Teenage girls anointed the Beatles. But you already knew that.
Teenage girls looked at that pack of floppy-haired Brits crooning in perfect harmony about hand-holding and holding on tight, and they thought, yes. They screamed and wept and pulled at their hair and fainted, because the band was perfect, the most perfect thing they’d ever seen, and they were overcome by the perfection.
Teen girls were the ones who loved the Beatles first, when the rest of the world didn’t get it. “Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, whose vacant faces flicker over the TV screen, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures,” wrote Paul Johnson in an infamous New Statesman article in 1963. Adults called those Beatlemaniac teen girls oversexed and hysterical — until, eventually, they saw the perfection, too.
The Beatles went on to become one of the most influential rock bands in history, and the girls who loved them first were treated as the punchline of a tired joke.
That’s how it always goes. To be a teenage girl is to simultaneously be pop culture’s ultimate punching bag, cash cow, and gatekeeper.
Before Beatlemania was Sinatrauma, which described the hordes of screaming teen girls who worshipped Ol’ Blue Eyes. Teen girls helped popularize novels in the 18th century, and we called them hysterical, until novels became a respectable subject for dinner party conversation. They’re language disruptors, doing everything from ditching doth and maketh to inaugurating the modern use of the word like and speech patterns like uptalk and vocal fry, and they’re called airheads incapable of speaking properly. They can end the 15-year dominance of the skinny jean with a single mocking TikTok and drive Kylie Jenner’s lip kits to sell out within minutes of their release. They can, if they are Billie Eilish, dispense with the norms of pop music and then make Grammy history. They are the base of an entire media economy of TikTok stars and influencers, and people tell them that the things they care about are fundamentally meaningless and do not matter, even as those teen girls make millions of dollars.
Consistently, teenage girls drive popular culture forward and then get mocked for their troubles. They’re ridiculed so often that we have an endless stream of trendy new words to describe teenage girls whose tastes we find cringeworthy: basic, VSCO girls, cheugy.
Lately, pop culture has stopped meeting the obsessions of teen girls with a reflexive sneer and has started instead to treat them as tastemakers. The combined influence of the reckoning with race and gender in the 2010s and the force teen girls hold on social media has left them in a position of what appears, at first glance, to be an unusual sort of strength.
But teenage girls, their tastes, and their market power now occupy a bizarre place in popular culture. They are still reviled; saying that something was made for teenage girls is still an easy way to disparage a piece of music or a film or a book. Simultaneously, they are revered and dreaded as arbiters of all that is cool. And amid all this reviling and revering, they are fetishized as the ultimate audience for advertisers. Teenage girls form a market share worth its weight in gold.
“What’s fascinating to me about the teen girl is that we have these seemingly very paradoxical discourses happening at the same time,” says Mary Celeste Kearney, a media studies scholar at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in gender and youth. “There’s this idea that the girl is powerful, and that marketers and cultural figures want to court her, and the girls themselves are like, ‘Yay us!’ And then there’s this backlash against that.”
Teen girls and their pop cultural tastes are still an easy punchline for plenty of people: One angry internet commenter recently complained that on Spotify, “I can’t find anything that’s not what some basic teenage girl would listen to.”
That line feels a little late-2000s these days, like a “ladies love shoes” rimshot. People who fall back on such cheap dismissals are dating themselves.
“There are always going to be the kind of people who just want to denigrate and shit on anything that young women like,” says music critic Brodie Lancaster. “But I think for the most part, it’s changed a lot. And at the same time, the perception of the music that teenage girls are fans of, and the artists that they’re fans of, has also gotten a lot more mainstream appeal.”
The shift Lancaster is describing hasn’t only happened in the music industry. Across the pop culture landscape, teen girls — as both fans and creators of mass culture — are getting more respect now than they would have just five years ago. The New York Times regularly reports on teen influencers; Forbes puts together respectful write-ups of the money to be made with the teens on TikTok.
Some have even started to look back at the teenage girls we mocked in previous decades and asking whether they deserved more respect than we used to give them. Was it really acceptable, the documentary Framing Britney Spears demanded of its viewers in February, for grown men to ask the teenage performer about her breasts, or the status of her virginity, on live TV? Was it really right for the music critics of the late ’90s to dismiss her music out of hand, on the basis of her teenage girlhood? Wasn’t she, after all, an artist? Didn’t she deserve better from all of us?
“Where’s my fucking teenage dream?” sings Olivia Rodrigo more than 20 years later on her debut album, Sour. She’s living it: At 18 years old, Rodrigo has put out an album with an 83 percent on Metacritic and garnered the biggest opening week ever by a female artist on Spotify. Sour is unabashedly the work of a teenage girl singing about that girliest of subjects — namely, boys and the ways they break girls’ hearts. It is nonetheless a major mainstream success, both critically and commercially, in a way Spears’s music was never quite allowed to be.
This kind of acclaim really is a new development. As recently as 2015, music critics were unlikely to take an artist like Rodrigo seriously. Lancaster points to Taylor Swift as an example. When Swift released 1989 in 2015, Pitchfork — arguably the most influential of the online music publications — declined to review it, just as it had declined to review all of Swift’s previous albums. But it did review Ryan Adams’s cover of 1989. That choice, commenters noted even at the time, suggested a certain ahistorical disdain for teenage girls and their tastes.
“One of the great fallacies in rock criticism and especially indie-rock criticism is to assume that the underground is always where greatness is happening, while pop stars (especially those that have female fans) rarely move the ball forward or make anything that lasts,” wrote Forrest Wickman for Slate. “Pitchfork, like any student of pop music history, should know by now that this could hardly be farther from the truth. After all, the last artist before Swift to release four consecutive studio albums that each spent six or more weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, an artist whose fans were also mostly young women, was the Beatles.”
In 2019, Pitchfork reviewed Swift’s full back catalog. And in those new reviews, Swift’s albums “were treated a lot more seriously for a quote-unquote ‘legitimate’ critical audience than they would have been in the past,” Lancaster says.
When Rodrigo’s Sour came out in May 2021, Pitchfork reviewed it and gave it a respectful seven out of 10 rating.
One way of thinking about the Spears-to-Rodrigo continuum is as part of the great cultural shift of the 2010s that saw many Americans reexamine the way we talked about gender and race. Social media has allowed people from culturally reviled groups — including at least some teen girls — to talk back to their critics in ways they never could before. Anyone on social media has a shot at building a platform and becoming a star, and who’s better at social media than teenage girls?
“Girls have always spoken back against the stereotypes used to constrain them or belittle them, but they haven’t had the kind of cultural power that they do today as a result of digital technologies,” says Kearney. “And there’s also more journalists, younger women or older women, who have been through the same thing, and who also have more cultural power and are willing to speak up.”
In the same spirit, over the past decade, multiple commenters made a point of trying to give teenage girls their due as cultural gatekeepers. The Guardian was on top of it in 2013. Pitchfork did it in 2015. I wrote about it for Vox in 2016.
Still overlooked, however, are teen girls of color. Kayla Lewis was 16 years old when she invented the term “on fleek” in 2014. She saw the term spread through the culture and saturate it until it was all over corporate social media posts, for which she received neither credit nor compensation. Fourteen-year-old Jalaiah Harmon invented the Renegade dance that took TikTok by storm in 2019, becoming one of its most viral crazes, only to see it become most commonly associated with the white TikTok influencer Charli D’Amelio. As is often the case, a social movement that ostensibly exists for all girls seems to be mostly helping white girls.
Still, the idea of the teenage girl as an unappreciated cultural innovator — as the anointer of the Beatles! — is by now its own trope. So is the idea that society’s knee-jerk tendency to mock teenage girls is rooted in misogyny.
Artists have begun to embrace the idea that their teen girl fans are, if anything, a sign of their own artistic greatness.
“Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music — short for popular, right? — have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy?” Harry Styles asked Rolling Stone in 2017, when the subject of his vociferous teen girl fan base came up. “That’s not up to you to say. Music is something that’s always changing. There’s no goal posts. Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious?”
“Harry Styles has been on the cover of Rolling Stone twice,” Lancaster points out. Pop music’s traditional gatekeepers have bowed to the gatekeeping of the teen girl.
By the mid-2010s, teen girls were no longer assumed to be ridiculous as a default. Rapidly, they became heroes instead, and as that shift played out in the realm of popular culture, it simultaneously played out in the realm of political activism and organizing.
Greta Thunberg was going to save the world from climate change. The Parkland kids — especially X González — were going to save us from guns. Claudia Conway was going to save us from the Trump administration.
Over the past decade, young women became increasingly visible political activists. “Many of these young people still receive torrents of scorn and harassment based on their age and gender,” wrote Anna North for Vox after Thunberg was named Time’s Person of the Year in 2019. Still, North added, the increasing prominence of figures like Thunberg and González “is a reminder that even legacy publications like Time magazine are taking girls and young women seriously as a political force in a way that was unprecedented just a few years ago.”
But there is a bizarre, fetishistic quality to the attention adults pay these teen girl activists. We tend to focus on their youth, their femininity, and their bravery, taking pleasure from the disconnect between the seriousness of the work these girls are trying to accomplish and their social status as unserious, unrespected teenage girls. And while we enjoy this juxtaposition, we tend to ignore the substance of their messages: We laud them for their bravery in demanding change, and then we refuse to make the changes they seek. Moreover, we tend to ignore the fact that teenage girls are, after all, still children, and therefore people to whom adults owe a responsibility.
“If you actually listen to the Thunberg and the Parkland group, you won’t necessarily hear how they plan to enact systemic change. Instead, they are telling the adults to get their act together, and wondering why it has fallen to the youth to voice any call to virtuous action,” wrote Miles Klee for Mel in 2020. “Claudia Conway now has the duty of convincing people to vote against Trump when she’s not old enough to punch a ballot herself. Like the previous savior-teens, she is asking if the grown-ups — her parents obviously included — can exercise their current power to address the crisis of the moment, not just fight inane culture wars.”
When adults are not hero-worshipping Gen Z, they are selling them things. And more often than not, they are selling them things while pretending to empower them.
“For girls, the marketing is often around peer pressure and body image, especially body image stuff,” says Susan Linn, a psychologist who studies the impact of marketing on children. “The message is that you’re not pretty enough. You’re not popular enough. You’re not sexy enough. And products are sold by creating a sense of inferiority, and also the belief that this product will make all the difference to you. This product will make you prettier, will make you sexier. You’ll be able to have a girlfriend or a boyfriend.”
It is hardly news that advertisers sell stuff to teenage girls by preying on their adolescent insecurities. But there is a special kind of sleaziness to companies pretending they are empowering girls when they do it, and that anyone who mocks them is just being a misogynist.
“Young women have long been drivers of popular culture,” begins a blog post on Tubular Labs from 2019, “and this year’s booming teen subculture is no different: the VSCO girl.”
VSCO girls first gained prominence in 2019. Named after the photo-editing app VSCO (pronounced visco), the VSCO girl of 2019 is a direct descendant of the basic girl of 2015. She is generally white, generally middle-class, and abstractly, blandly wholesome. And because she exists primarily on a photo app, the VSCO girl can be identified mainly through visual signifiers, most of which are brands: a Hydro Flask water bottle and a Fjallraven backpack; Nike shorts and Birkenstock sandals; a Whaline scrunchie on her wrist.
The Tubular post outlines all the ways brands and advertisers can appeal to the elusive VSCO girl. “With influencer power and dollars to spare,” it concludes, “the emergence of VSCO girls could be a slam dunk for apparel, skincare, and lifestyle brands who catch on in time.”
“I cant even find the words to describe how blessed I am for this opportunity to get the body I’ve always wanted! Everyone should be able to feel this confident!” said one viral Twitter thread by a person who claims to be a teenage girl named Erin but sure behaved like a teenage girl made up by a diet pill company. (The account is now suspended.) “Whatever dude,” Erin replies to those skeptical that by taking diet pills she dropped multiple dress sizes within days, “I DID THIS!!!!!”
The breezy platitudes of Erin’s thread, the joyous affirmations of self-confidence — they’re all written in the language of teen girl empowerment. She’s using a voice developed in order to make teenage girls more confident, to save them from the scorn and depredations of the rest of the world. But her thread exists to sell teenage girls diet pills.
In a recent profile of the TikTok star Addison Rae, who was 18 when she started posting dances to the site two years ago, Vanessa Grigoriadis asked Rae, who has just launched a beauty line, what she thinks the purpose of makeup is. Rae, too, echoed the clichés of empowerment and wellness culture.
“I guess makeup is something you do when you want to help the way you feel about yourself,” Rae said. “It’s another form of painting, and you’re doing it on your skin. I think you should for sure work on enhancing your own features and embracing that if there’s a flaw in you, it’s something that sets you apart from other people. Maybe it’s not even a flaw, it’s just something you think is a flaw, but it’s really part of who you are and makes you different.”
As Grigoriadis pointed out, this response was “the party line of contemporary beauty culture”: the idea that when companies sell makeup and beauty products to teenage girls, those companies are just empowering the girls to be their best and most beautiful selves. That’s why, Grigoriadis argues, Selena Gomez’s makeup line promises in its marketing materials to “use makeup to shape positive conversations around beauty, self-acceptance and mental health,” and Kylie Jenner sells hers with an Instagram post that says “may the dark thoughts, overthinking, and doubt exit your mind right now” next to a picture of one of her pink skin care bottles.
Grigoriadis summarizes the paradox at the center of this mishmash of relatability, aspiration, empowerment, and salesmanship as “I want you to know your body is perfect even though you’re buying this product to look like me, and I am insecure about my looks.” It’s a stream of double-think, and it’s soaked into everything we sell teen girls.
“Create helpful, inspirational, aesthetically pleasing content designed to engage your audience first and promote products second,” Women’s Wear Daily advises in a 2020 article on what brands can learn from the success of VSCO girls. There’s money to be made here, WWD points out: The brands most associated with VSCO girls, like Crocs and Vans and Pura Vida bracelets, all saw major increases in sales in 2019. And the way you make that money is by being inspirational and educational, until your customer associates your product with the more empowered, more enlightened self she would like to become.
“A really important part of adolescence is figuring out who you are,” says Linn. “And what marketers want to do, and what they claim to be doing, is to have people build their identity around brands.”
This strategy, Kearney, the media studies scholar, argues, goes back as far as the ’60s, when marketers determined that feminism had changed the way women thought about themselves enough that marketers would have to change the way they marketed to them, too. That’s when the cigarette brand Virginia Slims inaugurated the tagline “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
Now that feminist discourse has made the argument that teen girls deserve special attention, protection, and liberation, marketers have hopped on that bandwagon, too.
It’s as though our culture spent the better part of a decade slowly deciding that, yes, it is bad to make fun of teenage girls, and yes, maybe the things that teenage girls like aren’t inherently terrible, and yes, maybe they do deserve to occasionally feel self-worth.
Simultaneously, it has become cool for brands to co-opt the narrative that teen girls are arbiters of cool in order to sell them products that play on their own self-loathing and desire for identity. After all, wouldn’t it be misogynistic not to sell them diet pills and expensive apparel? Teen girls are the ones who built the Beatles!
“What the marketing industry does is take whatever trends they might see and figure out how to monetize them, and that’s what matters,” says Linn. “It’s all co-opted.”
If the teenage girl is really a gatekeeper, then where is all her power?
Teenage girls can love something with elemental purity, with an intensity no one else can ever quite match. That might be part of why they’re so good at deciding what’s cool: When they commit to something, they commit hard. Which is maybe why it’s so unpleasant to watch their enthusiasms be turned into just another marketing ploy.
“I took my friend to see One Direction in concert,” Lancaster recalls. “It was my second time seeing them on that tour, and her first. When we walked in, I was like, ‘Oh, shit, I forgot to buy earplugs,’ and she looked at me like, ‘I think I can handle it.’”
Then the lights went down, the boys came out, and the girls began to scream. And Lancaster’s friend could not, in fact, handle it.
“She looked at me with such terror in her face,” Lancaster says.
“One of the wonderful things about these ages is they are passionate, and they throw themselves into things and love things,” says Linn. “There’s a lot of drama.”
There are very few places, when you are a teenage girl, where it is acceptable to put all your stormy teenaged feelings. That’s the age when you begin to realize that you are always being watched, that the world has expectations of you, that you are going to be asked to meet a certain standard; it’s before the age at which you realize the standard is always going to be inaccessible.
Most of your feelings you tamp down and lock up — but when you love something, really love something, when you’re a fan — then you’re allowed to scream.
For a long time, we treated those screams as a symptom of hysteria, of everything that made the teenage girl ridiculous and unserious. Often, we also treat those screams as though they are dollar signs turned into sound waves.
So, is making Greta Thunberg Person of the Year and then ignoring her message granting her power? Is anointing Addison Rae and having her sell concealer to her fans granting any of them power? Is announcing that we’ll no longer make fun of VSCO girls and instead will sell them scrunchies granting anyone power?
Or are we just using teenage girls for the money and the sheen of cool they can offer us, and bleeding their enthusiasms dry?
“Girls get quieter,” says Lancaster. “They want to draw less attention to themselves, because they don’t want to be embarrassed. So those spaces where everyone is there for the same reason, they give really beautiful permission for girls to go absolutely fucking wild. And they do.”
Constance Grady is a senior culture writer for Vox. She previously wrote about the phenomenon of Reese’s Book Club for The Highlight.