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Celebrating uncool teen girls in cinema, from ‘Eighth Grade’ to ‘Booksmart’



Welcome to Summer Cooldown, our weeklong tribute to all things cool in pop culture. Through our role models of chill and our misguided attempts to emulate them, to the DGAF heroes so defiantly uncool they’re ice cold, we’ll attempt to define the undefinable and celebrate the characters and questions that shaped us.

If you were a tragically uncool boy growing up in the 1990s or 2000s, you probably saw a lot of yourself onscreen.

There were the sex-obsessed nerds of American Pie, the awkward BFFs of Superbad, the oddballs of Napoleon Dynamite, the studious overachievers of Can’t Hardly Wait or Rushmore or 10 Things I Hate About You or Almost Famous. Beloved or bullied, the male geek was a teen-movie staple. 

Girls, however, were another story. In most of the films I saw, even the “uncool” ones were still, honestly, pretty cool. 

In most of the films I saw, even the “uncool” girls were still, honestly, pretty cool. 

Some didn’t fit in because they were too awesome (Kat of 10 Things I Hate About You) or were above all that bullshit (Tracy of Election). They may not have had the admiration of their classmates, but they nonetheless had a dark glamour (everyone in The Craft) or a rebellious streak (Denise of Can’t Hardly Wait) or a strong sense of self (Mary of Saved!) worth coveting. 

When we did see female nerds, they were often subjected to makeovers that revealed them as the conventional hotties they always were (Laney of She’s All That), or were so attractive and appealing from the get-go that it defied reason that they could ever be considered invisible (Olive of Easy A). Even the ones that got to stay “mousy” turned out to be self-assured sexual dynamos (Michelle of American Pie). 

In short, these female misfits still felt aspirational to a girl like me: a plain-Jane goody-two-shoes weirdo who tried desperately to fit in, but couldn’t quite seem to crack the code. I related more to the male losers onscreen, with their imperfect bodies and frequent crises of confidence, while noticing that even in their stories, their female counterparts were largely absent.

In more recent years, though, that’s started to change. The girls, finally, are getting to be as hopelessly dorky as the boys have always been. In doing so, they’re carving out a new way of looking at adolescent girls. 

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) goes for a swim in 'Eighth Grade'.

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) goes for a swim in ‘Eighth Grade’.

We’ve gotten kids like Nadine of Edge of Seventeen, who oscillates between paralyzing self-consciousness and mortifying boldness, and Meg of A Wrinkle in Time, who battles self-loathing because she can’t seem to fulfill the pretty, self-possessed feminine ideal, and Alice of SXSW gem Yes, God, Yes, who can’t wrap her head around her own blossoming sexuality. 

Amy and Molly of Booksmart are considered strange and nerdy even in a school full of colorful high achievers. Lady Bird of Lady Bird and Aimee of The Spectacular Now are still a bit more together than I was at that age, but their besties, Julie and Krystal, are not. And perhaps no female character has ever done a better job of embodying the agony and the ecstasy of junior high school than Kayla of Eighth Grade.

These girls embody the imperfection and idiosyncrasy of real teenagers, with all the struggles with self-esteem and self-identity that entails. They experiment with sexiness and fall flat on their faces; they become tongue-tied around the cool kids; they say casually cruel things to their friends and regret them immediately afterward. The cringe that comes on when I see them fuck up feels devastatingly familiar, because it’s the same one I felt every day throughout all my teen years.

These characters don’t represent every young female experience, of course, any more than Regina of Mean Girls or Katniss of The Hunger Games does. And these girls, like so much of Hollywood, tend to skew straight, white, and middle-class — there’s clearly room for improvement. Nor would it be fair to say that movies about genuinely uncool adolescent girls have never existed before; Carrie and Welcome to the Dollhouse are among the all-time classics of this little subgenre. 

But the Nadines and Kaylas do serve as reminders that teen girls can be as obnoxious or oblivious or uncertain as anyone else. That’s not nothing in a world that bombards them (and the rest of us, really) with images of young women as confident flirts and gorgeous firecrackers, that assumes girls are “more mature for their age” even if they’re going through the same childish bullshit as their male classmates, and insists on casting them as trophies for boys or jailbait for men. 

Meg (Storm Reid) searches for her dad in 'A Wrinkle in Time'.

Meg (Storm Reid) searches for her dad in ‘A Wrinkle in Time’.

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that so many of these dorky girls have come from the minds of women: Edge of Seventeen, Booksmart, Lady Bird, Yes, God, Yes, and A Wrinkle in Time all had female writers and directors — as do other insightful films about the particular pains of female adolescence, from The Diary of a Teenage Girl to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Female filmmakers may not be a requirement for creating these characters (Eighth Grade and The Spectacular Now are proof of that), but it’s hardly surprising that women have an edge when it comes to seeing teenage girls as as they might see themselves, and not just as boys or men might. 

That’s the key, here. Uncool girls have always existed in real life and always will. But they’ve so often been pushed to the margins in the movies, because they had no place a story about a bookish boy lusting after the popular kid or the wild child, or reconfigured as something unrecognizable to themselves, in order to better suit someone else’s idea of them.

Thank goodness, then, for girls like Amy and Molly and Meg and Alice, who get to be the terminally unhip, painfully awkward stars of their own narratives. They may not know exactly who they are or what they’re capable of yet — that’s part of the whole point of being a teenager — but I do, because I was them once. And my younger, even-less-cool self couldn’t be more grateful.

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