The Quirk Epidemic

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In celebration of the recent release of the book-cum-movie Gone Girl, I’d like to join the antagonist of that story in lamenting one of literature’s most irritating clichés: the quirky girl. Beach read though the book is, and psychopathic though Amy the Antagonist may be, her character offers an impressively well constructed perspective on the heroine that we, as readers, have come to take for granted. In Gone Girl, Amy launches a complex and twisted revenge plot in order to get back at her husband, who she feels has forced her to pretend to be the beloved “cool” girl for years in order to keep up with his unrealistic standards. Amy argues that this girl that men everywhere lust after doesn’t exist. I have to agree.

Contemporary popular literature is littered with her. The first time you see her, she’s nothing special–a little odd-looking, even. But after a few weeks or months of getting to know her you realize she’s the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen and she doesn’t even know it. She’s always doing something crazy and irresponsible: jumping into strangers’ pools fully clothed, adopting five puppies at once, and yet her life never seems to truly suffer from her reckless, adolescent behavior. She can hang with the guys but you would never call her masculine. She has an endearing and unusual hobby, like making coffee tables out of bottle caps or watching foreign films from the 1940s. She’s attractive, smart, funny, and interesting, yet somehow she’s still shy in social situations and thus has been dubbed “the weird girl” by her peers, but you know better. You fall in love with her suddenly, you never saw it coming, but the readership knew from the very first paragraph.

Literature’s quirky girl is closely related to the “manic pixie dream girl” of the movies, a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin: “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” (Think Zooey Deschanel in 500 Days of Summer.) The manic pixie dream girl exists to teach the male protagonist to be himself and break loose from life’s rigid structures, a duty often undertaken by the quirky girl, although occasionally the gender roles are reversed in her case. Some perfect male specimen glimpses the beauty behind the quiet and convinces her to embrace her quirks for all the world to see.

The primary difference between the dream girl and the quirky girl lies in the latter’s–excuse the pun–bookishness. The dream girl tends to be frothy and feminine, while the quirky girl is smarter, more reclusive, with occasional dark flashes in her character. This tinge to her personality tricks the reader into thinking she may prove to be more complex than she is, but inevitably, the reader is disappointed. We need look no further than the bestseller lists of the past decade or so to see the evidence: Bella in Twilight; Anastasia in Fifty Shades of Gray; Sam in The Perks of Being a Wallflower; and so on. Although she has saturated the bookshelves more recently, the quirky girl is no new phenomenon. We saw her in Salinger’s genius-quirk girl Franny Glass and Harper Lee’s grit-quirk girl Scout.

Bella, brooding.

Bella, brooding.

My problem with the quirky girl is that authors insist on painting her as improbably awkward, shy, or insecure. If a girl possessing her amazingly diverse array of attributes existed, she would almost certainly not have such crippling social anxiety and lack of friends. And if we’re to believe that she really is somehow socially isolated or “different,” then let’s see a character who actually is kind of weird. She can still be charming and pretty and quirky and be a real human being with unsettling flaws as well: see Maura in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. The quirky girl is flat, dimensionless; her flaws, if any, are minor and easily forgivable, even loveable. (“Quirk” and “flaw” are not synonyms.) She is beyond, at least for me, the willingness to suspend disbelief.

What do you think, readers? Is my interpretation of the quirky girl too harsh or generalized? Does she play a more important role than I realize? Most importantly: do we think she’s here to stay?

About Liza Boldrick

Liza Boldrick, a senior at Washington and Lee and Shenandoah intern, will also be featured in our symposium on Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House coming soon.

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6 Responses to The Quirk Epidemic

  1. Rod Smith says:

    I find myself wondering if Quirky is an invention to save writers from facing the question of whether we can have (or how we can have) a heroine who’s not steeped in the trappings of romance novels.

    I’m also curious about whether Quirky emerges from the laptops of one gender of writers more than the other.

    We have a kind of male counterpart (Hick Boy Huck, Urban Ariel Holden) who seems born of distinctive speech styles, but of course they have that paternally endorsed empowerment, a kind of snakes & snails mischief that saves them from some of the distortions and the GAZE Quirky is subjected to. And they are usually the products of male writers who have chips on their shoulders and more than a little autobiography to get off their chests.

  2. Rain, Rain says:

    Please, please, please do not make me think of Zooey Deschanel any more. She rarely strikes me as a “manic pixie dream girl,” more often a borderline sociopathic girl. Though maybe they’re the same thing.

  3. Deirdra McAfee says:

    Quirky or manic-pixie-dream isn’t the problem; girl is. The boys who populate American literary fiction—including Jay Gatsby—are always potentially men, even when they refuse to grow up; they know it, and so does the reader.

    Grown women, though, scarcely exist in American literary fiction (or the wider culture). Ma Joad and Hester Prynne, for example, inescapably women because they are mothers—aren’t respected in the wider world when they do appear. The men whose councils and meetings decide everyone’s future don’t welcome women barging in.

    Girls, on the other hand, are never potentially women, as Gone Girl demonstrates; they are permanently, and willingly, children. Amy’s disappearance, a cowardly unwillingness to talk out her marital problems—is exactly the childish, vicious kind of thing mean girls plot, with salacious sex to spice it up.

    For quirky, manic, and pixie, substitute aimless, undisciplined, and empty. The kind of pretty little thing so easy to persuade, seduce, and mold. A dream, perhaps, but no real woman’s dream.

  4. Rain, Rain says:

    I’m afraid I can’t entirely agree with you here, Deirdra McAfee. There are plenty of “grown women” in America’s wider culture (by which I assume you mean popular culture, not the culture in general; I assure you I myself know several grown women who are at large in our culture). Look at Mrs. Doubtfire, look at Marge Simpson. Look at Maggie Simpson. Look at Ripley (the one who kicks ass in Aliens, though, not the one who goes back for the cat in Alien). And really, it’s no fair drawing sweeping conclusions about anything, still less so-called literary fiction, by referring to Gone Girl, which sounds (I confess I haven’t read it) like a lukewarm mess of genre cliché that was probably written with David Fincher in mind to direct. More generally, you might want to dial back the essentialism and the judgment about what a “real woman” gets to dream. Just who do you imagine bought all those copies of Gone Girl and Fifty Shades of Grey, anyway?

    Other than that, though, I take your point. Just, you know, without the “never” or the “always.”

  5. nashe16 says:

    I have also struggled with my disdain for the quirky girl. I believe that she is cheap, an easy character to imagine and an easy one to read. However, I don’t believe that I can completely blame the authors who write quirky girls. In my experience, it is one of the chief hopes and assertions of young women (especially tweens) that they be “not like other girls”. Many of us wanted to be the quirky girl, recognized despite our averageness. Books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Gray allow young women to imagine themselves in the place of the extraordinary ordinary protagonists. It’s a lame way to gain popularity, but an effective one.
    I have to disagree with this post on one point. Scout Finch, though perhaps a quirky little girl, is not a “quirky girl”. There are nuances to her personality that none of the standard characters described in this post can claim. She comes off the page in a way that the two-dimensional “quirky girl” never could.

    • hewittc15 says:

      I agree that the quirky girl and the manic pixie dream girl are the product of popular culture. However, I disagree with idea that young girls inspired these archetypes. It’s the other way around. Teen and preteen girls are under constant scrutiny, thrust into competition with each other when they never agreed on the competition in the first place. The societal conception of the
      “other” girl as vapid and shallow led to the idealized quirky dream girl. The quirky girl has no interior life. Her existence is entirely external and focused on catering to society’s gaze. She’s a shell. Over and over again, media presents this shell as the ideal girl, the only girl worthy of attention, because she exists to entertain others. If you repeat something enough, people will start believing it.

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