Saiorse Ronan - church scene - Lady Bird 2017
Lady Bird © Universal Pictures (2017)
Stories & Ideas

Thu 13 Jul 2023

A woman in glasses, with pink hair and blazer.
Claire White

Film and culture writer

Claire White explores the less-than-perfect teens who reflect the unruly realities of women's adolescence.

Despite what early 2000s teen films tried to tell us, being a girl is not all about slow-motion entrances, the perfect hair flip and a hot boyfriend at the bottom of the staircase. Growing up at the time involved being inundated with the shiny, smiling faces of Disney Channel princesses and reading articles on how to dress like Hilary Duff or do your hair like Lindsey Lohan. Although we would eventually see that these girls were far from perfect, with paparazzi so eager to capture their least polished — and lowest — moments, in the movies we watched they were flawless, funny and stylish: everything we were expected to be.

Across the 90s and 2000s, as second-wave feminism rose in popularity, spectacular girlhoods reigned. Girls came with great power (The Craft, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), great talent (Bring It On, Stick It, Ice Princess, Center Stage, Raise Your Voice, Hannah Montana, Fame), royal pedigree (The Princess Diaries, The Prince & Me) or even fairy-tale perfection (A Cinderella Story, Another Cinderella Story). These Girl Power narratives were instrumental in teaching young audiences that girls are capable of extraordinary things. While these lessons inspired girls to determine their destiny within a patriarchal culture, these images of perfection have always been a fallacy – no one is this perfect, not even the actresses themselves.

As we entered the 2010s, spectacularity grew into 'girls in extraordinary situations': the boom in popularity of vampire-romance series The Twilight Saga and fantasy-dystopian series The Hunger Games led to attempts at other “kick-ass girl” led adaptations like the Divergent series and Vampire Academy, but interest started to wane, leading to critical and box-office failures. There is no denying the impact the spectacular girls of the 90s and 2000s, and the kick-ass girls of the early 2010s (Buffy Summers and Katniss Everdeen, in particular) had on the popularisation of feminism into the mainstream. With the introduction of conversations about feminism into the classroom, inserting slogans like 'fight like a girl' into everyday contexts and showcasing the strength of femininity in Hollywood, the suggestion was girls really can do anything. But can they? By the end of the 2010s, a number of filmmakers rose up to challenge these ideas and give space to ’ordinary girls’, who had been left to the wayside: girls who aren’t revolutionary leaders or secret pop stars, but who are just trying to get through high school. In these films, striving to reach classic ideas of perfection is the conflict, where messiness, listlessness, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy emerge.

Written and directed by Kelly Freemon Craig, Edge of Seventeen’s (2016) Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is a mess. Her clothes don’t match (in the first scene she is described as an “especially badly dressed student”) and her hair flies around in disarray with her erratic movements. She’s self-involved, rude and deeply insecure. When throwing up in the bathroom while drunk, she moans about how much she can’t stand herself: “Why am I so grotesque?… I hate my face. I hate the way it looks when I talk or when I chew gum.” These insecurities are born out of classical ideas of what it means to be attractive or likeable (later, she’ll reassure her mother that she isn’t a loser, because she’s attractive, good at decorating and “very diligent with [her] eyebrows”, qualities that are befitting a woman). Back in the bathroom, slumping over a toilet bowl, Nadine reveals her worst thought: “I’ve got to spend the rest of my life with myself.”

Nadine’s depression and insecurity were a revelation for the screen, voicing the inadequacy so many girls feel. In a recent interview with Vogue, Greta Gerwig explained this phenomenon of inadequacy in girlhood: “[girls are] funny and brash and confident [in childhood], and then they just — stop… How is this journey the same thing that a teenage girl feels? All of a sudden, she thinks, Oh, I’m not good enough.

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017) is a love letter to messy girlhoods. Growing up in Sacramento in 2002, the film’s titular protagonist Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is not a very good student and she doesn’t nab the lead role in the musical. Her school uniform doesn’t fit well, her dye job is less than perfect, and her skin is covered in acne, the latter a conscious choice made by Gerwig and Ronan when the actress kept breaking out due to constant make up. Sacramento itself is a city devoid of culture or the allure of somewhere like New York. Lady Bird is unsatisfied with her unremarkable life, so she tries to do what she can to attain the spectacular. She changes her name from Christine to the more unique Lady Bird, chases romances with rich boys who might improve her lower-class status, and befriends the popular girl in school. She’s ambitious like the girls of the 2000s, but she lacks talent, and is impeded by her self-involvement, her brashness and pride. She knows what she needs to achieve her vision of a worthy life but realises the hollowness of her tactics: the boys aren’t right for her, the popular girl doesn’t understand her like her old best friend and when she makes it to New York, she begins to appreciate home and the life she had in Sacramento. In the end, Gerwig’s Lady Bird sees the unattainable pressure of 2000s girlhood and tells us to embrace the messy ordinariness, which is just as full of love, beauty and worthiness.

Since Lady Bird, films that challenge old on-screen ideals of girlhood have grown. Kayla’s social anxiety in Eighth Grade and Danielle’s panic about her future in Shiva Baby are both so real that the films feel like a long panic attack (in a good way). Furthermore, the face of girlhood on screen is changing. Dumplin sees plus-sized Willowdeen (Danielle Macdonald) challenge traditional beauty standards by challenging her beauty queen mother, and in Plan B, Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) and Lupe (Victoria Moroles) embark on a tumultuous road trip to acquire the morning-after pill, out of Sunny’s fears of disappointing her Indian mother’s idealistic image of her. On TV, the messiest teenager might be Never Have I Ever’s Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), who is open about her desires, cocksure and snarky, but also battling grief, the expectations of her Indian heritage, and deep insecurity. Devi is often insolent, but the frankness and emotional journey of this far-from-perfect girl is groundbreaking.

It’s ok to admit that most of the time being a “goddess” is unattainable. While we can admire those flawless goddesses who came before, who worked their asses off in a thankless industry to showcase the strength of femininity on screen – on their own terms – not everyone can have the beauty and brains of Marilyn Monroe. But it is because of their work that these imperfect girls can be given their big-screen moment – protagonists who aren’t as pristine as the shiny plasticity of the early 2000s – whose contradictions, bad attitude and sometimes even bad skin are embraced for being real. Growing up is hard enough. These films show that just by existing in this crazy world, getting through the day and working towards personhood, you are extraordinary.

– Claire White

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