The Thing We Always Forget About That "California Girl" Stereotype

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer

It's no secret that the archetypal "California Girl" has had a fraught relationship with pop culture. From Julia Roberts' legendary Rodeo Drive shopping spree in Pretty Woman to Katy Perry's Daisy duke-shaking anthem, the L.A. lady is rarely remembered for her genius. And why should she be? In this topsy-turvy land of sun-scorched freeways and glistening ocean waves, the "California Girl" serves as an easy embodiment of West Coast cool. A little ditzy, and a lot materialistic, she's just here for the sorority parties or high school ragers — as uncomplicated and cheerful as the cloudless Pacific sky. After all, who could possibly take her seriously with that ridiculous Valley accent?

Of course, all of our favorite portraits of "California Girls" tell a very different story. If Clueless and Legally Blonde seem, on their lacquered surfaces, to confirm her air-headed charm, a second glance reveals the subversive ways that the "California Girl" is always the master of her destiny. Wielding that signature scented résumé, she epitomizes the Eureka State's insatiable appetite for discovery — a continent's worth of knowledge, experimentation, and desire condensed into one (exquisitely dressed) woman. Though we're tempted to throw out labels like "vacuous" or "vain," Elle Woods and Cher Horowitz gleefully flip the script on the culture that so wildly underestimated them. Don't let their pristine manis fool you: we ignore the "California Girl"'s brilliance at our own peril.

Unsurprisingly, "California Girls" spend much of their time working to prove their male detractors wrong. Who could forget Warner's breathtakingly nasty comments to Elle as she's prepping to apply for one of Harvard Law's most prestigious internships? “Come on, you’re never going to get the grades to qualify for one of those spots—you’re not smart enough, sweetie.” Clearly her near-perfect LSAT score suggests otherwise. Elle's determination, and fearless loyalty to herself, is the magic that fuels the astonishing success of this unlikely Ivy Leaguer. As we know, she could never have exonerated Brooke Windham, who was wrongfully accused of murder, without drawing on her expert understanding of the perming process.

Don't let their pristine manis fool you: we ignore the "California Girl"'s brilliance at our own peril.

In the end, the "California Girl" uses her unique curiosity and smarts to defy the mall-stalking stereotype lobbed at women everywhere. She shows us how impossible it is to live in the little hot pink box girls are so often forced in to — the pressure to be stylish and perky, likable and accommodating, to shape our ambitions around society's expectations, rather than our own. I'm pretty sure that Cher isn't the first bold, imaginative lady to feel that the dudes in her life see her as just “a ditz with a credit card.” But the "California Girl" does it all with a wink, holding in harmony the many, competing identities that women struggle to balance. And when we find ourselves ready to judge, don't forget: more than twenty years after Clueless's 1995 premiere, some of us still seem to need Cher's prophetic reminder that “it does not say 'RSVP' on the Statue of Liberty.”

One of this summer's freshest novels, Fly Me by Daniel Riley, offers a powerful glimpse into this "California Girl" archetype. Set in a sleepy beach-town just south of L.A., Fly Me follows recent Vassar grad, Suzy Whitman, across her psychedelic odyssey of self-discovery. It's 1972, and no one can resist the siren song of California's notoriously groovy vibes — its gleaming coastline, its generous dustings of cocaine. Instead of chasing her dreams of writing to New York City, Suzy decides to join her rebellious older sister, Grace, on the West Coast to work as a flight attendant. While trading the East's ivy-covered prestige for slinky airline uniforms and teased hair comes as a bit of an initial shock, Suzy quickly adapts to this hedonistic new world: a place unburdened by past generations' rigid definitions of success. For Suzy, California feels beguilingly outside of time and history, buoyed along by the raw electricity of the Rolling Stones and an endless supply of weed. In short, the perfect spot to recover from the stinging disappointments of adolescence.

Sadly, not even SoCal's glittering beaches can sustain such a fantasy. Intoxicated by this new freedom, Suzy falls under the spell of a boyishly alluring local drug dealer, Billy Zar, who tricks her into smuggling coke across state lines during flight shifts. Young and beautiful, Suzy looks like the perfect front — no one would think to check her bag before getting on the plane. But she knows she's more than the passive roles that men from Billy to the condescending airline pilots have pushed her into, dreaming of the possibilities beyond serving drinks to groping businessmen at 30,000 feet. Like all "California Girls," she's playing a part, and it's getting old. As she notes while putting on her garish work make-up, "[i]n the mirror: the reflection of the high-femme stewardess image she's never quite pulled together naturally. The painted nails, the three-dimensional hair, the hundred-and-fifty percent eye shadow — it's always been effortful, a necessary performance."

Tangled in Billy's high-stakes drug ring, Suzy must learn that California is no escapist's Eden. Sickness, misogyny, unthinkable tragedy — they'll follow you to paradise, she realizes, despite those hypnotically swaying palms. But Fly Me proves that the true "California Girl" embraces the sadness and chaos of experience, grabbing her narrative back from all those who've tried to write her story. When Suzy decides to trade her flight attendant's heels for the cockpit, earning her pilot's license in spite of her instructor's sexist doubts, she leaves us exhilarated by her plunge into the invigorating unknown. As it turns out, blissed-out deserts can't hit the pause button on all of life's knotted problems. Instead, California represents the place where women do the hard, often painful work of forming a real identity.

Suzy Whitman, like Cher and Elle before her, is a classic "California Girl." She explores, she subverts, and, despite her tireless chorus of critics, she always finds a way back to herself.

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