Why is TV obsessed with the malevolent potential of teen girls?

Teenage girls are terrifying, which I know because I used to be one. The most incisive and devastating criticism you’ll ever receive will probably be from a teenage girl. It will be devastating, because they will be correct and specific in what they have said about you. They will express it in a way that means you will remember it, secretly, until your dying day. (I wasn’t a particularly insightful teenage girl, for the record. More a “thinks she alone discovered The Cure” sort of teenager.)

The thing is, society finds the concept of teenage girls terrifying while somehow dismissing them at the same time. Teenage girls are restrained in a lot of learned ways: taught to make themselves quieter, to guard their sexuality instead of understanding and enjoying it in healthy ways, to be agreeable and to ride hormonal changes with grace. Young men are not taught to make themselves smaller, or monitored in quite the same way. Maybe this is why pop culture is particularly obsessed with the idea of the malevolent potential of young women.

From left: Emma Myers as Enid Sinclair in Wednesday, Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ria Zmitrowicz as Roxy Monke in The Power.

From left: Emma Myers as Enid Sinclair in Wednesday, Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ria Zmitrowicz as Roxy Monke in The Power.Credit: Vlad Cioplea/Netflix, Fox, Ludovic Robert/Prime Video

Recently, Amazon Prime premiered The Power, a series based on Naomi Alderman’s sci-fi novel of the same name. The first episode follows the stories of a few teenagers scattered across the world who discover they have a sort of electric current running through them, meaning they can electrocute people (and street lights, just for fun). More girls across the UK, US and Nigeria develop this power, causing them to move out of their secret teenage covens and out into the open.

Almost immediately we see how the lives of young women change when they have an unassailable way to defend themselves from men who wish them harm, though soon the adults in their lives (including Toni Collette and John Leguizamo) start to fear this growing matriarchal power. What happens when these young women don’t just use their powers for self defence, but are proactive in leveling a historically unequal power balance?

There’s nothing new about TV centred on supernaturally gifted teen girls – think Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina the Teenage Witch (the original in the ’90s and the remake in 2018), the iterations of The Craft and the recent Netflix hit, Wednesday. One of the reasons why these shows are so exciting – aside from it being, you know, cool, to see people levitated and smashed against stuff – is that they play out a fantasy of female autonomy. In these sci-fi and fantasy worlds, magic has evaporated old world orders and allowed young women full agency in a world that often disempowers them and treats them as trivial.

A group of schoolgirls are stranded in the wilderness after an air crash in 1998 in Yellowjackets.

A group of schoolgirls are stranded in the wilderness after an air crash in 1998 in Yellowjackets.Credit: Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

I like when TV treats these characters with as much complexity as they would male ones. A teen girl with supernatural abilities won’t necessarily use these powers to save the world and better herself. Teen girls can go power mad too! They have ambition and desire and sometimes, it goes to their heads. Enter: Yellowjackets.

Yellowjackets was a sleeper hit in 2021, following a plane crash of an all-girl high school soccer team, who find themselves stranded in the wilderness. (A male coach, a teen boy and a younger boy also survive the crash.) Flashforwards to the adult Yellowjackets – including the brilliant Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci and Tawny Cypress – confirm that something terrible happened after the plane crash and that all the team members didn’t make it out of the forest alive, though we don’t know why.

There’s a strong suggestion that something supernatural is happening in the wilderness, and in one of the stranded characters, Lottie (Courtney Eaton). Lottie begins the show as a shy teammate who doesn’t talk much, often crouching down in that way tall teens sometimes do to will themselves to be less ubiquitous. She keeps a low-profile at first and is anxious when she starts running out of her psychiatric medication. As season one crawls on, Lottie gains confidence.

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