I don't remember the first time that somebody told me "You're not like other girls."
It may have been the golden-haired boy who first ensnared my heart with the winning combination of long lashes and an appreciation for Blink 182. It may have been the high school teacher who could never quite tamp down my curiosity and enthusiasm to challenge what I was told, even as it derailed the access to education for my peers. It could have been anybody, really.
I don't remember who said it first, but I remember how it made me feel.
Special. Unique. Capable of toppling kingdoms with my tenacity, veracity, and ferocity. I relished that the very characteristics that rendered me abrasive to some were actually just a smokescreen, concealing my true value from the eyes of the unworthy. Before long, I was raised above the rest of my gender so frequently that I arrogantly accepted the compliment, and internalised it.
I didn't like that I the single sex school that I attended for the first three years of high school. I considered myself "one of the boys", though I was never truly short of female friends. I'd attribute this exclusionary elitism behind barriers that were harder to call out as bullshit, though they were: to the influence of a close relationship with my older brother, or the childhood in which I was reared on Iggy Pop, or the fact that I insisted on wearing shorts for my first ever school photo day at age five... and only relented to femininity when my mother, bless her, scraped my hair into high ponytails and weaved bright red ribbons into the elastic to affirm that yes, I was a girl. The shit-eating grin of that photo was priceless. So much the better for not knowing the smug anecdote of that memory would be wielded by my older self in the face of other self-proclaimed "tomboys".
I don't remember who first told me "You think you're so much better than other girls, but you're not." I do, however, remember how much it grated. The truth, when delivered bluntly, always does. I imagine I protested, stuck my lower lip out, and wallowed in my reluctance to be alerted to the game I was playing. Teenagers are a cringeworthy lot, but for some never truly shirk the awkwardness of recalling their past selves. To this day, I cringe at the woman I was last week, last month, last year. And I cringe all the more to recall how long it took me to see the label of "not like other girls" for what it was: a dog leash and collar... and not the fun kind.
Children in Western society can hardly intermingle outside of their genders without being teased by adults for having picked up a boyfriend or girlfriend in the playground. The social division of "your own gender for friends, the other for romance" is a deeply damaging assumption in all contexts, for LGBTQI and cis-het people alike. But children are curiously-minded and so this division of gender, particularly in preteen age groups, sees us apply a degree of mystery to genders that are not our own. This, ultimately, tints all intergender interactions. Young people experience this the most palpably: some days, the girl will be included in a game readily, whereas at other times (particularly when boys are clustered together), the friendship that was earlier a nonissue is suddenly something to be reneged upon. Whether a boy will include a girl in his play, or mock her until she cries for wanting to partake, is a flip of the coin. With this in mind, it's only understandable that young girls learn to place great significance in their interactions with people who are not girls. And before the "what about men" camp start inflating balloons for their masturbatory self-pity party, I will acknowledge that this experience is, I've been told (and witnessed in every "Geeks Trying To Get The Girl" movie of the nineties and early noughties) true of young boys also.
In pursuit of the attentions of boys who were largely indifferent to my presence, I adapted to my surroundings. It didn't feel fraudulent at the time, or even now, but perhaps that's a disclaimer made of a defensiveness that persists even to this day. It's a sign of social awareness when people tailor their speech and mannerisms appropriately to the context and the people within. But on the face of it, the lengths I went to in order to seem less overtly "other" to boys were contrived. Behaviours that I had as a matter of course suddenly became forced to set myself apart from other women: cursing, making video game references, and foul jokes were all amplified drastically to hone a bond with people who, deep down, I knew were not so much like me as I would have liked... for if they were, I'd have just been myself.
Instead of feeling secure enough in my femininity to make my friendship its own gift, I curtailed it so as not to stand out as a "mere" girl. I was literally Mulan in a sea of military men, praying nobody would notice that I did not belong when I so badly wanted to. I alienated myself from the "drama" of other girls because I was anxious that I would be lumped into the collective stereotypes. I wanted to be "not like other girls", and even more pathetically, I wanted to be told.
Our society conflates with femininity a variety of unpleasant characteristics: weakness, emotional instability and "craziness" being the most infamous. Likewise, it praises masculine traits such as stoicism, unemotionality, and a devil-may-care attitude. The issue with trying to achieve the label of "not like other girls" is that in such a binary system, the only alternative is to be, generically and in the utmost contrived sense, like other boys. These stereotypical gender roles and their harms have been discussed at length in my article "Men Need Feminism" and so I will not extrapolate on these harms here.
To feel as if I belonged in a man's world, I turned my back on the beautiful richness of womenkind, to try and rise above them. The irony was that I wanted to be valued by the quality of my character, and not of my gender, and ultimately, I was not valuable in both realms because of my inability to value either. If one cannot feel truly comfortable in their own skin, the mask they actively don will seem garish and overt to anyone who looks upon it. And at this age, I, still a good seven or eight years from ever learning of the term "patriarchy", had foolishly perceived other women as the reason men and boys alike did not take me seriously.
The day I realised the toxicity of the concept was when a casual partner made a disparaging comment about a previous romantic partner. He had said something victim-blaming that clashed with my feminist ideals, and for which I had neither the time nor the crayons to deconstruct for him. Taking a more gentle approach, I instead suggested that perhaps his judgement lacked empathy, and in the context of his self-justification, the magic phrase was dropped. "You're not like other girls" was used to implicate me in his unkind words. To accept the mantle was to agree with him and condemn the subject of his scorn, and to refuse it in defence of this stranger would immediately cast me from his favour. At the time, I did not have the words to describe why this throwaway comment, one that had thrilled me with its validation for so long, now tasted like ash on my tongue.
So, being a writer, I went home and wrote about it. The first slam poem I ever performed was introduced the following week as a "two and a half minute bitchslap". I have included it below. Turns out I was just like other girls... because hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and I wanted to roar loud enough to drown out the divisive bullshit that sees my gender scorned for merely existing, over and over again.
Happy International Women's Day, friends. When we put aside the barriers and boundaries, we are all allies beneath the skin.
Not like other girls.
(Warning: Not Safe For Work Language... also NSFW mental images.)
“You’re not like other girls,” you tell me,
Ready to be lavished upon with gushing gratitude and simpering sweet nothings.
And instead… there is a beat. And another.
A mathematician might be able to explain
Why silence sounds longer when we’re waiting for the praise
That we so think we deserve
But in lieu of data, I live anecdotally
And just… stare.
What backhanded crown of thorns
Have you bestowed upon me like a blessing
To tell me “I approve, but only for as long as you compete with the rest of your gender for me”?
What makes you worth fighting for,
Bleeding out on the floor for
With a chunk of blond weave in one hand
And a broken strawberry cider bottle in the other
From a bloodbath of the pink and glittery kind?
“You’re not like other girls”, you tell me,
Knowing nothing of the scourge, the celebration, or the sins upon my soul.
And how on any different day
And in a dozen different ways
I can be Rosie the Riveter or Princess Peach
Ten times a day and every increment in between.
By some arbitrary measure
You have cast me in a role where I will never challenge you
Because that’s what “other girls” do.
All of a sudden, you’re adamant that you know the depths of my soul
And then I’m not a person anymore:
I’m the shadow-puppet your hands make
When they stitch together the silhouette
Of the woman you wish you were fucking
When your hands are fucking you.
“You’re not like other girls”, you tell me
Oblivious to the insult in your words
For to your mind
What woman wouldn’t want to stand on the broken backs of her sexual competitors?
But I did not ascend this peak
To stand in the sun and learn
That its glow is just the reflection of your magnified self-importance.
I will not beat my sisters to death
So that you can craft a walking centerfold
From a raw and flawed and unexceptional woman
Trimming the fat of my personality with pruning shears as you see fit.
I will not let my sharp-edged identity be squeezed into a soft and pliable niche
Nestled between the non-country-specific Asian girl and the lesbian you’re sure you could convert with a kiss.
Because no matter how you carve me
The gift you bestow upon my individuality
Is the curse of whitewashing me in actuality.
This Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Isn’t here to help you work out what your life is missing.
I do not fawn as you value me
Like an auctioneer who cries “you won’t do any better than this”
Without glancing at the painting he’s spruiking.
I will not exist to smile smugly and fellate your ego
With plenty of slobber and a lazy wrist.
Because “you’re not like other girls” is
A pit stop on the racetrack
Barelling towards a finish line where I permit you to conquer all that I am.
It’s a sociopath’s game, but you,
Sweet, simple fool
Are too naïve to know that you’re playing it.
So you will tell me that I am just like all those other girls
Who cannot take a compliment.
And yes, my lips would look pretty
Wrapped around your cock
But my mouth is even more alluring
When spitting venom.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.