Sarah Jessica Parker never tried to be quirky. She just was. And, for a while, it was a problem. Growing up as a child actor in the 1970s and 1980s, SJP was constantly told she was “too quirky” to be the lead, that she was always going to be “the friend.”
“Even the agent said, ‘we’ll send you out for the friend of the pretty girl,’” Barbara Parker Forste, SJP’s mother explained. “Even when she did commercials when she was little, like 12 or so, they would say ‘she really doesn’t look like the idea of who can sell Hershey bars.’”
But SJP proved them wrong. When she stepped onto the scene in Manolo Blahniks and a pink tutu as curly-haired Carrie Bradshaw, quirkiness was her ticket. But what does that word mean today?
“I would say quirky is a slightly lazy descriptor at this point,” said Cindy Chupack, two-time Emmy Award winning writer, director and producer of TV hits such as “Sex and the City” and “Modern Family.”
“I don’t know if it originally just meant ‘not traditionally beautiful’ or ‘not the lead’ or ‘funny’ or maybe ‘not obviously lovable’ right from the get-go. I think all of that was saying that there was one standard who was the lead who couldn’t have those kinds of flaws or couldn’t have that kind of [quirky] look.”
Quirky, according to Lexico, means “characterized by peculiar or unexpected traits or aspects.” When members of Generation X think “quirky,” they think Jennifer Lawrence cursing on live television or falling down the stairs at the Oscars.
They think Zooey Deschanel in horn-rimmed glasses on FOX’s “New Girl.” They might even think Emma Chamberlain makeup-free and eating greasy slices of pizza. Quirky girls are everywhere — on Instagram and on VSCO, on Hulu and Netflix, even in your chemistry class.
Although “quirky” is meant to be this catch-all phrase for uniqueness — for individuality — it seems like it has actually become a blanket term for girls who aren’t like other girls: skinny girls who eat junk food, shy girls who trip in front of their crushes, girls who do normal, human things. The only difference? They just happen to look good, or cute or adorable while doing it. These intended-to-be relatable aspects of a character have become such an overplayed trope that the true meaning of the word “quirky” has been rendered useless.
But in a world full of “nasty women ,” why do strong female characters have to shrink to fit a “quirky” or “relatable” mold? Why can’t strong female characters simply be strong?
“Clumsy always felt like the lowest hanging fruits of the traits you could give an actress to be funny,” said Chupack. “To me, it’s a not very creative way to give a female who was beautiful some personality that was vulnerable. I think people maybe mistakenly think that all types of women will relate to a female character who has some type of flaw, and clumsy was a kind of an easy flaw. Maybe in trying to make someone more relatable, so they don’t seem like just a beautiful movie star, they give them this kind of vulnerability or something they’re not good at.”
Many actors think having to play “quirky” takes the seriousness out of their work. According to The Irish Times, award-winning director Miranda July thinks that people referring to her work as quirky is akin to saying that she is a little girl. It’s demeaning. American actress Noël Wells, known for her roles on “Master of None” and “Saturday Night Live,” delivers a speech in her semi-autobiographical film against the use of the dreaded q-word.
In the film, she says that “you would never call a guy that [quirky]. With a guy you’d use another word like “eccentric,” but with a girl, you need a word that recognizes her uniqueness, but at the same time devalues her intelligence. Like ‘her delightful whimsy could never make a cogent argument,’ highlighting your unconscious sexism.”
On the other hand, actor and director Tim Blake Nelson, known for his roles in films such as “The Incredible Hulk” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” does not believe that quirky is a negative descriptor.
“Quirkiness is not new, it’s just different now,” said Nelson. “Look, Meg Ryan was quirky—and she was a heroine for Nora Ephron, who couldn’t have been more of an empowering feminist. And she was really Nora’s muse. And Meg is beautiful, intelligent and extremely quirky in her way.”
Meg Ryan was quirky — for the 1980s. Faking an orgasm in a New York City deli, as she did in “When Harry Met Sally,” was certainly weird and unusual. It was an unforgettable cinematic moment for women in the late 1980s, when female leads in rom-coms were rarely this outspoken, particularly surrounding more risqué topics such as sex. But, given how diverse the industry is becoming, shouldn’t we look to more than “cute” or “clumsy” to validate someone as unique? Do actresses need to adopt these so-called quirky traits in order to find success in the industry?
“I think actresses need to be quirky in order to have long careers. I think it’s less important for actors,” said Nelson. “The pressures on women are just different because, with women, there has to be something you have that’s unlike any other woman. And with men, there has to be something that you have [to play leads, anyway] that is like every other man. And I think that with women, at least, the female audience has to say, ‘Oh my god, I wanna be her,’ and with men, I think a male audience has to think, ‘I could be him.’”
New York-based talent manager Kim Pedell disagrees. “Everyone is definitely not quirky, and not everyone can play quirky. But there are more roles being created and written for lots more types and personalities and looks, and the industry is being far more creative in how they are casting — it’s an exciting time,” she explained.
In 2020, quirky can no longer be a descriptor reserved solely for beautiful women like Meg Ryan — beautiful women who you might not expect to be unique. In some ways, these portrayals of women seem to imply that beautiful actors don’t do normal things, and we should find it special, rather than expected, to see actors in lead roles behaving in quirky ways like most people.
“What are the ‘expected traits’ we’re looking for from a lead right now?” Chupack asked. “I would hope and feel that we are open to a lot of different looks and personalities now. It’s no longer okay to have, you know, ‘the fat friend’ or ‘the nerdy friend.’ We all have a little bit of all of that in all of us. I think that [a push towards true individuality] is kind of what we’re hungry for and looking for. We’re just trying to tell stories about individuals who happen to reflect stories about all of us.”
Chupack went on to discuss writing stories for 2020 about characters with a range of ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations and other qualities that divert from Hollywood’s age-old classic norms.
And that is how we will drive the industry forward into the new decade. Rather than force relatability through manufactured quirks, we’re now beginning to tell stories about real people — all people. Maybe quirkiness in 2020 is more about celebrating individuality and not just about awarding the term to thin, attractive, white women.
This article was published in Distraction’s spring 2020 print issue.
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