My complicated relationship with femininity

Swara Tewari //

When I was a little girl, I used to excitedly don all the frilly dresses my mom bought for me, and wear matching butterfly hair clips. I used to play with dolls and twirl around the living room, pretending I was a princess. When asked what my favorite color was, I would reply “pink” in a heartbeat. 

Then, somewhere along the way, I changed. I started wearing t-shirts and shorts and insisting that dresses just weren’t “me.” I embraced the idea of being a “tomboy” and blue replaced pink as my favorite color. 

In high school, I insisted that all rom-com movies were stupid and that I’d rather watch something more substantial. I was also adamant about never crying in public, because I didn’t want to be seen as “too emotional.”

These changes were authentic, on some level. I really do prefer blue to pink, to this day. And rom-coms are definitely not my preferred movie genre. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that my sudden aversion to all things feminine could, to some extent, be explained by the “not like other girls” complex. 

At the time, all the female characters I admired were portrayed as fundamentally different from the traditional, feminine archetype girl. My favorite book from elementary school exemplifies this perfectly. The book is titled “The Wide Awake Princess” and follows the story of two sisters, who happen to be princesses. The elder one, Gwendolyn, is beautiful, graceful and embodies femininity in every sense. Her younger sister, Annie, who is the heroine of the book, is the complete opposite. She rides horses, is excellent at archery, and gets along better with the castle guards than with her “silly” sister. Looking back, I could see that throughout the story, Annie and Gwendolyn were placed in direct opposition to each other. Where Gwendolyn was weak and incapable, Annie was strong and resourceful. Where Gwendolyn was frivolous and naive, Annie was practical and brave. Annie, an embodiment of the “not like other girls” trope, was portrayed as superior to her sister’s classical femininity in every way. 

Looking back, it’s clear that the “not like other girls” trope permeated media, becoming a large part of the cultural zeitgeist in the mid 2000s. The trope insinuates that femininity is, in some fundamental way, inferior to masculinity. TV shows and movies often told little girls that to be strong and capable, they had to reject femininity. Clearly, this message seeped into the psyches of thousands of little girls like me. 

What struck me, as I grew up, was that I deeply respected all the women in my life. Some are brave, some are emotional, some are stoic, some are hardworking, and some are sacrificial. But all of them are complicated, nuanced people, who cannot be reduced down to arbitrary gender stereotypes. 

I’m still working to dismantle the lingering effects of the “not like other girls” trope today. When I catch myself making instinctive judgements and assumptions based on gender, I make a conscious effort to check my own internalized misogyny. Learning to celebrate and appreciate femininity has been a critical part of me learning how to be a true feminist. And I’m hopeful that we as a society will do better and teach this next generation of girls that they can both love pink and still be the swordfighting heroine. 

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