You know who “the girl” is. She’s the sexy sidekick, the princess waiting to be rescued from the high tower. She’s the hapless romantic who can’t seem to find the right guy until he stumbles into her path, literally, and changes the course of her life. She is countless reincarnations of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty; an unrealistic ideal that pop culture pushes on women from the time they are just little girls. “What being ‘the girl’ means to kids who are playing — and just in life — is to be a marginal, supporting character who is only there to prop up the hero,” explained pop culture critic and essayist Carina Chocano during a recent phone call with Refinery29. In other words: It's an all-too familiar conceit that has real life ramifications for the way that women see themselves and their own stories.
But "the girl" is not something that Chocano will abide without a fight, which is exactly why she's written the book on why it's time for the trope to retire. You Play The Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages rattles the cage of how female characters have long been typecast within inherently sexist plot lines. Over the pages of Chocano's essay collection, she digs into the stories we’re used to seeing Hollywood produce, year after ear, and applies a critical lens to the subject matter that will make you, dear reader, see it in a way that you never have before.
Chocano spoke to Refinery29 about the problematic persistence of Cinderella stories, why manic pixie dream girls have got to go, and what Hollywood still isn't getting right about women's stories onscreen. Word to the wise: Don't let the hall of mirrors fool you.
Since the Pretty Woman ‘90s and the Cinderella story dominance of the early aughts, we’ve worked our way to “cool girl” characters. How do you connect those dots?
"The princess narrative sort of went into remission in the ‘60s. But then it evolved from the 'wild girl tamed by love', popular in the '80s, to the 'quirky alternagirl tamed by love' in the '90s to the 'klutzy, hapless girl-child rescued by love' in the 2000s, which also evolved to the 'desperate almost-spinster taken off the shelf at the last minute'. In the early ‘90s, the marriage story came back with a vengeance in films like Pretty Woman, You’ve Got Mail, My Best Friend’s Wedding... There were so many movies about weddings, or with wedding in the title! And so many movies about career girls who screwed up by not getting married: My Best Friend's Wedding was a big one. The Wedding Planner, The Wedding Date, most movies starring Sandra Bullock.
"At the same time, if a film included a female protagonist, she had to be a princess. That is a fascinating setup because, if you look at the traditional fairytale marriages, the princess isn’t really a protagonist: She doesn’t actually have a desire that she goes out and achieves and then solves the problem and wins. She’s usually more like the grail in the story — and half the time she’s asleep or in some way invalidated.
"As to how we got from there to the ‘cool girl’: The princess trope is so disconnected from real life, but the ‘cool girl’ is just as disconnected. She's the girl who is actually a stereotypical ‘guy’ — as in, her name is Alex, she eats hamburgers, she burps. But she's just a knee-jerk reaction to the ladylike princess character, evolved into a controlling, type-A perfectionist."
How does the manic pixie dream girl fit into all of this?
"That’s a trope that’s been around for a long time, too; in one way or another, all these characters do the same thing. The manic pixie dream girl the character who liberates an uptight guy from his uptightness or from his shyness, liberates him from whatever. The girl character can come in all these different flavors. But her role is to always help the hero become himself."
You have been writing pop culture criticism since the ‘90s. In all that time, what have you pinpointed as the pivotal shifts in the way women are portrayed onscreen?
“When I was really little, in the 1970s, a lot of kids programming was very progressive. Toys were very gender neutral; there was feminist influence in media. I loved Mary Tyler Moore, I loved Laverne & Shirley. Yes, they were of their time. But they centered on women who had complex lives — they weren’t just the sort of girls to be won by the hero. At that age, I understood that maybe I didn’t see a lot of grown women around me with careers; most of the mothers I knew stayed home. But I thought the world had changed, and I went into it with the assumption that things would be different for women going forward.
"Then there were shifts in the ‘80s, when the tides turned away from realism in pop culture toward fantasy. That fantasy was pretty reductive, and women’s place in the fantasy became more unreal. But in the ‘90s, mainstream imagery got a little bit more co-opted: Everyone was super stylized, all the time. I am thinking of the difference between Molly Ringwald’s crazy curls and Jennifer Grey’s distinctive nose turning into the Friends friends, who were all perfect and 'normal' but in a way that was totally unattainable and unreliable.
"As a result, normal people all but disappeared: You had the casting of above-average looking people like Janeane Garofalo or America Ferrara cast as the ugly duckling. When I was a kid, the kids I saw on TV looked like kids: Kristy McNicol, Quinn Cummings, Jodie Foster. The kids my daughter sees on TV look like models, and are styled to the nines at all times."
The film world has come a long way since the ‘90s. But obviously, there’s still a long way to go. What myths do we need to break down to keep moving forward?
“When I started doing research for the book, I was reading about Katherine Hepburn: how she wore pants and she made her own money and she didn’t feel like she had to fight for women’s rights because her mother’s generation did that. It’s hilarious because that was so long ago. But Katherine Hepburn really felt like fighting for women’s equality was done and that women of her generation could just go on with their lives. That is a fallacy young women have been brought up to believe for a long time, even longer ago than my mother’s generation. Part of what happens is that the equality myth feels true in your youth, because we’re educated the same [as men] and we graduate from college in the same numbers, and then we enter the workforce in the same numbers.
"But then we thin out. We start to not advance. We start to not get paid as much, to not be in charge. It takes a long time to realize what's happening — it's like, 'Wait a minute, I thought I was going to a level playing field?' For most of my twenties and thirties, if I wasn’t getting somewhere, I blamed myself entirely. Now I can look back and say, ‘Well, it was never really fair.’ There are still a lot of systemic things in the way and, for most of my youth, we weren’t even allowed to acknowledge them.
"That’s a way that we get trapped in this cycle, with every generation: We get cut off from our future selves. In your twenties, you can’t even imagine a future self that doesn’t freak you out. You go blank. And then when you’re in your forties, there’s just no connection to the 20-year-old. The culture reinforces that. We don’t see any continuity for women in cultural narratives; we don’t see how your life moves forward."
Can you expand a bit on what you mean by that?
"It's like this: Most stories are focused on the happy ending, which is supposed to happen in your twenties — as though that’s the end of your life, the end of your adventure. That really needs to change. Women need to see their own trajectories more. Young actresses are hailed as the next big thing. But they disappear around 40, whereas male actors remain bankable into their seventies.
"But it's also the stories and characters; the way women are portrayed — or often not portrayed — past the age of 35 or so. It's the contorted way they are presented: almost exclusively as ‘moms’ who magically never age past the age of 35, even when their children are teenagers. These characters are not only confusing but extremely limiting. We have almost no stories with adult women protagonists. We are never shown a symbolic path into our own future."