Tina Fey and Amy Poehler host the 70th Annual Golden Globe Awards. Photo: Handout
Like most people, I didn’t much enjoy being a teenager. In addition to being lumpy in all the wrong places and covered in what I thought were unseemly freckles, I felt deeply unfeminine. I resented other girls for appearing to have it so easy. They had the kinds of slim legs and delicate features which lead to party invitations, which lead to kisses, which lead inevitably to boyfriends and thus everlasting happiness. (My understanding of how the working model of high school romance clearly came Fed Exed direct from Hollywood.) I had thick calves, a succession of terrible haircuts and no boyfriends. Worse, I had no prospect of getting a boyfriend; with no makeover montage to transform me from ugly duckling to a shorter, lighter, blonder swan, I thought I was doomed to fail at the one thing I knew it was so important for me to get right - the difficult balancing act of Being A Girl.
In the late 90s, I didn’t feel like there was anyone I could look to for reassurance that I was more than the sum of my parts. These were the days of 90210, Heathers and Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed. The women I watched on celluloid either began as idealised versions of femininity or ended up there through good fortune and/or reward, or were pitted against each other from the outset. There were no Lena Dunhams parading the awkwardness that I felt must be my singular shame; no Ellen Pages declaring themselves feminists in interviews; no Amy Poehlers or Tina Feys working in solidarity with one another rather than competition. And if these women did exist, I sure as heck didn’t know where to find them.
With no one to teach me how to see girls as allies, I went through a period in which I proudly declared to anyone who would listen that ‘I just seem to get on better with boys’. In explanation, I’d rattle off any number of the stereotypes I’d heard and internalised about the untrustworthiness of girls. Girls are bitchy. Girls are boring. Girls talk about stupid things. Who would ever want to be thought of as a girl?
The delight of being able to declare myself a guy’s girl was twofold. It allowed me to first distance myself from the inherent shame of being just another stupid female, and then to bathe in the approval and acceptance of boys and men who saw that I could be so much more than that too. The sentiment has been echoed by one of my favourite writers, Emily Maguire, who once wrote about the time she made a snide joke to her male peers about one of her girlfriends:
‘“You,” they told me, “are just like a bloke.” It was the most wonderful compliment I had ever received and [it was] reinforced every single day when I heard the things people said about girls...the simple, contemptuous way that almost everybody - kids, teachers, even members of my own family - used that word, “girl”, as the ultimate insult.’
That contempt for the state of being a girl hasn’t disappeared, but there are perhaps more complex, inviting role models available now. From Leslie Knope's friendship with Ann Perkins on Parks & Recreation to Lena Dunham's crafting of a ridiculous yet empathetic Hannah Horvath in GIRLS, I'm seeing more examples of strong, three dimensional women whom I can look to for inspiration. For all the criticisms of Dunham’s GIRLS, it is a show that has put the various relationships experienced by women at the forefront of pop culture in a way that I think Sex and the City failed at (primarily because it was a story about women being written by a man). There are the relationships we have with each other, which exist in flux and are invariably more complicated than most narratives would have you believe. There are the relationships we have with our chosen partners, and how they shape the evolution of ourselves. And there is the relationship we women experience with ourselves, that long and ongoing negotiation between our self loathing and our self belief. Arguments regarding whitewashing aside, Dunham writes and creates GIRLS with the acknowledgement that women, as Laurie Penny argued so beautifully recently, 'deserve to be able to write our own stories rather than exist as supporting characters in the stories for men.'
Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It told the story of Bliss Cavendar, a 17 year old small town Texan whose life changes when she encounters the high impact, high energy world of roller derby. After watching her first game, Bliss effusively declares her devotion to the women of the Hurl Scouts. “You guys are my heroes!” she tells Kristen Wiig’s Maggie Mayhem. “So put some skates on and be your own hero,” Maggie replies. Bliss goes on to do just that, falling in love along the way but defying most Hollywood conventions by ditching the guy at the end in favour of the real contender for her heart - roller derby, and the relationships with other women that she’s formed within that sphere.
I have my fair share of pop cultural heroes, Dunham and Barrymore included (for different reasons). Perhaps it’s their unashamed bearing of the Girl’s Girl tag that draws me to them. What does it mean to be a Girl’s Girl? Perhaps it’s as simple as wanting to not be a hero, but wanting girls and women to be courageous enough to ‘put their skates on’ and become their own heroes. Girls might not rule the world, as Beyonce would have it, but that doesn't mean we can't don our party dresses and make every day Galentine's Day.