BEWITCHING TEEN HEROINES

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Look at it from a post-Gidget pop-cultural perspective, and the Bush era wasn't such a bad time to be a teenage girl. It was during the late 1980s and early '90s that knowing young women in hair dyed the darkest shade of no-one-understands-me seemed to claim their place in the Zeitgeist. Launched in 1988, the now defunct Sassy magazine racked up awards and hundreds of thousands of subscribers as the first teen magazine to pay homage to girls uninterested in bubble-gum pop and the notion that true love flows only to those who wear tube tops. In 1989 came the cult film Heathers, featuring a 17-year-old Winona Ryder as a teenager who undiplomatically cleanses her social pool of its more loathsomely superficial members. And throughout it all brewed the Riot Grrrl movement, a much hyped and ultimately successful effort by popular female punk bands to make rock less boycentric.

Where the hip, forthright girls were harder to come by, however, was on TV. With the exception of the short-lived ABC series My So-Called Life, you would have searched the dial long and fruitlessly during those years to find a show that focused on the sort of teenager who might go home after school and find meaning in the words of Courtney Love. Perhaps because TV has always been a few steps behind other media in the race to reprocess and package alternative culture (remember that the women's movement was already in swing in the late 1960s, but you could still tune in to a midriff-baring Barbara Eden addressing Larry Hagman as "Master" on I Dream of Jeannie), it has taken a while for empowered girls to be granted their time slots.

But it seems that moment has arrived. There are currently half a dozen series airing on network and cable television that center on young women in their mid-teens so capable, self-assured and unfrivolous that any feminist would be proud to call them little sisters. Three of the shows--ABC's Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (Friday, 9 p.m. EDT), Nickelodeon's The Secret World of Alex Mack (airing three times a week) and the WB's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Monday, 9 p.m. EDT)--have even bestowed symbolic supernatural powers upon their young heroines.

Launched in March, MTV's animated comedy Daria (Monday, 10:30 p.m. EDT) focuses on a brainy girl who may not zap ice-cream cones, Alex Mack-style, in the face of uncharitable classmates but can always cut them down with her sharp tongue. Meanwhile, Nickelodeon's The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo (Saturday, 9 p.m. EDT) offers up a modernized Nancy Drew in flannel shirts. Played by a Harvard senior, Irene Ng, Shelby is an after-school police-department intern who just can't curb her urge to fight crime as an extracurricular activity. Then there is upn's Moesha (Tuesday, 8 p.m. EDT), which stars R.-and-B. singer Brandy Norwood as a young woman with good grades, good values and little tolerance for boyfriends who claim to need "space."

Like Moesha, UPN's highest-rated comedy, most of these shows are doing quite well for their networks, largely because nearly equal numbers of boys and girls (and often grownups of both sexes) are tuning in. Sabrina, just renewed for a second season, is often the highest-rated show in its time period and remains one of ailing ABC's only new hits. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the witty action series based on the 1992 film of the same, self-explanatory name, tosses off enough high kicks and punches to appease even the most devout Hercules viewer. In a mid-season of countless failures, Buffy has become the most talked-about show to have debuted in the past months.

If these programs have managed to grab the attention of 13-year-olds and thirtysomethings alike, it is because they have avoided coming off as dramatized infomercials for the National Organization for Women. Most of these characters are in fact the product of a Camille Paglia feminism that embraces the very pragmatic idea that women can be smart and successful and still care about shoes, Vogue and, of course, the charms of the opposite sex.

These young women are role models of self-possession; yet as they bump up against the untidy problems of adolescence each week, they also resemble the kids you might find flocking around a CK counter on a Saturday afternoon. Moesha may work at setting up a trip to Africa to research her heritage, but she also has a weakness for vinyl pants; Sabrina (Melissa Joan Hart) idolizes Annie Leibovitz but loves to dress like Audrey Hepburn; and though Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) may be great at offing vampires, she still cares deeply about making the cheerleading squad.

Producers of these shows understand that preachiness lures no one. Says Joss Whedon, creator of the Buffy movie and series and a former writer on Roseanne: "If I can make teenage boys comfortable with a girl who takes charge of a situation without their knowing that's what's happening, it's better than sitting down and selling them on feminism."

The original idea for Buffy came to Whedon after years spent watching horror movies in which "bubblehead blonds wandered into dark alleys and got murdered by some creature." Thought Whedon: "I would love to see a movie in which a blond wanders into a dark alley, takes care of herself and deploys her powers."

The series gives the idea more dimension. Buffy, like many of her TV peers, must deal with an absurdly clueless parent (her mom doesn't know she's a vampire slayer); the insularity of generic suburbia (Buffy lives in familiar but fictional Sunnydale, Daria in Lawndale); and a dumb but popular nemesis, Cordelia, who sets out to test Buffy's coolness quotient on Buffy's first day at school. "Vamp nail polish?" Cordelia inquires. "So over," Buffy confidently answers. "John Tesh?" Cordelia persists. "The devil," Buffy replies.

Beyond the reference barrage that is Buffy churns a wry, ongoing parable of the modern woman's greatest conflict: the challenge to balance personal and professional life. Buffy, you see, has been designated as the sole vampire slayer of her generation. When the bloodsuckers emerge, she must be there to make mincemeat out of them. But what to do on a night when a 12th century prophecy has proclaimed that the world could come to an end, and a cute boy named Owen, an Emily Dickinson lover even, has finally asked you out? This is, of course, Buffy's unending dilemma.

Although never heavy-handed in their approach, Alex Mack and Sabrina use their heroines' mystical gifts to play out morality tales from week to week. Thanks to a collision with a chemical truck, baseball-cap-wearing Alex Mack (Larisa Oleynik) has acquired, among other talents, the ability to morph into invisible quicksilver. In one episode she falls hard for a seemingly perfect boy. Right before they are to practice a scene from Romeo and Juliet together, she catches him, while in her unseeable incarnation, rejecting the friendship of a nerdy classmate. And of course she breaks up with him. In a recent episode of Sabrina, which featured an appearance by Raquel Welch as one of Sabrina's party-loving sorceress aunts, the teenager comes to the realization that a life of whipped-up, round-the-clock pleasure can only lead to hours of emptiness.

What makes all these characters so attractive is their very genuine fallibility--even those who can snap their fingers and land instantly in Tahiti. Buffy gets her priorities skewed sometimes; Daria is wise but smug. "She's a role model," notes mtv executive vice president Abby Terkuhle. "But she's not without her problems." Indeed, these characters are not meant to seem superheroic.

Shelby Woo's creator, Alan Goodman, was always taken aback at Nancy Drew's ability to take command of any environment she found herself in: "She winds up in ski country, and suddenly she's winning a ski championship." Goodman limned Shelby, instead, as someone made of flesh and bone. "She doesn't excel in every course," he says of his character. "She depends on her friends for rides; she works because she needs the money. I wanted her to be more reflective of the girls I grew up with. Nancy Drew never made a wrong assumption in her life."

If the success of these shows makes you think more young female heroines are destined to arrive on TV soon, you're right. The new archetype is certainly an appealing one to TV producers. "As a writer," notes Goodman, "it's more fun to do these shows because you can put a girl in a situation she hasn't been in a hundred times before. Women on TV have generally been defined in terms of their relationship to someone else. But these girls stand alone." And some would argue that female actresses at 13 or 14 are better performers than their male counterparts. Says Alex Mack creator Jimmy Lynch: "Girls at that age are simply much more in control of their emotional valves."

Even though emotional range is not generally demanded of humanoid marine reptiles, a new, live-action version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, set to air on Fox in September, will feature a female turtle named Venus De Milo alongside the original four males. In Mowgli: The New Adventures of the Jungle Book, an updated version of the Rudyard Kipling story that will also air on Fox Saturday mornings in the fall, a 13-year-old girl named Nahbiri moves to India with her father and has to face the wrenching challenge of adjusting to a different culture. Things would be easier for her if she could find savvy friends like Buffy, Alex & Co.