She slays monsters. She’s tough and independent. Other girls like sewing and pretty dresses, but she prefers swords and chain-mail. She’s Not Like Other Girls.
Not Like Other Girls is a particularly insidious form of sexism that has seeped into fantasy, particularly YA fantasy, and needs to stop. Generally, a female character will be established as a tough, unflappable badass who is skilled in combat and gives absolutely zero fucks about being presentable or ladylike. Then, to really drive the point home, the author will make a point of saying that she doesn’t fit in with other girls. While they’re all off doing needlepoint and gossiping about the next ball, she’s polishing her greatsword. She is, as you would have it, not like them.
This trope often slips under the radar because girls are able to align themselves with the protagonist. At a glance, she is a Strong Female Character™ who is capable of looking out for herself. We all want to believe that we are like her. We want to be Not Like Other Girls.
And that’s where the problem comes in. There is nothing wrong with a girl breaking gender norms and crossing lines in search of adventure. But when she is set up as Not Like Other Girls, that implies that most women don’t want adventure and cannot be powerful badasses if they put their minds to it. If the girl having the adventure is unique, and if she is scorned by other women for wanting more, the author is building her up by putting down women as a whole.
This also plays into the idea that traditional femininity is necessarily bad, and that women must align themselves with traditionally masculine things in order to be interesting or successful. It makes needlepoint and swordplay incompatible when, in fact, people can like both regardless of gender. This not only reinforces the gender binary, but also contributes to the practice of treating things that are traditionally feminine as inferior.
That is to say that setting the hero apart as Not Like Other Girls teaches women to be sexist by encouraging them to look down on other women. Because other women don’t want adventure, and so if we want to be the girl who is Not Like Other Girls, we must necessarily distance ourselves from them. Rather than supporting one another, it divides us and sets us against each other. If women are too busy hating their own gender to advocate for one another, real social progress becomes all but impossible.
The weakness of this archetype lies in its prevalence. It has proliferated the media because women want a female badass they can align themselves with, and because they do identify with her desire for adventure. And if most women didn’t want adventure—if she truly wasn’t like other girls—the rest of us would have long since gone back to scrubbing floors and making sandwiches without bothering to read her story.
An example of this trope being nicely averted is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. The protagonist, Vin, is a powerful fighter who grew up in the streets. When she enters high society and starts infiltrating balls, she has to come to grips with the fact that she is exactly like other girls. She likes perfume and dresses in addition to brawling, and that’s okay. Moreover, the fact that she considers the women around her shallow and empty-headed comes back to bite her in the ass when a few of them turn out to be more capable than they let on.
An example of this trope done exceptionally badly is Sara Raasch’s Snow Like Ashes. Meira, the story’s hero, constantly goes on about how all the other woman in her camp would rather be doing housework, but she likes to fight. This goes basically unchallenged, and when other women do have to fight they are reluctant at best. Except when absolutely necessary, the armies are exclusively male (although that’s a different issue entirely).
Photos courtesy of morguefile.