Film & TV Literature

The Weird Girl in Literature and Film

Art by Anna Kerslake.

by Sophie Revell

As a proclaimed Weird Girl in secondary school myself, I look upon the Weird Girl trope with pride and affection. Unlike other portrayals of women in media, Weird Girls are much more nuanced and accepted in film and literature – but it hasn’t always been this way.

To understand the Weird Girl further, I looked to ‘The Take’ on YouTube who divided Weird Girl characters into 5 distinct subsections: The Goth, The Smartass, The Basketcase, The Space Cadet, and the Awkward Misfit. The Goth is most recognisable in Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice. If there would be any place to go to find the quintessential Weird Girl, it would be the filmography of Tim Burton. Lydia has an obsession with death and finds comfort in the ghosts that haunt her new home. As well as this, she – like most Weird Girls that fit into the Goth subcategory – feels misunderstood by her family and peers because she is open to what most “normal” people overlook. I feel that the spirits and ghosts in Beetlejuice represent this perfectly as only Lydia can see these ghosts that terrorise her family for invading their home. Her unconventional friendship with the ghosts is what leads them to stop tormenting her family and allow them to remain living in their house. Other characters that fit into the Goth subsection are Nancy from the Craft, who has the same flare for the supernatural as Lydia and is shunned for it, and Wednesday Addams from the Addams Family, based on the comic books of the same name. Wednesday, however, ironically doesn’t even fit into this subcategory properly as she comes from a family that allows her to explore her weirdness without judgement. Addams Family Values can be seen as the antithesis of the Weird Girl trope. The entire family are weird and embrace it, Debbie Jellinsky – the conventionally attractive and feminine woman who marries Uncle Fester in a plot to kill him – is the main antagonist of the film and is untrusted by the entire family from the get-go due to her perceived conventionality. The audience of this film is meant to side with the Weird Girl and dislike the “normal”.

The Smartass Weird Girl uses sarcasm as a defence against the negativity that’s aimed towards her. She knows that generally she is smarter than the normies in her school, as presented by Daria Morgendorffer from Beavis and Butt-Head. The Smartass Weird Girl generally describes herself as what she isn’t instead of what she is. In the Season 1 episode, “Misery Chick”, when a popular classmate dies, the “normal” people in Daria’s class turn to her for support which inadvertently popularises her and strips her of her Weird Girl title for a day. This is because she is one with misery, allowing herself to connect with more emotional topics that the shallower people around her struggle to. Daria’s character demonstrates how, like the Goth, the Smartass Weird Girl is open to what most “normal” people overlook or are unable to sympathise with. Daria characterises herself as “just not like them” which rings true for all Weird Girls.

The Space Cadet Weird Girl, as ‘The Take’ describes, seems to exist in her own world with little regard for what people think. Commonly, she provides a lot of the comedy in the story due to her wackiness – think Phoebe Buffay’s ‘Smelly Cat’ song in Friends. Once again, Tim Burton implements the Space Cadet Weird Girl nicely in Frankenweenie. A female character credited as simply “Weird Girl” believes that her pet cat can predict the future with his poo. Despite the other children around her thinking that her premonitions are ridiculous and strange, but she is completely unbothered by this. Similarly, in Harry Potter, Luna Lovegood is described as being serene and quirky and having eccentric beliefs. So far, the subcategories of the Weird Girl trope are generally positive and accepting; from the Goth girl finding solace in the things that “normal” people overlook, to the Smartass understanding her worth and owning her quick wit and intelligence, to the Space Cadet being an airy unproblematic queen. However, the last two subcategories have some dodgy assets that are rooted in the controversial history of the Weird Girl trope in literature and film.

The Awkward Misfit Weird Girl seems innocent and relatable to anyone who has an awkward phase in school, but the trope is littered with questionable insults and behaviour. The Awkward Misfit is the girl who doesn’t want to be a Weird Girl. She is usually characterised by her bad fashion sense, unconventional facial features, and lack of friends. In Welcome to the Dollhouse Awkward Misfit Dawn Wiener is picked on by the people at her school for her “ugliness” and repeatedly had the slur “lezzer” or “lesbo” used against her. What I find problematic about this trope is the parallel between the way that the Awkward Misfit dresses or behaves – which is rejected by the popular people around her for being socially unacceptable or weird – and the type of language used when insulting her. Being called a lesbian as an insult because of the way slightly awkward or unconventional way in which Dawn behaves seems very problematic to me. Though this kind of language is very dated and modern media has moved away from using it, many Weird Girl characters’ sexuality is met with hostility with assumptions that she’s a “slut” or a lesbian. Surprisingly, this appears in Sex Education. For a seemingly progressive contemporary series, the way that Maeve’s character was written reflects the problematics of the Awkward Misfit Weird Girl. Maeve doesn’t really fit into the Awkward Misfit subcategory – she’d definitely more of a Smartass – but a lot of hostility is directed towards her sexuality, whether she’s demonised for being sexually promiscuous, or people use the lesbian insult against. In the first season she debunks this hostility from the people around her and we learn that a lot of it derived from false rumours. The Weird Girl reflects the anxieties of her time, usually surrounding female autonomy and sexuality. Although society has massively progressed, these subjects are still contentious to this day which might explain why there are still female characters that express their sexuality in non-traditional ways that are still perceived as “weird” in literature and film.   

Finally, the last subcategory – and arguably the most problematic – is the Basketcase Weird Girl. These are the more dramatic and attention-seeking of the Weird Girls, and see, to relish in their weirdness the most. Unlike the Space Cadet, she cares a lot about what others think but does so to make sure that people recognise her weirdness. Allison Reynolds demonstrates this in The Breakfast Club, and so does Marla Singer in Fight Club. Their weirdness comes across as very performative as if they behave in a certain way to seek attention but keep people at a distance at the same time. ‘The Take’s’ video on the Weird Girl trope focuses on how Allison’s upbringing might be to “blame” for this; in the Breakfast Club, she states that her family ignore her suggesting that Allison makes up for her lack of attention from the people she loves. Where the Basket Case Weird Girl falls short is the way that she is perceived in literature and film as needing to be “normalised” in order to have a happy ending. This is usually achieved through a male romantic lead who she ends up changing for. Again, this has strong links to the origins of the Weird Girl trope. The traditional Weird Girl was often distinguishable by her rejection of conventions such as marriage, her pursuit of education of knowledge, or for being a “tom-boy”. Weird Girls being “tamed” by men and learning to submit to the idea of marriage and children had a very strong societal message that women should not deviate from the status quo and that perhaps what every Weird Girl needed was a nice man to put her back on the right path. With this sentiment in mind, many female characters that are widely accepted now – for example, Anne from Anne of Green Gables, Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice, or Jo from Little Women would have been seen as the Weird Girls of their time.

As someone who celebrates her quirkiness, I’ve always very much enjoyed female characters that have a weird or unconventional side to them. However, after exploring a little deeper and digging up the problematics in the Weird Girl’s origins, it’s sad to see a trope that I loved has grown from patriarchal values and expectations, and still holds a lot of internalised misogyny.

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