The Princess and the Tomboy – A Media Fixation?

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I started thinking back to the old shows after a discussion of an 80s classic, and I came to an interesting realization. The media seems to be obsessed with the contrasting peer characters of that of a “princess” (one who always has to look pretty, often snobby, and usually thinks mostly of boys) and a “tomboy” (hates makeup, athletic, often has a masculine name/nickname, and gets in your face if you piss them off).

The first show I thought of was The Facts of Life with Jo (“tomboy”) and Blaire (“princess”). But what really started to fascinate me were the shows where there are just two women regulars. Hey Dude had two female stars: Melody (“princess”) and Brad (“tomboy”). More recently, That 70s Show has Donna (“tomboy”) and Jackie (“princess”).

For these shows, I wonder why the director/writers chose this “˜competition’ of character. Is it just an ‘oldie but goodie’? Does it make it easier on the writers to write comedy? Or are these two categories the media’s preference, more or less, of what they imagine women fall into, but these are just the extremes?

*Shudder* I hope not.

Comments

  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    Sitcoms tend to paint broad stereotypes, but with guys, the pairing models seem more varied. You get the average guy and his dumb hottie friend (Eric and Kelso). You get the average guy and his cool friend (Eric and that red-headed guy whose name I don’t remember). Going outside comedy, you get hot-heads and pacificists paired together; mentor and student (something you’ll never see in a female dynamic), etc. It just seems like there are a lot more models for male dynamics.

    Which makes me think that with guy friend pairings, they’re actually looking for models the audience can see in their own relationships. But with girls, maybe the writers just aren’t aware of anything beyond the whole question of whether girls should be princesses – like we’ve been told to be – or whether we should be tomboys – like feminists have declared we should have the option to be?

    That said, I thought FoL did a fair job of showing what teenage girls are really like (in broad stereotype fashion, of course). The rivalries were never, ever treated as anything but the childish petty wastes of time they were. If you got a social lesson out of that show, at least it was a healthy one: learn to get along with people better, and you might just find unexpected friends. It’s not like these drama shows where women battle like neurotic freaks over some guy or a job or something, and it’s treated as reasonable adult behavior just because some writer’s typing one-handed while he pounds it out.

  2. Ifritah says

    After talking with a couple of my friends, I agree with them that there is *one* other media female character stereotype – the slut.

    Makes me think of Xena almost automatically. First there was the episode titled “Warrior… Princess” where the tomboy/princess dynamic is played. And then they did a sort of sequel to that with the episode “Warrior… Princess… Tramp”.

    It’s interesting to see that even in a show that’s found to have a pretty good female icon, the stereotype is still going strong.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    Yeah, I took that ep of Xena as making fun of the stereotype, not buying into it (but either way… it certainly exists.)

    There’s also the shy girl, but she’s never part of a female friend-duo – she’s someone looking for a man. There’s also the virgin (although she’s frequently the princess), and she too is always the potential love interest, not some girl’s friend.

    A very popular theme in the past was the tomboy who must turn into a princess to get a man – which I consider a full-on lecture to young women about the dangers of giving into feminism. But that theme isn’t dead – check out “Down with Love” in which feminist writer Renee Zellweger falls for a playboy and has to princess/slut herself up to nail him.

  4. Ifritah says

    Yeah, I took that ep of Xena as making fun of the stereotype, not buying into it (but either way… it certainly exists.)

    Ah, yes, I can definitely see them playing that off as a parody. But yes, either way, there you have it.

    I actually own “Down With Love” on DVD. Absolutely adore that movie. The ending is so very fantastic.

    But yes, you’re right. The make-over is a big theme. Miss Congeniality, anyone?

  5. telepresence says

    I don’t know. As I mentally review various TV shows, mostly either sitcoms or soapy relationship dramas, I see a fairly wide (if stereotyped) range of pairing types for women as well as men. Assuming the lead is more or less the “average” one (although she may be flawed in one or more ways), the best friend or sidekick can be “The self absorbed princessy one”, the “drunken, slutty one.”, the “tomboy”, the “no-nonsense or sassy speaker of truth (often this character is black)”, the “wacky arty flaky one”, the “daring, fearless one”, the cynical one (another possible drinker, but not necessarily slutty), the shellshocked, shy or appalled one (this usually in shows where the lead is herself more adventurous and wacky), the calm rock of sanity (basically a more gentle version of the truth teller, possibly written as the sister or mother of the main character, or the friend settled into a bland but stable marriage), and mentor/student, although I agree that’s relatively rare.

    I also agree that the modern male love quest tends to be “How can I find a woman who will love me despite or because of my wacky flaws (see also shlubby former standup comedian sitcom husbands with hot wives).”, where the contemporary female love story still tends to follow the “How can I change myself so that this guy will love me.”, which is just Cinderella rewrite 3 million.

  6. telepresence says

    (And, full disclosure, I have to admit there’s one modern version of Cinderella I love, Ever After, mostly because at least the Prince gets to love Cinderella in good part, if not wholly, for being smart and kicking ass, and the bit where she hikes him over her shoulder is adorable.)

  7. Ifritah says

    Oh no, I find there to be some shows that can illustrate several different types of women. What I was saying is that more often than not, there are certain more prevalent stereotypes.

    But yes, some TV shows/movies have managed to go beyond the predictable.

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    I hate to ask you for examples – because when I get asked, I always have trouble coming up with some – but I’d like to hear what shows you’re thinking of.

    I also agree that the modern male love quest tends to be “How can I find a woman who will love me despite or because of my wacky flaws (see also shlubby former standup comedian sitcom husbands with hot wives).”, where the contemporary female love story still tends to follow the “How can I change myself so that this guy will love me.”, which is just Cinderella rewrite 3 million.

    Sadly, that’s a good point.

    Another dynamic I’ve been wanting to write about for a while – but keep second-guessing my right to an opinion on it – is the theme of a man coming to the realization he’s ready to commit to a woman. I first realized how popular this theme was when Chuck Palahniuk surprised me by saying in an interview that was what Fight Club was really all about. Now I’m seeing it in everything from that to The Office (with David Brent telling off his mates when he finally meets a woman he has a chance with).

    And yet, I don’t know if I have any idea what that journey is like for a guy, or even whether most guys feel it applies to them. The woman’s journey to committing to a man has been short-circuited in the past by her not having a heck of a lot of choice. I actually think women have reservations about committing to marriage as often as men do, but it tends to get expressed in different ways. But again, this is where it gets difficult to write about, without presuming you know more about what it’s like to be the other gender than you possibly can. I’m not even sure I have much in common with most women, although I’m starting to wonder.

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    I have to second that. Instead of Cinderella looking for her prince, we have two people unexpectedly finding each other, and appreciating each other for who they are, not status or shoe-fittings.

    (When you think about it, the Cinderella story is a fairly crappy deal for the prince, too – he has to marry somebody, and none of the snots who were supposed to be at the ball do it for him. If the rules hadn’t been broken, he’d have married one of the snots and learned to loathe her, thus perpetuating the whole fun cycle of bad gender relations.)

  10. scarlett says

    And I love the bit where he comes to rescue her and she’s already walking out the front door, having rescued herself.

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  1. [...] time last year, Ifritah wanted to know if the media had a fixation on princesses and tomboys: The media seems to be obsessed with the contrasting peer characters of that of a “princess” (one [...]

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