Being a teenager is a terrifying and confusing time. But, as with most things in life, movies can help. Movies about being a teenager can often lend a helping hand in trying to understand what can be a mighty confusing time. What you watch as a young adult will shape who you become as a person and inform those all-important 16 year old life decisions.
Whilst the trope of teenage boys on film spending their teen years drinking and hankering after sex is something well established (just look at Superbad and American Pie), teenage girls are not as truthfully documented on screen; surprise surprise. Hollywood’s portrayal of females is, for the most part, shallow and not a real reflection of what it’s actually like. Whether they’re presented as popular girls who, for some reason, won’t sleep with every guy who proclaims love for them, or pigeonholed as manic pixie dream girls, these movies teach young impressionable women that their worth is in the eyes of the male. The male gaze is forever falling upon younger women.
Movies made for teenage girls represent so much more what being a real teenager feels like, even in crazy circumstances. Films like The Lizzie McGuire Movie and The Princess Diaries are all the more relatable for that. Whilst (most) teenagers are aware that in reality, they’re never going to have an estranged grandmother turn up and inform them that they’re actually the heir to a European country, feeling confused, trying to work out who you are and really fancying your best friend’s older brother are all much more realistic experiences. This is also true in the case of Angus Thongs and Perfect Snogging, critically slated, but in reality, an accurate depiction of what being a teenage girl actually is – learning not to shave your eyebrows, learning when you need a bra, and discovering that it’s always better to be yourself and not dye random bits of your hair blonde in an attempt to be like that older girl. And most importantly, your friends and family will always love you – chasing boys or trying to be what you think being a grown up is shouldn’t come before that.
It’s the movies that focus less on defining your teenage self by whether you’ve found true love by age 14, and more about the people you surround yourself with, that are properly depicting what being a teenager is. Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants teaches us that our most important moments as young women are not defined by relationships, but instead by the power of the friendships we surround ourselves with.
Contrastingly though, this girl power and banding together shouldn’t be spurred on by a man. Although in John Tucker Must Die the women find friendship through all being royally screwed over by the eponymous John Tucker, young women can exist in friendships without the catalyst of a male figure. Sometimes friendship alone is enough.
The flourish in recent years of young adult dystopian fiction adaptations means we’ve been getting a lot more teenagers on our cinema screens, all of them forced to grow up before their time in horrible situations. From Hermione Granger to Katniss Everdeen, these films offer a relentless stream of female role models, not only battling extreme external forces, but doing it in such a way that their gender doesn’t even matter anymore. They’re not a teenage girl, they are, much more importantly, a member of Dumbledore’s Army or The Girl On Fire, helming a revolution.
Many of us spend our formative teen years being sullen and moody, slamming doors in our parent’s faces and shouting about how we hate everything. It’s comic when looking back, but at the time there’s no denying you feel sad. Indie films in particular have a penchant for fetishizing sad and “messed up” young girls, with films like Adventureland making them these unobtainable beings for the stock “loser boy” character. But what Adventureland smartly does is give said girl a voice. It shows just how stupid it is to fall in love with the idea of someone who’s sad and hurting. When James turns up at Em’s door she tells him: “This summer was rough. I did some things that I really really regret.” She’s not this untouchable being after all, she’s a human with faults, but that’s okay, because that’s what we all are.
That’s what movies should be teaching teenage girls. Instead of showing them these strange disneyfied ideals like in High School Musical, there should be something much more recognisable on screen. Movies like Adventureland taught me that it’s okay not to be okay, and the pure joy of being an outsider. This is also true of Almost Famous, which teaches the opposite of what movies about teenage boys did; that a girl’s worth is not defined by how a man decides to use her. That getting your heart broken isn’t worth it; that you’re worth more than being used.
The Breakfast Club also teaches us this. It teaches us that the groups, subcategories and cliques that we organise ourselves into at school are fluid; you are not defined as a person by the group you find yourself in at school. In fact, every John Hughes film takes a tender look at the outsiders of teenagehood, always allowing who would typically be considered the “weirdo” to flourish on screen, with Pretty in Pink as the prime example. These films, like Ghost World, are perfect for those who feel like an outsider, or like they don’t fit in. It shows them that it’s okay not to be like everyone else, and that being yourself is more important than fitting in.
No film demonstrates this as clearly as Mean Girls, and Cady’s journey through the high school system of popularity. The definitive teen film of the noughties, Mean Girls aptly put on to screen the animalistic nature of puberty. The film teaches that “if you call each other sluts and whores you just make it alright for guys to call you that.” It teaches one of the most important lessons of being a teenage girl – that everyone else around you is going through exactly the same things as you, and it’s foolish not to help each other out and make the ride a bit easier. It’s one of the most important feminist quotes to come out of a teen movie, and it’s something to live by, even as you leave your teenage years behind and become a fully grown woman.