Illustrations by Chloe
For me, September always has and maybe always will feel like a fresh start. It’s a new year, academically, filled with new stationary, new teachers, new things to try desperately hard to learn and often, new problems. When you’re young, September can be as transitional as a birthday, educationally one year older and feeling it with every breath of newly autumnal air. It’s also the chance for a ‘new you’, one who is better, more dedicated and hardworking and organised. Whether that works out is another matter, but it’s a chance to draw inspiration from the vast amounts of fictional high school heroines in hopes of becoming your own.
Films about girls in education go way beyond Mean Girls, which to many is the definitive teen movie of the past decade. Regina George epitomizes the high school bitch later embodied by Lindsay of Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, Harriet in Wild Child, and the queen B herself, Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl. Regina and Mean Girls are clearly influenced by Heathers and the titular characters, a satirical take on the power and influence popularity grants you in high school.
However when you think of Heathers, you likely think of Veronica Sawyer, perfectly played by 1980’s dream babe Winona Ryder. She’s effortlessly cool and adorably angsty, bursting with the discontentment and anger so many teenage girls feel. That Veronica turns to murder to appease these emotions (‘Dear diary, my teen angst bullshit has a body count’) is evidently extreme and darkly comical. I don’t wish for her criminal record but appreciate her witty sarcasm and blunt humour immensely and strive to look for opportunities to tell people to ‘lick it up, baby’.
Veronica Sawyer is rebellious, cool and devilishly smart. Over a decade later there is another classic example of this. Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You is one of my personal fictional feminist heroes, despite her rich white girl privilege acknowledged by the film (seriously, how cool for it to be that self aware! Plus it features a young, exceedingly cute Joseph Gordon-Levitt – if you haven’t seen it, it’s a real winner). Kat is mean, but not in the way Regina George or Heather Chandler is. Kat takes down those who deserve it, male assholes not worthy of her time. This is something all teenage girls should attempt to do; high school can be a place of hypermasculinity and deep rooted sexism, invalidating voices and academic success of girls. It can be hard to speak louder than and disagree with self entitled boys, but hopefully characters like Kat Stratford can help some find the confidence to call them out on the misogyny they spew from day to day.
A few years ago especially, I loved and idolised Juno MacGuff. She had great taste in music, ended up not falling for Jason Bateman’s shit (his character was the WORST), and like Veronica and Kat spoke in a eloquently unique way. Olive from Easy A also comes to mind when thinking of those with the most memorable voices, oozing with confidence and style. It goes without saying that the words of all these characters are crafted endlessly by screenwriters and therefore can be 10 times as clever and concise as my own ramblings, but they are still something I have always seeked to imitate. It seems that in film, the words teenage girls use are their power, to insult or confuse or get one up on those who marginalise them. In day to day life men use aggressive or often sexually suggestive body language to assert themselves and maintain their structural power by intimidating women. These female characters can begin to break this down by chipping away at male ego’s and coming out on top, which I aspire to daily, obviously.
With school comes the pressure of academic success, a weight on the shoulders of real and fictional students alike. As someone who has always been conscious of this, I looked to characters who weren’t just street smart but book smart and grade smart for motivation. Would Hermione Granger sit around watching reruns of Golden Balls instead of revising for her exams? Highly doubt it. What would Rory Gilmore do? She’d take the studying over the game shows too. Academic achievement isn’t everything and with the way school and exams are structured, it’s not fair to measure and judge everyone on the same A* to U scale; however, it definitely is important to have young, clever girls on our screens to assure ‘being smart’ doesn’t become another thing which boys have a monopoly on. Hopefully, girls will look as these characters and realise that they can be just as brilliant. I’d like to see more female characters who thrive in maths and science, subjects which are increasingly being regarded as something boys dominate, encouraging less and less girls to pursue them.
All in all, teenage girls in TV and film can ignite something vital in their real life counterparts – ambition. Ambition to speak up, to call people out, to be witty and funny, to be smart and successful. Often, ambition can be stamped out of teenage girls if they’re told it makes them seem overly confident, far too full of themselves and silly pipe dreams that will never see the light of day. A form of subtle sexism which seeps into the lives of women, particularly ones young and hopeful; ‘aim high, but not too high’ ‘dream big, but account for your double X chromosome’.
Alexander Payne’s 1999 dark comedy Election is an interesting exploration into teenage girl ambition. Tracy Flick has her heart set on class president to add to her list of achievements which make her ‘special’. Teacher Jim McAllister desperately tries to sabotage her campaign, finding Tracy malicious and annoying. Election never takes too much of a moral standpoint on whose side you should be on. Tracy is manipulative and sometimes nasty, but we’re offered a whole host of justifiable places those emotions could have come from; an absent father, an affair with a teacher, a pushy mother who tells her that she’s ‘special’, but also that the world is against her and she’s simply too special to have meaningful friendships. Jim’s own manipulation comes seemingly from a bruised ego and an oncoming mid life crisis. In this age of male anti-heroes, perhaps Flick is a high school anti-heroine, who at the film’s conclusion is climbing the political ladder on a national scale, avoiding the milkshake McAllister hurled at her before running away back into self pity.