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Let’s Discuss Labels: Characterising Others Into Tropes

Before the pick me girl, softboi, and vsco tropes, were the jocks, cheerleaders, and nerds in typical American high school movies. Are cheerleaders more than just poms poms and a bow-tie? Labelling has been narrowly defining individuals throughout the years, diminishing them to an ant in an army – breaking down individuality and grouping people into broad categories. Although labels give us occasional laughs and entertainment through the people portraying them in movies or the ‘starter pack’ memes circulating around the internet, labelling calls on further thought and criticism to the effects and attitudes that these tropes bring across. 

What are labels? 

Social labels characterise people into certain tropes that are distinctive of a particular attitude or fashion garment. Someone wearing a t-shirt with a horse print on it is automatically assumed to be a horse girl; a hydro flask assumes a vsco girl; a chain attached to jeans assumes an e-boy; “that swooshy updo” assumes an f-boy. Closer to home, an oversized t-shirt with shorts underneath (often hidden) assumes a XMM (小妹妹, or little sister, often referring to teenage girls) and slides and an e-scooter assumes a YP (young punk, the male equivalent of XMM). It’s easy to automatically label these individuals into these categories, especially after you’ve seen so many of these tropes expressed online. 

With social media and pop culture, it becomes almost the norm to label everything you see online. One might even adopt a label if it meant getting more views on TikTok or followers on Instagram. Comedy spoofs on TikTok representing stereotypes are – I must confess – entertaining to watch. However, stereotypes are swept in the mix. Perhaps you really like wearing oversized t-shirts because they are comfortable, but you don’t wish to be labelled an XMM, or that you own a hydro flask but deny the vsco girl trope. You become wary of what you say and do just so you don’t fall into a particular label.  Wariness of being labelled a stereotype that you don’t particularly like or agree with can deprive you of your individual expressivity when choosing an outfit or when meeting new people. 

Are labels all that makes a person? 

When we disagree with a certain behaviour or idea, labelling might also be used as an insult, insinuating the “that’s not me, that’s you” idea. It greatly limits our viewpoint of a person. Take for example, someone who, in your eyes, behaved like a pick-me girl. It would be hard to shed that stereotype off of her once you’ve cast that on. It greatly limits your perspective of her now that you’ve labelled her as such and you would expect certain personality traits of a pick-me girl from her. It is harmful to both you and her because you would distance yourself from her and she wouldn’t know the reason why.

Labelling people is instinctual, we label based on that one remark made by a person, or that one clothing item or style item that a person has on. Because of our unfamiliarity with strangers, we label them as a category in an effort to make out their personalities. But that usually erases all opportunity for us to try to get to know their personalities beyond what you already (and maybe wrongly) perceive them to be.  

All or nothing? 

Going back to the high school tropes, you get judged and labelled the moment you walk into school. You’re either a jock or a nobody. Today, you’re either “un-interesting” or an e-boy, edgy, skater, etc. Labels are immensely simplistic and do not hold the breadth and complexities of an individual. 

Where did “one of a kind” go?

I can’t be the only one who remembers that early 2010s trend when almost every tween/teen was walking around in those “one of a kind” words slapped in huge fonts on a t-shirt. Yes, instinctively, we group people in categories, but sometimes we should take a step back to see everyone as thumbprints – same but different. 

So instead of labelling a trope on someone, you could first start by finding out what’s unique about that person. It could be a hair colour, nails, shoes, bag, anything. And maybe, if you’re in the same class, you can ask for their name next, so you put a name to a face. Instead of labelling others and worrying about falling into labels, we should shed the label trop entirely – reserve it for the memes and entertainment purposes – to shed our narrow views about others and instead see them and ourselves as unique individuals.

Gabrielle Chua

Nanyang Tech '24

With a stash of Roald Dahl novels in her possession from childhood, Gabrielle seldom has a tight grip on reality. In her spare time, she enjoys printmaking and writing for her local animal shelter.
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