What Most Men Get Wrong When Writing Teenage Girls

For me, being a teenage girl was a time of intimate friendships and awkwardness, during which I pursued my creative ambitions with abandon, loved the things I loved with unfettered enthusiasm, and learned how to identify and discuss issues of feminism and privilege and social justice. I read a lot of books featuring teenage girls, some of whom illuminated my understanding of this time of life, and some who didn’t feel like real teenage girls at all. What most of the latter type of books had in common was that they were written by people who have never experienced teenage girlhood firsthand.

When we talk about representation in books being like a mirror into our own experiences, that only works if the portrayal is accurate. Sometimes male authors write teenage girls as fun house mirrors instead, throwing elements of the experience wildly out of proportion until the reflection is unrecognizable. I’m not going to throw shade at any particular male writers, but let’s just say I’ve read a fair share of books by dudes that prompted me to ask, “Has this guy ever even met a teenage girl?” And I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Which is why, when writer Saladin Ahmed asked on Twitter what men tend to get wrong when writing teenage girl characters, he received over 2,000 replies in 20 hours.

This was a relevant time for Ahmed to ask because it was just announced that in March 2019, he will take over for G. Willow Wilson writing the Ms. Marvel comics. The story follows a Pakistani American teenage girl, Kamala Khan, who was the first Muslim protagonist of a Marvel comic series. Since her debut in 2014, she’s become one of the most popular characters in the Marvel Universe. I take Ahmed’s question as a sign that he really doesn’t want to mess this up.

So without further ado, here was the internet’s keenest frustration with what male writers get wrong about teenage girls.

Female Friendship

Mean Girls/The “Frenemies” Trope

Also, female “frenemies” might have been the least of a teen girl’s problems.

Portraying Teenage Girls as Either Exceptionally Mature or Vapid

They can still be silly and a little childish, because, come on—they’re still young.

Or they might be way more mature than you give them credit for.

Maturity can vary widely among girls of the same age.

Forgetting That Teenage Girls Are Pretty Dang Funny

And hey, it’s possible to be both silly and deep. Teenage girls contain multitudes too, you know.

Underestimating the Expectations Put on Girls

Every girl I know grew up hearing “girls mature more quickly than boys” repeated like a skipping record. Over time, it started to sound like an extended justification for the idea that “boys will be boys.” But what if it’s just a self-perpetuating social myth?

Another reason why girls are expected to mature faster than boys do: periods supposedly signal womanhood. A boy’s “becoming a man” story is usually an emotional journey of self-discovery, but a girl’s “becoming a woman” story is just a biological change?

Which brings us to the next thing men get wrong when writing teenage girls…

Puberty. Periods Exist, Guys.

Your friend invites you to a pool party, and suddenly the logistics of having a good time got a whole lot more complicated.

*Cough* Murakami *cough*. This trope continues beyond girlhood, too. See Sonja’s excellent post: “I Don’t Think about My Boobs As Much As Male Novelists Think I Do.”

Sexualization

It’s not just about the “budding breasts,” though—teenage girls are sexualized in a scary way. A lot of male writers don’t capture what it’s like to face that kind of creepy, dangerous attention from both boys and grown men.

A teen girl’s sexuality is complicated, not black and white, especially when she’s figuring it out in the wake of this kind of objectification (The Poet X does a killer job dealing with this topic!).

How We Really Feel

Teenage girls are often portrayed as being emotional because of hormones and PMS. But along with those hormones, think about all the social and emotional pressures just noted. Now combine them with the fact that, as a teen, you are maturing mentally and ideologically, wrestling with your understanding of self and the world, and likely beginning to diverge in some ways from the adults in your life. And yet, you are—if you’re lucky!—still a dependent on those adults. You’re ready to self-actualize, but you don’t yet have the means to, and all of that can create a really intense interior landscape.

However, the intensity of these emotions doesn’t generally manifest itself into the tropes of moody teens who lash out at their parents. A lot of teen girls still manage to be, you know, nice people during their adolescence.

Hobbies/Passions/Interests/Ambitions

Basically, teenage girls don’t care as much about boys as you think they do, male novelists. Also please stop treating their interests as vapid kthxbye.

Some Teen Girls Aren’t Represented At All

When writers populate their stories with teenage girl characters, certain groups often get left out of the narrative altogether. (This is a larger problem that goes beyond just male novelists, though.)

Stereotypical Quirks

And then there are those stupid little things that bother us, too.

In Conclusion

I’m not one to argue that men cannot or should not write teenage girl characters. It’s been done, and heck, one of my favorite YA novelists is a man who’s written teen girls as POV characters. But what this flood of responses shows is that a lot of male authors write female characters without taking a step back to scrutinize their own perceptions of women. If you’re going to do it, male writers, pay attention, ask questions, and take critique while you’re still drafting the work, because buddy you’re gonna get it afterward if you don’t.

Ahmed was grateful for the help. Anyone who picks up the new series of Ms. Marvel, feel free to report back how he did writing Kamala.

There are thousands of more replies where these came from, but we want to hear yours, too. What would you add?

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