Tall Girl: Falling Short on Supporting Real Issues of Discrimination
By Melanie Schwarz
The Netflix Original Tall Girl created a big stir on the internet. It became a meme on the social media platform TikTok using the iconic line, “You think your life is hard? I’m a high school junior wearing size 13 Nikes. Men’s size 13 Nikes. Beat that”.
There is so much privilege packed into a single moment. Being able to attend school is an opportunity not everyone has. Nikes, especially men’s size 13 Nikes, are not cheap shoes. This line introduces the main character, Jodi Kreyman (Ava Michelle). She is white, straight, abled, and born into an upper-class family. But she is tall, 6’ 1 ½” to be exact. The film focuses solely on this; people tease her in the halls and no boy will date her because she is tall. Jodi does face discrimination from being a woman and she has self-esteem issues. However, the film does not actually address these issues. The show ends with her being paired off with a man who will overlook her “flaw” of being tall. The film attempts to empower young women but instead reinforces the idea that girls need a man to be happy. Tall Girl is a poorly written film that could have focused on an actual minority or the empowerment of women. Instead, it dismisses real minority issues and representation and promotes the patriarchy.
Tall Girl was released September 13, 2019. The screenplay was written by Sam Wolfson. It was directed by Nzingha Stewart, who is a gorgeous black woman. This was her first feature film in her 20-year career in the entertainment industry. In an interview with Refinery29, Stewart said that the movie is not really about a girl being bullied for being tall. “It’s about having an insecurity and having to get over it and learn that the thing you’re ashamed of is the thing that makes you special… You don’t have to be a victim. You can just say, I’m not being bullied. That person’s an asshole” (Nicolaou). I can see where Stewart is going with this philosophy, but I think that the film did not convey it well. However, I do have more respect for the movie knowing that it was directed by a black woman. Black women do not have many opportunities in the film industry. Even though the movie did not have very good representation of minority issues, I am glad that Nzingha Stewart had a chance to showcase her abilities and I hope that she continues to grow and improve in the industry.
The characters in Tall Girl are unique but still follow overused stereotypes. Jodi, the main character, is extremely pretty but does not believe in herself until a man tells her that she is. Her best friend is a gorgeous, energetic, and confident black girl. Though her character is very interesting, they do not elaborate very much on her, which is a shame. Jodi has a boy best friend who has a huge crush on her. But, Jodi does not want to date him because he is shorter than her. The main love interest is a Swedish exchange student who happens to be taller than her and very attractive. He also turns out to be a jerk. Other characters include Jodi’s sister, a pageant queen who is dumb but nice, and the antagonist, a very pretty mean girl. The writers tried to break away from stereotypes but did not do a very good job at it. That being said, there is a lot of diversity in the extras and supporting characters. In the background, there are students of all colors, genders, and sizes. It is wonderful that there is more diversity in casting. Jodi honestly does not stand out that much, aside from being a couple inches taller than the rest of the crowd.
Jodi experiences real power when she is finally confident enough to wear a pair of drag heels. She has never worn them before but decides that she is going to embrace her height and herself. At the school dance, she gives a cute speech about loving herself and dumps the boy who treated her wrong. Jodi has spent her whole life not feeling feminine and those heels empower her. “…high heels create ‘a ‘feminine’ body out of a female one’ and serve as ‘a visual marker of femininity” (Burcar 354). It also promotes the idea that women have to change themselves to be confident. However, I do not interpret it like this. Jodi wore heels for herself. She liked how she looked, and it did not matter who else was watching. I completely understand how she feels. I suggest trying on a pair of heels if you do not understand.
Jodi does not face discrimination from being tall. She has been teased with comments like, “how’s the weather up there?” and experiences other minor annoyances. Jodi has low self-esteem due to this, which is horrible, but it is not discrimination. What she does face is the Victorian concept of an ideal woman. Women are supposed to be small, meek, and helpless; they need a man to protect and love them. Without a man, women are unhappy. Tall girls do not appear cute and helpless. Jodi believes that no man will ever date her because she is not cute. So, she goes to her sister, the award-winning pageant queen, for advice on how to attract a guy. The classic movie montage “pretty girl in boring clothes gets a makeover and becomes the pretty girl in fancy clothes and makeup” is used. Jodi feels confident by herself but still ends up with a man before she is really happy. Though the film tried to promote confident women, it reinforced the Victorian ideology. The film could have focused on this type of discrimination, instead of promoting the fake minority issue of being tall.
Jodi’s self-esteem issues should have been better addressed. The root of Jodi’s self-esteem issues originated from her dad. He told her from a very young age that she was a freak for being tall. He tried to get her to take oestrogen treatments to stunt her growth which would have caused fertility issues later in life. This is an actual treatment that has been used and has been proven that “High-dose oestrogen treatment in adolescence seems to reduce female fertility in later life” (Venn 1513). Even though he expressed it as a concern, it severely damaged her self-esteem. Later in the movie, he tries to make her feel better about being tall. One of the ways he does this is by inviting over a “tall club” to help Jodi fit in; this idea backfires and she feels more awkward and unhappy than ever. The message in Tall Girl would have been more impactful if they had shown her real journey of self-love. The movie teaches that girls need to change their appearance or find a man in order to love themselves. Jodi is not happy until she changes what she looks like with heels and makeup, and falls in love with a boy.
The reason that I chose Tall Girl was because of how angry I got from seeing it on TikTok. The trend using the line “You think your life is hard?” was a while ago, but the rage that I felt seeing it for the first time stuck with me. I could not even afford a pair of Nikes and she was complaining about them! I had not watched the movie until I decided to write about it. If I had watched it before taking a class on difference, power, and discrimination, I probably would have dismissed it as a bad teenage rom-com. But after taking that class, I was able to figure out why it is such a bad movie. It attempted to spread a message that girls should love themselves as they are, but the underlying message is that girls will only be truly happy and satisfied with themselves is if they have a man. The second reason Tall Girl is so awful is because of the sickening amount of privilege littered through the movie. Jodi is rich, straight, white, and abled. Being tall is not a minority yet it is treated as one. There are hundreds of more valid issues the film could have addressed and yet it did not.
Tall Girl is a badly written teenage romantic comedy that attempted to spread a message of self-love but instead supported the Victorian woman stereotype. The conflict of the film is that Jodi cannot get a man because she is tall, and women have to fall in love with a man to be happy. It lazily addresses her real self-esteem issues; she gets a pair of heels and is confident for a night, which is great. However, the film does not address what happens afterward; self-esteem issues do not just disappear in one night. Regardless of that, being tall is not a minority issue. The film presented it as one while simultaneously showing white, heterosexual, and socioeconomic privilege. Tall Girl was directed by a beautiful black woman, so it is sad to see the film not turn out well. There is news of a sequel coming out, so maybe the next film will improve on some of these issues.
Burcar, Lilijana. “High Heels as a Disciplinary Practice of Femininity in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street.” Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 28, no. 3, Apr. 2019, pp. 353–362. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/09589236.2018.1472556.
Nicolaou, E. (2019, September 13). “How Tall Girl Director Nzingha Stewart Survived A Twitter Backlash.” Refinery29. Retrieved December 01, 2020, from https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2019/09/8404727/nzingha-stewart-tall-girl-director-backlash-interview.
Venn, Alison, et al. “Oestrogen Treatment to Reduce the Adult Height of Tall Girls: Long-Term Effects on Fertility.” Lancet, vol. 364, no. 9444, Oct. 2004, pp. 1513–1518. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(04)17274-7.