In Defense of the Girly Girls
Femininity is wrong. Taking time to pick out pretty dresses and put on intricate makeup is vain. Liking the color pink, being emotional, and caring about “girly” events like prom are all signs of being the ultimate mean girl — the one who’s deluded by the patriarchy.
At least this is how society, and by extension Hollywood, depicts ultra-femininity. From movies to toy advertising, society has glamorized femininity while berating it at the same time. In films generally targeted towards younger audiences, female protagonists are often presented as being “different” from other girls due to having masculine interests.
Bella Swan from the Twilight series doesn’t care about crushes or shopping. Items with frills and sparkles don’t hold her attention. Her entire wardrobe — saturated with neutral and grey tone flannels, tees, and jeans — is a physical representation of her rejection of all things girly. Directors of the film go as far as to use Anna Kendrick’s character, Jessica, as an antithesis of Bella’s tomboy ways. Quite literally, Jessica’s worries about her crushes are shown as pathetic and childish compared to Bella’s obsession with Edward, the vampire who struggles with the desire to kill her. Jessica’s femininity is presented as annoying, while Bella’s tomboy attitude is praised. This is one example in a sea of films and and other media that scorn ultra-femininity.
This stigma around girly girls was much more prevalent in the early 2000s and 2010s, and it’s more common today to hear people denounce these degrading assumptions. While this stereotype is seeing a decline in social relevance as the feminist movement shifts to be more inclusive and less restrictive about who looks like a feminist, it’s still important to reflect on the history of society’s opinion on femininity.
There appears to be a common thread throughout history of valuing femininity highly. Ancient Greeks worshipped Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, and passion. Later, the Romans worshipped a similar goddess, Venus. Centuries later, Western 19th century society used femininity as a symbol of status. Putting effort into one’s appearance, delicate mannerism, and carefully crafted emotional demeanors were all requirements to be considered eligible for a suitable marriage. Femininity was praised well into the sixties.
Before the shifted view on femininity is touched upon, it needs to be clarified that while femininity in the past was highly sought after, it still came with negative connotations. Being a wife and mother was seen as a woman’s only purpose in society. Femininity was often strictly reserved to circles of wealthy, white women. Lower-class women often worked outside the home, which resulted in them having less time and energy to focus on femininity. Also, women of color, transwomen, and gay women were subjected to stereotypes and discrimination that dictated that they had no place in the ideal of femininity.
With the sixties came Second Wave Feminism. There was a wide focus on rejecting representations of femininity such as bras and makeup. These items were viewed as products of the oppressive patriarchy, which sought to police women on how they should act. Essentially, the second wave was a massive backlash against femininity and "girliness."
That backlash enabled the rise of the harmful stereotypes of "girly girls" that we now know today — vanity, selfishness, manipulative, ditzy, brainwashed. All these words became practically synonymous with anything remotely feminine. And so was born the “I’m not like other girls” trope.
Later in the 80s, Third Wave feminism arose to completely counteract the ideals of the previous wave. A distinct branch of feminism is usually associated with the wave: Riot grrrl feminism, or an underground punk rock feminist movement that used music, slogans, and zines to emphasize that being a girl was empowering. This movement didn’t shy away from femininity and instead branded it as a quality just as deserving of respect as masculinity is.
Although this movement was big, with popular girl groups like the Spice Girls reciting its ideology, girly girls were still under attack for a long time. The damage from the Second Wave was already done. Perhaps because Riot grrls presented femininity differently — angry and unapologetic — most people didn’t connect it to traditional femininity, therefore resulting in girly girls still being the punchline of a bad joke.
Luckily, today’s feminists are embracing girliness again, but this time as a symbol of strength. Ironically, modern-day television is also playing a role. Netflix’s POSE depicts Black transwomen as feminine while also promoting femininity as a weapon against discrimination. The Italian-American cartoon, Winx Club, features six fairies with feminine traits and colorful, sparkly outfits as heroes who save entire worlds. In shows like these, a character’s feminity is not a weakness or an object of ridicule. Often, these traits can be their greatest strength.
Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe paints femininity as a celebrated strength belonging to one of the most unexpected characters: Steven, an emotional 13-year-old boy who loves romance and the color pink. As the protagonist, Steven uses his stereotypically feminine qualities to help improve the lives of friends, family, and strangers. The most impactful part of Steven’s character is that his femininity is not treated as a joke. In one episode, Steven performs a pop song in a sparkly dress, heels, and makeup. Yet, it isn’t a punchline; it’s who Steven is and everyone, supporting characters and audience alike, can’t help but respect that.
Being girly isn’t a character flaw. Qualities such as empathy and compassion are important to everyday life. Femininity doesn’t have to be proof of the patriarchy’s brainwashing or a quality belonging solely to women. It’s a complex set of attributes that can be presented in multiple ways without there having to be a right or wrong way. Maybe everyone could benefit from being a bit more in touch with their “girly” side.