Looking back at some of my favorite new characters from the past year of television, I realized with a burst of pleasant surprise that many of them are, in fact, teenage girls.
For as much as TV has been fascinated by them, it has been rarely good at portraying them with anything approaching nuance. On-screen, they’re overwhelmingly either very silly as the butt of everyone else’s derisive jokes, or alarmingly mature as temptress sirens for wayward men. The truth of teenagers hanging somewhere between childhood and adulthood constantly gets lost as writers push them toward one extreme or the other. In the past year, though, more shows centering teen girls leaned into that exact “not a girl, not yet a woman” dichotomy — and came out richer for it.
Hulu’s “The Great,” starring executive producer Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great, examines the near impossible spot she was in as both a hopeful girl and an increasingly pragmatic ruler. Fanning is excellent in the role, giving Catherine a wide-eyed sincerity that she quickly learns to weaponize. Meanwhile, over on Freeform, “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” follows sardonic Genevieve (teen stand-up comic Maeve Press) and Matilda (Kayla Cromer), a confident teenager with autism, growing up in a hurry after their father suddenly dies. “Dare Me,” one of 2019’s most underrated shows that USA unfortunately recently canceled, adapted Megan Abbott’s novel of the same name into a wicked thriller that unpacked the damage of prematurely pushing teen girls into adulthood.
Other shows turned subtext into text. Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere” portrayed the uncomfortable clash between class and race, particularly between a pair of mothers (Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon), but also their headstrong daughters (Lexi Underwood and Jade Pettyjohn), to devastating effect. Netflix’s “I Am Not Okay With This” explored the consequences of the (often uncontrollable) power of teen girl anger, and the second season of “Sex Education” gave characters including Ola (Patricia Allison) and Lily (Tanya Reynolds) more screen time outside their relationships with the central male characters to form their own friendship and explore their sexualities.
HBO in particular featured a broad spectrum of what it means to be a girl hanging on the precipice of adulthood, whether in a hazy California suburb, sunbaked New York City or far-flung Naples in the 1940s. The aggressively reckless “Euphoria” teens, led by Zendaya as deadpan addict Rue and Hunter Schafer as the romantic new girl in town, made for some of the year’s most controversial TV. As written by Sam Levinson — who, notably, has never been a teen girl himself — the girls of “Euphoria” are wild, selfish and tender as a bruise. In “Betty,” Crystal Moselle’s skater girls are smart, fun, defiant and effortlessly cool as they navigate the city and their relationships. In “My Brilliant Friend,” Elena Ferrante’s novels about a transformative friendship come to gorgeous life, devoting hours to the everyday traumatic banalities that build up in girls and women until they finally burst.
What all these shows have in common is a willingness to not just flesh out teen girl characters beyond the usual stereotypes, but center them. As the anchors of their own stories, these girls had more space to be as compelling, flawed and three-dimensional as they’ve always deserved.