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From Game of Thrones to The Witch, 2016 was packed with hypercompetent teen girl antiheroes

TV and movies were packed full of young women taking charge of their lives — often bloodily.

Game of Thrones
Arya scrambles for her life on Game of Thrones.
HBO

Game of Thrones most recent season found repellant villain Ramsay Bolton bloodied and strapped to a chair. He’d come within a breath of securing his grasp on the North in the season’s epic battle. Instead, thanks to a strategic decision made by Sansa Stark, who had briefly been his unwilling wife, he found himself unexpectedly defeated.

Sansa chose his punishment — feeding him to his own ravenous hounds. She watched as the dogs attacked the man who brutally raped and tortured her during their brief marriage. As she turned away, the faintest of smiles played across her lips.

The moment marked a profound transformation in Sansa’s character, but it also represents a larger shift that unfolded over the course of 2016.

On television and in movie theaters this year, teenage girls moved assuredly into roles normally reserved for their male counterparts.

And more often than not, those roles involved some degree of violence — whether that meant stabbing, unleashing supernatural powers against someone in self-defense, or, yes, feeding their enemies to literal dogs.

2016 cast teen girls in a moral middle ground. Just look at Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones
Sansa stepped into her own as a ruler.
HBO

Throughout 2016, the roles of fictional teen girls seemed to expand, existing in a moral gray area between “innocent naif” and “bad girl” that allowed for increased complexity.

This is not to say that nuanced teen girls have never existed onscreen before: Buffy the Vampire Slayer famously crafted teenage girl characters who were dynamic, confounding, and flawed, while Six Feet Under’s creative, conflicted Claire was a pivotal part of that series’ family dynamic. But in 2016, well-rounded teen girls, written as capable agents of their own futures, suddenly seemed to crop up across every genre.

Sansa’s quiet joy at Ramsay’s death completed her transformation on Game of Thrones from superficial child into serious, determined, and strategic leader, ready to take her place at the head of the Stark family. The season saw her challenge her half-brother Jon’s de facto leadership, and the fact that Sansa was able to force Ramsay to experience the horror he inflicted upon others made her arc especially satisfying.

Still, appreciating the newfound range afforded to Sansa’s character does not require endorsing her cruelty or secrecy. As we watch Sansa grow increasingly independent, it’s impossible not to imagine the ways her decision to conceal from Jon her choice to ask Littlefinger for his assistance in the battle against Ramsay could drive a wedge between the siblings.

It would be easy to write off these stories as not tackling the problems of the “real world,” whatever that means. But despite its fantasy trappings, Game of Thrones does reflect aspects of our world. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 40 percent of women who are murdered are killed by a partner, and that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced sexual or physical violence.

Despite some gains in awareness over the past year, the majority of crimes against women still go unreported and unpunished. In light of these statistics, Sansa — and 2016’s larger flurry of strong female characters — makes perfect sense as an expression of protest against the status quo.

The transformation wasn’t isolated to Sansa. Season six of Game of Thrones saw women across every plot line seizing control of their fates. Indeed, Arya Stark provides an even stronger example than her sister of the nuance Game of Thrones achieved in season six.

Though reliably tomboyish and relentlessly capable, Arya spent season six locked in internal conflict. For much of the season, she endured a series of somewhat pointless tasks while attempting to join the ranks of the Faceless Men, a cryptic group of assassins capable of changing their identities. Throughout, she struggled with deciding whether to pursue the supernatural power promised to her or prioritize her own identity as an individual and a Stark.

After getting beaten down over and over again by the menacing Waif who oversees her training, Arya bumps up against the limits of her own internal sense of justice when asked to assassinate Lady Crane, an actress whose moving portrayal of Queen Cersei in a play about Ned Stark’s execution prompts Arya to feel some unexpected empathy for one of her nemeses. Having disobeyed the Waif, she retrieves her sword (a key symbol of her identity), goes on the lam, and ultimately kills the Waif.

After a season of attempting to obliterate her identity, Arya declares, “A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and I am going home.”

Arya’s development is more subtle than Sansa’s; she’s spent dozens of episodes muttering the names of the people whose lives she seeks in retribution. She’s even crossed a few names off that list — violently and memorably. But season six’s narrative tension hinged on whether she would be able to turn away from that drive for revenge or let it consume her.

As Arya comes of age, her capacity for ruthlessness and retribution is softening. Though still tough and pugnacious, she’s managed to gain some perspective, allowing her to evolve into a more ambivalent antihero, a character type normally reserved for men — and rarely used for teenage girls. When faced with the opportunity to exist only as a vehicle for violence, Arya opts for a more complicated middle ground.

In a world where no one else will advocate for them, intent on viewing them as collateral damage in a fight among men, Sansa and Arya commit acts of violence that translate as political agency.

Teen girls are underestimated. On Stranger Things, that can be useful.

Stranger Things
Eleven crumples a soda can with her brain. Useful!
Netflix

Surprise over Teen Vogue’s astute political reporting serves as proof that teen girls’ intellectual appetites are routinely underestimated. While Game of Thrones gave us women who resort to violence to change their political situations, another hit show of 2016 — Netflix’s Stranger Things — suggests that teenage girls may be more inherently powerful on an intellectual, moral, and strategic level than anyone realizes.

To be sure, Stranger Things drew some well-deserved criticism for privileging the stories of its boys over its girls. Consider, for instance, how the show treated Will, whose disappearance set the entire plot in motion, versus how it handled the disappearance and death of poor Barb, whose own mother didn’t even notice she was gone.

Yet despite its focus on the boys, Stranger Things’ breakout character is Eleven, a minimally talkative girl with an instantly iconic look, who has been the subject of troubling government experiments. While pregnant, Eleven’s mother participated in MKUltra, the CIA’s best-known mind control project, and Eleven grew up in a secluded laboratory, shuttled among experiments, hooked up to electrodes, and forced to develop telekinetic abilities. With no frame of reference for a normal life, Eleven must simply endure.

Despite her mistreatment, Eleven emerges as Stranger Things’ most powerful character. Through a series of flashbacks, we gain a sense of Eleven’s internal moral compass. She resists killing a cat, instead practicing her telekinetic abilities on soda cans, even when her disobedience results in punishment. But when her friends are threatened or she identifies an enemy who has harmed her, there’s little Eleven isn’t willing to do, whether that means humiliating a bully by compelling him to wet his pants or killing government agents by crushing their skulls.

Though Will’s disappearance kicks off the show’s plot, it’s actually Eleven who sets off a chain of events by unwittingly tearing a hole between worlds, allowing the Demogorgon, the show’s monster, to slip through. (The Demogorgon is ultimately a distraction from the show’s true evil: unscrupulous men in the government.) Eleven’s unsettling capacity for violence gives her a level of power and control over the world that the male characters lack, one that allows her to finally strike back against the scientists who imprisoned her.

Similarly, semi-popular high school student Nancy Wheeler’s amateur investigation of her friend Barb’s disappearance takes her straight to the Demogorgon. As she joins forces with a friend to lay a deadly trap for the monster and theorizes as to what might drive the beast, she, too, takes on agency that surpasses the best efforts of local police.

Part of Eleven and Nancy’s power lies in the way they are consistently underestimated. Despite its obsession with reproducing 1980s classics in high fidelity, Stranger Things subverted a key trope by complicating Nancy’s romantic arc.

The series seems to prepare for tension between Nancy’s boyfriend, Steve, and Will’s brother, Jonathan, who is at her side while she stalks the Demogorgon — but ultimately establishes Nancy as a central character in her own right, deflating the love triangle through a flash forward in which we learn that she has chosen to stay with Steve but both continue to maintain strong friendships with Jonathan. The resolution is as much about Nancy trusting her initial judgment as it is about Steve’s capacity for growth as a character.

Similarly, Eleven’s escape is a shock to the government scientists. When Eleven and the lead scientist whom she once called “Papa” are reunited in the final episode, he seems genuinely confused when, deprogrammed and recognizing him as a “bad man,” she flinches away from his embrace.

The Witch reveals how teenage girls can explore the nature of evil

The Witch
Thomasin makes her choice in The Witch.
A24

Television was not the only medium to contain incredibly powerful teenage girls. They were all over the movies, too, most vividly in Robert Eggers’s The Witch.

Set in 1630s New England, the understated horror movie follows the story of a family cast out of its colonial settlement and forced to eke out a living on the edge of the woods. The film’s creeping horror lies in psychological drama, as existing cracks in the family’s relationships begin to grow with alarming speed, due to the harsh loneliness of life on the frontier and the mysterious disappearance of an infant son.

Thomasin, the family’s teenage daughter, swiftly becomes the scapegoat for the unnatural incidents that plague the family. Her grieving mother blames her for failing to watch and protect her infant brother, while her father and younger brother, Caleb, stay silent as Thomasin is accused of other crimes, such as the disappearance of a silver cup.

It’s also no coincidence that the family’s suspicion of Thomasin coincides with her budding sexual maturity. More than once, Caleb eyes his sister’s breasts when he thinks she won’t notice. The constant surveillance has a profound effect on Thomasin, and increasingly she and her family are set in opposition to one another.

Small incidents and false accusations snowball until the family becomes hysterical, ultimately accusing Thomasin of witchcraft. Eventually, the accusations and stares escalate into assault, and Thomasin is dragged by her throat into the family’s barn, where her father imprisons her for a night.

After that point, there is no limit to the violent horror Thomasin finds herself capable of committing. The Witch’s brilliant irony lies in the fact that the family’s grief drives the members to destroy themselves. In the film’s universe, the witch and the devil are real, but they merely act as catalysts for the worst human impulses.

Ultimately, the family’s accusations become a self-fulfilling prophecy; with her entire family dead or missing, Thomasin sheds the Puritan clothing that had obscured her natural body and signs the devil’s book, casting her lot with the coven of witches living in the woods. The last scene of the movie finds her levitating, laughing soundlessly, finally free.

Though some read the film as a story that validates paranoia over women’s sexuality, I prefer a different reading. With Thomasin cast out of society due to her father’s stubborn religious beliefs and driven to a tragic final confrontation with her family, her options are essentially to perish in the wilderness or join the coven.

Although Thomasin’s journey contains stunning tragedy and a bitter betrayal of her faith, she ultimately chooses to grasp the power and opportunity promised to her by the devil. Like the supernatural abilities Arya gains during her time seeking the Many-Faced God or those forced upon Eleven by the government, Thomasin’s sudden ability to levitate with the other witches suggests a more expansive shift in her capabilities. The movie closes before we have any opportunity to see any hint of whether this plays out well for her, but the story’s lean parable format doesn’t require a longer view.

Beyond Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, and The Witch, characters across all genres have shown an unexpected capacity for ambivalence this year. From BoJack Horseman’s 14-year-old “dubstep wunderkind” Sextina Aquafina, who sings an irreverent song about abortion packed with violent imagery, to Pretty Little Liars, which opened its 2016 season with its quartet of (formerly) teen girls killing a friend’s abusive husband and then covering up the manslaughter, young women managed to snare interesting, conflicted roles on screen.

By equipping women with the power and capacity to take action, characters like Sansa, Eleven, and Thomasin join a broad range of teenage girls from a wide variety of stories in a morally gray light where violent, regrettable actions undertaken by women are the natural consequence of systems that would oppress them. It didn’t seem coincidental that these characters existed and busted stereotypes in a year when the US came within a breath of electing its first woman president.

We all enter 2017 with no guarantees for what the year will bring for women. The president-elect’s Cabinet may prove to be “one of the most hostile in recent memory to issues affecting women.” And this trend of morally ambiguous, capable teen girls may prove to be nothing but a fleeting moment.

Still, no matter what happens, these stories will continue to exist, impressing the image of women as capable, even potentially dangerous, agents onto the larger cultural imagination. Teen girls were given more space for complexity in 2016, and although women are far from receiving equal treatment off- or onscreen, characters like Arya, Eleven, and Thomasin exemplify a fighting spirit that promises to fend off oppression at every turn.

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