Chin: Not Like Other Girls

Feminine aesthetics serve as both exclusionary and liberating forces.

by Clara Chin | 1/11/18 12:15am

If you’re at all familiar with the niche meme community, you’re probably aware of the “I’m Not Like Other Girls” meme, which satirizes girls who go out of their way to distinguish themselves from traditional notions of femininity. “Starter pack” memes characterize these “unique” women as those who wear checkerboard pants, Kurt Cobain-esque clout goggles and Doc Martens. They identify “Lolita” as their favorite book or movie (a perfect combination of the ironic and subversive) and drink black coffee (black like their soul). Satirizing this behavior is an important critique of internalized sexism. Thus, it is also important to consider that some of the “feminine” characteristics that “I’m Not Like Other Girls” resists are actually worth resisting, and that there should be room for multiple femininities.

Separate from the “I’m Not Like Other Girls” meme is the “Other Girls” meme, often construed as the types of “basic” girls who drink Starbucks frappuccinos, wear “natural” makeup, own multiple pairs of Lululemons and enjoy Sunday brunch. The meme of the “Not Like Other Girls” girl, which is usually simplified as the “alt” girl, ironically listens to Lana del Rey, while the Other Girl unapologetically listens to Taylor Swift. The alt girl uses Instagram for ironic memes, and the Other Girl uses Instagram for un-ironic group selfies. There is nothing inherently wrong with Starbucks or Lululemon; the patronizing attitude that alt girls sometimes hold against this culture can be tied to internalized sexism. Because this aesthetic is attributed to femininity, some women choose to distance themselves from it.

Neither of these behaviors should be wrong. After all, they are just a matter of personal taste. Nevertheless, the feminist debate has created a litany of shifting connotations upon these two groups, sometimes shaming the superficiality of what it means to be a basic girl and sometimes casting light on the internalized sexism of the Not Like Other Girls girl. It is difficult to distinguish between qualities that are arbitrarily associated with femininity or being a woman (and are thus frowned upon), and qualities that stem from sexist norms and stereotypes about women. This is why internalized sexism is often a fraught combination of resistance to femininity and to societal constructs that took shape during a long history of media outlets controlled by men.

It is important to complicate traditional notions of femininity. Societal pressure to appear flawless accounts for the desire to wear unnoticeable makeup, creating insecurities for those who wear too much or too little makeup, making a fashion statement with dramatic eyeliner or choosing to expose facial imperfections. Other aspects of the “basic” girl seem arbitrarily assigned to femininity, such as liking frappuccinos. But liking a sugary drink should have no such negative connotation — even if it is bad for your health. It’s ridiculous to assume that “basic” women should be associated with consuming sweet beverages.

More problematically, these stereotypes are the vehicles within which mainstream feminism has evolved to favor certain types of women over others, which subsequently proposes a far too simplistic brand of feminism. The face of feminism as popularized by celebrity figures like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé has a tendency to perpetuate a certain look for women. By denouncing women who identify with a different aesthetic, feminism can often feel exclusionary, insofar as it seems welcoming of feminine women only.

One conclusion that would resolve the tensions between the alt-basic binary would be non-essentialism, a concept that Simone de Beauvoir wrote about in “The Second Sex.” She wrote of the “myth of woman” — a conceptualization of the inequality resulting from understanding the woman as “Other” to man. De Beauvoir argues that femininity is a social construct often defined by men. It is true that the collective effects of women aspiring to femininity could potentially be negative, since they result from social constructs catering to men. But the solution may not necessarily be to disown femininity altogether — instead, aesthetic femininity should be separated from essentializing femininity. Femininity as an aesthetic choice, such as preference of dress style, identifying with “feminine” literary characters and listening to “feminine” music, removes some of the political consequences and social inequality that results from associating femininity with gender.

Embracing femininity as an aesthetic could be a freeing act for many. First, it creates room for multiple femininities, so women can embrace feminine aesthetics without connoting generalizations about being a woman. Further, women can dress in less stereotypically feminine ways without feeling a false sense of harbored internalized sexism. Finally, understanding femininity as an aesthetic realizes the ways that certain male attitudes and desires have imposed themselves on what femininity means. Understanding this collective feminism makes room for women to adhere to other gender performances.