Why “Barbie” and “Mrs. Maisel” Make Me Proud to Be “Like Other Girls”
Pop culture trends seem to change in less time than it takes to watch a single TikTok, but one that appears to be holding steady is something that means a lot to me: the rise of “Yes, like other girls.” It’s that pink-hued corner of pop culture that takes gleeful, proud joy in girly-girl fashion, hobbies, and vibes – think the popularity of Amazon Prime Video’s fashionably retro series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the soaring mainstream acceptance of romance novels (and their television adaptations) like “Bridgerton,” or, most recently, the unbridled enthusiasm unleashed by the first “Barbie” trailer.
As a child of the ’90s and a teenage girl in the ’00s, pop culture mostly informed me that I had to choose: I could love pink, poofy dresses, and romance and resign myself to being perceived as a vapid contrast to the “main character” or the embodiment of a “mean girl,” or I could be taken seriously by brushing off those “silly” interests. Being “not like other girls” was a classic way to indicate that a female character was worth rooting for, but it left those of us who were “like other girls” in the dust.
I could love pink, poofy dresses, and romance and resign myself to being perceived as a vapid contrast to the “main character” or the embodiment of a “mean girl,” or I could be taken seriously by brushing off those “silly” interests.
That dichotomy brought a lot of stress to my life at an already-challenging time, and it carried into adulthood in frustrating ways, too. That’s why “Legally Blonde” became a touchstone for me and other girls like me. Elle Woods was right there, telling me that I could love pink and sparkles while also being ambitious, creative, supportive, and smart. It’s why I fought so hard to stand my ground when I was in graduate school for playwriting, wearing my swing dresses and sparkly earrings, trying to make myself heard in a room full of men who wrote female characters without a shred of self-awareness about the stereotypes they were rehashing. Those dresses became my armor in their own way.
That’s also why I was thrilled to see the first trailer for “Barbie” received with arms-wide-open delight – and an entire accompanying “Barbiecore” trend. This over-the-top, vibrantly colored, winking story feels like a celebration of the idea that it’s not just OK to be “like other girls,” it can be really fun, too! The movie features versions of Barbie played by women of different sizes, shapes, races, and gender identities, with careers that include doctor, lawyer, physicist, and even president. “Like other girls” isn’t just a narrow, exclusionary definition here – “other girls” is “every girl,” and “every girl” is worth celebrating.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is less tongue-in-cheek, but it’s been no less meaningful throughout its five-season run. Fast-talking, fashionable housewife Midge gets cheated on by her husband in 1958, teams up with prickly talent manager Susie, and launches a career in standup comedy despite pushback against her gender and her biting, often blue, material. Not once does the show suggest that Midge should stop caring about her pretty dresses and her perfectly coifed ‘do in order to focus on her enormous ambition. That “women can be both” attitude is why, I admit, some of the series’s later seasons’ more cynical “you can’t have it all” themes have frustrated me. It’s also why I’m unashamedly a longtime fan of the show’s magnetic, slow-burn, doomed romantic subplot just as much as I’m a huge proponent of following Midge’s career and her forged-in-fire friendship with Susie (which, not incidentally, is framed as the real, platonic love story of the whole story).
Flaws and all, the show is the perfect example of my “I contain multitudes” mindset, all in one retro-candy-colored package. Do I pump my fist when one of Midge’s sets calls out sexist double standards that are still relevant in the 2020s? Yes. Do I swoon over her wardrobe in the exact same scenes? Also yes. Do I swoon equally when she and Lenny share intense gazes with enough electricity sparking between them to power an entire city? Also yes! Enjoying one part of a female character doesn’t mean I can’t equally enjoy the others, and I appreciate pop culture that embraces that balance.
Romance itself – whether as subplots of other stories or as a genre – also gets looked down on too often. I’ll be the first to admit: it took me time to undo my own internal biases about being one of “those women who reads romance novels.” But then I realized: what, exactly, is wrong with reading romance novels or watching romantic comedies? Why should I feel bad about stories that, quite frequently (though not exclusively), center women being honest about their hopes and fears, their dreams, and, yes, their desires? The answer is that none of us should, and it can feel downright powerful to take joy in these things that we’re told should be hidden away for being “frivolous” or “too girly.” And, apparently, lots of us are doing just that – just look at the popularity of “Bridgerton” and “Queen Charlotte” for even more proof!
Even as pop culture seems more willing to begrudgingly give respect to “girly” topics and styles, the “not like others girls” mentality brings up such an interesting – and frustrating – conundrum in the performance of femininity and gender in general. Stray too far from “traditional” femininity, and you get dinged for it in life and even at work. Yet, at the same time, we’ve also somehow circled around to penalizing people who embrace their “girly” side too much and claim they’re not worth taking very seriously.
There’s even scientific research to back this up. One study found that women who wear heavy makeup at work were described as unprofessional, cold, less capable, or even immoral. Another study, however, found that those who don’t wear any makeup are penalized, too. The most likely to advance were the women who threaded the needle of a “moderate” amount of makeup. In other words, to excel, we have to somehow nail the constantly moving target of whatever exactly the “right” level of “feminine” is at that particular moment and in that particular environment – and honestly, that’s bullsh*t.
Yes, I’m “like other girls”: I have my own tastes, my own personality, and my own unique sense of self – just like all these other girls.
Expressions of gender, period, shouldn’t have to fit in a tidy little box to be acceptable. We – and our pop culture – should support one another in expanding our definitions, not narrowing them down. We should be celebrating the whole spectrum of how we talk about and express femininity and all the different ways we can simply be ourselves. So yes, I’m “like other girls”: I have my own tastes, my own personality, and my own unique sense of self – just like all these other girls.