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Why America loves — and hates — outspoken young women

Women like Greta Thunberg and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were leaders in the 2010s. And they were vilified for it.

Greta Thunberg, head and shoulders portrait, wearing a knit hat and yellow rain jacket.
Greta Thunberg attends the Fridays For Future Strike on December 13, 2019, in Turin, Italy.
Giorgio Perottino/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

When Greta Thunberg was chosen as Time’s Person of the Year earlier this month, the accolades quickly rolled in.

The hashtag #CongratulationsGreta went viral as everyone from celebrities to newscasters to ordinary people around the world offered their praise for the 16-year-old and her outspoken climate activism.

President Donald Trump, however, was unhappy with the choice, tweeting that Thunberg should “work on her Anger Management problem” and “go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend”:

It was part of a bigger pattern. While Thunberg has become a hero to many (perhaps more than she wants), she’s also become a perennial target for attacks by Trump and others on the right. And she’s not alone. In recent years, other girls and young women, from gymnast Gabby Douglas to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have found themselves in similar positions in American culture: held up as subjects of adulation by some, even as they’re torn down and vilified by others.

It’s a symptom of the position of young women in the 2010s: still so underrepresented in many spheres that when one rises to prominence, it’s an exciting event. And, by the same token, their relative isolation makes them a focal point for the collective anger of everyone who would prefer young women be seen and not heard.

Thunberg and other young women have been both lifted up and torn down

When Thunberg started her climate strike in August 2018, skipping school to stand outside the Swedish Parliament with a sign reading “School Strike for Climate,” she likely had no idea what was to come. But soon, others began to join her and she became one of the most widely recognized faces of a youth climate movement that’s inspired millions of people to strike around the world.

Thunberg was far from the first to sound the alarm on climate change and environmental degradation; indigenous activists of all ages, like those who protested the building of the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock reservation in 2016, have been doing so for generations. But she became a celebrity, with TV interviews, merchandise bearing her face, and then, in December, the cover of Time.

As much as Thunberg has won adulation from liberals, she’s also been attacked by Trump and other Republicans. Before his December tweet, the president had mockingly commented that “she seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.” Meanwhile, others called her a “vulnerable young drama queen” or said she is “mentally ill.” (Thunberg has been open about having Asperger’s syndrome, which is not a mental illness.)

The treatment — high praise combined with intense vitriol — was likely familiar to many women who came to prominence in America in their teens or 20s. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress in 2018 at the age of 29, certainly experienced it.

The New York Democrat has always made clear that she represents not just herself but a larger group of Americans with progressive priorities and values, as Prachi Gupta reports in a recent biography of the member of Congress. When asked in a primary debate if she’d support her opponent should he win the nomination, she replied, “I represent not just my campaign but a movement. I would be happy to take that question to our movement for a vote.”

Nonetheless, Ocasio-Cortez — or AOC, as she’s come to be known — has become perhaps the best-known face of that progressive movement. With 6 million followers on Twitter and 4 million on Instagram, she’s a social-media sensation. And like Thunberg, her image has been used to adorn T-shirts and other products. Look no further than this memorable mug that displays her riding on a unicorn, with the message, “I believe in AOC.”

She’s also been a target of ridicule and mockery since her election, with critics focusing on everything from her clothing to her haircut to her dancing. Trump has led the charge several times, as when he launched a series of racist tweets at “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen” — presumably meaning Ocasio-Cortez and her political allies Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley — telling them to “go back” to their countries. All four Representatives are US citizens; Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Bronx, not far from Trump’s own birthplace in Queens.

Thunberg and Ocasio-Cortez haven’t been the only girls and young people who’ve found themselves the subject of combined fascination and fury. Activist Emma González rose to prominence after she survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. She began giving speeches and helping to organize marches for gun safety, alongside other young activists, many of them young women. While many followed in her footsteps in calling for stricter gun laws, others lobbed homophobic attacks, with one Republican candidate for state office calling her a “skinhead lesbian.” (González, who is bisexual, responded: “Skinheads are bad and lesbians are good.”)

And such hatred hasn’t been reserved for young people who became famous through political action. Gabby Douglas became a worldwide sensation in 2012 when she became the first black American woman to become an Olympic all-around champion in gymnastics. Then, in 2016, she faced racist and sexist attacks, with critics going after her for failing to put her hand on her heart during the national anthem and other perceived slights. The experiences helped inspire Douglas to become an anti-bullying advocate.

Tennis superstar Serena Williams has faced similar treatment throughout her career, as Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos pointed out in 2016. Ever since she rose to fame as a teenager, she’s been subject to racist caricatures, attacks on her body, and an endless onslaught of criticisms that white male athletes simply don’t have to deal with.

All told, the 2010s were a decade when girls and young women could look around and see themselves represented in public life perhaps more than ever before — but that representation came at the price of hatred, sometimes from the most powerful men in the country.

It’s a sign of how American culture views young women

Overall, the 2010s have seen a hunger for female role models. The election of President Trump and the rise of the Me Too movement have inspired many women to activism and political action, and made many Americans think about the disproportionate power men still hold.

And yet, men still dominate. As one example, Trump remains president, despite reports by more than 20 women that he sexually assaulted, harassed, or otherwise violated them.

Meanwhile, women still face the social expectation that they be quiet, agreeable, and certainly never aggressive — even when they’re running for president. Those expectations are even more intense for girls and younger women (though older women face their own set of biases). And prominent young women of color face not just sexism and ageism but racism as well. As Vox’s Nisha Chittal writes, the attacks on Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow progressive congresswomen “feel all too familiar to many women of color; they’re part of a long, established pattern of attempts to silence those who step out of the roles society has ascribed to them.”

All this combined to make the 2010s a time when young women were widely celebrated for their achievements — in some cases made into celebrities even against their will — while simultaneously being vilified for breaking with the conventions that held previous generations back.

As a result, girls growing up today have more prominent women to look up to than perhaps ever before, some of them only a few years younger than they are. But they also see those women being treated with hatred and cruelty, time and time again. That constant barrage might well be discouraging for some would-be activists and politicians. Why run for office, give a public speech, or stand up for what you believe in when the result might be a hate tweet from the president of the United States?

On the other hand, Thunberg and others of her generation have shown how well they hold their own when attacked by those in power. When Trump tweeted about her in September, she changed her Twitter bio to make fun of him. When he accused her of having “Anger Management” issues in December, she did it again, changing her bio to read that she was “a teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.”

The 2010s have been, in many ways, a punishing time to be a high-profile young woman in America. But Thunberg and others are persevering in the face of criticism, offering a model of grace, strength, and humor to the generations that follow — and even to the generations that have preceded them.