Film & TV Literature

The Girly Girl in Literature and Film

Photo by Pure Julia on Unsplash.

by Shivika Singh

Popular culture has very often represented men and women as complete opposites to each other, who have strong conventional gender traits attached to them. While the practice of gender binarism in the media is almost systemic, the light in which it represents men and women is different, too. On one side, the typical male protagonist is heroic and masculine, unafraid to undertake any fight or adventure. He is the admirable character who pleases people. While on the other hand, the typical girly girl is weak, dependent and often shown to lack intelligence. This bias in gender expression could be witnessed in film and literature, across genre and can easily be labelled as a recurring phenomenon.

The most prominent way in which gender stereotypes have been enforced on female protagonists in film and literature is through trivialisation of their gender expression. Girliness has been conflated with passivity, victimhood and vagueness. A few negative connotations, attached to the girly girls are, ‘dumb and beautiful’, ‘materialistic women,’ ‘dumb blonde,’ and ‘home wreckers.’

In essence, the girly girl is slim and slender, beautiful, loves makeup and clothes, and sometimes her entire world is shown to revolve around nothing but fashion. She is mostly on a lookout for her ‘dream man’ who balances her lack of intelligence and provides her a shoulder to lean on. The girly girl fits in all the socially desirable standards of beauty. The problematic part in this portrayal is that beauty and intelligence are represented as two contradictory traits and that women can inhabit only one or the other. This automatically generates a belief that if a woman is beautiful, she isn’t intelligent enough. On the contrary, the male protagonist in similar situations is the epitome of perfection. While he can inhabit both beauty and brain together, and be typically masculine at the same time, the female is nothing more than her outer appearance. This is an incredibly sexist approach to gender expression.

To examine this, let us take the example of the Mean Girls (2004)which is based on Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 self-help book, Queen Bees and Wannabes. The group of three girls known as ‘the plastics’ are stereotypically fashion oriented, are always on the lookout for boys, are popular for their glamour but none of them are represented as intelligent in the true sense. One might say that Regina George’s character was witty and the decision maker of her group. However, she was more ‘cunning’ and ‘malicious’ than ‘witty’ and was the meanest of all. So even when the girly girls are shown as intelligent, they still have negative connotations like guilefulness attached to their character type. Karen Smith, played by Amanda Seyfried, is the stereotypical airhead who has the reputation of being promiscuous. Her character was the most stereotypical representation along the lines of beauty without brain.

The roots of the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype could be traced long back to literary and media history. Educator and Feminist, Annette Kuhn, describes the dumb blonde as, “a blonde with an overt and natural sexuality and a profound manifestation of ignorance”. A very famous popularisation of the idea that blondes are more romantically desirable for men was made through Anita Loos’s novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925). A possible explanation for popularisation of this stereotype could be that people easily received the idea that because blonde women can ‘rely on looks,’ they make little use of their intelligence. This stereotype is rooted in the idea that beauty is an asset and hence physically attractive women have less pressing incentives to demonstrate intelligence in order to secure their future. The character of Shelly Darlington played by Anna Faris in The House Bunny (2008), epitomises the dumb blonde character type. She easily pleases the men around her but is troubled by the simplest of calculation.

Another widely witnessed stereotype attached with fashion oriented and glamorous females is an evil or mean demeanour. ‘Home-wrecker’ is one such negative stereotype attached mainly to physically attractive women where they are shown taking romantic interest in married men and break their pre-existing relationship. In this type of portrayal of female roles, the responsibility of faithfulness and commitment shifts from the man who has made the commitment to another woman who is a complete outsider in the relationship does not owe faithfulness to either of the romantic partners. Death Becomes Her (1992) and Jones In Chicago (2002), feature two such women who are vilified for forming relationships with already romantically engaged men but the man is hardly checked for his dishonesty and breaking of the commitment.

The attaching of negative connotations to feminine representation of women can be seen as symbolic annihilation or trivialisation of gender prototype. Symbolic annihilation, in simple terms, can be described as absence of representation, underrepresentation or misrepresentation of a group of people on the basis of their gender, sexuality, and socio-economic structures. The girly girl is represented as a regressive trope and has been devalued in film and literature. The idea is that anything conventionally girly like the colour pink, makeup, dolls are portrayed as not good.

The ideal way in which girly girls should be defined is that girliness isn’t synonymous to being submissive. The girly girl can be as ambitious and have plans for her future. She is courageous and thriving. When we allow girly girls to be more than a bunch of jokes, it makes room for different type of women to be seen as competent and as rational human beings.