Letitia Wright as Shuri in Black Panther (2018)
Black Panther (2018), courtesy Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo
Stories & Ideas

Wed 05 Apr 2023

Undervalued and underwritten, the teenage girl evolved from bit player to revolutionary who could harness her own power to change the world, writes Maria Lewis.

It’s a bit of shame, really. Mary Shelley singlehandedly invented the science-fiction genre with her magnum opus Frankenstein (1818) proving anything men can do, teenage girls can do better and first. Yet it would be more than 160 years until the kind of revolutionary and game-changing teen girl that nineteen-year-old Shelley represented in the real world would enter the pop cultural one. From escaped slave-turned-Civil War soldier Maria Lewis to Chinese revolutionary Hua Mulan, teenage girls have been active and aggressive participants in history despite the consistent oppression of the patriarchy, societal norms and conventions. The tragedy of it all, of course, is that traditional forms of media like publishing, music and movies have been widely controlled by men – and white, heterosexual ones at that. Naturally, those in power and those signing the cheques prioritised seeing a version of themselves in what they consumed. Like, not all men, but definitely a bunch.

So fictional teenage girls that IRL teenage girls could relate to, be inspired by, be ignited by, were stagnant in pop culture until basically the sixties. Oh sure, there were teen girls on television like Marcia and Cindy and Jan Brady, but that’s also entirely the point: they were like Marcia and Cindy and Jan Brady. White, blonde, American middle class, and the embodiment of the cultural mantra at the time: that teenage girls should be seen and not heard. Just think of the girls, holding court in their room, peeking down the stairs. Yet the beginning of the seventies brought – along with the smell of patchouli and questionable flares – hope. That forward momentum started sneaky, in places that it was easy for The Patriarchal Forces of Darkness to overlook: cartoons and genre. Josie and The Pussycats (1970–71) and Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1970–74) both collectively made the jump from Dan DeCarlo’s mind and the pages of Archie Comics to the small screen with Saturday morning cartoons. Watched by millions in America – and millions more in syndication globally – they featured teenage girls as the main characters, the drivers of narrative and women with agency who, through rock’n’roll (or magic), began to reshape the world around them. The Pussycats bassist, Valerie, broke ground as the first black character in the timeslot, with the role depicting an intelligent, scientifically minded problem solver during a time when teenage women – let alone teenage women of colour – were few and far between. Then there was the one-two punch of Carrie Fisher’s beautifully realised performance of Princess Leia in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) and Jamie-Lee Curtis as the original Final Girl in Halloween (1978). They may seem like vastly different reference points, but the stakes are relative: 19-year-old Leia is fighting to save the galaxy, while seventeen-year-old Laurie is fighting to save herself and any innocent she can along the way.

Sarah Michelle Gellar and Bianca Lawson in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997

Sarah Michelle Gellar and Bianca Lawson on the set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997, courtesy PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/ Alamy Stock Photo

Like the shoulder pads, the eighties were where things got really interesting. While Princess Leia had two more films to cement her icon status, nineteen-year-old Sarah Connor had the entire fate of the world resting on her womb – yeesh – in The Terminator (1984) and teenage girls also got to exist in The Goonies (1985). Jem and The Holograms (1985–88) didn’t quite infiltrate the mainstream, yet the animated series very much followed on in the legacy of Josie and The Pussycats, not just musically but also with a central cast made up entirely of teenage girls of varying ethnicities who worked together to succeed in a male-dominated world. Real-life teenagers also took to the stage at the time, with Diane Lane, Laura Dern and Marin Kanter proudly declared “we don’t put out!” in Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains (1982) with the film’s teen punk trio igniting a movement of other baby feminists on screen and inspiring the riot grrl movement off screen.

On the page, the ripples were spreading even wider. Fantasy novelist Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure hit shelves in 1983, telling the story of a brave teenage girl who switches places with her twin brother to fulfill her dream of becoming a knight. Her choice breaks gender norms in the tale, yet it also inevitably saves the fate of the world as they know it. It’s a beat that would be familiar to fans of Game of Thrones (2011–19) and the character of Arya Stark, specifically in the TV series where her full arc got to be fulfilled compared to the as yet unfinished novels. The power of Pierce’s sketching of complex, nuanced female characters and her work as one of the few female novelists in the fantasy space continued to ripple immediately at the time, with spunky and sassy teens like Kitty Pryde, Rogue and Jubilee vital to not just the X-Men brand as a whole – especially as it crossed over from page to screen with the animated series –  but the team itself as they fought to overcome prejudice and rewrite a doomed future.

This comic to screen transition continued. Once secondary figures on the page like Batgirl became larger entities with varying results: Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) took a rough turn for Barbara Gordon, whereas Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) saw 13-year-old Carrie Kelley take over as Robin more effectively than most of the angry teen boys who filled those very, very short shorts previously. Batgirl’s role also became significant in Batman: The Animated Series (1992–95) on the tail end of that publishing cycle and by the 1990s, the blonde Bradies were tired, while teenage girl revolutionaries were wired. All of the key elements were in place by the time Naoko Takeuchi assembled the Avengers of magical girl shit, Sailor Moon. It began as a manga in 1992 before exploding into pop cultural infamy with the animated series that has been ongoing in various iterations ever since. Fighting evil by moonlight, winning love by daylight, the spine of Sailor Moon – a soldier destined to save the planet from the forces of evil – wasn’t dissimilar to the barest bones of Pierce’s Alana Trebond.

Variations on this core idea of a teen girl revolutionary would only strengthen throughout the rest of the nineties, namely through the seminal Buffy The Vampire Slayer, first on film in 1992 and then on TV from 1997 to 2003. With the physical prowess of an Alana and the hyper femineity of any Sailor soldier, Buffy Summers was a reluctant warrior whose journey into a leader was just as vital as the destination. “Giles, I’m 16, I don’t wanna die,” Buffy whispers in the episode, Prophecy Girl. An unwavering warrior à la Mulan (1997) she is not, with her fear, uncertainty and her emotions critical to what makes Buffy such an engaging character.

Caitlin Stasey in Tomorrow When the War Began (2010)

Tomorrow When the War Began (2010), courtesy Everett Collection Ibc/Alamy Stock Photo

It’s also what worked about the protagonist of John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began series (1993–2006), Ellie Linton, a teenage girl leading a guerrilla war against a foreign invasion, whose story not only resonated with millions of readers, but like Buffy also appeared in both a feature film (2010) and a TV series (2016). Sidney Prescott in Scream (1996) was the natural evolution of the Final Girl and teenage girls were finally purged from the margins of, say, John Wayne classics like True Grit (1969), where Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) was an outlier. By the time it was remade in 2010, Hailee Steinfeld was being nominated for an Academy Award and Jennifer Lawrence was just about to scream that she volunteered as tribute in The Hunger Games (2012). The dystopian film franchise based on Suzanne Collins book series weaponised the idea of the teenage girl, quite literally, and the premise became financially viable enough that more diverse iterations of the idea could be tackled. Black women like Shuri in Black Panther (2018) and Starr in The Hate U Give (2018) saw their comic book and novel origins expanded exponentially. And just like Leia and Laurie, while one saved the world and another saved her suburb, their ability to galvanise and revolutionise was invaluable, as suddenly Black teenage girls had characters they could cosplay, dolls they could buy and idols they could be inspired by.

The Young Adult book sub-genre was born around the hunger, the need, for teen girls to not just be in a story but to be the story. As many of them as possible, actually, because teen girls were big business. DC Comics published entire lines with heroines designed specifically to target the biggest growth readership – teen girls – while Kamala Khan and Riri Williams, as Ms Marvel and Iron Heart respectively, thrived at Marvel, having already appeared in an animated series and with live-action portrayals in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even one of the last vestiges of traditional teen girl roles – Disney Princesses – had to adapt or die. Gone were the days of a teenage girl giving up her voice to marry a prince à la

The Little Mermaid (1989) and in its place were adventurous leaders breaking the rules in order to save the world like the titular heroine of Moana (2016). The bow-wielding Merida from Brave (2012), the ambitious Princess Tiana from The Princess and The Frog (2009) and the end-of-the-world warriors from Raya and The Last Dragon (2021) presented not just the possibility of where the teen girl revolutionary could go, but where she was. It was as if Buffy’s very mantra from the series finale Chosen had manifested itself into reality: “Every girl who could have the power, will have the power, can stand up, will stand up.”

A stack of books titled 'Goddess'. The image is dark and the books are stacked on a red, velvety cloth

Image credit: Phoebe Powell

This article appears in Goddess: Fierce Women on Film. Grab your copy today.

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