The minds of teenage girls have always beguiled us. From the Salem witch trials to the Satanic Panic to the college rape crisis, young women’s memories have been weaponized, dissected, repurposed, debated. But the experiences of this group are rarely earnestly considered without agenda.
It naturally follows that much media about and for teenage girls approaches them shallowly. Notably, “Euphoria,” perhaps this season’s most popular series about teenage girls, only managed to keep its protagonist, Rue — whose arc is inspired by writer Sam Levinson’s own life — three-dimensional. Its other young women were sacrificed to inane stories of romance and cattiness.
Luckily, change has been coming. A few recent shows have demonstrated some much-needed interest in the teen girl psyche. Showtime’s “Yellowjackets,” Amazon Prime’s “The Wilds” and Freeform’s “Cruel Summer” all center young women’s experiences. These girls are often unreliable narrators, and their accounts must be shown from multiple angles for audiences to get a full picture. Flashbacks are key to all three series, and highlight the human complexity of each character without needlessly painting her as all bad or all good.
“The Wilds” and “Cruel Summer” actually preceded “Yellowjackets” mania. “The Wilds,” created by Sarah Streicher (“Daredevil,” “Turning Red”) premiered in December 2020 and released its second season this May, just in time to make the Emmy deadline. It focuses on eight teenage girls who, on a flight to a young women’s empowerment retreat, crashed on a remote island and had to overcome their differences in order to survive. Time on the island is recounted in flashback and informed by further flashbacks into the girls’ lives pre-crash.
“Cruel Summer,” from “Easy A” writer Bert V. Royal, debuted last April, with only three episodes airing during this year’s Emmy eligibility period. A second season is now in the works. It centers on the dueling perspectives of Jeanette (Chiara Aurelia) and Kate (Olivia Holt), with each episode jumping between 1993, 1994 and 1995. In 1995, Kate and Jeanette are 17-year-olds embroiled in a bitter legal battle. Kate claims Jeanette knew she was imprisoned in their vice principal’s home and failed to notify authorities. But Kate’s kidnapping is more complicated than it seems.
“Yellowjackets,” the biggest Emmys hopeful, is an eerily apt successor to “The Wilds” and “Cruel Summer,” given its survivalist bent and focus on ’90s teens. In the show, four middle-aged women reckon with their tumultuous pasts as teenagers in that decade. As high schoolers stranded by a plane crash, they apparently took part in a cannibalistic cult. The show explores their teenage descent via flashback. At the center of the narrative is Shauna (played as a teen by Sophie Nélisse and as an adult by Melanie Lynskey), a plain Jane with a reckless streak who’s tired of playing second fiddle to her shiny best friend, Jackie (Ella Purnell).
These shows have all the trappings of most teen-girl TV. There is boy drama, fashion, mental illness and sex — but these things inform the characters rather than define them. Each girl’s demons get proper room to breathe, so these characters can’t be reduced to one-note tropes.
For instance, Natalie on “Yellowjackets” (played by the incredible teen/adult duo of Sophie Thatcher and Juliette Lewis) comes from a home ravaged by addiction and struggles with it herself as an adult. Such a backstory is hardly unique, but its persistence is. On TV, addiction is more like a blip in personality, the sort of thing that can be solved with a handy book or a stern talking-to. In soapy teen dramas, it’s a burden akin to a break-up or a mean rumor.
Each of these shows’ 14 protagonists face down real problems inextricable from their status as teenage girls. They are vulnerable to eating disorders, self-harm, perfectionism, bullying and the impossible expectations set by a sexist culture. As Mary Pipher wrote in her 1994 bestseller “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls,” “Adolescent girls experience a conflict between their autonomous selves and their need to be feminine, between their status as human beings and their vocation as females. De Beauvoir says, ‘Girls stop being and start seeming.’”
If this was true in 1994, when the teens of “Cruel Summer” and “Yellowjacket” were coming of age, it’s galling to think what young women must go through now, with rampant consumerism forever shifting the goalposts on “proper” femininity and social media at our fingertips. No wonder the parents of “The Wilds” shipped all their daughters off for an empowerment retreat. There are echoes of Shauna and Jeanette — mousy, introspective, unhinged — in Leah, the obsessive lead of “The Wilds” played by newcomer Sarah Pidgeon. Ditto Jackie and Kate, whose easy femininity haunt Shelby (Mia Healey), the deceptively breezy beauty queen in “The Wilds.”
Flashbacks are key to fleshing out these complex stories, as they immerse viewers in each character’s specific point of view and maintain narrative tension. In each of these shows, there are mysteries that only the past can solve.
The only arbiters of that past are these girls, left mainly to deal with each other. Viewers can mistrust or question their accounts, but even to do that demands a courtesy rarely afforded to young women. Even to doubt these characters, we must take them seriously.