Guess which of these women is the tough, competent one.
"And we came to realize (during the shooting of The Lord of the Rings) was that you don't have to put a sword in (Arwen's) hand to make her strong."
— Liv Tyler, on why the film makers cut Arwen's scenes from the Hornburg.
A woman is shown as weak, incompetent, and ineffectual in this trope unless she dresses and behaves in a masculine manner. A common variation on this is to present a woman as superior because she's "not like other women." Another variation is a Tomboy and Girly Girl scenario, where the tomboy is presented as superior.
We're just recording the trope, here. It happens. Between a woman in trousers and one in a dress, the odds are the trouser lady is going to be the Action Girl of the pair and the one in the dress is going to be a Damsel in Distress. Variations exist, of course, especially in works after the third-wave "Girl Power" feminism. Many of the straight examples are from older works, when having proactive female characters at all was fairly edgy.
See also Pink Means Feminine and the various tropes on Acceptable Feminine Goals and Traits.
Contrast Girly Bruiser, Lady of War and Kicking Ass in All Her Finery, where it's the feminine lady in the dress who you should watch out for. Also, compare Vasquez Always Dies, where trouser-wearing and competence aren't enough to keep a woman alive, and Real Men Wear Pink.
Note: This is not an audience reaction trope. The trope is reserved for cases where a character is derided by another character in-universe for having traditionally feminine traits, or where the work itself clearly portrays femininity as a sign of weakness or inferiority.
What I find fascinating about the series is that it really is girl power in action. It does not take traditionally "masculine" action tropes and simply gender swap them, no, and it does not deny or condemn the attraction of the pretty princess fantasy. Instead, it takes all the "feminine" girly stuff like frilly princess dresses and pink unicorns and makes them into implements of power. The hypothetical girl in the audience is being told that she can be as girly as she likes and still dream of growing up into power and responsibility. Feminine articles are not shackles or playthings to be eschewed, or tools good only for obtaining the approval of men — they are treated as cool and desirable things, in and of themselves.
Boy craziness is even part of this, in the way they make the knightly romance fantasy an active one. The girls wanna be swept off their feet by a handsome knight, and, damn it, they're gonna go out there and find that handsome knight and make sure he does it.
Skip Beat!: Kanae aka Moko deliberately calls out Kyouko when they meet only because she perceives Kyouko as a "House Wife"-type of woman who shouldn't stay near show business. Even later in the manga, when both have a kind-of-friendship and Kyouko has shown how scarily competent she can be when acting, Kanae still feels uncomfortable with Kyouko due to her own perceived contradiction between being able to do any domestic chores and being a reputed actress and entertainer. There is a twist: Kanae also acts as a housewife for her own very large family, as her parents are always traveling and her older brothers are no help, and seeing Kyoko reminded her of herself. Kanae's type of housewifing is more like an extreme sport and it's kind of easy to understand why she is so annoyed by it.
In Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z, Buttercup is shown to be reluctant to join the group because it would require her to wear a skirt. Later she breaks her own code by wearing one in order to get the attention of a boy she has a crush on, but realizes that she prefers her boyfriend to like her as she is and not for what she pretends to be. Despite the fact that she isn't complaining about the skirt anymore, don't mention it to her; just don't.
In Freezing, it's interesting to try to apply this trope to the main character, Sattelizer L. Bridgette. As a child, she was sexually abused by her half-brother, resulting in her having a paralyzing fear of being touched. At her mother's deathbed, she was told to never give up and not take shit from anyone any longer, and a little later on she became a Super Soldier Action Girl. However, rather than this solving all her problems as per this trope itdid not help at all, as this did nothing for her fear and resulted in her savagely beating the crap out of anyone who came close to her, causing her to be feared and hated by all. It's only when she falls in love with a male, Aoi Kazuya, the first guy to be nice to her, that she slowly starts to get over her problems and work on them.
Rico in Gunslinger Girl isn't used to wearing dresses. When she's forced to wear a dress in order to move unnoticed in an opera house in order to assassinate her target she says that a dress is "too loose." It may be more understandable in her case: she loathes the idea of being restrained in any way since she's an ex Ill Girl who was in an hospital bed for years.
Played with in Attack on Titan. While the female soldiers are fairly androgynous in uniform, the majority have long hair and wear long skirts or dresses whenever they are out of uniform. On the other hand, we also have the Tomboy and Girly Girl pair of Ymir and Christa playing things straight. Side notes point out that because soldiers fight using acrobatics, female soldiers have an enormous advantage over their male counterparts, due to being smaller and lighter.
The titular Human Aliens draw their strength from The Power of Love and are primarily female. Musubi wears a pink skirt, a massive bow tied around her waist, and enjoys cooking. She's also a Cute Bruiser capable of leveling a building with a single punch. The most powerful Sekirei? Miya Asama, a beautiful housewife that retired in order to settle down with her late husband. She's still a Person of Mass Destruction, without sacrificing an ounce of her femininity.
Suisei no Gargantia: The female characters regularly involved in combat or important tactical decisions normally wear pants or shorts: this includes Bellows, Ridget, and the female soldiers seen during the opening sequence. In contrast, Amy, her friends, and other "noncombatants" who aren't capable of contributing much when pirates or whatnot invade are normally shown wearing skirts. This is somewhat subverted in that Amy turns out to be a lot tougher than she looks (as seen in the final episodes).
Bleach does this in-universe, to a certain extent. While Rukia Kuchiki and Orihime Inoue both have feminine tastes and dress, Rukia has a lower voice in the anime, did not have close female friends until going to the human world, wears her hair short, and has a tough-love way of relating to her friends. Orihime meanwhile is the gentle, dreamy healer with long hair and a very high-pitched voice in the anime. Take a wild guess which of the two is the main Action Girl, and which one was portrayed as having self-confidence issues for the bulk of the series so far.
However, this is discussed/inverted with tomboy Tatsuki and Orihime in the beginning, when Orihime has her speech about how it is her turn to protect Tatsuki instead of the other way around.
Very literal example in One Piece. Since Nami got the Perfect Clima-Tact, she has become better and better at fighting, often proving her worth as an Action Girl as well as the crew's navigator (and Damsel in Distress). Likewise, she hasn't worn dresses or skirts ever since Thriller Bark (that's well over 200 chapters, quite noteworthy since her regular outfit used to be a t-shirt and a miniskirt) which is the arc after she got the Clima-Tact.
However, Robin, who is stronger and smarter than Nami, does often wear dresses.
Pre-Eclipse Casca of Berserk is an Action Girl (the only girl, and second-in-command of the Band of the Hawk) with only one scene where she's out of her armor (at a ball, where her companions see her in a dress for the first time and can only stare at this perversion of everything they know to be true). Post-Eclipse, she's reduced to the level of a two-year-old, and wears a peasant dress for practical reasons.
The creation of Wonder Woman was William Moulton Marston's attempt to address this in society:
"Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don't want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman."
Parodied in Rick Veitch's Brat Pack, with Straw Feminist superhero Moon Maiden. As she teaches her sidekick Lunar Lass, emotion and weakness are one and the same to warrior women. Attachments and relationships are for little girls and weaklings. When Lunar Lass gets pregnant, Moon Maiden freaks and speechifies about how a warrior woman needs no one, especially not a child. So she forces her to give herself an abortion with a wire hanger because she can't be a strong or respectable woman if she has a baby.
It’s common in fanfiction that the male lead chooses the tomboy over the Girly Girl because the latter is considered “weak” for liking fashion, make-up, shopping and other feminine things. According to shippers, women are superior when they're outgoing, emotionless, can put up a fight, and most importantly, don’t wear dresses. Girly girls, on the other hand, are stripped away of their personality so that they only cry, whine and care about their appearances, making the male lead (and other men) make a beeline for the tomboy. This only happens to the girly girl because, in the eyes of the author, a skirt automatically makes her a doormat and to make the tomboy look better.
Frigid Winds And Burning Hearts tries to avert this trope by having Storm Cloud (a pegasus mare in the Royal Guard) and Rarity (a fashion designer) argue over the significance of Cutie Marks, which show up when a pony finds what they're destined for. Storm Cloud's is a spear, and thus she joined the Guard; when she chews out Rarity for criticizing her masculine behavior, Rarity points out that Storm Cloud just blindly went with her Cutie Mark, while Rarity ignored the implications of hers (three gems) and went into design, making her the stronger of the two. The problem is that the fic radically misinterprets Rarity's mark by claiming it symbolizes mining; she got it after using gems in dress design, not finding the gems in a rock.
Casey's mother from the Disney film Ice Princess says, "I know ice skating requires a great deal of athleticism and skill, but I just can't get past the twinky little outfits." Never mind that male ice skaters wear outfits that are almost as "twinky" and in some cases even "twinkier". Also she's saying this about a sport that is dangerous on the level of gymnastics but metal blades! This being a Disney film, by the end of the movie the mother realizes she was wrong.
Twister has the love triangle between Bill Harding's estranged wife, a down-to-earth country woman, and his stylish new fiance. Guess who handles the tornadoes better.
Lisa (Grace Kelly) frequently wears Pimped Out Dresses in Rear Window, but after she risks her life to help expose the murderer, she wears a blouse and blue jeans in the closing scene. She also does this to impress her boyfriend, who thinks she couldn't adapt to his lifestyle.
In the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, Blanche Barrow is portrayed as The Load in contrast to Bonnie Parker and, in the real Blanche's own words, "a screaming horses's ass." Significant in that the two male leads, Clyde Barrow and Buck Barrow, aren't foiled against each other to the same extreme.
In Small Soldiers Alan's mother is contrasted with Kristy's. Alan's has short hair, mostly wears pants and when the Commandos attack she fights them off. Kristy's mother is long haired, notably spends most of the film in a pink dressing gown and willingly hides in the closet when the Commandos are attacking. Also Kristy is presented as a bit of a Lad Ette which is shown as a very positive thing. Especially when her Gwendy dolls (which she admits she has always hated) come to life - they are presented as Girly Bruiser fighters and Kristy takes great delight in smashing them up. Nothing at all symbolic about a teenage girl smashing up her doll collection eh?
If you want to recognize this trope in romantic novels and/or novels set in other historical periods, look at the female protagonist carefully. Many, MANY authors fall in the trap of trying to make a heroine you can relate to... by having her look down on other women for "being so submissive and stupid" or "losing their time sewing and doing stupid feminine things".
A Tale of Two Cities plays with it. Lucie Manette is the ideal of pre-Victorian femininity and pretty damsel in distress. The only badass female character on the side of good, Miss Pross, is described as mannish and so ugly that it doesn't make a difference when she is disheveled after a fight. Madame Defarge is the only major female character portrayed as both womanly and powerful but she's also a villain.
In-Universe example in House of Leaves, at one point it summarizes interviews between Karen (who's claiming the events are fictional), and a number of celebrities. One such celebrity is a feminist who chastises Karen's 'character's' nyctophobia, dismissing it with "No self-respecting woman is afraid of the dark".
Rachel and Cassie are inversions of this trope in the Animorphs series. Rachel is the toughest, most blood-thirsty, aggressive warrior of The Team and also the more womanly compared to Cassie. She is often described as a leggy, well-dressed, beautiful blonde who loves to go shopping, cares a great deal about outward appearances, often insists on improving Cassie's wardrobe, and goes shopping for the group when clothes are needed on the fly. Cassie on the other hand is the more feminine in nature, broken-hearted for everything that breathes, is the most hesitant to do battle and yet is the one who can't dress.
The Spy High series, where beautiful, blonde, fashionable Lori is the most ruthless of The Team, especially when provoked; the less looks-conscious Cally is The Heart and eventually wins the love of leading man Ben. Bex, the biggest Action Girl of the team, rejects feminine dress and looks completely; with punk clothes, many piercings, and short spiky green hair.
In the first quartet, Song of the Lioness, Alanna starts out hating the fact that she's a girl and wishing she were a boy because she wants to be a knight. She tells her brother that part part of her motivation for the switch is to go towards knighthood and away from ladyhood. Part of her Character Development is coming to accept and enjoy her femininity even in the midst of her eight-year-long stint as a Sweet Polly Oliver. It does not detract in the least from the fact that she is Badass and becomes a legendary knight—in the last book, her current lover Liam pitches a fit over her wearing a dress at one point because he can't fit her into a neat stereotype box when she's a warrior and feminine, serving as a portent to their eventual breakup.
In one of the short stories, Fedal complains about women of Tekalimy's Islam Expy religion being forced to wear veils, and she gives a speech about how she likes wearing them, since it means she isn't judged on her looks. Another short story follows this girl as she speaks for the female side of her god as a prophet, but continues to wear the veil.
Daine from the The Immortals quartet also hates dresses, but for a different reason: she's a very outdoorsy type and skirts are monstrously impractical. It's for this reason that she absolutely loathes anything with too much frivolous decoration. On the other hand, when she knows in advance she has to dress up and gets to pick a dress she likes, she's shown to enjoy looking pretty from time to time.
In the Protector of the Small quarter, Kel is the first girl to openly train to be a knight. She insists on wearing dresses to dinner each evening, just to remind people of her gender.
Lord Wyldon: If only you'd been born a boy, Mindelan.
Kel: But sir, I like being a girl.
In general, the women who aren't Action Girls or otherwise warlike are not demonized for knowing and enjoying feminine things like needlework (and some of the Action Girls are shown doing needlework themselves). The overall theme here is that it's equally okay to be a tomboy or a girly girl.
A Song of Ice and Fire is a mixed bag, but the two Stark girls draw an unflattering contrast between masculine and feminine behavior while deconstructing them at the same time. Arya is a tomboy whose interest in swordplay helps her overcome many trials (which slowly eats away at her humanity), while Sansa, who is better at traditional feminine pursuits, spends half the first book crying helplessly and the other half misreading people. Once she's gotten past her initial idealism, Sansa becomes much more competent, and her femininity and awareness of social customs helps her as she keeps house for and trains under the series' resident Magnificent Bastard. The girls' mother Catelyn is a much better blend of confidence and femininity.
"The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe" concludes by saying, in a nutshell, that the two queens (with their appropriately royal dresses) were just as effective and beloved as the two kings.
In The Last Battle Susan Pevensie becomes "no longer a friend of Narnia" and the only mention of why is a line saying she's only interested in "lipstick, nylons and invitations". Many readers take this as criticism of female sexuality though CS Lewis said of Susan "The books don't tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there's plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan's country in the end... in her own way" which, coupled with things other characters say suggest her fault is trying too hard to grow up and forgetting her childhood. The other female characters Lucy, Jill and Polly aren't said to be any less feminine than Susan.
Anne of Green Gables: While the title character is a daring, outspoken Fiery Redhead, she is also very concerned with physical beauty, jewelery, and fairies. Her assertive side and and her imaginative, feminine side are portrayed as mixed bags independently of each other, and at times they overlap.
In the Kitty series of children's books, the tomboyish Kitty is frequently at odds with her prissy cousin Melissa who loves pink frilly dresses and ribbons in her hair. When Melissa starts at Kitty's school, she is unpopular with the other kids. Kitty comes back to school after a week off sick and discovers Melissa has cut her hair short and started dressing in baggy tracksuits. She is now popular and liked by everyone.
In Feet of Clay, Angua tells Cherry (a female dwarf) that you can be any gender you want in the Watch, as long as that gender is male. Immediately subverted when she recounts her own efforts to do so, telling bawdy jokes that caused the others to flee in terror. A later book has her and Nobbs on Honey Trap duty, with Nobbs as the Honey Trap. When she asks him why he's in the dress, Nobbs, Dirty Coward and Non-Action Guy, has difficulty with the idea of Angua being the one to put herself in danger (plus, she was the backup).
Live Action TV
Sometimes used in Super Sentai, which is fond of the Tomboy and Girly Girl trope: if there are Two Girls to a Team, typically the Pink (or White) Ranger will be girly and wear skirts/dresses, while the Yellow (or Blue) Ranger will be more tomboyish and wear shorts or pants. Early series would lean towards making the tomboy the stronger warrior, while the girly girl would be more of a pacifist and often have a less powerful weapon.
Played straight on Robin Hood which saw Djaq, an intelligent, resourceful, competent Action Girl who always wore pants written out at the end of the second season and replaced with Kate, a girl who wore an impractically long dress out in the forest, and whose contributions to the outlaw gang included a string of kidnappings, bitching, and a Romantic Plot Tumour.
In Cougar Town, Bobby makes friends with a tomboy named Riggs. Travis and Grayson turn Shippers on Deck and try to convince him that Riggs is girlfriend material by making her over but when Bobby sees Riggs on a dress, he breaks out laughing because the sight of it is ridiculous to him, "like a dog wearing sunglasses." Rather than feeling embarrased or outraged, Riggs agrees with Bobby and the two continue their platonic relationship, which eventually becomes romantic.
Deliberately invoked with a twist in the very NSFW song "Only Straight Girls Wear Dresses" by CWA, in which a Lipstick Lesbian reads the title in graffiti in a bathroom, finds the perp, and convinces her otherwise; with sex.
The video for P!nk's song "Stupid Girls" equates "stupidity" with feminine things such as playing with dolls, putting on make-up and wearing anything pink while equating being smart with being a tomboy and physically strong. The end of the video has a little girl choosing to play football instead of playing with her dolls.
The Taylor Swift song "You Belong With Me" has the line "she wears short skirts/I wear t-shirts," and "she wears high heels/I wear sneakers," and makes it clear that her close friend's high-heel- and dress-wearing girlfriend doesn't understand him.
Peanuts had Peppermint Patty, the most athletic female character, wear shorts in contrast to the other girls' dresses. Lucy and Sally later stopped wearing dresses in the 1980s.
A short arc involved Patty's school enforcing a dress code which required her to wear a dress. She was not at all happy about it.
This was turned into a storyline in WWE in 2011 with Beth Phoenix and Natalya'sheel turns, the two of them proclaiming they were sick of the models in WWE. Interestingly on WWE's part, they kept both sides with a sympathetic point of view; Beth and Natalya wanting to make the division more serious and about wrestling while the likes of Kelly Kelly and Eve Torres trying to prove themselves as wrestlers.
This article discusses this trope in relation to the WWE Divas and offers a neutral stance on the debate.
In-story, Lady Macbeth has this opinion of herself. She calls on evil spirits to make her less feminine and able to kill Duncan.
At first, Wicked suggests that the pink-clad Glinda is an Alpha Bitch who betrayed the more hard-working and tomboy-ish main character. The two become best friends, and learn from one-another to overcome their respective faults. The apparent "betrayal" was something both of them were in on.
In-universe example in Trauma Team: in one of the extras, Maria wears a dress. Gabe's response is to try to rip his eyes out.
An In-universe example in Odin Sphere. Just about the only thing the Valkryies of Ragnanival fear is getting married because it usually entails getting hit with a love spell and falling for the first man she sees (usually a man she is given to). Gwendolyn thankfully lucks out in that Oswald likes her just as she is, and is badass enough to beat down everyone else after her; she's not so lucky in that Oswald is a little too afraid of her not loving him if she finds out she was never under that spell to begin with and never tells her.
Curiously inverted in Fallout: New Vegas with Veronica Santiago. She's a Brotherhood Scribe who isn't afraid to question the patriarchal Brotherhood's outdated beliefs, admits to having fallen in love with another woman once, and can floor a deathclaw with her fists. Her greatest wish is... to wear a dress because she wants to look good and sexy for once. She's genuinely grateful if you get her one, and if you find a good dress, she squeals like a schoolgirl. Then she goes back to pummeling the opposition.
In Solatorobo, this attitude (and a literal instance) is the whole reason for the photo collection sidequest: Alicia had a photo taken while wearing a princess dress, and she's so embarrassed by it that she has her gang swipe all the photographer's photos. Waffle eventually sees it and compliments her, but she's offended by the comparison to Princess Theria.
Turned on its head in Resonance of Fate. As part of her Character Development, Leanne decides to start wearing full makeup when knowingly heading into gunfights. Her reasoning is it encourages her to keep her emotions in check, since crying will make it start to run, and by not breaking down she avoids becoming a liability to her partners.
Naturally, this get a very direct Lampshade Hanging in Project × Zone, where after explaining the ritual to Lindow, he states that he can only imagine the reaction some of the women in his unit would have to hearing that.
Fate/stay night deconstructs this trope with Lady of War Saber. She pretended to be a man and fought on the front lines of battle for all of her human life. At some level she never wanted to do these things but she accepted them because they were her duty as King Arthur. As a result, she has no sense of self-worth, and can only feel fulfilled by serving other people. The main character Shirou realizes that even though she is a supremely skilled warrior, she would be happier if she didn't force herself to fight.
Strong Female Character(while punching a Housewife in the face): Your reign of terror is over you cookie baking BITCH!
Parodied in Sinfest when Moniquecries over a TV show, and gets her "strong woman" card suspended. (Other characters have also had various cards suspended for not behaving stereotypically. For instance, Squigley loses his Bro card after he dares to acknowledge the atheleticism of female tennis players rather than just watching for panty shots.)
In L's Empire, Void asks why Daisy wears a dress if she's a tomboy. She responds as such:
Daisy: DID YOU EVER THINK THAT MAYBE I LIKE TO WEAR DRESSES? HUH, DID YOU EVER THINK OF THAT?
Eerie Cuties: tomboy Brooke rarely wears skirts or dresses despite having a very practical reason to do so (she occasionally turns into a half-snake and loses her pants to Clothing Damage). Lampshaded by girly-girl Melissa here
In the beginning, Francine is practicing for a pie-baking contest, leading Hayley to belittle her and ask her questions like when she plans on giving back the vote. Later at night, Francine catches Hayley, wearing a frilly, outdated dress, baking pies of her own.
Played with in another episode. Hayley makes a video of Francine, mocking her status as a typical housewife who sews, cooks, and cleans. Francine is distraught and receives a fake doctor's license and then works for the handicapped mafia. Things get out of hand but once Francine takes care of things Hayley apologizes for claiming Francine couldn't do anything important.
Deconstructed in Wonder Woman. The Amazons are trained early in life to be warriors, but are secluded from mankind for centuries. Persephone calls Hippolyta out on this near the film's climax. Diana herself finds a balance towards the movies end. She moves to New York and is in a relationship with Steve, but she still maintains her status as an Amazon and fights crime whenever she's needed.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic episode "A Dog and Pony Show" subverts this as Rarity, the most traditionally feminine of the Mane Six, gets kidnapped and enslaved, only for her to rescue herself by manipulating (and annoying) the Diamond Dogs into submission, the Aesop being that being feminine doesn't mean being weak.
This is generally averted. Tomboys Rainbow Dash and Applejack are not any more competent than the rest of the cast in a crisis (often less), and Princess Cadance is an extremely pink Non Action Girl who has personally vanquished both the villains she's faced.