Chapter 6: 21st-century media and issues

6.2.4 Girlhood on film: The impacts of media on young women (research essay)

Sofie Patch

English 102, November 2020

Growing up, I, like many other children, was fascinated by movies. The feeling of walking out of a movie theater, into the lighted corridor, reflecting on everything that you have seen, heard, and felt in the last two hours. That feeling stuck with me long after I left the theater, on the car ride home, all the way to my little pink bedroom where I laid awake captivated by those movies. One of the first times I remember this feeling is when I went to see the movie Stardust (2007) with my parents. In brief, the movie is about a shooting star that falls from the sky and becomes a young woman, and a man who captures her to bring as a gift to his maiden, but then falls in love with the star instead. I remember leaving the theater, staring at the setting sun and thinking, “I want to be a star too.” What I did not yet understand then was that I wanted to be more than a star, I wanted to be sought after, like a prize to be won. That is essentially the message of the movie: a pretty girl is like a prize, and she can be won by a man capturing her. You may say that I am looking too deeply into the movie, but when you look closer, you realize that this is not a unique plot, and even if you don’t realize it, this trope, and others of the same vein, have had an effect on the way you view the world.

As a child who grew up on media of the 90s and early 2000s, I grew up through a period of change for what it means to be a girl. Unbeknownst to me, the United States was cultivating a new image of who I could be. Now, Barbie™ could be a CEO, girls could be Totally Spies (2001), and there were not only one but two girl Power Rangers™! Suddenly I felt like the world had completely opened up to me. There were so many possibilities! But was that the reality? Was it really that easy?

The new concept of “girl power” was everywhere, touting the unofficial motto “girls can do this stuff too!” There were stickers, purses, and shirts galore to spread this message. “Girl power” can be defined as the idea that girls can do anything they put their minds too, because they are no different than boys, right?

“Girl power” send a message of equality, which at first glance seems like an amazing, revolutionary movement. But this movement does not come from such humble intentions. In fact, it was really created by corporations in order to sell more products. It is pandering to an audience that desperately wants change. It is saying, “here, look, change has been made! Girls are doing boy stuff now, so everything is equal!” But the thing is, girls are not just the same as boys. Girls are unique. Girls are not just boys that wear frilly clothes and bows. We are our own kind, as we have been taught to. You can’t just take that away from us, and tell us that we are now part of the boys’ club. Equity, as opposed to equality, is what is needed here. Whereas equality poses that everybody should get the same treatment, equity argues that people need different levels and kinds of treatment. The whole concept of equality, in a way, is inherently unequal, because men and women do not necessarily have the same needs, goals, and desires. Therefore, we cannot just treat them exactly the same. So while its really cool to see the pink Power Ranger™ fighting bad guys, we must not let that distract us from the realities of girls and women. It is important that we analyze the media we are being presented, otherwise we fall victim to it.

What kind of impact can this media have on girls? Author Sarah Hentges writes that “what consumer ‘girl power’ fails to take into account is girls’ lack of power in [areas other than popular culture]” (Hentges 9). Doctor Barbie™ is not real. The profession of a popular doll can offer inspiration, but it cannot offer opportunities to pursue something as a career. To tell a girl that she can do anything, and then have her go into the world believing that, is honestly unfair. Even in this day and age, she will undoubtedly face discrimination. She will not be prepared to deal with the challenges of the real world. On the flipside, displaying women as objects to be attained enforces the idea that a girl’s only worth is her looks. This offers a very small world to girls, making them think that they must stay inside the boundaries they are placed in. So where can we meet in the middle? And how does one depict the realities of growing up as a girl, and all the complexities it entails?

Author Sarah Hentges explains that “it is important to consider the difference between ‘girl power’ as a function of the mainstream, and girls’ empowerment as negotiated in and out of the mainstream” (Hentges 9). Hentges is saying that the popular culture media representing “girl power” is not what is really going to push for women’s rights and inclusion in male-dominated careers. What is going to make change is when people take concrete action to further the movement for gender equity. One way that this can be done is by amplifying our voices to help us share our stories. One powerful way women open up about their experiences and what they are passionate about is through film. The relationship between women and film is a powerful one, and spans back over a century. Since the Victorian era, women have explored the medium of film to express their emotions and desires, often specifically relating to womanhood. In 1916, female director Lois Weber released a movie entitled Where Are My Children? in which she radically argues for the legalization of abortion (Kaplan 17). Weber and several others such as Alice Guy Blanche created films that expressed the emotional strife of fulfilling their roles as wife, mother, homekeeper, etc.. Although many of these films have been lost, and as such many do not know of this early history of women’s’ filmmaking, it is nonetheless a powerful beginning. Since the beginning, women have been creating realistic portrayals of their life on the screen. Emma Wilson, an academic and writer specializing in French literature and cinema, discusses in her essay “Etat Present: Contemporary French Women Filmmakers” the common themes of intimacy and family in women’s’ film. These real-life stories being depicted shows how women desired to share their struggles with the world, and no doubt had an impact on other women’s lives.

But what about younger girls? Where are their stories? Arguably one of the most impactful films about girlhood is Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen. The raw portrait of girls’ adolescence is based on the life of a real girl, Nikki Reed, who in fact wrote much of the screenplay for the film. This inclusion of young girls in the process of filmmaking is groundbreaking and incredibly important in order to depict the realities of girls’ lives. The film centers around 13-year-old Tracy, a girl who is struggling with her mental health partially due to her parents’ divorce and her mother’s subsequent relationship with a new man, as well as them being ex-addicts. Tracy feels isolated as her mother fails to notice her growing mental health issues. Tracy faces bullying at school for dressing like a little girl and becomes frustrated with this image, begging her mother to take her shopping for new clothes despite being unable to afford them. Donning a new image, Tracy is noticed buy schoolmate Evie, played by co-screenwriter Nikki Reed, a popular girl with a reputation for acting older than her age. Evie introduces Tracy to a lifestyle of drugs, sex, and crime, to which Tracy feels pressured to join in order to seem “cool” and also to find release from her depression. As the girls begin to spend more time together, Tracy drifts farther away from her mother, who grows worried by their relationship and behavior. An infamous scene entails Tracy and Evie getting high and hitting and punching each other. This is one of several instances where we see Tracy feeling the need to hurt herself to cope with her deteriorating mental health. She also struggles from cutting, a form of self-harm. After a fight, the girls break up their friendship which leads to Tracy getting bullied again. Tracy also learns that she will need to repeat the seventh grade as a result of her behavior. Tracy’s mother confronts her and learns of her daughter’s self-harm, sobbing and embracing her daughter in an emotionally jarring scene of connection between mother and daughter. The final scene shows a dream sequence of Tracy’s in which she is riding alone, screaming, on a merry-go-round, a metaphor for the pain of losing her childhood.

Before this movie, the dark side of girls’ adolescence was largely underreported. There seemed to be two defined stage: little girl and grown-up, with no in-between. The painful in-between stage of preteen and teen girlhood was ignored and left to fester in the shadows. It is a common stereotype for the teenage girl to be somewhat of a “living hell” for mothers, they shrug it off, saying “oh, they’re just going through that phase.” If you are a woman, you know this to be true. There is a period of disconnect that occurs between mother and daughter, a period of mystery. What is going on behind her bedroom door? Most often, mothers simply do not know what to do. They fear the truth is worse than their imagination. They fear that the chasm between them and their lovely little girl will only grow if they try to intervene. But in turn, this almost always makes things worse. As a teenager, you feel like the complete opposite of your parents, and you think that they could never understand you. In part, this feeling may relate to how “the early maturation of female bodies has contributed to girls being treated as sexual beings at younger ages…girls are required to become street-wise long before their mothers were.” (Kearney 129). It is already scary enough for a mother to imagine her daughter growing up, but to see one’s daughter mature earlier than expected is incredibly overwhelming, making the mother feel that she cannot relate to her child either. What Thirteen reminds us is that nothing is worse than feeling utterly alone. Thus, the representation of this film had a two-fold impact. Teen girls, such as myself, felt seen and understood, and mothers, albeit shocked and disturbed, felt the need to connect with and listen to their daughters. In an article from the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, Walt Mueller cautions that “if [Thirteen] is indeed [young people’s] world and we haven’t been listening, [parents] better start paying attention” (Center for Parent/Youth Understanding).

It would be easy to compare the film Thirteen to the concept of the Ophelia: the silent, wounded, and defenseless girl who has been tortured by the world. The term was made popular by the 1994 book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls written by psychologist Mary Pipher, in which the author compares struggling young women to the character Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet who ends up letting herself drown to death. Though the book was received extremely well by the public, it has also undergone much criticism, not unlike “girl power” has (Gonick 11). While young girls are indeed very vulnerable, to view them as simply victims is to erase every other aspect of their identity. Girls cannot be passive in their own healing. They cannot simply be fixed by others. Girls need to be involved in their own recovery and growth. Simply speaking over girls, explaining them to themselves, does nothing to aid the situation. In fact, it really makes them feel more alone. Nikki Reed, co-screenwriter of Thirteen, explains during an interview with Oprah Winfrey that during the period of her life that inspired the film, “[she] felt like [she] wasn’t understood and like no one was listening to [her]” (CPYU). When girls don’t feel like they are being heard, they will retreat further into themselves, making them harder and harder to reach. In my opinion, while each may offer some positives, neither “reviving Ophelia” nor “girl power” are adequately contributing to creating a better world for young girls. I do not believe we will find the solution within one sole theory or concept, because I do not believe there is one solution. The answer is different for every girl, which further shows how our first step should be listening to the girls themselves.

When we look back at the concept of “girl power” with new context, we begin to see more inconsistencies within it. Nowhere in the definition or representation of this concept do we see or hear from real adolescent girls. These girls’ voices, subsequently, are being ignored by the public. Through films like Thirteen, our society’s idea of the teen girl is revealed to be a manufactured image, held together by glitter glue and smiley-face stickers. This centralized image in itself stands as a danger to young girls, for there is no “one” girl that can represent the lives of the billions of girls living across the globe. This just further alienates girls who differ from the mainstream. So where do girls go to when they can’t find the answers they are looking for? And where do they go when they don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong? The media has proven itself to be unreliable at best, oftentimes dangerous resource for young girls. This is why it is crucial for girls to have strong bonds with trusted adults in their lives, adults who take the time to listen and work to find healthy outlets and activities to help combat the negativity of adolescence. These relationships need to be safe spaces where girls can share their thoughts and feelings without fear of hostility, for these kinds of discussions are necessary in order to learn and grow. Young girls need guidance to help them make the right decisions, and they need someone who will try to understand them.

An example of a film that epitomizes the idea of “girl power” is the 2001 feature The Princess Diaries. The movie is based on a series of books written by author Meg Cabot, adapted to screen by director Garry Marshall. At surface level, it seems like a female-empowerment film: a quirky teenage girl learns that she is actually the princess of a small country, and learns how to govern said country. Quite literally, she is a girl with power. Over the course of the movie, we see our lead character Mia rise to popularity after learning of her royal status and changing her appearance, causing strife among her friendships, but in the end everything works out perfectly. A product of the “girl power” movement, the movie offers comedic relief towards the antiquated requirements of becoming a princess. For example, the main character, Mia, is naturally quite clumsy, so her Grandmother, the Queen of Genovia, teaches her how to balance with the classic practice of balancing a book on one’s head. Much physical comedy ensues as Mia struggles to complete the task. In moments like these we laugh at how ridiculous gender roles are. However, soon this idea is brushed away as we enter perhaps one of the most popular “makeover scenes” in modern film history. Mia, initially somewhat of a tomboy, with big curly hair, bushy brows, combat boots, and glasses, is groomed to look more like a proper princess, i.e. straightened hair, no glasses, high heels, and a full face of makeup. During the makeover, the hairdresser even compares her natural hair to that of an animal. It goes without saying that this scene presents an image of the ideal girl, and the non-ideal girl. Not only is this movie making it seem as if Mia’s natural traits are undesirable, which is already harmful in itself, but it also sends the message that girls should change their appearance in order to be accepted. Similarly to Thirteen, we are introduced to the concept of the popular girl: well-liked by all, conventionally attractive, and abides by gender roles. The main character in each film wishes to be like the popular girl, and thus changes aspects of herself in order to achieve that goal. The Princess Diaries ultimately presents the cliché message that friends are more important than popularity, but there is much more that is left unsaid. It all really boils down to the quintessential makeover scene. After all, it is the real reason she succeeds in the end by both becoming the princess and getting the guy she likes. She does not end the movie by going back to her old appearance, and it is almost as if we as the audience are supposed to forget she ever had a makeover. While Thirteen shows us the consequences of changing oneself in order to appease others, The Princess Diaries only shows a classic fairytale.

In both films, we see that the desire of our main character is to “grow up” in order to fulfill a role, whether it be the cool girl or the princess. There is such a pressure towards young girls to act older, and there is this myth that after they “grow up”, their lives will be much better. Movies like The Princess Diaries make this myth appear true. Growing up is seen as something easy, something base level: putting on makeup, wearing different clothes, swearing. These self-inflicted changes offer a feeling of empowerment, a feeling of independence to the girl. It gives the idea that one is in control of their identity. Because of this early pressure to mature, they are “forced to recognize the power imbalances that structure our society, [they] must learn and practice the strategies that will help them survive in an environment that is often hostile to both females and the young” (Kearney 129). These strategies of self-defense are not always carrying pepper-spray. They can also be as simple as dressing like the popular girls, like Tracy did in Thirteen to try and stop people from bullying her. Surviving as a girl in a world of hostility often involves going against your own will, staying silent when you want to speak, and changing yourself to fit others’ standards. What is never shown or explained is the mental processes that are involved in the actuality of “growing up.” This directly reflects how the reality of “girl power” is based on consumerism, and not the consumer themself.

There is not an easy solution to the problems at hand. It is going to take a lot of effort and care to change the world’s view of teenage girls into one that is truly empowering, and to ameliorate the damage that has been done. I believe that there are two main areas that need to be focused on: representation and education. Firstly, we need girls to feel like they are being seen, much like I felt after watching Thirteen. This relates not only to who is in front of the camera, but also who is behind it. In a study from the Sundance Institute and Women in Film Los Angeles Women Filmmakers Initiative, research showed that female filmmakers have an affect on the types of stories that are told. Not only are female filmmakers more likely to cast more girls and women in their movies than their male counterparts, but they also have a large impact on the stories that are told. Women were known to focus more on the humanity of a story, taking time to make the characters realistic and relatable (3). In order for girls to feel understood, they need to see people like them in the media they consume. This is why more films about girlhood, specifically directed, produced, and/or written by women, need to be made. Catherine Hardwicke, the director of Thirteen, discusses the importance of representation in film in an interview, explaining that “if you have cool images out there of multidimensional women who have interesting jobs and interesting lives, and actually have lines of dialogue with other women, you show these wonderful possibilities for people — it just gives hope. It gives kids all over the world a more realistic view, more exciting opportunities” (Street Roots).

Another crucial factor to this situation is media literacy. Media literacy involves the understanding of how to critically analyze media in order to interpret the messages it sends. Media literacy education has become much more popular in the past couple decades, and many media educators and scholars have been arguing to include the facets of media production in the material taught. The facilitators of these studies aim to stress the importance of treating young people as “intelligent, engaged members of society who have the ability to become further empowered through media education and practice” (Kearney 19). Treating the youth with this kind of respect is necessary when treating this issue, otherwise we will further disconnect from them when they need us most. I believe that with proper media literacy education, girls will be able to identify harmful stereotypes in media and critically analyze them. Further, I believe they will be able to see how these stereotypes can affect them and the girls around them. This awareness is the first step to making change. Showing girls that what they are seeing in media is not realistic lets them know that they should not feel wrong for being different, that what they are going through is normal, and that they are not alone.


Works Cited

Gonik, Marnina. “Between ‘Girl Power’ and ‘Reviving Ophelia’: Constituting the Neoliberal Girl Subject.” 2006.

Mueller, Walt. “Tracy Speaks: An Excerpt about ‘Thirteen.’” Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. 2004.

Hansell, Sarah. “’Twilight´ Director Catherine Hardwicke Advocates for Women in Film.” Street Roots. 25 February 2016.

Smith, Stacy L., et al. “Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers.” Sundance Institute and Women In Film Los Angeles Women Filmmakers Initiative, 1 Jan. 2013, pp. 1–43.

Kearney, Mary Celeste. “Girlfriends and Girl Power: Female Adolescence in Contemporary U.S. Cinema.” Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: Cinemas of Girlhood, Chuck Kleinhans et al, Wayne State University Press, 2002, pp. 125-45. Google Books,

Kearney, Mary Celeste. “Girls Make Movies.” Youth Cultures: Texts, Images, and Identities, Edited by Kerry Mallan, Sharyn Pearce, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003, pp. 17-25. Google Books,

Hentges, Sarah. Pictures of Girlhood: Modern Female Adolescence on Film. McFarland, 2015. Google

Kaplan, E. Ann. “Women, Film, Resistance: Changing Paradigms.” Women Filmmakers: Refocusing, edited by Jacqueline Levitin et al., London, Routledge, 2003.

Smith, Stacy L., et al. “Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers.” Sundance Institute and Women In Film Los Angeles Women Filmmakers Initiative, 1 Jan. 2013, pp. 1–43.

Wilson, Emma. “Contemporary French Women Filmmakers.” French Studies, vol. 59, no. 2, 2005, pp. 217–223., doi:10.1093/fs/kni132.

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