A few years ago, when the truth about Jimmy Saville and the extent of the grooming scandals in Rotherham and elsewhere emerged, I realised that there is nobody so disregarded as a teenage girl. The testimonies of so many were dismissed by the police and others, especially those of poorer girls such as those at the Duncroft Approved School. To be a teenage girl is to be both visible and invisible. Too visible when you walk down the street and you’re catcalled and told to cheer up and nice arse. Invisible when you try to make yourself heard by putting your hand up in class or making a complaint to the police.
But recently I’ve felt heartened that two near universally admired figures both come from this maligned group. Ever since the death of Nelson Mandela, we’ve craved goodness and it came in the form of Malala Yousafzai. She’s no longer a teenager now, but she came to prominence when only 12 when writing her blog and, tragically, even greater renown when shot by the Taliban aged 15. And she never disappoints. She is thoughtful, funny, reflective, self-aware but also, when I’ve heard her interviewed, recognisably a young girl who bickers with her siblings and occasionally feels insecure.
Then there’s climate-change activist Greta Thunberg. I say ‘near’ universally admired as I’ve seen some carping, but most of us can’t help but respond positively to her honesty and strength as well as her eloquence in a second language, her openness about Asperger’s, her stalwart refusal to become seduced by the adulation. I’m loathe to talk about looks, but those plaits and plaid shirts… They remind me of that wonderful Lego ad from the 80s as well as another young woman who I warm to, the Norwegian singer Sigrid, who rocks t-shirts, trainers and mum jeans.
It’s a contrary state, being a teenage girl. As well as this tension between being pedestalised and ignored, there’s the strange battle between cockiness and crippling self-doubt. Lucy Mangan recently expressed this in a review of the brilliant and teen-girl-centering Derry Girls in the Guardian: ‘Instead of the inner torments, it showcases the overwhelming confidence that somehow co-existed in equal proportion to the angst.’
Yes, teenage and preteenage girls can spend a lot of time pouting on Instagram, but when they harness that energy, they can change the world.