The Importance of Taking Teenage Girls Seriously in Stories


The Importance of Taking Teenage Girls Seriously in Stories


I read a lot of archival newspaper coverage of concerts attended by teenage girls as part of my research for my book, which is about fandom. When the concerts they were going to were Beatles concerts in the early 1960s, journalists described the girls as hysterical—deranged? —participants in a "wild-eyed mob," but I found it strange when The New York Times described them 50 years later as "squealers" and "embarrassing idiots" who "hadn't yet decided that shrieking doesn't become them." Those girls, like me and my three sisters, were at One Direction concerts at the time.

I'm not bringing this up because I want to hang on to a grudge. It's objectively amusing to speculate in the press about what is and isn't becoming for young women. And bygones are bygones—at least not in the press of record—people aren't really permitted to make fun of girls like that any longer. Still, telling some additional stories about who fangirls are and what they seek was a part of what I intended to do in my book. After speaking with them, I discovered that they, like most people, were out to accomplish strange and unusual things. They were quite specific, which is the most fascinating type of person to converse with.

I've been able to revisit some of my favourite fictional stories about young women now that the book is finished and I have a lot of spare time (in books, movies, and one incredibly long TV show). Girls aren't just "squealers" in these stories; they're weird and quirky people with a lot on their plates. They're spectacular at times and remarkably average at others. The heroine is a gloomy child queen in one case ("the Gloomiest Child Queen"); in another, she's a cheerful blonde klutz. These girls are regarded seriously in every case, and their wants form the centre of the story's drama.

1. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Lorrie Moore.

Berie is eating brains in Paris in 1994, married and miserable, and "hoping for anything Proustian," meaning she's crushing the brains against the roof of her mouth in the hopes of jogging some memories. When it does, they recall the seismic summer of her sixteenth year, when she was slaving away at a lowly job with her best childhood buddy.

In the fictional village of Horse hearts, in 1972, Berie and Silsby—yes, two fantastic names—work together at Storyland, an amusement park. On work breaks, they chain-smoke in Memory Lane, a covered alley, and in their spare time, they go to lakeside bars with their phoney IDs. They are occasionally joined by a teen co-worker who portrays Bo Peep, who is shown in flashback to have some tragic life events ahead of her but is "tireless, sardonic, and young" in 1972. "Have you seen my fucking sheep?" she'd inquire.

Silsby is Cinderella, "the most refined girl in Horse hearts, not a difficult task, but you have to realise what that could do to a girl," says Berrie. I'm not going to give anything away about their relationship since this book is brief, and anyone could read it today at lunch if they wanted to—and they should. All I'll say is that, while there isn't a "frog hospital" in the strictest sense, there is one in a more literal meaning than you may think.

2. Raw, dir. Julie Ducournu

My favourite film is Raw. In the theatre, I saw it three times. It's about a French adolescent who enrols in veterinary school and discovers she's a cannibal. (Her parents are well aware of this, which is why she is only allowed to eat mashed potatoes in restaurants.) Cannibalism is presented as natural and fascinating in the film, but not in an edge lord way. It's incredible! "You have this feeling when you bite someone's arm for fun that you want to go a little further," director Julie Ducournau told The Guardian during the publicity tour, expressing her displeasure with the audience's shock and horror at the cannibalism, implying that they were lying about being morally and physically disturbed.

It's a body horror film, but most of the scares have nothing to do with people being eaten. It stems from a full-body rash, a botched bikini wax, a poor habit of eating one's own hair, and a strong sexual yearning for a soccer player. Who hasn't experienced anything similar?

3. Mustang, dir. Deniz Gamze Erguven

Five amusing sisters with identical hair embarrass their grandmother, uncle, and nosy neighbours in rural Turkey by playing a game of chicken-fight in the ocean with some boys—grandma describes it as "your parts touching their necks." This begins a new terrible era of their development, in which they are forced to wear "crap brown" costumes and remain indoors at all times, but they do not take the penalties lying down. They shred the clothes and throw one out the window; they set fire to a chair, claiming that it is obscene because it has touched their bottoms. They manufacture their own gum and have a good time during a "virginity test." ("We're all made the same," one sister explains to the youngest sister, explaining why she wasn't ashamed to be naked in front of the doctor.) Another interjects, "That's not true." "One of your boobs is larger than the other.")

Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, and The Real Housewives of New Jersey are among my favourite stories involving girls living in a house. I also enjoy novels that reflect how awful it is to live in a house full of sisters—one day you're having fun, and the next you're watching them get picked off one by one. I'm not going to lie, there is no happy ending in this film.

4. Elif Batuman, The Idiot

Everyone, in some way, enjoys this school novel (Harvard, lol) that takes place primarily through email and academics. Selin, the main character, is preoccupied with language and a boy named Ivan who sucks in a normal fashion. I was in a dismal and confusing semi-romantic situation when this book came out in 2017, so I read it twice in two months and posted it on Instagram like everyone else.

I recently brought it out to read it again, this time with the goal of paying more attention to Selin's bond with her moral foil Svetlana in preparation for the release of the sequel. When my only interest had been in the torturous correspondence with the boy and how that might relate to my depressing, dime-a-dozen situation, it warmed my heart to look back at what I had underlined, in forceful mechanical pencil: "It was decreasingly possible to imagine explaining it all to anyone." Whoever it was, boredom would drive them to leap out a window."

5. Cadet Kelly, dir. Larry Show

The Hilary Duff film, which was later reimagined as a lesbian romance and, yes, military propaganda, was launched in 2002, amid a golden age of Disney Channel original films about girls thrust into hazardous situations. This was the era of a teen Lindsay Lohan investigating the disappearance of her English instructor, as well as a re-imagining of Twelfth Night set in the world of competitive off-road motorcycle racing, and Quints, a wacky film about a kid whose parents unexpectedly had five children.

Cadet Kelly stars Duff as an artsy youngster with a wonderful personal style whose mother remarries to the head of a military school—Kelly must move, and she must learn to get along with Christy Carlson Romano, a strict student leader who isn't punished for calling underclassmen "maggots." Kelly isn't happy about it, but she makes it work because she has no choice, for the sake of her mother's fragile happiness. Adults are constantly in need of assistance from children!

I don't think I need to explain the appeal of this one. Hilary Duff, on the other hand, is my generation's Sarah Jessica Parker—charming, she's funny and gives us depth through the froth. Her father falls off a cliff in the middle of her drill team's dance competition, and she is our sweetheart. She rappels down to save him and returns just in time for the big reveal.

6. Patty Hearst, Every Secret Thing

I'm not trying to be glib, but during the start of the pandemic, I got Patty Hearst's 1981 biography on Etsy (?) because I truly believed it would be relevant to the situation. (I'm trapped inside...) Actually, it didn't, but it was a unique and entertaining read. From the night they showed up at her house in Berkeley to the legal battles resulting from her participation in some of their crimes, the young heiress—with the help of a credited ghost-writer—shares every single moment of her experience being kidnapped in 1974 at the age of 19 by the hapless "Symbionese Liberation Army," from the night they showed up at her house in Berkeley to the legal battles resulting from her participation in some of their crimes. Don't worry, there are some hilarious moments. ("We had a horrible time figuring out how much money my father made.") I simply had no idea. I couldn't make a guess.")

Joan Didion examines the evaluations of Hearst's book in her essay "Girl of the Golden West," concluding that she came across as inauthentic and left something out. "Given the meticulously comprehensive account supplied in Every Secret Thing, it would be difficult to describe what the something might have been," she wrote.

The book is about 500 pages long and covers everything from how to lace a bullet with cyanide to what kind of tea a captive in a closet might be offered. If there's anything missing, it's definitely Hearst's personal reactions to the numerous absurd discussions and situations she finds herself in—but those should be rather evident. She writes, "I responded that I had never heard of mung beans." "I was dubbed a 'bourgeois bitch' for it since, according to someone, that's what poor people in America had to eat every night, and I'd never heard of it."

7. The Fits, dir. Anna Rose Holmer

I was enthralled by this film when I first saw it at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, which doesn't even allow refreshments in the theatre. It is set in Cincinnati and follows Toni, an 11-year-old girl who switches her love from boxing to dancing. She is awestruck by the older ladies on the dancing team, so when some of them begin experiencing inexplicable seizures, she has a fit. Is this a terrible metaphor for puberty? In terms of gender? For the sake of artistic transcendence? "The gap between flailing and acting isn't that great," director Anna Rose Holmer told The New York Times.

Make whatever you want of it, but don't miss the wonderful New York Times Magazine piece about the real-life source material—a wave of mysterious physical tics that appeared in females at Le Roy High School in New York in 2012. (Because Le Roy is around 45 minutes from my hometown, this news story piqued my friends' and family's interest.) Despite the fact that several parents, teachers, and professionals were certain it was a case of contagious female hysteria, the most likely explanation turned out to be a delayed strep virus reaction.

8. Jenny Hval, Girls Against God

I'll admit that I've only lately begun reading this one. I believe it will eventually include witchcraft, but for now, it's about a "provincial goth" girl in southern Norway in the 1990s who enjoys expressing her fury and is frustrated that she isn't permitted to do so at school ("We're not allowed to speak 'hate' unless it's about Hitler," she complains). She's getting into the metal scene, of course. She's a bit of a snob. She refuses to complete a reading assignment she considers beneath her: ‘I tell the teacher that it's an insult to the brain, and the teacher gives me a written warning.’ It's fantastic. Even if I dislike the finale or the witch nonsense, I am confident in this advice.

9. Pretty Little Liars

What a show it is. It's terrifying. It's a complete blunder. There are over 500 episodes and 1,000 different cell phones in the series. I'm sure there are arguments to be made about its societal critiques, such as the "mean girl" cliché or our relationship with technology, but I'm not interested. These are the toughest teens you'll ever encounter (played by 25-year-olds, naturally). They are well aware that they may perish. They discover that their parents are a bunch of jerks, but they don't respond.

They aren't sentimental about high school friendship (it's evident they recognise they have little in common outside their numerous stalkers and trauma), and they are wary of the police. When Emily Nussbaum wrote her huge essay about The Sopranos in 2007, she said that it had the only opening titles that were so memorable that people still watched them every week. Maybe! Until the premiere of Pretty Little Liars!

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