Child and Teenage Girl Protagonists: The Roundup

Almost 20 years later, we need more of what My So-Called Life gave us a taste of. We need teenage girl protagonists to be sexual, not sexy. We need honest portrayals of what it is to be a teenager–not only for teenagers who need to see themselves in faithful mirrors, but also for adults who are still trying to figure themselves out.

Are You There, Hollywood? It’s Me, the Average Girl by Carrie Gambino

The expectations for girls in film and television are incredibly mixed. It is naïve to say that girls nowadays are just expected to be a sexy sidekick or afterthought. With more strong female roles popping up in bigger budget films such as Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, there is the expectation that girls should also be intelligent and incredibly clever (while also being visually pleasing)… There isn’t really a place for the all-around average girl. The first two examples of strong female protagonists that I could think of are in fantasy franchises. Are real female characters really that difficult to come up with? Real female characters are often created with good intentions but tend not to work on a larger scale.

Six Lessons Lisa Simpson Taught Me by Lady T

…Lisa takes a stand against the sexism spouting from the mouth of the new talking Malibu Stacy doll. Frustrated with the doll’s collection of sexist catchphrases that include “Let’s bake some cookies for the boys,” “Thinking too much gives you wrinkles,” and “My name’s Stacy, but you can call me *wolf whistle*,” Lisa collaborates with the creator of Malibu Stacy to create their own talking doll, Lisa Lionheart. When Malibu Stacy outsells Lisa Lionheart, our creator feels temporarily dejected, until she hears her own voice speaking behind her: “Trust in yourself and you can achieve anything.” She turns to see a girl her age hold a Lisa Lionheart doll in her hand and smile.

Delightful Tina. Shy, painfully weird, butt-obsessed, quietly dorky, intensely daydreamy Tina. Tina is a little bit like all of us (and–cough–a lot like some of us) at that most graceless, transitional, intrinsically unhappy stage of life that is early adolescence. She is also a wonderfully rich and well-developed character, both in her interactions with her family and in her own right, and she’s arguably the emotional core of the whole show.

It’s common wisdom that maintaining relationships requires constant work, but there’s often an assumption (in TV, movies, and real life) that this only applies to romantic relationships. Platonic relationships are rarely the focus of a story, and when a storyline deals with issues in these relationships, they’re often easily dealt with, and the friendship goes back to being simple. Exceptions to this are problems that are caused by romantic relationships. Veronica Mars is an exception to this; for its first two seasons, it depicts many platonic relationships, and explores the many issues involved in navigating them (some of these problems are related to romance, but many are not, showing platonic relationships have their own complexities, separate from romance).

My Sister’s Keeper is a story about growing up, identify, family, death, and life (how can we truly tell any story about life when death isn’t the costar?), but its uniqueness is that it is told primarily through two young girls.

So, these are the important things in Sixteen Candles: Samantha’s family forgets her birthday; she’s in love with a hot senior who’s dating Caroline (the most popular girl in school); and there’s a big ol’ geek (Farmer Ted) from Sam’s daily bus rides who won’t stop stalking her. Oh, and Long Duk Dong exists [insert racist gong sound here]. Seriously, every time Long Duk Dong appears on screen, a fucking GONG GOES OFF on the soundtrack. I suppose that lines up quite nicely with the scene where he falls out of a tree yelling, “BONSAI.”

Since the entire movie is like a machine gun firing of RACIST HOMOPHOBIC SEXIST ABLEIST RAPEY parts, the only way I know how to effectively talk about it is to look at the very problematic screenplay. So, fasten your seatbelts and heed your trigger warnings.

The 80s were quite possibly a nightmare.


My main issue with the film is that it is speckled with meaningless platitudes and clichés about girl empowerment when the film simply isn’t empowering. The women in the film are portrayed as oversexualized, helpless, damaged goods. Though there are metaphors at work that symbolize abuse or objectification of women, nowhere does the film stress an injustice or seek to dismantle its source. It is just like any other formulaic action movie complete with boobs, guns, and explosions, but it has a shiny, artificial veneer of girl empowerment. The false veneer is the aspect of the film that truly infuriates me, along with the side of artsy pretentious bullshit.

On Milk-Bones, Toothed Vaginas, and Adolescence: Teeth As Cautionary Tale by Colleen Clemens

Early in the film, Dawn is a nymph-like virgin committed to “saving herself” until marriage. She is the poster child for the “good” girl: a loving daughter who obeys the doctrines of the church and spends her time spreading the gospel of virginity. Everything Dawn knows about the world and herself changes when her falsely pious boyfriend Tobey takes her to a far off swimming hole and tries to rape her. A confused and terrified Dawn reacts by screaming and then—much to everyone’s surprise—cutting off his penis to interrupt the rape. Little does Dawn know that her lessons about Darwin in her biology classes are taking hold in her own body.

The Horror of Female Sexual Awakening: Black Swan by Rebecca Willoughby

What disappointed me most, I think, was that Black Swan could easily have been a progressive film with a positive, young woman-centered journey out of repression at its center. It could have recouped that gender-centric childhood ballerina dream of so many little girls into a message about determination, hard work, personal strength, and emotional growth. Instead, Darren Aronofsy has produced an Oscar-winning horror film. That’s right: I said HORROR. While that might seem like a stretch, it seems clear to me that the horror I refer to is the possibility of changing an age-old story. The horror of Black Swan is the absolutely terrifying idea that a young woman might make it through the difficult process of maturation, develop a healthy, multi-faceted sexuality, and be successful at her chosen career at the same time.

While most teen movies revolve around coming-of-age stories, gang movies reveal the extreme side to adolescence—the misfit, criminal, and violent side. Gang movies are rather simple, either focusing on episodes of gang debauchery, or revolving around rivalry and jealousy. Usually the viewpoint is that of the ring leader, or the “new girl,” who is initiated into the gang but is still an outsider. Yet, among the plethora of girl gang movies, every decade has produced stories involving specific issues and specific types of teenage girls.

Kiki’s Delivery Service carefully constructs a world where a girl’s agency is expected, accepted and supported, while Disney movies typically present a girl’s agency as unusual, forbidden, and denied. The difference between these two messages is that Kiki’s world anticipates and encourages her independence, while the women of Disney are typically punished for this.

For example, in The Little Mermaid Ariel wants to “live out of these waters,” but her father forbids her exploration of the human world and punishes this dream. Sea witch Ursula exploits Ariel’s desire to discover another world beyond her own as well. This is hardly an isolated incident.

The Book Thief: Stealing Hearts and Minds by Natalie Wilson

Liesel, unlike so many young heroines, resists romance—from her friend Rudy’s early problematic insistence and then throughout the remainder of the movie. Instead of being positioned in relationship to romantic partners, she has three male best friends—Rudy, Max and Hans (Papa)—as well as two females of great importance to her life, Rosa (Mama) and Ilsa Hermann (the mayor’s wife who, transgressively, supplyies Liesel with books). As for Liesel, like her futuristic counterpart, Katniss Everdeen, she is a life-saving heroine and inspirational rebel.

Terri sets out to explore the luxury of male privilege disguised as a young man. Just One of the Guys smacked us straight in the face with the unspoken universal knowledge that sexism was real, it existed and the film gave us tangible proof. Terri decides to use her parents’ trip out of town to switch things around for herself by getting another shot at the newspaper internship with another article, an expose of sorts. She switches high schools and uses her brain, and as much as she can, is herself.

Troop Beverly Hills: What A Thrill by Phaydra Babinchock

Initially the girls of Troop Beverly Hills are portrayed as clueless and privileged, but they are allowed to grow and transform themselves over the course of the movie. The film writers don’t do it unrealistically by turning them into tomboys overnight or at all. The girls retain their femininity, which they are made fun of for by the Red Feathers, throughout the film.

Immortality is not what makes a world better. Hope, friendship, and love do, and love is not limited by sex, gender, ethnicity, or race. Women like Homura and Kyoko can fall in love with other women like Madoka and Sayaka respectively. We have the responsibility to stand up with people like them. This series is part of the reason I try to do that and more. I hope that many others to do the same.

Is Wanda a girl/teenage female protagonist? Technically she is not “young” as she is 1,000 years old and seemingly immortal, but she is new to Earth so that makes her young in some sense. Also, why would the Souls even have genders that mirror that of humans or have genders at all? The Souls look like beams of light and they probably aren’t even a carbon based species and yet somehow Wanda is a female? So. Frustrating. Nonetheless she is controlling a person’s body who identifies as a teenage girl and is thus somewhat restricted to her occupied body’s feelings, emotions, and categorizations.

Ten questions between filmmaker Morgan Faust and 13-year-old actress Rachel Resheff.

Morgan: The truth is when I was growing up in the 1980s, the child actresses were often given pretty syrupy roles (with the exception of Journey of Natty Gann and Labyrinth). It was the boys who got to have the cool movies–Goonies, Stand by Me, even The NeverEnding Story and E.T., which did have girls, but the boys were the heroes. That is why I write the movies I do–adventures films for girls–because that’s what I wanted to do when I was a kid, go on adventures, be the hero. I still do want that. I mean, who doesn’t?

The Hunger Games, saturated as it is with political meaning (the author admits her inspiration for the trilogy came from flipping channels between reality TV and war footage), is a welcome change from another recent popular YA series, Twilight. As a further bonus, it has disproven the claim that series with female protagonists can’t have massive cross-gender appeal. With the unstoppable Katniss Everdeen at the helm (played in the films by the jaw-droppingly talented Jennifer Lawrence), perhaps the series will be the start of a new trend: politically themed narratives with rebellious female protagonists who have their sights set on revolution more than love, on cultural change more than the latest sparkling hottie.

The CW: Expectations vs. Reality by Nicole Elwell

The CW is a rarity among the many networks of cable television. Its target demographic is women aged 18-34, and as a result has a majority of its original programming centered on the lives of young women. On paper, this sounds like a noteworthy achievement to be celebrated. However, the CW produces content devoid of any sense of the reality of its young audience, and as a result actually harms its most devoted viewers. The CW creates an unattainable archetype for what a teenager should look like and fails to maturely handle issues of murder and rape.

Defending Dawn Summers: From One Kid Sister to Another by Robin Hitchcock

OK, sure, my big sister didn’t have superpowers, and as far as I know she did not save the world even one time, much less “a lot.” But from my perspective as her bratty little sister, I felt like I could never escape her long and intimidating shadow. I could never be as smart as her, as special as her; I couldn’t hope to collect even a fraction the awards and accolades she racked up through high school. And she didn’t even properly counteract her super smarts with social awkwardness: she always had a tight group of friends and the romantic affections of cute boys. She was the pride and joy of my family, and I always felt like an also-ran. Trust me: this makes it very hard to not be at least a little bratty and whiny.

Why Alex Russo Is My Favorite Fictional Female Wizard by Katherine Filaseta

The protagonist of Wizards is a girl who acts like girls really act: she has boyfriends and broken hearts, but isn’t overly boy-crazy or dependent on them; she’s curious and smart enough to ask questions when other people are telling her not to; and throughout the series she faces a lot of the struggles women really do face throughout their lives.

Ja’mie: Mean-Spirited Impression of a Private School Girl by Katherine Murray

Power dynamics mean something in comedy. Making fun of someone less powerful than you is sort of like beating up someone who’s small, or taking advantage of someone naive. It’s not very sporting, and it makes you look mean. The problem is that the same person can be powerful in some contexts and not in others. A rich, white 17-year-old girl, for example, might be very powerful in contexts where she’s bullying her classmates at school, but less powerful in contexts where she’s trying to meet the demands of a sexist culture. If you’re an adult man nearing 40, it’s hard to make fun of the way a teenage girl dresses, flirts, and moons over boys without starting to look kind of petty.

True Grit: Ambiguous Feminism by Andé Morgan

Mattie wears dark, loose, practical clothing. She climbs trees and carries weapons. She shows utter disdain for male privilege or La Boeuf’s pervy allusions to sexual contact. She has no interest in the older men for romance or protection. She is only concerned with their usefulness to her task, and she uses her will and her reasoning rather than seduction to convince them. Steinfeld’s Mattie emanates competence and confidence.

Not since Megan Follows played Anne of Green Gables in the 1985 adaptation of the novel with the same title have girls had a young protagonist on screen who fights against social conventions that are designed to limit her because of her age and gender. Mattie’s similarity to Anne doesn’t end at their indignation and fearlessness, they both also share a love of long braids, both can be found wearing ill-fitting clothes, both of their stories are set in a similar time period, and finally, both girls are orphans.

Granted, Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) is an important character. Even so, it is a bit disconcerting when the IMDb blurb about this movie only mentions him, and almost none of the female characters who are equally, if not more, important to the story. Princess Mononoke (voiced by Claire Danes) is the title character, but is only mentioned toward the end of the blurb. This movie is so much more than yet another “save the princess” quest!

In Pretty In Pink, Andi is a self-sufficient, seemingly self-aware teenage girl who lives in a little cottage with her single father. Andi isn’t the type of girl who goes gaga for cocky, linen suit-wearing Steff (James Spader). She’s too busy at home sewing and stitching together her latest wardrobe creations. To her fellow girl students, she’s just a classless, lanky redhead who shouldn’t dare be caught dead at a “richie” party. So, she spends her time at TRAX, a record shop she works at, and a nightclub that showcases hip new wave bands like Ringwald’s real-life fave, The Rave-Ups. Her best friends Duckie (Jon Cryer) and Iona (Annie Potts) admire and envy Andi.

What is clear is that Campion is interested in the strategies women use to survive in patriarchy. But she is not only interested in the fate of women. She is also interested in how girl-children negotiate their way in a male-dominated world. It is through Ada’s daughter as well as Ada herself that Campion explores the feminine condition in the 19th century. Her rich, multi-layered characterization of Flora is, in fact, one of the most remarkable features of The Piano. She is as interesting and compelling as the adult characters and, arguably, the most convincing. The little girl also has huge symbolic and dramatic importance. This is, of course, unusual in cinema. There are relatively few films where a girl plays such a significant, pivotal role.

Temporary Tomboys: Coming of Age in My Girl and Now and Then by Elizabeth Kiy

However, the tomboy was a prominent figure in two well-loved films of the period aimed at young girls, though both presented her as a transitional stage in development. My Girl (1991), is the story of precocious 11-year-old Vada Sultenfuss (Anna Chlumsky) who grew up in a funeral parlor and is obsessed with death, while in Now and Then (1995) four childhood friends reunite as adults and remember (in flashbacks) the summer they were 12.

Basically, Brave isn’t really that brave of a film. It’s traipsing through a well-established trope that, though positive, is stagnant. Don’t get me wrong; I love all the prepubescent female power fantasy tales I’ve listed, and I’m grateful that they exist and that I could grow up with many of them. However, we can’t pretend that Brave is pushing any boundaries. It sends the message that little girls can be powerful as long as they remain little girls. The dearth of representations of postpubescent heroines who are not objectified, whose sexuality does not rule their interactions, and who are the heroes of their own stories is appalling.