The Elusive Teenage Girl

Zoey Greenwald, Staff Writer

  There’s something exciting about being at an airport. Maybe it’s the people rushing by, all with someplace to be — but the best part is that I’m one of those people. Situations like these almost make me giddy because it feels like a challenge. I’m masquerading as a full-fledged adult, with places to go and people to see. I board the plane and greet the strangers assigned to my sides for the next five hours of my life. Will they see behind the mask?

  I’m not here with a blank slate— I know this. I’m against years of T.V shows and movies. Years of ideas about who I, a teenage girl, am supposed to be. Vain, petty, or just plain stupid— is that what people will think I am? Or can I prove these ideas wrong?

  I’m three hours in and hopelessly bored. This is the natural time to check out the in-flight movie. I had been wanting to see “Edge of Seventeen” for a while, so I sat back and for the next two hours was subjected to an unlikeable teenage lead, and stories about getting drunk, having obsessive crushes, and vain teenage melodrama.

  Is this what people think teenage girls are?

  Do people think that this is all teenage girls are?

  The woman next to me started to play the same movie into her cheap, plane-provided headphones. I almost wanted to jump up and stop her. As strangers, we were only together for a relatively short time, but I was on a plane! By myself! I wanted this woman to see me as the mature adult I know I am, but after seeing this movie, would she perceive all teenage interests as vain?

  I wanted to pull out those headphones and yell into them, “THIS IS NOT WHAT TEENAGE GIRLS ARE!” but after years of these same media tropes, would she even have been convinced?

  Teenage girls are in no way underrepresented in media. Teenage actors, pop stars, and social media influencers dominate our screens and are nearly impossible to avoid.

  But how are they portrayed?

  The idea of a bubble gum, sugar-coated, teenage pop star should surprise no one. For decades, we’ve been subjected to pink and sparkly ideas about what femininity and youth within these gender roles are.

  Many movies and TV shows portray high school as a playset of stereotypes. Like dolls, each girl is in her place as a predetermined stereotype. This stereotype can be a shallow take on a personality trait or just plain mean. If she’s smart, she’s a nerd. If she’s motivated, she’s shrill. She often doesn’t really care about anything and is sometimes portrayed as dumb, blonde, high school royalty (“Heathers” from 1989 destroys this stereotype wonderfully through the lens of dark comedy). Badly-written media, often sitcoms, write teenage girls as punchlines rather than people. Punchlines about vanity, boy-obsession, or melodrama. This affirms a dangerous idea that’s been either consciously or subconsciously moulding American youth for decades: tThat teenage girls are vain and stupid, as are their interests.

  In most representations in media, these girls are hardly ever portrayed as functioning members of society. Selfish, stupid, apathetic, pathetic, or shrill — we just can’t win. While our male counterparts are often written into stories about growing up, discovering one’s self, or becoming a man, teenage girls almost never become women. They remain immature and selfish, so that we may mock their pinkness and their sparkly-ness and the shortness of their miniskirts. They hardly ever make us think. Teenage girls are often on screen only for us to laugh at.

  This is also extremely prevalent in advertising. Because we portray and therefore perceive teenage girls as vain, companies market the hell out of products that we think they might use to maintain such vanity. Media stereotypes about teenage girls tell us that we should be at the mall, where we should spend ridiculous amounts of money on frivolous things like lipgloss and the shape of our eyebrows. So we go, and we do.

  The problem here is not that teenage girls go to the mall. The enemy here is not shopping, but rather the idea that marketers disproportionately market to teenage girls because of and within a frame of vanity.

  We can track this idea as marketed to girls fairly easily — one of the most popular little girls’ toys at the moment are Shopkins, little rubber dolls that simulate — you guessed it — things a girl might shop for.

  While the desire to “shop ‘til you drop” (and seriously, how did shopping ever become a form of entertainment?) may be one of the most blatant examples of media messages reflecting their distorted perception of what a teenage girl is, there are more subtle and perhaps more dangerous stereotypes lurking on our television sets and movie screens.

   I do not know nor have I ever known a little girl who does not want to be a princess. As a little girl, I largely imagined teenager-dom as something magical, filled with ballgowns and romance and beautiful elegance. And yes, as a teenager I have also found such things exciting, but I recognize that there is more to life than these things. Life isn’t always glossy and elegant — and it doesn’t have to be. You are allowed to be unfeminine. You are allowed to be messy.

  I realized that there is more to life than finding one’s prince, and there is more to life than saving China out of loyalty to your family or saving your sister out of loyalty to your family or becoming a bear out of loyalty to your family. You are supposed to have interests of your own. Ones outside of serving others. Goals, and dare I say passions, that guide you to work hard and become a woman.

  As a society, we tell young women to put themselves last. This stems from the strict gender roles that they’ve been in for years — as the child-bearers, they’re expected to do nothing outside of the home. They become things for uses instead of real people; and while we think of this as one of the most extreme examples of sexism, it’s messages are paralleled in everyday culture. We expect teenage girls to be as selfless and devoid of autonomy as possible (because of the aforementioned child-bearer mindset), so as soon as we see an inkling of self-interest, we write it off as vain and frivolous.

  Confident becomes self-centered. Brave becomes bitchy.

  Even in me, what should be an anger over such dehumanization becomes a perhaps softspoken stew of frustration.

  And I can’t help but feel that I’m not the only one.

  There’s this agonizing guilt over not being able to open that jar of honey. Over wearing makeup or buying a ridiculously expensive dress. Over having to admit that last night’s temper tantrum was, in fact, hormonally-induced.

  Am I reaffirming a stereotype? Have they been true all along?

  But there is no perfect girl who can open all the jars and never ever becomes Godzilla when she’s on her period, and trying to be that person is utterly exhausting. In these moments of guilt we must remind ourselves that the problem is not that we wear miniskirts; it’s that when we wear wear miniskirts it makes people think we can’t also kick ass.

 So, it’s our job to prove them wrong.

 Our sequins are not us. Our lipstick is not us. Our cell-phone gossip is not us. We are real people — real girls, growing into real adult women who have goals and passions and plans. Plans concerning our own interests and our own futures.

  Denying such autonomy is denying such future, and this future has the possibly to very well be beautiful.