences seem to expect more from woman-child stories, too, when it comes to depth and nuance in the exploration of arrested development. As Bridesmaids’ director Paul Feig told The Huffington Post, one of their big concerns with Annie was whether audiences can find messy, directionless female characters sufficiently likable. He noted that traditionally it’s easier for male characters to get away with not having redeeming characteristics because our culture assumes that being out of control is “just what they do.” The likability concern is why Bridesmaids spends so much time on Annie’s crushed dreams to open a bakery. She’s a driven person who’s lost her way, these scenes tell us, not just an aimless slacker - which would be alright for the man-child but might make the woman-child too unappealing.

The alternative to working hard to make the woman-child sympathetic is a story like Young Adult, which peers bluntly into the dark side of failing to grow up. Mavis Gary’s narcissistic worship of her own superficial beauty, her obsession with her lost youth, and her constant reality-TV show binging reflect a larger culture with infantile values.

Buddy Slade: “She feels sorry for you. We all do, Mavis. It’s obvious you’re having some mental sickness, some depression.” - Young Adult

Lessons from the Woman-Child

The man-child movie has been criticized for glorifying regression and justifying the idea of men indefinitely delaying adulthood. While the millions of adults aged 25 to 34 who currently still live with their parents can be blamed on lots of factors like a lack of jobs and rising house prices, these critics suggest that the man-child fantasy allows male viewers to revel in immaturity. But the woman-child does a better job of putting that delay in its proper sociological context. Today, many women are less focused on marriage, family, and other so-called “traditional” values —and they’re well aware that these things don’t provide the guaranteed stability they once promised. In many ways, what can be seen as a refusal to grow up is really their prioritizing desires that previous generations of women were just expected to ignore. Chasing dream careers, shunning committed relationships, living in cities that are too expensive for them—these hallmarks of the “woman-child” have long been romanticized as the norm for ambitious men. The woman-child may be judged by her peers (or her viewers) for being impractical — for not wanting to “settle” or being slow to “settle down.”

Becca: “This is my husband, you don’t have a husband.” - Bridesmaids

But in real life, it’s not easy to tell the difference between being “realistic” and giving up, between being starry-eyed and having a worthy goal. How high is too high to aim, and is it so unusual to fail, struggle, or take your time?

When the woman-child eventually does get around to her growing up, it most often involves self-acceptance and letting go of internalized self-loathing. She learns to take steps, toward some kind of contentment. She forges newer, healthier relationships with her friends—even if that means letting go a little. Her maturation story is a more nuanced, realistic take on growing up than the umpteenth story of the slacker who finds a good woman or gets a high-paying job.

Abbi Abrams: “Me and you, we’re still going to be us, no matter what. Even if we’re in different cities, that’s never going to change.” - Broad City, 5x10

The woman-child can be every bit as fun as the man-child and just as frustrating, but more than anything, she is real. This character does something important by normalizing the idea that women, like all human beings, don’t always have their lives together. When it comes to being lazy, irresponsible, having crazy pipe dreams, or wanting nothing more than to have fun with your friends, why should men get to have all the fun?

Frances Halladay: “I like things that look like mistakes.” - Frances Ha