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.
damn clearly dudes haven't asked this enough because y'all are (understandably!) ready to go OFF
I can already tell I won't be able to reply to everyone but thank you all for taking the time to share it's deeply appreciated
— Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed) December 14, 2018
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.
Teen friendships! Girls have heartbreak over friendships more often than romantic relationships, and would sacrifice and keep secrets for their friends by tooth and nail. Also, girls are very self-aware about how others judge their emotions as hysterical/ melodramatic.
— Diana M. Pho (@writersyndrome) December 14, 2018
The profound intimacy and intensity of friendships between teen girls.
— emily (@aemiouly) December 14, 2018
Different "types" of girls can get along!! I was the nerdy theater kid, but I had female friends who were athletes, student council members, etc. Some were preppy, others emo/goth, others super artsy. We could still be friends…
— Sarah Jane Singer ✡️🏳️🌈 (@TheNewSarahJane) December 15, 2018
The lack of female relationships, of a variety of ages. So many of us grew up surrounded by aunties and second moms and our female friendships were/are the most significant. That doesn’t happen enough in books.
— Emma Burcart (@EmmaBurcart) December 14, 2018
While some of us might have had a romantic relationship or two, our main focus during that time is mostly navigating intricate and complicated friendship dynamics.
— Colleen Oakes (@ColleenBlooms) December 15, 2018
Mean Girls/The “Frenemies” Trope
How girls interact with other girls. Too many enemies and rivals compared to friends and relationships that mix both. Also, conflict between girls focuses too much on competition for boys, rather than girl friends being inattentive or disloyal to each other.
— Sarah (@sosomanysarahs) December 15, 2018
The idea that girls spend their times backstabbing or taking each other down (for sure there's a lot of insecurity but it's also beautiful friendship).
— Aliette de Bodard (@aliettedb) December 15, 2018
They always write female bullies to be really outwardly physical and mean. In reality, drama between girls can be much more quiet, drawn out, and passive. More about the little jabs than a big encounter.
— Cathleen McAllister ✨ (@cafween) December 15, 2018
Also, in my experience, the girls who use mean girl tactics aren’t the prettiest, most popular ones, but the girls who have something to gain and something to lose. They’re either terribly insecure or extremely entitled, and they get their power by putting down other girls.
— Mara “Get Rid of the Nazis” Wilson (@MaraWilson) December 15, 2018
Also, female “frenemies” might have been the least of a teen girl’s problems.
My worst bullies were usually boys. They used words, they were popular. I would never have fallen in love with them later. Also friendships are so important and intense.
— Ciara O (@CiaraReadsALot) December 15, 2018
Portraying Teenage Girls as Either Exceptionally Mature or Vapid
That teen girls can be loud, gross, hyper, childish… I feel like many portrayals of teen girls, they’re always preternaturally mature yet also empty headed at the same time. You never see them like, silly and fun and annoying like kids can be
— Molly Knefel (@mollyknefel) December 14, 2018
They can still be silly and a little childish, because, come on—they’re still young.
The thing about teens is, they are still children in most ways. I have a house full of them right now, and it’s fart jokes and potato chips, boys and girls.
— Terri Shea (@terrishea) December 15, 2018
Or they might be way more mature than you give them credit for.
The things girls discuss–the gravity of the conversations about sex and bodies and politics. The presentation of teen girls as vapid when so many could school people twice their age on gender, racial, and sexuality discourse.
— Hillary Monahan (@HillaryMonahan) December 15, 2018
Maturity can vary widely among girls of the same age.
The vast differences in maturity (physical and mental) between even girls of the same age. There are 14yos reading American Girl Magazine and 14yos reading Cosmo, and that's not weird! Embarrassing? Yes. But unusual? Not at all. Age means almost nothing for adolescents.
— Kat Mayerovitch (@kat_mayerovitch) December 15, 2018
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.
Teen girls in YA written by men are so rarely funny. They're not allowed to be silly or dumb or witty, or get into ridiculous situations. They have to play the straight man, so to speak, to the goofy boys.
— Amelia Mellor (@Amelia_R_Mellor) December 15, 2018
Teenage girls too are silly, have toilet humour, say dirty jokes, that’s what she said jokes, pull pranks, the class clown and are wickedly funny. Their sense of humour isn’t solely sarcasm. They can even have a dark sense of humour.
— dirty computer for aoty or we riot (@THECASSCAIIN) December 15, 2018
teenage girls are HILARIOUS. my friends and i were always laughing about something and you never see girls laughing in groups on tv shows or in movies unless it’s sinister/mean
— stone cold steve austin (@aimiekins) December 15, 2018
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?
That girls become more mature than boys at a younger age- most of the time we were just faking how to be grown-up because society told us we should be. That's pretty much teaching us how to take responsibility for other people's (boys) actions.
— Danielle (@DanielleSCW) December 15, 2018
by which I mean that teenage girls are more commonly expected to take on more responsibility re: household tasks, taking care of siblings, and generally acting like adults, but if their bodies mature at the same rate they are often sexualized and made fun of for physical changes.
— Jen Bartel (@heyjenbartel) December 14, 2018
In my family there are 7 boys and 4 girls. The girls had far more responsibilities than the boys. There was a shit ton more pressure on our shoulders. The girls had consequences for our actions and the boys had none.
— Hannah Christenson (@Hannah_illo) December 15, 2018
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?
Adults tell us we’re “women” when we get our first periods, and that messes with our heads. We’re mourning our childhoods while we’re still children. After all, if our bodies are ready for adulthood, then we must be as well.
— Grace Kelley (@GraceFacesPlace) December 15, 2018
Which brings us to the next thing men get wrong when writing teenage girls…
Puberty. Periods Exist, Guys.
How they conveniently forget that, in general, teen girls menstruate. It blew my mind when Tamora Pierce’s Alanna got her period.
— Monica (@TheBigMeeow) December 15, 2018
Your friend invites you to a pool party, and suddenly the logistics of having a good time got a whole lot more complicated.
How truly inconvenient and painful periods can be. They affect every aspect of being a teenage girl.
— Renee (@paix120) December 15, 2018
I think male authors tend to focus on the parts of "becoming a woman" that are exciting to them…boobs and hips. Not so much about suddenly needing deodorant, forgetting to shave your legs and dealing with mocking in gym class, not having a handle on managing your period yet…
— Jenny Thompson (@JennyRThompson) December 15, 2018
How frustrating it is to be constantly dismissed as frivolous, flighty, etc. Told "You'll feel differently when you're older." How bad the body dysphoria is: all those breasts and hips and thighs change your balance and get in your way and look WEIRD.
— Elizabeth Bear (@matociquala) December 14, 2018
We do not use the word "budding" to refer to our breasts. Ever.
— Alysha Levine (@alybunny) December 15, 2018
*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.”
— Anna Mazzola (@Anna_Mazz) December 15, 2018
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.
Everything. The over-sexualisation of young girls through the lens of the ludicrous, omnipresent male gaze is rampant. Teens are still kids but any childlike behaviour by teen girl protagonists is either sexualised or used to disempower them.
— Lili Saintcrow (@lilithsaintcrow) December 15, 2018
They never mention how persistent and intimidating a part of your life in public is the aggressive sexual attention of adult men. From 11 or so. The leering, The catcalls, the asking you out, the standing too close, following around, groping, flashing, masturbating etc.
— Aliki Chapple (@amaenad) December 15, 2018
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!).
Not everyone is eager for sex. For so many teen girls sex and sexuality are confusing and strange concepts that are attached onto them without them ever being actively excited about it. Books are always about girls who hate sex or love it, no shaky confused middle ground
— umang kalra (@umangkalra__) December 15, 2018
That teenage girls are all date crazy and making out with boys/girls at 14. Some do, some are late bloomers or have a strict or sheltered upbringing.
— Natasha Gauthier (@ottawanag) December 15, 2018
The assumption that teenage girls understand and are focused on teenage boys' sexuality.
— Sage Blackwood ❄👻 🌊 (@urwalder) December 15, 2018
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.
I was probably at my angriest, most engaged with the outside world and laughed most as a teen. Teen girls can be extremely sincere because all those new hormones mean they feel everything amplified and raw and they are having all kind of feels.
— Santy Fox 🦊📚 (@FoxSpiritBooks) December 15, 2018
The way that female emotions are always made palatable or attractive to men. Sadness as fragile beauty, anger as passion, awkwardness as charming. NO. Sometimes my sadness can be my own messy sadness, not the reason a boy finds me attractive so he can feel better about himself.
— Madison Bateman (@madisonbateman) December 15, 2018
That teen girls aren't moody just because of hormones or because they somehow thrive on drama. They often deal with enormous family and social pressures with little to no support and struggle under the weight of it, causing them to act out or be harsh/moody.
— Albertine Watson (@littlebluerobot) December 15, 2018
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.
We weren't all angsty, moody, stubborn beyond belief teenage a-holes. I was a good kid, got along well with my parents, didn't think I knew everything in the world.
Also, so, so, so over the high school mean girls trope.
— Alisha Grauso (@AlishaGrauso) December 15, 2018
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.
I'm going to have to go with the notion that teenage girls have absolutely no hobbies or interests outside of performative femininity/romance/career chasing, or if they do, they're the one "cool girl" surrounded by boys.
Where's all the D&D groups and the anime binge parties?
— Secret Gamer Girl (@SecretGamerGrrl) December 14, 2018
girls can be interested in traditionally masculine things and be "tomboys" without having 20 older brothers. so many writers think the only way a girl can like sports or cars or building things (etc) is because a MAN was involved who introduced those things to her 🙄
— Han(ukkah) Solo (@obiwormkenobi) December 15, 2018
plz give us interests outside boys and things boys might like
— Caroline Darya Framke (@carolineframke) December 14, 2018
Teenage girls are funny and weird. We don’t just think about our bodies all the time. One time my friend and I performed surgery on a ripped stuffed animal of hers and then bought frozen yogurt and named our spoons.
— HaleyMancini (@HaleyMancini) December 15, 2018
That LOVE is always on our minds. Get real/ when I was a teen the only thing on my mind was GETTING PUBLISHED
— UncleMeag (@Forgetful_Bacon) December 15, 2018
The weird levels of obsessions that are totally normal and have nothing to do with boys or college. My friend group published journals of philosophical essays about nihilism, anarchy and Oscar Wilde. For fun.
— Susan Esparza (@SusanEsparza) December 15, 2018
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.)
That little black and brown girls can be the center of their own universe, as opposed to the wisecracking sidekicks of little white girls, helping them get bfs or student council prez or homecoming court or generally figure out their lives.
— Iquo Essien (@AlligatorLegs) December 15, 2018
I'm 99% sure if I had read any story written from the perspective of an unhatched trans girl, it would have flipped a switch in my head and saved me decades of confusion about why everything about my life felt wrong and out of whack.
— 🚩Millicent Ⓥ neo-Dukeist 🏴 🛠️ 🔇 (@churusaa) December 15, 2018
And then there are those stupid little things that bother us, too.
That they bite their lower lips
— Laurie Kilmartin (@anylaurie16) December 15, 2018
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.
THANK YOU everyone who shared here. I know from personal eperience that it's work educating people. That work is appreciated.
Male authors, read and learn something, huh? https://t.co/wE7BVrzdRK
— Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed) December 15, 2018
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