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.
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?