On Teen Girls and Their Angst
by ria kealy
Some of the most powerful music, literature, films, and art are drawn out of teen angst. It raises singers to god-like status, is immortalised in some of the most popular and enduring works, both creates and responds to art. Teens were the first to deify Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Smiths, Radiohead, before they became recognised by ‘serious’ critics. Teens define the majority of what becomes popular culture. Yet despite this, teen culture, tastes, and particularly teen angst has become something of a joke, considered an insignificant “phase” in modern culture.
However, teen angst has also become a trope in ‘literary’ or ‘artistic’ works. Think of how many works centre around a ‘troubled teen’, especially a teen boy. Catcher in the Rye, A Clockwork Orange, Huckleberry Finn. They’re considered part of the idealised and contested ‘Western Canon’. Trouble teen boys are taken seriously in the arts, even if they don’t face the same reaction from their parents.
When the ‘troubled teen’ mixes with girlhood however, the resulting experiences, personalities and emotions face dismissal. This dismissal calls to mind diagnoses of “female hysteria” from doctors in the 20th century – strong emotion blamed on hormones, rage taken as selfishness or ingratitude. Raw and honest distress, anger, or fear is infantilised. How many books about teenage girls can you find in the ‘Western canon’? How many works written by them?
I can think of one.
Take a look at the goth girls with their stompy boots and thick eyeliner. Black coats, black nail polish, black lipstick. They might listen to music too loudly and scrawl in their journals at 2 am. But in them, we see the continuation of a long and glorious tradition of young female rebellion. In them, we see that teen girl who made her way into the canon dominated by old white men. In them we see Mary Shelley- lost her virginity on her mother’s grave, carried around her dead husband’s calcified heart Mary Shelley, author of the first non-religious creation story, inventor of a genre at just 18 Mary Shelley, goth icon Mary Shelley. ‘Frankenstein’ is continually placed in canonical lists of the ‘greatest works of the western world’ or ‘the most influential works of literature’. Really, she revolutionised popular culture.
Haven’t teen girls always been revolutionaries, haven’t they always fostered the seeds of rebellion? And yet just as Shelley’s contemporaries – her “friends”, family, husband, publishers – belittled her, so too do the teen girls of today face dismissal, patronising smiles, closed doors and reassuring murmurs between relatives that “she’ll grow out of it”. No wonder teens are so angry.
Empathy and rage go hand in hand. It was Heather Heyer, later killed in the Charlottesville terrorist attack, who said that “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention” and god is there a lot to be outraged about in our world. Women are losing their bodily autonomy in supposedly “advanced” countries, irreversible environmental damage is looming around the corner, history seems to be on loop as concentration camps are set up for muslims in China and homosexuals in Russia. Fifteen is around the age most people start to become aware that our world is unfair (though I think that age is lowering in the digital era). Oftentimes that statement – “the world is unfair” – is followed by “you just have to accept it.” I don’t believe that, though, and neither do other teen girls around the globe. Emma Gonzalez is not prepared to ‘accept it’. Mulala Yusafzai is not prepared to ‘accept it’. Greta Thunberg is not prepared to ‘accept it’.
Instead, these girls- all rebels, all teens, all empathetic- take a step to start a revolution. Behind them stands Mary Shelley, pen in hand. And our rage should be admired for what it is – the sign of a tender-hearted revolution.