Girls Will Be Anything But Themselves: An Exploration of Teenage Girls on Film

Diablo Cody once wrote, “Hell is a teenage girl.” Sofia Coppola, when posing the question of why a girl so young and bright would want to commit suicide she writes, “Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.” The greatest female minds of this generation can agree on one thing— being an adolescent girl is a nightmare. To survive such turbulent years, girls are forced to learn how to adapt, and to adapt does not mean it’s done with ease or skill. The grand prize which most people at any age are striving for is to be loved, but for a teenage girl, the stakes are heightened— it is to be loved or to die. There is an entire subgenre of film dedicated to exploring this concept, time and time again proving the notion that girls will be anything but themselves.

Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed in a still from the film 'Thirteen'. The two girls sit outside wearing trendy outfits. Wood has her tongue out, and Reed is smiling as she looks over.
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

In between working as a production designer and directing 2008’s Twilight, Catherine Hardwicke decided to start developing her directorial film debut by co-writing a screenplay with her close family friend, fourteen-year old Nikki Reed. The story revolves around Reed’s own tumultuous  teenage experiences that Hardwicke observed at the time. In only six days, Hardwicke and Reed co-wrote a script that would end up becoming the everlasting cult favorite Thirteen. Released in 2003 and starring actual teenagers Reed and Evan Rachel Wood, the film explores Tracy’s (Wood) downward spiral into a complete loss of innocence. We meet Tracy just before life hits her hard— she is just starting high school and still carries her youth with her, donning pigtails, wearing pastel-coloured Gap polos, keeping her childhood friends close and her mom even closer. Melanie, played by the unsurpassable Holly Hunter, is a single mom in recovery from alcohol use disorder who does nothing but care for her children and work tirelessly to provide for them. At this point in the film, Tracy’s older brother Mason (Brady Corbet) is the family rebel and troublemaker, but that doesn’t last long. 

A couple weeks into high school, Tracy sits with her best friends at lunch. They are distracted by Evie (Reed), an effortlessly cool, trendy, and beautiful girl in their grade. “Evie Zimora has really pretty skin,” lauds Noel, played by a prepubescent Vanessa Hudgens. What Tracy sees, however, surpasses marveling— she doesn’t just admire Evie, she needs to be Evie. With the help of her mom’s bottom-of-the-purse change, Tracy purchases one cool outfit from a van parked on Venice Beach. Everything is riding on this. The next day at school, Tracy follows Evie into the bathroom in a totally chill, cool way. “I like your shirt,” says Evie. Breezy as can be, Tracy responds, “Thanks. I like your belt.” Evie spins around to do a full aesthetic check on Tracy, clocking her low-rise jeans, Sharpie’d out Converse, black eyeliner, and stacked bracelets. Evie deems Tracy cool enough to invite her shopping after school on Melrose Avenue. As soon as Evie walks out of eyesight, Tracy does a happy dance— she’s in.

Once Tracy is able to become a carbon copy of Evie, she goes full Daniel-Day-Lewis-style method. Her color palette changes from light blue to black, she gets her tongue pierced, starts brazenly stealing from people and shops, starts drinking and doing all of the drugs. Tracy becomes insubordinate; her mom who was once her closest confidant is now her enemy. “I’ll kill you if you embarrass me,” Tracy insists. Evie is by her side every step of the way into what Tracy believes is the height of popularity— she introduces her to weed, acid, cocaine, inhalants, and drinking something called ‘voodoo juice’. The only normal, everyday teenage girl thing Evie shows her is how to make out. A girl’s gotta find out somehow, and it’s usually by way of her best friend. That leads Tracy into sexual promiscuity with primarily older men, still only at the very young age of thirteen. Tracy has rid herself of every part of her identity by conflating her own with Evie’s. It is only a matter of time until an identity crisis begins to destroy your entire being, and with Tracy, it manifests as merciless self-mutilation. By the end of the film Tracy loses everything— Evie, her childhood friends, the admiration of her mother, the respect of her brother. But worst of all, she has no remnants of a sense of self. No virtue, no disposition, no youthful vigor, no hope. Without forming her entire existence around how she can change herself to be envied by everyone, she has no purpose.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Tracy is not the first and most definitely won’t be the last teen girl on screen to endure this metamorphosis. If we look at any Molly Ringwald movie ever, the same narrative unfolds, however in a much more varnished, less brutalized depiction than Thirteen. The same path is taken in countless era-defining films of the last twenty years. Look at Ginger Snaps Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) would rather become a cannibalistic werewolf than be a normal teenage girl. In the beloved Mean Girls, Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) abandons all of her best qualities, even that of being a math genius, to become a Plastic. She goes so deep into the rabbit hole of dethroning Regina George (Rachel McAdams) that she loses her real friends, her chance with the cutest boy in school, and she gets someone hit by a bus!

Another case study of a girl reducing herself for the goal of mass adoration is 2010’s Easy A. Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) invents an entirely made-up persona of a sexually active and dominating girlboss in order to fit in. You can guess what happens— Olive causes serious damage to those around her, and her true personality is blurred by her fictionalized scarlet A. I would be remiss to not even mention Jennifer’s Body, a perfect film wherein Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) quite literally sacrifices herself in order to be wanted by the brooding frontman in local pop-punk band Low Shoulder. As recently as this year, we’ve seen Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) in Euphoria try way too hard to be the girl Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi) wants.  She betrays her best friend, rids herself of any individuality, and goes full blown padded-walls insane. 

Four female characters from different pieces of media. L-R: Tracy ('The Breakfast Club'), Jennifer ('Jennifer's Body'), Olive ('Easy A'), and Cassie ('Euphoria').
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures and HBO

Audiences can learn a lot from girls like Tracy, Olive, Jennifer, and Cassie– primarily what not to do. Writers can only hope that no teenage girls out there witness the arcs of these characters and think, “I’m going to do that too.” High schoolers will continue to be pummeled by the crushing weight of the social ladder. It is immensely difficult to avoid the pressure of being the prettiest, the coolest, the most desired— but at what cost? As Hallmark as it sounds, there is no one braver and more admired than those who are being authentically themselves. For the films that follow in the footsteps of Thirteen and Easy A, for the essays that dissect them, the unremitting message is a simple one— you are better off being yourself.