Girls Deserve Better

My question of concern today: why are teenage girls the demographic that visual media most frequently fails to get right?

I’m not taking aim at print media. For all its regularly-called-out flaws, YA fiction offers girl readers a place in popular culture that caters to them. The genre gets a flood of criticism, some have suggested because media critics tend to sneer at any and all things girls love. But the best of Young Adult fiction — whether realistic, like The Hate U Give, The Poet X, or Love, Hate, and Other Filters, or fantastic, like Dread Nation/ Deathless Divide, Seraphina, and Raybearer — offers insight into matters that are on girls’ minds at that vulnerable time of life. Will I be loved? What’s special about me? Where is my power? How can I make a difference? How can I make my stand? Good YA lets girls know that they’re not alone, that someone hears them, and best of all, that someone sees them as worthy to be heard when the world around them often sends the message that they’re of little value. One reason the best YA fiction gets girls right, in all their complicated glory, is that much of it is written by authors who can remember what it was like to be a teenage girl.

Contrast that with something like the animated sitcom Family Guy, which sets up its teenage girl character, Meg Griffin, to be a punching bag for the rest of the cast, an object of general loathing. Sad as she is, the saddest thing about her is that creator Seth MacFarlane wrote her that way specifically because he couldn’t think of another way to write her, because he “didn’t understand teenage girls.” The plural reveals the problem: the idea that there is some universal template of teenage girlhood to be tapped into. In the minds of writers like MacFarlane, teenage girls are “Other,” and the “Other” — the “They” — are all essentially the same, whereas “We” (boys and men, in this case) are distinct individuals. (The idea that MacFarlane and his writing team to identify with an anthropomorphic male dog than a teenage female human will always move me to roll my eyes.)

The issue of the often lacking portrayal of teen girls in visual media came to my mind thanks to a recent CNN.com article in which journalist Sandra Gonzales asked, “Why are my shows filled with mean girls?” She notes that if shows like Gossip Girl, The White Lotus, and Never Have I Ever are to be believed, “all teen girls are social media bullies, faux-woke hypocrites and downright mean to other people.” While I don’t watch any of the shows she cites, one passage in particular resonated with me: “I thought that if my lineup was any indication, I was the only freak my age not in love triangle, getting into alcohol-fueled car wrecks, dealing with a clique of over-lip-glossed queen wannabees or navigating an unwanted pregnancy.”

These words echo how I felt when I was a teenage girl in the 1980s, looking everywhere on television for a fictional counterpart of myself, who would resemble me in even the smallest way, and finding none until the miniseries Anne of Green Gables turned up on PBS. The sameness of the girls I saw on TV disturbed and at times even demoralized me — all of them focused on popularity and boys, most of them conventionally pretty and the ones that weren’t driven half-mad with desire to be so, and almost none of them ambitious for anything beyond a date to the prom. Where were their interests? Where were their hobbies? Why weren’t they about something? Why did they seem to exist primarily in relation to others, instead of being the heroes of their own stories? Worst of all, was this what the world wanted me to be?

By 1987 I had graduated from high school and lost interest in teen characters and teen-centered stories, but what I noticed from my general looks into pop culture struck me as progress. Whatever else might be said about shows like Beverly Hills 90210, they gave teen characters a place to live beyond sitcoms and after-school specials. A few years later, a teenage girl fronted a critically acclaimed drama, My So-Called Life. While I didn’t become a Buffy fan until the third season — I had to catch up on the first two seasons in syndication — the end of the 1990s saw the appearance of the short-lived but smart and thoughtful drama Once and Again. I started watching for the adult characters, but I stayed for the teenagers, particularly the frustrating but wonderfully authentic Grace Manning, a character I’d want to slap in one episode and hug in the next. Unlike the TV teenage girls I remembered from my high school days, Grace had interests and even a spark of ambition. She would read in bed, like me! Finally, a regularly airing series helped my inner teen feel seen. She felt so again in an episode of Season 2 of Gilmore Girls, when young Rory declared she would rather spend her lunch hour reading a good book than, as she put it, “discuss the euthanasia of homecoming.” In later seasons Rory stopped being someone I enjoyed relating to, but by then, Veronica Mars existed.

Yet for Gonzales, teenaged in the aughts, something was missing. While Veronica was solving crimes and juggling love interests and spacey Joan Girardi of Arcadia was getting messages from God, Gonzales was wondering if the television landscape had any place for a “boring teen” like her. The shows may have changed, but the problem remained: too many real teenage girls didn’t see themselves on the small screen.

Do today’s teen girls feel represented by the sociopaths in lip gloss found in shows like The White Lotus or Gossip Girl? Why do television writers tend to fall back on the old familiar stereotypes, from the Queen of Mean to the Boy-Crazy Fashionista to the Quirky Loner who spends 95% of her time snarking about the Queens of Mean and the Boy-Crazy Fashionistas, when it comes to creating characters in this demographic?

It would be easy to say that the blame lies with creators who, like Seth MacFarlane, have never been teenage girls and perhaps have never even had a substantial conversation with one — easy, but not accurate. Of the shows Gonzales cites as having problematic portrayals of teen girls, only one of them, The White Lotus, is the brainchild of a sole male creator. This suggests the problem goes deeper. It’s not just about how alienated grown male writers feel from teenage girls. It’s about how those girls, and the women who used to be them, have been conditioned to think about themselves and each other. Poor representation is a snake that eats its own tail.

In any case, to the girls struggling through adolescence, figuring out who they want to be, I say, along with Gonzales, “You deserve better.”

As to what “better” might look like, perhaps it’s films like Lady Bird and Booksmart. Perhaps it’s animated shows like the reboots of Carmen Sandiego and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power or fantasy shows like Shadow and Bone. These I’ve seen, and I’ve been charmed by their heroines in all their confusion, resilience, curiosity, and determination.

I polled a group of friends to find out which shows they thought did a good job of portraying teen girls with a measure of empathy and understanding. Some shows they mentioned, which I don’t watch (at least not yet): PEN15, Sex Education, Titans, Motherland: Fort Salem, Stargirl, The Bureau of Magical Things, The Babysitters’ Club (Netflix reboot), Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts, Panic, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Fate: The Winx Saga, Atypical, Teenage Bounty Hunters, The Owl House, Dickinson, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, Nancy Drew, The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Wilds, Infinity Train, Derry Girls, Miraculous, Amphibia, Locke and Key, Legacies, We Are Lady Parts, Just Add Magic, Cobra Kai, Ginny and Georgia, Sweet Tooth, Cloak and Dagger, The Runaways, Invincible.

What are some recent shows you’ve seen that get teenage girls right?