She’s not like other people with curly hair.
She’s not like other people with brown eyes.
She’s not like other people with size 4 feet.
She’s not like other people who use mobility aids.
She’s not like other people who ride green bicycles.
She’s not like other people who take sugar in their coffee.
She’s not like other people who watch Die Antwoord videos while eating breakfast.
If you’re reading this thinking “That information actually tells me nothing about the person apart from that she has one thing in common with some other people but then not some other things in common with them, but it’s all just sort of meaningless really”, welcome to how I feel when I read or hear “She’s not like other women”.
First of all, why WOULD any hypothetical She be expected to be like other women in all ways, to the point where it becomes necessary to state that she isn’t? There IS no “like other women” because women are not all the same. Perhaps what people mean when they say “not like other women” is actually “not like the social construct of how-to-be-a-woman-properly that we’re force fed from the moment we scream our way into existence as female-assigned humans”, in which case how many women ARE like that? Sure, pick a stereotype and some people will embody it, but don’t expect it to be the norm to the point where anyone who doesn’t fit precisely into that collection of traits is automatically different and other.
Most of the times I’ve encountered “Not like other women”, it has been used to identify that the subject of the statement has more (allegedly, implied) ‘masculine’ characteristics. Ever heard the phrase “strong male character”? No? Because men are expected to be strong. It does not often go without saying in entertainment media that a woman is strong. It has to be clearly stated. When a female character is athletic or fit, physically or mentally resilient, rebellious or revolutionary, radically honest, fiercely intelligent, or has zero fucks to give about what other people think, she is not like other women. And you know what? It’s just as messed up to assume that all those things are specifically masculine traits as it is so assume that they are specifically not feminine traits. It’s also messed up that stereotypically masculine traits are often (please note often, NOT always) painted as more positive and desirable than stereotypically feminine ones.
The whole “not like other women” thing is also regularly used as a compliment, a positive statement, a way to make it obvious that one particular female human is somehow more appealing than others because she has extracted herself, whether intentionally or unintentionally, from the hive mind that is (not, actually) womanhood. It’s an easy way to differentiate a female character in your book or script or song from all those other women who are obviously nothing more than one-dimensional clones. You see her as special and intriguing and interesting and unique. And maybe she is. Maybe we all are in our own way. But saying it’s because she isn’t like other humans who happen to inhabit a similar gender identity is beyond lazy. If you’re writing about her because you love her or admire her, or hell, even totally despise her (lest we forget the unbridled joy of encountering a villain with true depth of character), then take a bit of time to actually think about ways you can describe who she is and what she does, the ways you can express why you see her as a shining beacon of strength or honesty or don’t-give-a-fuck-ness, or why she’s a vicious, evil, destructive monster-person. Please don’t fall into the trap of “Half the people on the planet are the same as each other, except for that one person I’m talking about”.
Also, why is it necessarily a bad thing to share certain traits with other people of the same gender identity? There isn’t a huge leap from “not like other women” and “not like what we expect a woman to be” to “womanhood is so unappealing that for this person to be special, they must be separate from it”. Why must a woman be different from other women in order to be elevated to specialness? Is it not ok to be a woman? Is it wrong or less than? Is it undesirable to exhibit some stereotypically feminine traits? Is it unusual for a character to exhibit some of these traits but not others? I’m aware I’m asking a lot of questions here. It’s because I don’t have all the answers. I don’t expect you to have all the answers either, but I would like you to think about these issues, however uncomfortable that may be.
This is a confusing topic to write about and I realise that I probably appear to be contradicting myself somewhat by jumping from talking about how women are not all the same to referencing the acceptability of stereotypically female traits. I make a point of saying “stereotypically feminine/masculine” because I am referring specifically to social constructs of gender rather than making the assumption that people of similar gender identities are automatically the same in most ways. I say “gender identity” rather than “sex” because gender and sex are not the same thing, and to boil everything down to a simplistic (and wildly irrelevant, in many ways) gender binary instantly excludes trans*, intersex, third gender and other non-binary humans, which is not a thing that I want to do.
So, here’s a challenge for all you creative, expressive, wonderful authors, lyricists, poets and script writers out there. Next time you feel the urge to say that a female character is not like other women, spend a bit of time considering alternative ways to explain why she’s unusual, exciting, amazing, terrible, despicable, interesting or challenging as an individual. Sure, say she’s strong if that’s what she is, but don’t make it in opposition to the expectations pushed upon her because of her gender identity. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a woman is strong. It shouldn’t be the quality that supposedly sets her apart from other women.
I know I haven’t addressed how men are represented in entertainment and news media. It’s not because I don’t think it matters. It does. It’s simply because I don’t feel that I could do it justice as a topic by inserting it here as an afterthought because it is an important issue in its own right, but I do feel that it is totally worth mentioning in the following context. If your male character is worth dedicating a song or a story to, then he is worth deeper consideration than simply saying that he isn’t the same as other men. Next time you feel the urge to use “not like other men” as a shortcut to explaining why a male-identified character is sensitive, empathic or nurturing, please consider a more creative alternative.
Writing about gender, gender expression and gender socialisation is complicated. It’s a minefield. I know there are so many issues I haven’t addressed here and it has been a struggle to keep on-topic, introducing concepts where relevant but not going off on tangents that would make this article ridiculously long. I could write about the representation of women (and men and people who don’t identify as either) in the media for days, months, years, and I will no doubt revisit the subject many more times and branch off in different directions. This one post does not fully express the breadth and depth of gender identity, problematic aspects of entertainment media, or feminism-in-general. It doesn’t touch on intersectionality either. It is not about everything. It is about one thing, or one part of one thing, and it is only one person’s collection of words.
We live in a world where tabloid newspapers tend to describe men based on their age and profession, but women based on their hair colour and body shape. We live in a world where people feel it necessary to say “male nurse” and “female scientist”, where little boys are future leaders but little girls are bossy, where deodorant and shampoo and soap and yogurt are packaged differently for male humans and female humans because drawing lines and selling things are more important than who we actually are in reality.
When you have an opportunity to create characters and, to a certain extent, the world in which they operate, please make an effort to move beyond tropes and stereotypes. As the creators of books, songs, plays, films and TV shows, you wield so much power and you have so much potential to effect change. If words are your weapons, please use them to fight for progress.