When I wrote my first post on make-up and YA almost a year ago, I was struck by how unfair and naïve the whole “inner beauty thumps all” argument is. With its unnecessary emphasis on the desperation of the girls wearing mascara and foundation, it seemed like the whole industry was trying to overcompensate for a materialistic culture that undermines women’s self-esteem. In fact, I was so focused on the economic unfairness, I completely overlooked what happens when you swing too far into the other way.
Picture this – a girl with blue hair, sparkly tights, and a vintage bicycle. Or a girl who changes her looks every day, going from one drastic end to the other. Or how about one that wears only ironic T-shirts and red lipstick.
Yeah. I’m talking about MPDGs. Again.
Did you know that less than 13 years ago, excessive make-up use was considered a sign of a mental illness? Liz Frost has a very interesting essay on “Doing Looks” in “Women’s Bodies”, a 1999 collection which focuses on different ways in which women can experience their corporeality. (Because the body is more than just a meaty carcass we’re lugging around, as we already know.) Frost focuses on the ways in which women can use make-up and fashion to help their mental health, through role-playing and fun, and points out a sad, sad fallacy:
A woman who didn’t do enough for herself was scolded for letting herself go. But a woman who experimented too much with make-up was considered to be “crying for attention” and “crazy.”
(I really, really wish we could have left this way of thinking back in 1999. Alas, someone must have packed it up. I distinctly remember an instance a little over a year ago when a beautician scolded me for not acting girlier and not looking after myself. Apparently, that was the reason why I had facial hair, as opposed to… hm, human biology.)
Another very painful fact that Frost discusses is the fact that women’s beauty is always passive – she appears slim and pretty and elegant, but as soon as she’s seen putting effort (either through exercise, dieting, or obvious make-up,) someone jumps down her throat for being either a desperate slut, or a victim in desperate need of an intervention. The only difference between 1999 and 2013 is that nowadays, we learned that being mean to people with mental health issues is wrong, so we turned the tide and are now fetishizing them.
I mean, come on. Manic pixie dream girls? It’s like we’re not even trying to hide it.
Unlike the lilly-white and beautiful inside-and-out heroines of YA who cringe at the very mention of make-up, the MPDG not only knows her way around an eyelash curler, she can even be seen using it without drawing comment. She’s also allowed to be sexually promiscuous, or at least sexually active, but that never struck me as particularly skeezy until I realised she is the only character in YA (besides from the slutty cheerleaders, of course) who can, and is even expected to, have sex.
I’m generalising this here, but is there a book with a MPDG character who is not, in some way, sexually active. Who, in fact, makes a big deal about not having sex. Thinking back on the books I’ve read, it’s not always outright stated that this character has sex, but I always, on some level, thought that she was, simply because she didn’t seem to care about social norms. Am I the only one? Or did others feel that way too?
Perhaps the reason I always thought that the MPDG has sex is because, more often than not, she is not the main character, but the subject of another one’s thoughts. (And that person is usually a guy who wants to get romantically involved with her. And not in a completely chaste way either. Because there is no way a guy can like a girl without wanting to boink her, amirite?) Rare are the books where we see things from her point of view.
(I can’t help but think back to “Paper Towns”, and Margot’s breakdown at the end. I used to think that she deserved no sympathy. Now my heart bleeds for her because she was reduced to childish antics to feel like her life made sense, only to then be scolded and berated by everyone around her. Because she’s wrong and they’re right and shame her for lashing out in the only way she knew.)
(I really need to re-read that book.)
When we do see that point of view, though, it’s a very positive one. I’ve already talked about Adorkable and how much I like the representations there. Jeane is a de-facto MPDG, and there is the obligatory “unconventional family/ sad backstory/ normalicy breakdown” plot thrown in there, BUT!
But, Jeane is not a MPDG solely because she has some baggage. And Michael, bless him, is not her pretty boy saviour, because Jeane’s quirkiness (her style, her clothes, her hair, even her attitude) are portrayed as good, interesting parts of who she is. Her fashion sense and excitement are not a cry for help, nor are they a coping mechanism – they’re just what she is. And yes, she does lose them, briefly, but she finds them out again with a little help from her friends.
See, what I love about Adorkable is not that it subverts tropes (although it does that too,) but that it makes a good case about being unapologetically different. And that you don’t have to compromise your sense of self in order to belong somewhere. That’s a pretty powerful message which we don’t usually get.