Whether it’s with my nose stuck between the pages of a book or my eyes glued to a silver screen, I constantly see myself reflected in pieces of media. I see myself in different characters and unique plotlines, feeling like I’m looking at my brain through a mirror whenever I sit down to read my favorite book or watch my favorite TV show. I especially see myself in the “smart girl” trope.
The smart girl trope is associated with beloved characters like Hermione Granger (Emma Watson, “Little Women”), Annabeth Chase (Alexandra Daddario, “Songbird”), Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel, “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”), Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero, “Bar Fight!”) — the list goes on. Smart girls in media are typically represented as strong, self-sufficient heroines who can fend for themselves at all costs. Even if the actresses that play them are exceptionally beautiful, men never seem to bat an eye at them, and when one does, it is mainly because of the womens’ intelligence, not because of their looks.
Ironically, these immensely admirable characters have grown to become my life’s villains.
It all started with Hermione Granger. I first picked up the Harry Potter series in fourth grade when I found my parents’ copies of the books. I had been a consistent reader since second grade and thought it was time that I ventured outside the world of juvenile chapter books and read something a bit more sophisticated. In my 9-year-old eyes, the Harry Potter franchise represented exactly that.
After much begging, my parents gave in and let me read “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” The second Hermione was introduced, I was officially a changed girl. I had discovered the art and beauty of finding a character who wholeheartedly represented my personality, putting my every thought into words with her mere fictional actions. As I breezed through the seven Harry Potter books, no matter how long they were or how many side-eyed looks I received at school for choosing to read my book instead of playing games at recess, I saw myself in Hermione, and that was all that mattered.
About a year later, I experienced my first ever book hangover after finishing the Harry Potter series. I was incessantly searching for another series to fill the void when I came upon Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians. We had been discussing Greek mythology in my fifth-grade social studies class, so the subject seemed interesting and topical. I was also very, very bored.
I picked up “Percy Jackson and the Olympians #1: The Lightning Thief” and began a new reading journey. As the pages turned and the story unfolded, I found myself in Annabeth Chase: a strong-willed, independent female lead who just so happened to be a fervent bookworm despite her dyslexia. I now had two smart female characters to relate to and go back to any time I doubted myself or my potential.
As the years went by, a time came when my constant reading began to wane and I started watching TV shows more frequently. I had a hard time finding a new show to fully invest myself in. When the COVID-19 pandemic came around though, my friends and I were binge-watching an insane amount of shows, and one of my best friends recommended “Gilmore Girls,” insisting that I was a real-life personification of Rory Gilmore.
I binge-watched one “Gilmore Girls” episode after another, completely immersed in Lorelai (Lauren Graham, “Because I Said So”) and Rory’s wholesome — although at times codependent and unhealthy — mother-daughter relationship. Rory’s abundant screen time allowed me to get to know her character very well and to see myself reflected in her studious habits and love for reading, at least for the first three seasons. Once the fourth season rolled around and Rory’s character took a turn for the worse, I began questioning how much I was truly like Rory and what my friend had really meant when she said I was just like her. I seemed to fit into the smart girl trope, but at what cost?
Eventually, I ventured into the world of sitcoms. I had exhausted most of the sitcoms I knew of when a friend recommended “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” telling me that I was just like Amy Santiago. As a result of boredom and a desperate need for media entertainment, I immediately started watching the show and was instantly hooked, especially by how much I related to Amy and her Type A personality tendencies, but also by her ensuing romantic relationship with the show’s lead, Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg, “Palm Springs”). When I started watching “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” I had just begun to crave an active love life. I desperately needed to know what love felt like, and watching Jake and Amy’s relationship on screen only increased that desire.
Once again, I was stuck and confused about what it meant to relate to a character. I related to Amy in terms of her behavior and her organizational skills at her job and basically every task in her life, but I also envied her. I envied the relationship she created with Jake because it’s precisely what I wanted, and still want. Even if I understood while watching the show that it took Amy a while to get to where she was in her romantic life, I wanted to be like her with such urgency that I became impatient.
My years of “kinning” characters that fall within the smart girl trope were catalyzed by an innocent desire to identify with characters who were like me in the absence of people I related to in my daily life. Hermione and Annabeth fell into that category perfectly. But as I grew up, I began to realize that “kinning” one version or personality trait of a character does not mean that you’ll relate to them wholeheartedly, nor will it mean that your life will pan out exactly as theirs did. Nonetheless, it was my expectation that the former and the latter would be true despite my understanding of its unattainability.
The smart girl characters I so adored at one point in my life slowly became my villains. I began to look at them with an envious eye, desperately desiring what they had. They seemed to have a perfect level of academic concentration that never wavered, an endless amount of motivation and cute, smart and funny boyfriends who were in love with their nerdy antics. Even if I do experience high levels of concentration, motivation and a very limited series of romantic moments throughout my life, all these facts about me are undeniably dynamic. I may wake up one day and not have the energy to do anything. Similarly, I have gone through several long romantic dry spells. These problems, although extremely valid, did not seem like problems that the beloved Hermione, Annabeth, Rory and Amy faced. If they did face them, they were a hell of a lot better at hiding it than I was.
Daily Arts Writer Graciela Batlle Cestero can be reached at email@example.com.