The Power of Teen Girls

About a month ago, a powerful piece by Constance Grady came out in Vox titled, “Who Runs the World? Not Teen Girls.” In essence, the piece argues that teen girls are the ultimate arbiters of pop culture and increasingly vocal politically, yet, they have little real power — adults do not listen to their opinions and they get used by marketers to sell products.

Ever since I read the piece, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. At 23, I may not be a teenage girl, but I’m still a young woman living in a world that doesn’t quite know what to do with us. In particular, one passage discussing activists like Greta Thunberg, X Gonzalez, and Claudia Conway stuck with me, “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.”

So, I got to thinking. Perhaps our problem is the way we try to put teenage girls, and young women, or women generally for that matter, into boxes. We can either be serious activists or high school girls. We can care about the climate crisis or we can care about Taylor Swift. We can write policy solutions or we can write music about our crushes. Never both. But why? Right now, teenage girls and young women are acing both the pop culture and climate scenes.

Two of the biggest pop stars on the planet right now are young women under the age of 20, Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo. What’s more is that while they may be the pinnacle, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond the young women stars themselves, there are also the legions of stars made by teenage girls. Constance Grady looks as far back as the young women in the 18th century who made novelists famous, and later, the girls who made the Beatles the biggest band in the world, despite the hate they got for it at the time. More recently, I can think of movies like the Titanic, which is derided as a chick-flick while also being one of the highest grossing movies of all time. There can be no doubt that young women have cultural power, though, it is worth addressing that the power and credit often goes to the most privileged rather than those who do the most work. For instance, despite their extensive contributions to pop culture, Black girls are still rarely recognized. Remember when the viral Renegade dance created by Jalaiah Harmon didn’t blow up on Tik Tok until being performed by White dancers? The intersection of identities must not be forgotten.

It is clear, though, that no matter how you slice it, young women and girls have the power to create and popularize pop culture like no other demographic. The crazy (or not so crazy) thing? Young women and girls are also some of the most powerful voices in the climate movement. Of course, most people have probably heard of Greta Thunberg. However, many of the most powerful activists are also young women. In the US movement, be sure to check out people like Xiye Bastida, Alexandria Villaseñor, Jamie Margolin, Tokata Iron Eyes, and Jasilyn Charger, among others. They’ve sued, they’ve protested, they’ve started nationwide campaigns, they’ve started nonprofits, they’ve written books, and they are some of the foremost climate activists we have. They are all also all under the age of 25. Here at On the Level, all our co-founders are young women between the ages of 22 and 25.

Now, what can we take away from the success of young women in climate and culture? I look at these young women and think, well it may be true that teenage girls don’t run the world, but they have some pretty incredible ideas. We should be learning from them! Namely, we should learn from and give them credit for their complexity. As a young woman myself, I would like to clarify that we are in fact activists and people who have impromptu dance parties and people who really feel their feelings, and yes, we do probably spend more time on social media than any other demographic. None of those things cancel each other out. In fact, when brought together, they are probably the very things that make us so successful.

The climate movement as a whole can learn a lot from us. We’ve already established that teenage girls make popular things and make things popular. The climate movement needs to be more popular, and young women can help us get there. So, what are the traits that make young women so successful at driving pop culture and speaking truth to power? We love deeply. We love Harry Styles. We also love the planet. We prize honesty. We know how much heartbreak hurts, and we expect our music to understand that. We also know what needs to be done to address the climate crisis, and we aren’t going to sugercoat it. We value relationships. Some are with crushes. Others are with our fellow citizens and organizers. We have fun. Some times we have a dance party with our friends. Other times we celebrate a successful action with our fellow organizers. In short, we bring our whole selves to our work. How could we possibly win this monumental fight for our future by only bringing a fraction of ourselves?

All too often, climate action is seen as a serious, solitary, or depressing. None of these things have to be true! Let’s try activism the teenage girl way. Let’s love deeply, prize honesty, value relationships, and have fun. Bring your whole self — the guilty pleasure, early aughts TV show and your strategic political mind. This movement is excited to meet you!

I don’t have a given piece of pop culture for you today, so I encourage to ask a young woman in your life two questions, “What’s your favorite song/tv show/movie/book right now? And if you could change one thing about this country today, what would it be?” Help each other show up as your full selves and we’ll win.

For those who are curious — here are mine, in this moment.

Last summer, I loved watching Netflix’s Outer Banks. Season 2 comes out next week, and you could say that I am very excited. I’ve linked the season 1 trailer below in case you need to catch up in time! And if I could change one thing today, it would be to start us on an equitable course to zero emissions by 2030. They’re related, because I care deeply about both things, and I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t. And after all, how can the world expect us young women to stand up for the entire planet if we can’t even stand up for the right to be our full selves?

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