Regina George in “Mean Girls.” Blair Waldorf in “Gossip Girl.” Sharpay Evans in “High School Musical.” In movies and television, hyper-feminine style is villainized. If there’s a female character who has a strong interest in fashion, that character often happens to be an antagonist. Sometimes, it’s almost as if taking care of your appearance is a rite of passage for becoming evil. Cady Heron in “Mean Girls” is a perfect example of this. At the beginning of the movie, she dresses plainly — unfettered by the frivolities of fashion. Her decision to start wearing pink, heels and pleated skirts is nearly synonymous with her decision to become catty and ditch her real friends. This character arc gives clothing the ability to dictate a character’s entire persona, an ironic concession to the tropes of fashion given that these characters are often perceived as shallow for being interested in clothing.
It would be shortsighted to say female antagonists who like fashion are portrayed as unintelligent. On the contrary, these characters are often incredibly cunning and innovative. However, their brilliance is a particular brand of intellect; it’s almost always used as a means of deception, aimed solely at self-enrichment. This creates an odd narrative that if you’re smart, liking fashion somehow detracts from your intelligence or benevolence. Why is this? Why is it difficult for certain screenwriters, directors and general audiences to comprehend a female character who is fashionable, smart and good-natured?
The answer: Traditionally feminine interests, specifically interests in hyper-feminine fashion, are often not seen in a positive light. It’s much easier to mock them, which maintains the gender binary by continuing to reflect a general hatred of women and femininity. This is much easier to do than it is to create characters that challenge this trope or do away with it altogether. As an audience, we seek out characters who resemble and confirm what we already know. For many people, the fashionable mean girl makes a lot of sense because she presents her femininity in a predictable way: She’s overly emotional and she’s consumed primarily by drama, clothes, social hierarchy and boys. This representation of femininity is tired and it completely disregards the complexity of gender.
If it’s not the female antagonist liking fashion, it’s the female protagonist actively dismissing fashion in favor of more “serious” pursuits. Think Kat Stratford in “Ten Things I Hate About You” or Andrea Sachs at the beginning of “The Devil Wears Prada.” In an article for Elle, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes this dismissal best. After moving to America from Nigeria, Adichie noted that in Western culture, “Women who wanted to be taken seriously were supposed to substantiate their seriousness with a studied indifference to appearance.” As film often serves as a reflection of societal values, the common conception that a woman cannot be serious or even likable if she cares about her appearance or has traditionally feminine interests is transposed into the shows and movies we watch.
An exception to this traditional rejection of femininity is one of the protagonists in “Little Women,” Amy March. And ironically, she’s one of the most hated characters in literature. Unlike her older sister Jo, Amy doesn’t have an interest in dismissing her feminine side and she’s often hated for it. While she’s portrayed as selfish and bratty at times, that seems to be more of a function of her age than her personality. Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation is arguably the first where Amy has any shot at redemption. The original book and past movie adaptations follow the lives of the March sisters chronologically, however, in Gerwig’s adaptation, audiences meet Amy for the first time as a mature woman instead of a young girl. Her scene with Laurie (the “boy next door” to the March sisters) about marriage being an economic proposition shows that she’s pragmatic about what it means to be a woman in the 19th century. This rationality is not nearly as interesting or inspiring as Jo’s fiercely independent mindset. For every time Jo dons a more androgynous outfit, Amy is seen wearing ribbons, hoop skirts or pastels. This contrast in style between Jo and Amy is often mirrored in a contrast in the characterization of the two sisters. Despite this nuanced portrayal, audiences have historically found Amy to be self-centered, an assertion that is rooted in the idea that women who present themselves in a predominantly feminine way are obsessed with themselves, their silly clothes and their trivial hobbies. What this proves above all else is that we, as a society, are so attached to the trope of fashion being a code for evil or egotism that we lash out at any character that departs from it.
So where do we go from here? Regardless of whether film and television are championing a redeeming character for staying clear of familiar conventions of femininity or further vilifying the mean girl for aligning with them, the same problem is present. Femininity is seen as shameful and the large number of people who do not wholly reject or indeed align themselves with it are unable to relate to the characters they watch on the screen. As with anything, only presenting extremes is harmful to everyone involved. As an audience, we need to ask for more: smart female protagonists who don’t view liking clothes as detrimental to their morality.
Olivia Mouradian is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.