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Not Like Other Girls. Confused and Imperfect, Writing Female Characters.


"I'm Not Like Other Girls, I'm a Hamster." Illustration drawing by Katherine M Kennedy.

SKIP AHEAD:


Not Like Other Girls, A Terrifying Trope For Writers


I loathe the Not Like Other Girls trope, yet I came perilously close to it when writing my book. At least I think I did, what I had was a moment of paralysing fear that I HAD written A Not Like Other Girls girl. I knew how bad that would be, how toxic and cliché the Not Like Other Girls Character is. Worse still, she's damn boring. Knowing all that, I was absolutely terrified that I had written her anyway. So terrified, that I seriously considered switching the gender of my lead just to make sure I couldn’t fall into the trap.


How ridiculous is that?


My main character is hoyden, she pays less attention to her clothing than the other women in her life, and she's got a taste for adventure. I don't personally read these as 'masculine traits,' but my main female character is undeniable somewhat rougher around the edges than other female characters in my book. The real reason for these character traits is obvious. I wrote a magical adventure book, and having my female protag stuck in the drawing room sewing samplers and worrying about her hair would have been something of a hindrance to the adventure plot development. She doesn't care about those things because she can't. I couldn't let her.



What is The Not Like Other Girls Trope?


The Not Like Other Girls Trope is… complicated. It walks a fine line between legitimate criticism of an arguably toxic character and a bad-faith criticism of female characters.

At face value, the Not Like Other Girls girl is a female character who identifies more closely with traditional male characteristics than conventional female characteristics. She might not care as much about her appearance as her female peers, she could enjoy sports and reject the idea of marriage and babies. While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with a female character identifying with traditional male activities and mentalities, problems tend to arise when the character has a derogatory attitude towards 'female traits' and the women who hold them in high regard.


The Not Like Other Girls girl tends to hang around in YA and teen books, but she does like to stretch her legs occasionally and stroll around genres and age ranges. Often the Not Like Other Girls girl is following something similar to a chosen one narrative. But the Not Like Other Girls girl is chosen not because of who she is, but because of who she isn’t. And who she isn’t, is a feminine girl. She is only allowed to be the chosen one because she has male characteristics. And she actively rejects and condemns other women for not being more like her.


Side note, isn't it infuriating when the female leads give side eye to other women for putting time and effort into their appearance while they are somehow always beautiful without trying? The Not Like Other Girls girls' natural and effortless beauty puts the 'silly' preening of their female contemporaries in stark contrast, making them appear as pathetic, ugly try hards. After all, is there any greater humiliation than striving desperately to appear pretty and failing against someone who tries not at all? Yuk, yuk, yuk. I hate it.



How To Identify A Not Like Other Girls girl


Obviously, if the Not Like Other Girls girl or anyone around her suggests that she is "not like other girls," you are likely falling down a trope pathway. If you want that for yourself, then awesome, but if it's not your intent, then it's time to revisit your narrative.


  • The other girls in your book don't like your female protag. There can be a good reason for this dislike, but you might be going to dark side if the reason is that she isn't good at doing her makeup, hair, or any other traditional female activity, you might be going the dark side. I have yet to meet a woman or girl who dislikes another woman or girl ONLY because they can't get their winged eyeliner right.


  • Your character displays primarily traditionally masculine characteristics. I.e., fighting, loving sports, eating junk food, playing video games, and drinking beer. There is nothing wrong with your female character liking traditionally masculine things. The issues arise when:

    1. They are the only female character who displays such preferences

    2. They condemn other women for not liking the activities they like, and the narrative does not suggest that this prejudiced attitude is a character flaw.


  • Your character condemns other female characters for liking traditionally female activities. I kind of said this in the previous point, but it's a big one. If your character sneers at other women for being blonde or liking makeup, your character is a bitc— not a nice person.


  • Maybe this shares a home with the Mary-Sue character trope (there are a lot of rules about writing women, aren't there?), but you may be falling into dodgy territory if your character is too good at everything. Applying it to the Not Like Other Girls girl, it's not a great sign if your character can kick 6ft warrior dude's ass and then throw on high heels for the first time ever, strutting around like she was born in them. There is a subtle 'things that woman do are easy' vibe implied in the actions that stinks of misogyny.


Avoiding The Not Like Other Girls Trope


So how can you navigate the murky waters of a female character? I'm willing to admit this is tricky. But a good first step is to not deride and belittle every female character that isn't your female protagonist or one of her friends. It's a good, solid first step.


If your character must sneer at dresses, high heels, or the ability of other girls to do their hair and embroider then consider why they are sneering. Are they jealous? Are they struggling with internalized misogyny? Do they live in a society that forces women to behave in specific ways, and their sympathy is stirred? A good character motivation that doesn't boil down to 'other girls don't like the same things as I do which makes them fundamentally less than me' will help you to avoid falling into the judgmental horror that Isn't Like Other Girls. The truth is that when a Not Like Other Girls girl is mean to those around her, then we begin to sympathize with the women who are unlucky enough to fall into her orbit.


  • Avoid the impulse to make your character look better by highlighting other characters' 'bad' qualities. Belittling others does not make for a charming or likable character. And putting down others doesn't make your character seem cool or clever. It just makes them seem petty and mean.


  • Social skills and even fashion can be wielded like weapons. Diplomats, politicians, and influencers all understand the message that can be sent through the cut of a jacket, the length of a tie, and the colors a person chooses to wear.


  • Don't forget that men wear clothing too. Particularly if you are writing a historical novel or a story based on a historical period. Men have fashion.


  • If the whole world gasps with admiration when your character pitches at a dance wearing torn shirt and trousers, then there better be a damn good reason why. Because, realistically, that's like everyone applauding over someone wearing jeans to a wedding. It doesn't make sense.


  • If your female character doesn't appreciate 'female' traits, hobbies, and characteristics, then they shouldn't be any good at them. Much like your character can't pick up a harp and know how to play it, your Not Like Other Girls girl shouldn't have a magical and sudden understanding of fashion, high heels, social morays, and how to pull both off without tripping and ripping a hem. Although, girls tripping and falling over a lot is a whole other trope.


  • Give your female lead some female friends. Or, if you want them to be ostracized, don't make the key to that ostracism that they have traditionally masculine characteristics that other female characters reject and make characters embrace.


  • Find other ways to make your character feel unique and special, ones that don't rely on putting others down.


  • Make sure other female characters share characteristics of your female lead. If you want her to be a great fighter, then don't make her the ONLY female character who can fight.


  • Not liking pink isn't a character trait. Not liking to do makeup or hair hygiene is not a character trait.


Why and How the Not Like Other Girls Trope Is Neither Surprising nor New


The women of the 30s and 80s wore masculine shoulder pads to fit in with their male co-workers in male-dominated spaces. Pants and poodle skirts did battle for dominance, with women choosing a side of the fight and condemning their counterparts on the other side of the line. Women wage wars through clothing flicks of the fan, and a raised eyebrow, so it's not surprising that there are female characters built around that standard. We all know that saying "I'm not like other girls" is the equivalent of calling other girls trash bags.


Female Protagonist Are Put Under a Microscope and Expected to Be Better Than Their Male counterparts.


"I want a female lead who can kick but and look good doing it."


What? How? Mam, what madness do you want me to write? I'm sorry, but I'm going to struggle to write a character who goes into battle wearing silk chiffon. It's unrealistic to have characters worry about their hair and their lipstick while in fear for their lives, doing battle against the forces of evil and the forces of slightly mundane. And it's not an expectation that is placed equally on male protagonists. Fine, if you think hair and nails are feminine, then why don't male protagonists worry about the soccer score while they fight? Why don't they check out a girl while doing battle? Because that would be stupid. Making your character think about those things all the time is unrealistic.



Not Like Other Girls and Katniss Everdeen—Hunger Games


When researching this topic, I was surprised to find characters like Amy Dunne from Gone Girl and Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games described as Not Like Other Girls characters. Immediately I got stuck in the mire, am I just blind to the trope, or is this another Twilight where anything the teenage girls like is automatically labeled as bad?


This quote from the Hunger Games was used in a Reddit thread as an example of how Katniss is a Not Like Other Girls character.


"Other girls our age, I've heard them talking about boys, or other girls, or clothes. Madge and I aren't gossipy and clothes bore me to tears." —The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen

For me, this is evidence of a girl who doesn't particularly care about fashion. It's strange world-building, where the people who are apparently perpetually on the verge of starvation sit about gossiping and chatting about clothing, but it's not overly derogatory. The sentence could have been, "hunting bores me to tears." There is nothing wrong with a character who rejects traditionally feminine characteristics. All female characters don't have to be girly. And there is a subtly irony in the judgement that falls on this quote, judging a female character for not liking the same things as us. It only becomes a problem when other female characters are shamed for their preferences, and the narrative paints it as a correct interpretation.


Now, this is not a hill I'm willing to die on. If someone feels like convincing me otherwise, then go ahead. I have no issue with being proven wrong. There is a decent chance that the Not Like Other Girls Trope has gotten so out of hand in recent years that The Hunger Games seems like a bastion of feminism only because of the weakness of the playing field. There are any number of books I have DNF'd because of a female protagonist who all but spits on other female characters because they dared to brush their hair rather than wake up with naturally luster tresses.


Not Like Other Girls and Gone Girl


The conversation around Gone Girl (and Hunger Games, if it comes to it) blows my mind. It's a book, not a manifesto. Amy Dunne is absolutely Not Like Other Girls. She's a murderer, for one. Honestly, has the world lost its mind? Pft, Amy Dunne is not like other girls—of course, she bloody isn't! That's the point. Are people complaining that Hannibal Lecter is a bad role model because he's Not Like Other Boys? I should hope he's not. It would be weird if we thought he was just one of the lads.



Jane Austen—Elizabeth Bennet, The OG Not Like Other Girls girl


"They have non the them much to recommend them," replied he; "they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters."

Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice might be OJ Not Like Other Girls girl. She won't marry for a position, unlike her friend Mary and at least two of her sisters. She doesn't concern herself with appearances, trudging through mud and dirt with nary a concern while the Bingley ladies gasp and laugh at her appearance. She's just not like other girls.


Unlike her more modern trope equivalents, she's a likable character because she doesn't look down on Mary for choosing a husband for a position, she's surprised and sad, but she gets over it and then supports her friends. Her sister, Jane, shares a worldview with Elizabeth but takes it to higher extremes, and Elizabeth Bennet appreciates her sister's kindness and sweet nature. The narrative goes out of its way to prove Elizabeth wrong in her judgments and prejudices. It's the point of the book.



Not Like Other Girls Girl Round Up


So, how to round up? The Not Like Other Girls trope is complicated. It's more complicated than don't do this or do that. If you want to put down and degrade all the other female characters in your book, then know why. It's not every female protagonist's job to be the leader of perfect women, it's not their job to be flawless, and it's not your job to write them as perfect emblems of womanly virtue. Do what you want, but do it with intention. And with certainty that you are going to get shit for it.



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