Other Girls: A Discussion With Author Jessica Cluess
You’ve read about Other Girls in books and heard your favorite characters talk about them on TV. You know that anytime a protagonist says or is told they’re “Not like other girls”, that Other Girls are a kind of girl you don’t want to be.
But why is that? And what does it really mean when to be Not Like Other Girls? It’s a trope that has angered me time and time again, but putting the reasons why into words was difficult. So Jessica Cluess, author of the upcoming A SHADOW BRIGHT AND BURNING (Random House, Fall 2016), agreed to help me figure out why through a great discussion, which I’m sharing now with all of you!
Hannah: To begin, I think we need to define the Not Like Other Girls trope - what does it mean to you when you read it or hear it said?
Jessica: First of all, I should start by saying that it's okay if your main female protagonist does not like another girl. It's even okay if she hates 'those other girls' at the start of the story. What I'm talking about is the way the trope fits into the world.
So here are three things that, to me, make something fit the Those Other Girls trope:
We have a female protagonist who hates those Other Girls because they are blond, peppy, have big boobs, like boys, boys like them, etc. So the problems don’t stem from legitimate issues. It’s all mainly superficial dislike.
Her love interest will be amazed that she is NOT like those Other Girls with their hotness and flirtation. He definitely doesn’t want a girl who hasn’t read Chaucer for fun. Clearly that’s too easy a conquest.
The world never calls out our intrepid female protagonist. She is never told to stop being sexist. She is, in fact, reinforced and rewarded in her thinking that Other Girls, aka girls whose values and personalities do not align with hers, are inherently shallow and lesser.
A good question to ask: Is our heroine never challenged in her opinions, does she never grow, and does the society around her (usually the attractive men) reward her in her prejudice?
H: So she may never be the one comparing herself to Other Girls; the comparing may be done completely on the side of the love interest, classmates, etc. But she doesn't deny it, and she's in fact praised for not being like them.
J: Exactly! She may either be bemused by the Other Girls and their 'desperation' for male attention, or she may be benevolently snarky in a 'oh you poor dears' sense.
H: Yes! I think it's also interesting that, if you really think about it and how they’re presented, pretty much all YA heroines are Not Like Other Girls, which ends up feeling like Other Girls are in the minority instead of the majority. We are constantly creating stories around people who are Not Like Other People, not realizing that if everyone is Not Like Other People then that trope, technically, goes away.
J: We all want to be seen as extraordinary. And every one of us has unique, fantastic, extraordinary assets. It's not a problem to want to know that being different is great! I remember being a shy, bookish teen, and being told my gifts were valuable was so important. It's good to know that a unique point of view is valued. The problem is when that very normal, very good desire in a story is entwined with a misogynistic streak.
H: You can only be special if other people are not as special?
J: Exactly. The ideal thought process would be something like, “Hey, I'm very good at what I do, and the right person will appreciate that. Just as the girl who is very good at social things, or sports, will also find a great path through life.”
But instead it turns into 'I can only be special when other people are my inferiors,' and that's nonsense.
H: So, for example, your main character is not great at flirting, but for some reason we think the only way to make her inability to flirt a positive quality is if the act of flirting is slutty/shameful/ordinary. So perhaps the Other Girl is actually a way to make those things about us that would normally be perceived as a negative or, at the very least, boring and normal, extraordinary.
J: I think it's great and truthful to tell a teen girl who doesn't know how to join in the high school social games that it's okay, her time will come, and she can be true to herself. But if the only way to do that is to demonize the girls who have an easier time with the social games, boyfriends, etc. then that's just wrong.
H: Everyone has a strength, and to encourage one strength and scoff at another means de-legitimizing the humanity of actual, real girls. And if I'm not anything like the heroine, suddenly I'm an Other Girl too.
J: Right. And I want to restate, because it's important, we can definitely have books where teen girls don't like each other. Books where they're outright catty to each other, or slut shame each other. Because that's life. The problem is when that slut shaming or cattiness is seen as being the right course of action. Because it's not. It leads to bad things.
It leads to situations where, when a girl comes forward and says she's been assaulted, we just brush her off as one of those Other Girls.
And if we have this thing where we tell girls:
You are special because of your naiveté or innocence and
Other Girls are sluts who lack both, you're setting up a MAJOR Madonna/whore complex
In my opinion, one of the beauties of fiction is that it lets us look at the human side of people we know nothing about. So you don’t like that Other Girl? Look closer. What’s her story?
H: Do you think that the Cool Girl trope can tie into the Other Girls trope? Like, the girl who can only be friends with guys, who isn't like Other Girls, and is therefore fun to be around and interesting and, well, cool.
J: Oh definitely. And we sometimes praise heroines in YA for only having male friendships. It proves that she's Tough, and Responsible, and can Hunt and Fish and be Intelligent. Would you mind if I plug my own book for a second?
H: Please do! I feel like this is something you do well in the book. Henrietta Howel is a female training to be a sorcerer among only men. It could so easily have gone the way of the Cool Girl, but you were obviously very careful about that.
J: I very deliberately made it so that in book 1 of my trilogy my protagonist was surrounded by men. She's sort of the classic 'girl who only has dudes around' in YA person. She has a couple of female confidantes, but no one at her level of power.
But in book 2, which I am now writing, she finally meets her equal. And it's another girl. And it was very, very important to me to establish that one of the most central relationships in the series will be between these two women. So the standard 'only a man can be her equal' set-up was very intentional, and in book 2, it gets flipped. I may totally end up screwing this up, but that’s the hope!
H: I can’t wait! Are there any other books you like that you feel manage to avoid the Other Girl trope in a big way?
J: First thing I’ll say is there are undoubtedly many books, both fantasy and contemporary, with great, complex female friendships. I’m always on the lookout, so if anyone has a suggestion, please let me know!
I liked the Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare, because it had multiple women, multiple women POVs, and ladies who were strong in different ways.
Also, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard has a very solid female friendship at the center, which she portrays as more important than any romantic story.
H: I love that you’ve mentioned books with powerful female friendships as the cores of the stories. It’s very hard to get female friendships right because we look down on them so much. Not that hot guys aren’t important. But so is autonomy, and having friends who love you for you and not who you aren't (ahem ,Like Other Girls). Portraying that is hard because girls get ridiculed for how they behave with friends.
J: It's not 'hanging out' or accomplishing things. It's 'gossiping.' It's sometimes seen as inherently frivolous.
H: Girls *squeal* together instead of laugh.
Do you think that portraying a diverse array of female friendships is a good way to stamp out the Other Girls trope? How else would you like to see it addressed?
J: I like the idea of the Daria-like bookish nerd and the stereotypical blond cheerleader having to kick ass and save the world and realizing they both have dimension and depth and were too hard on each other.
H: Manuscript Wishlist!
J: I think it's fine to have a female protag who has the Other Girls thing going on and who comes to realize that, yes, she was being prejudiced. You don't even have to make a big honking deal about it. Just show it in her attitude.
H: It's a constant learning experience, for all of us.
J: I do stupid things all the time.
H: I'm sure I'm still perpetuating tropes that I'll read in three years and be horrified I wrote it, but that's part of overcoming these things.
J: Me too. And then I will write oblique posts on the topic, and you'll wonder if I'm talking about you.
J: I guess I'm just like those Other Girls.
JESSICA CLUESS is a writer, a graduate of Northwestern University, and an unapologetic nerd. After college, she moved to Los Angeles, where she served coffee to the rich and famous while working on her first novel. When she's not writing books, she's an instructor at Writopia Lab, helping kids and teens tell their own stories.