Then the song comes to a slow fade and your heart rate increases as you anxiously await the next song. Taylor Swift’s I Knew You Were Trouble. The cute boy’s relaxed nonchalance contorts into a look of disgust, and you panic to ensure he knows you’re not like the other girls singing along. You could never like Taylor Swift and you think it’s stupid that these other girls do.
It’s the senior primary school disco. You’ve finally made it to partying amongst the upperclassmen: the grade fours, fives and sixes. Your grade six crush stands across the hall, looking totally cool and unbothered as he taps his foot to David Guetta’s Where Them Girls At. You lip-sync to the lyrics in the hope of catching his attention, not in an overly excited way; just in a casual, indifferent sort of way. You’re above the primary school disco. If he doesn’t want to be there, neither do you, and no boy would ever have a crush on a girl who gets too excited about anything. Then the song comes to a slow fade and your heart rate increases as you anxiously await the next song. Taylor Swift’s I Knew You Were Trouble. The cute boy’s relaxed nonchalance contorts into a look of disgust, and you panic to ensure he knows you’re not like the other girls singing along. You could never like Taylor Swift and you think it’s stupid that these other girls do.
For many girls like myself, the desire to appeal to men, and their reductive expectations of what a woman should be, can be overwhelming. I have lost count of the number of times I have subdued my passions and interests, or altered them entirely, to reshape my personality and character into something more desirable to my male classmates. Perhaps it was laughing at a joke made at another woman’s expense or rolling my eyes when one of my female peers expressed their love for Selena Gomez, whilst simultaneously expressing my hatred for her (a façade I maintained until the age of 17).
These slight alterations to my person became deeply rooted; parts of a role I wanted so badly to play that eventually, it became difficult to turn a new leaf and make the distinction between what I really thought and cared about, and what the men around me had made me feel I should.
I have seen it in my best friend, a girl so immensely talented and creative, a girl so sure of herself, caving when asked by a boy in our class if she was a feminist. I watched her as she adopted a shocked look, reacting as though he had offended her by asking such a question. I anxiously awaited her response, hoping with every ounce of my being that she would say yes.
“Oh no, I’m definitely not a feminist,” she replied, wanting desperately to reassert her position as an ally and friend to all men, even if that meant separating herself from other women.
The films we are shown growing up certainly do not help. We’re taught to be the Hilary Duffs and Amanda Bynes of the world, not the Julie Gonzalos or Alexandra Breckenridges. We’re taught that the quiet girls get the guys, the wallflowers who’d rather spend their free time playing baseball with their guy best friend than going shopping with their girlfriends, the girls who play soccer and who would rather spend their days in a hoodie and baseball cap ensemble than partake in a debutante ball. Despite the powerful presence of female characters like Kat Stratford on our screens—women who are outspoken in their feminist ideologies and refuse to partake in things merely because it is expected of them—we can’t help but feel that brooding, beautiful men like Heath Ledger falling in love with girls like her (girls like us) are the exception, not the rule.
But when did this metaphorical switch flip? How did I go from a dorky seven-year-old watching Taylor Swift’s You Belong With Me music video on repeat in my fake Ed Hardy t-shirt and geometric patterned leggings to telling guys I only listened to rap?
Maybe it was in year six when the group of popular guys in my year level recruited me, giving me an endearing nickname and appreciating my company because I was different, ‘not like the other girls’. Maybe it was in year seven during my ‘About Me’ oral presentation, in which I depicted myself as a soccer fan, sharing with the class that I’d met the then coach of the Socceroos, as though it was one of my best and only attributes, and awaiting the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ of the boys I was so sure would like me more after learning this information.
It saddens me to think of the precious time wasted cosplaying as someone else, aspiring to a version of femininity that only exists in the minds of men and the films they write. Thinking I’d have a better chance of my crush liking me back if I repressed my interests, only for them to resurface when I made fun of them and replaced my passions with theirs. Putting up with the endless remarks and jokes about rom-coms, like those written by John Green or One Tree Hill, when perhaps I didn’t need to constantly defend myself. Rather, what I needed was to make some new friends.
But I told myself I was lucky to have these guy friends, that somehow it made me superior to the girls who didn’t. Did I want to make other girls jealous? I’m not certain that was my goal. But my internalised misogyny certainly flourished at the thought of them envying my situation, wishing that they too weren’t ‘like other girls’.
Why did I think that was a compliment? Not being ‘like other girls’. What exactly is so bad about these other girls? Did I ever truly think they were lesser than for enjoying music by female artists, or wearing the colour pink, or enjoying makeup?
I knew other women would accept me regardless of my interests. That just wasn’t enough for me. But that’s just it—I needed male validation, and in many ways, I still do.
Whilst I now passionately and unwaveringly speak out about my passions—everything from contemporary romantic fiction to Kate Hudson’s performance in Almost Famous—aspects of my so deeply rooted internalised misogyny remain. These remnants resurface every time I muster a fake laugh when a man makes a joke, or I shave my underarms to not make the men around me uncomfortable. It resurfaces when I attempt to portray myself as mysterious and uninterested in social situations and when I throw in the occasional profanity when messaging guys to make me seem more relaxed and less uptight, despite my distaste for the language.
Relearning (or perhaps truly learning for the first time) who I am, has been an upward battle and, for the most part, these remain deep-seated feelings. But seeing myself and my progress replicated in films such as Lady Bird and the incredible series Fleabag makes me feel like a better—though somewhat—flawed feminist; a better woman even.
So I guess, in the wise words of Taylor Swift (13-year-old Emma did not see that coming), “I don’t try to blend in anymore, it’s all about standing out.”