My kid was watching a new cartoon again today. Since it’s set in school, there’s a Mean Popular Girl. I don’t remember the show’s name; I don’t remember the girl’s name. But there were things I knew would be true of the girl before she even opened her mouth. And, okay, part of that was by looking at her. She was blonde. She was fashionably dressed. She was clearly intended to code as conventionally attractive even beyond the fact that most cartoon girls look alike, the subject of a different conversation. The issue, though, was that the Mean Popular Girl is always vain, and concern about one’s appearance is coded as negative in cartoons.
I mean, don’t get me wrong; I don’t put a ton of effort into my appearance and never have. And goodness knows my grade school years were made more difficult by girls who did. On the other hand, in high school, some of the nicest girls I knew wore makeup and clearly did their hair every morning and put thought into their clothing beyond climatic issues. The Nicest Girl In School when I was in high school was also exceedingly well put together; we’re Facebook friends, and she’s still a very attractive woman who puts thought into hair, clothing, and makeup. I can’t think of any Mean Girls from high school who were slovenly, I grant you, but to be honest, there weren’t a whole lot of Mean Girls in my high school in general, at least not in my social circles.
But put a mirror in almost any cartoon girl’s hand, and it’s clear she’s vain and obnoxious and cruel. Kim Possible cares about her appearance, but even she is contrasted with Bonnie Rockwaller. And Kim is, let’s be honest, considerably more likely to use her compact to defeat laser beams or similar than check the eyeliner she’s clearly wearing. Concern about her appearance has also repeatedly coded for Something’s Wrong With Kim, and she’ll have to sacrifice feeling pretty for saving the world. While I don’t deny saving the world is more important, it still doesn’t seem fair.
I also suspect that Kim Possible writers were not reliably aware of how much annoyance eyeliner can be; while nearly half the writers credited for the show on IMDb are female, the majority of episodes were written by men, and of course the series creators are men. Similarly, I doubt the male creators of Danny Phantom are aware of how much time it takes to look as put together as Jazz Fenton or how much effort is frequently involved in the funky goth style of Sam Manson. Yes, Paulina is vain, but that’s hardly her only selfish trait, or even the worst one, but it seems to be what she’s shamed for most.
You see, girls are expected to be attractive without effort or concern. Girls in cartoons are also shamed for being plain or untidy, and in live action, even the no-nonsense girls are wearing makeup for more than just looking right under the lights. Ask any woman about half the “fifty Hollywood stars without makeup!” lists you’ve seen, and she can probably tell you exactly how much makeup is really involved in them. Most of my friends who do wear makeup have been told on days when they aren’t wearing anything too dramatic that “they look better without it,” simply because the person saying that doesn’t realize what truly not wearing makeup looks like. I know plenty of women who have been shamed for wearing too much makeup and not wearing enough makeup, and sometimes on the same day.
It starts young, though, with every time the only girl on a show who is shown putting thought into her appearance is portrayed as vain and cruel. Honestly, I won’t care if my daughter grows up to spend an hour a day on her appearance, as long as she doesn’t keep everyone out of the bathroom when she does it. That’s up to her. She can be a prep or a goth or a glam or whatever; she can espouse any look she wants. Cruelty only manifests in makeup when it’s tested on animals, used to shame, or otherwise is used other than its intent. If a girl is cruel, you don’t need makeup to see it.
Help me buy nice clothes for me and my kids; consider supporting my Patreon!