Not Like Other Girls
"I knew right away she was not like other girls." Robert Hunter/Grateful Dead
There was a time when the ultimate compliment you could give a gal was that she wasn't like other girls. In Rom-Com terms, this meant she was cool. She was different than your typical woman and all the annoying things women are known to be - emotional, sensitive, needy and weak, scared of bugs and dirt and stuff like that. A girl who was not like other girls was more like the boys. She could hang. She was the girl next door. The one who didn't need makeup to be pretty, the girl who could play sports but not beat you, the one who didn't get upset about silly things. She was clever, confident and comforting but still sweet, sexy and never intimidating nor overwhelming. She was everything a man wanted in a woman without any of the stuff he didn't. This was a term created by men, but women imposed it on each other too.
No surprise then that in recent years, contemporary feminists have taken issue with the expression. To say she's not like other girls implies there's something wrong with the other girls, as if there all the same. I get that, and I applaud this generation of women for all they've done to claim their right to identify themselves however they choose, but it's important not to discredit what my generation and generations of women before mine experienced to get to the point where they've been able to do so.
At the time when Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics to Scarlet Begonias, 70's feminism was in full swing, and an entire generation was reacting to the conformity of female ideals thrust upon them by their parents, a generation who, by necessity of survival, had insulated themselves from the horrors of a war that challenged every notion they ever had of personal security. Women had two choices as the sixties moved in to the seventies - reject the old ways or cling to them. In retrospect, it seems most of them tried to do both, and eventually the cliched term, "Having it all," emerged with all its accompanying pressures.
Growing up in the eighties and nineties, I wasn’t presented with many images of what a woman could be. Men still dominated most industries and defined nearly all portrayals of women in media, and young women were taught to emulate a myriad of contradictory paradigms.
We were taught to be smart, get an education, take charge of our lives and pursue a worthwhile career, but we were not allowed to be bossy, domineering nor demanding. It was important that, no matter what, we were nice, nevermind that being polite doesn't always get us what we need.
We were meant to be be pretty but not too sexy, and if we weren't sexually conservative enough, we were blamed for whatever negative consequences we suffered.
We were taught to be fun and outgoing, so long as our personalities weren't so big they out-shadowed others.
We were taught to be active and adventurous, but if we developed so much wanderlust that it kept us from domesticating in early adulthood, we would quickly find ourselves out of the flock.
We were taught to meet a good man with whom to have a nice home where we could become a good wife and mother, and if we didn't fit that mold it was up to us to figure out how to exist as the minority in a world that favors conformity.
In short, we were taught to live up to a male ideal, which is in large part because women hadn't been given much opportunity yet to tell the world who we actually wanted to be. This, finally, in the last decade has started to change, with women everywhere embracing the power of sharing their stories.
I was the kind of girl that wanted to do whatever I wanted to do, not what I was told I should do. I remember playing house in kindergarten and already refusing to play the roles expected of me. As a kid, the other girls didn’t like me because I was shy and weird. They teased me for my red(ish) hair and what was then still a boy’s name. I changed schools nearly every year hoping to find somewhere I could be myself with people who understood me, but it never happened.
As a teenager, I wanted to run around in the woods and be as smart as the boys. In college, when I tired of the drama of my predominately female school, I left campus to study abroad in Paris where I learned to speak French from the men I met in the streets. After graduation, when it was clear I wasn't on a track towards marriage and motherhood, my relationships with women could only go so far. My lifestyle was unique, and it was a lot easier for them to move on with their peers who were like them.
No matter where I went, at all phases of life, I always knew I wasn’t like the other girls, because they never gave me a chance to forget it.
The older I got, the more I became friends with boys until I started finding girls who also weren’t friends with other girls. As social mores began to evolve, girls who didn’t fit the expected norm grew more vocal, and more of us started to find each other. With the generation that came of age behind me, all sorts of new feminine archetypes emerged and a groundswell of acceptance gained momentum. It still isn’t easy to be different, but it’s an awful lot easier now than it used to be.