We’ve grown up on teen films where our heroines have to defeat all odds to finally be happy. These odds also include a mean girl antagonist. However, have you noticed that most of these mean girls have been ultra-feminine, fashion loving women with inspirational confidence and great talent?
Disclaimer: In this article, ultra-femininity is equated with things often associated with the more stereotypical depictions of femininity- like makeup, maintenance, fashion sense, etc. But it is also important to acknowledge that like most things, there is a spectrum of femininity. A person can still be feminine even if they don’t embody stereotypical ultra-femininity. A person can also be feminine but still take interest in stereotypical masculine things and vice versa. They can also be neutral with no concrete expression that adheres to either binary. It is in no way moral to demonize people with other gender expressions while trying to defend ultra-femininity in the same breath.
The world cannot remember a time when beauty was not coveted. Though beauty standards have progressed or reverted over centuries, beauty has always been an ideal. While Helen of Troy’s beauty came with a face that “launched a thousand ships,” Barbie’s beauty comes with over 200 careers and a sick Malibu dreamhouse. Besides the unattainable body proportions and the initial rollout of only white dolls, Barbie has long reigned as a relatable, aspirational figure in the lives of most children. She is most known for her love for the colour pink, her fashion sense, her undeniable drive and her intelligence that landed her on the moon years before Neil Armstrong. Barbie is arguably proof that ultra-feminine women who partake in “girly activities” for fun are also capable of being smart, accomplished, and multi-faceted.
Caption: Barbie’s intelligence that landed her on the moon years before Neil Armstrong
source: everything zoomer
But why do we need proof of that? This is because ultra-feminine women in early 2000s teen media that we grew up on were often depicted in a different way. Their beauty and “girly” exploits fall in one of four categories with some managing to overlap- a) the bombshell demoness ruining the lives of men, b) the mean girl, c) the air head and d) the mere background noise to the more relatable and coveted plain jane figure who is “not like other girls.”
If you were unlucky enough to have the utter privilege of internet use around the early 2010s, you won’t be a stranger to the “not like other girls” trope. Whether it be the age-old debate about whether bubblegum pop is real music compared to rock, or the infamous homophobic remarks about male singers who have naturally high-pitched voices, or visuals that go against stereotypical masculinity, our society has always had an aversion to things classified as “feminine.”
Caption: Internet circa early 2010 and now too, sadly
Source: meme generator
Mind Your Language, Katniss
Consider Katniss Everdeen for example. She falls into this trope not because of her stereotypical masculine interests but because of how she places herself and Madge in opposition to “other girls.” In ‘Catching Fire’, she says, “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…” Katniss doesn’t explicitly belittle the other girls for their interests but she does use language that implies a negative connotation to these “girly” exploits. The term gossipy has historically been used against women in a negative way with it often being referred to as “trivial, hurtful and socially and/or intellectually unproductive.” When we think of gossiping, we don’t think of a positive occurrence, thanks to years of teen movies that depict women who gossip as dim-witted.
You Can Still Wear Pink on Wednesdays, Cady
Cady Heron from Mean Girls is another classic example. Mean Girls examines girlhood through the lens of Cady Heron who is the embodiment of “not like other girls” until she transforms into one of the Plastics. In doing so, complete with a full makeover, Cady becomes evil. It isn’t until she denounces the glamourous world of the Plastics that she is viewed as a good person once again. When it comes to these teen movies, the idea is that femininity, short skirts, colourful wardrobes, and an emphasis on hair and make-up make a girl evil. More often than not, characters like Regina George are shown to be powerful, but in a catty and abrasive way.
Caption: Cady before and after her makeover with Karen Smith
What is the outcome of all of this? With the idea of femininity being synonymous with evil, feminine characters in media are often depicted the same way: catty, boy obsessed, and fashion forward. Of course, there are exceptions. There are numerous movies that perpetuate the “ugly duckling” stereotype where a “tomboy” has to be transformed into a feminine character in order to be accepted or loved. There are even high maintenance ultra-feminine characters who subvert their media stereotypes by being intelligent like Daphne from the Scooby Doo Live Action Movie- but the number is far less.
Caption: “ugly duckling” has to be transformed into a feminine character in order to be accepted
Source: blue route mall
The villainization of ultra-femininity reinforces the idea that women aren’t allowed to take an interest in their appearance, be charismatic, or love pastels without it being an indicator of their evilness or vapidity. Tomboys have to be “one of the guys” instead of being viewed as women who simply have different interests than their “girly peers” and ultra-feminine girls have to be rude or dense or undergo an attitude transformation in order to be worthy of the audience’s respect.
Sharpay Evans Deserves Better
Sharpay Evans has been unjustly demonized by both the writers and the audience of the High School Musical franchise. Sharpay is often depicted as the villain of the franchise because of her drive, confidence, and well, her ultra-femininity. While the films claim to champion self-acceptance for everyone, if you’re a girl, that acceptance extends to you only if you’re not “too girly.”
Unlike the cheerleaders and Sharpays who the East High characters outwardly mock (for liking boys for example), the plain jane isn’t aware of her beauty and is dressed in a more acceptable form of femininity. Sharpay is offset by the scholarly Gabriella, the character that we’re supposed to root for.
High School Musical shows character traits quite obviously through clothes. Taylor’s shirts and headbands show her to be the preppy smart girl and Gabriella’s innocence and humility is reflected in the blue and/or white flowy garments that she often wears. Sharpay’s ultra-feminine style includes an extensive array of pinks, florals, and sequins. She lives in a bubblegum dream with her pink cars and locker. However, by associating such feminine characteristics so strongly with the female antagonist, it’s clear that one is supposed to mock and reject these. Sharpay and Regina aren’t the only representations of this. Other examples include Marianne Bryant, Lana Thomas, Madison Morgan, Fiona Montgomery, and I can keep going on. \
Caption: Regina George, Lana Rhodes, and Fiona Montgomery
Source: entertainment weekly; insider; wikipedia
Blondes have historically been typecast as bimbos and bombshells throughout cinema. Sharpay’s blonde hair is heavily weighted with established societal codes and conventions. In his work on blondes and cinema titled “Introduction: ‘the blonde issue,’” Ginette Vincendeau argues that, “Blondeness suggests something inherent to female sexuality and at the same time it is the mark of artificiality, the sign of glamour, a concept that in itself implies a high degree of construction.” Sharpay’s hair paired with her wardrobe is meant to suggest falseness. Sharpay’s felony stems from her distinctly female ambition- drive that doesn’t differ from that of say, Elle Woods of Legally Blonde where female ambition is framed as a positive trait.
Caption: Sharpay is villainized for her drive. Breaking sterotypes, Elle’s drive is framed as a positive trait
Source: teen vogue
Granted, she does get up to her fair share of plotting and scheming. She is not a perfect person and I won’t argue otherwise, but Sharpay’s downfall is indicative of a larger demonization of femininity where overtly feminine characters are often the mean girls of teen films and TV, while the more modest plain girls are the unlikely heroines of the story– even praised for not conforming to mainstream femininity.
Separation of Femininity from Feminism
Having discussed the abovementioned reel narrative, it is also important to trace its roots in real world history. Our society tends to heavily depend on the perceived notion that only two genders exist. They are the blue truck driving boys and the pink glitter wearing doll playing girls. For a majority of our history, cis-gender men have been at the forefront of society. Men held power that for a great deal of history, women couldn’t even dream of having. Except, we could, and we fought and are still fighting to obtain equity.
The second wave of feminism spanned from the early 1960s following in tandem with the civil rights movement and is projected to have ended around the early 1980s. This wave broadened its reach to gender roles alongside its focus on enfranchisement. During WW2, women flooded into the workplace in order to take over for war-bound men. After the War, however, when millions of soldiers returned, women were either ushered out of jobs, stayed in their positions for lower wages than their male counterparts, or worked for “pink collar” jobs which included care-oriented work such as secretarial or nursing positions. With society’s ideal slowly shifting back into domesticity, women were also making careers out of having a family. An argument for this wave was that women were far more depressed in a domestic setting and needed to get out, break down the family unit if desired in order to be independent. This wave however produced an unthinkable side effect- the separation of femininity from feminism.
In order to be taken seriously, second wave feminists denounced things like make-up and high heels in favor of stereotypically masculine things. This was more than likely a product of the environment where they were not looked at as people but as women (mothers, daughters, sisters of someone else), and that distinction would never allow them to progress to a place of equity. To them, these things upheld patriarchal ideals- tools given to us by men to please them.
Sometime during the third wave of feminism however, lipstick feminism emerged where women sought to reclaim these stereotypically girly things like make up and heels. This has also caused a certain shift in the narrative of teen media that today’s teenagers are consuming, although not rapid enough.
Caption: Sometime during the third wave of feminism however, lipstick feminism emerged where women sought to reclaim these stereotypically girly things like make up and heels.
Source: ed times
Featured Image Credits: Playbuzz
Kashvi Raj Singh