Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

Over lockdown I found myself slowly returning to the TV shows and films that many of us grew up with.  This time round, I began to see how problematic and dangerous the female characters were, ultimately, on my opinion of what it meant to be a young woman.  

These shows presented us with a landscape of white, often wealthy, and mostly troubled female leading characters. TV gave us girls suffering beautifully and romantically with eating disorders and mental illnesses. It gave us ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girls’, whose only destinies were to support a male character fulfil his own. These stock characters were only muses and half-shaped fantasies of real people; not role models.

Skins, a cult series for a generation of young Brits, was problematic in more ways than one.

Cassie Ainsworth, was an ethereal character who floated around saying things like “I didn’t eat for three days so I could be lovely.”  She was eccentric, lonely, and suffering severely from anorexia. She showed us how to hide food and trick the scales, all the way remaining achingly beautiful. Despite the shows well-intentioned portrayal, it glorified her eating disorder, and turned her into an inspiration for many young girls. Images of Cassie began to be interchangeable with pro-anorexia content online as she became dangerously romanticised. 10 years on, women online are now discussing the irreparable effect this character came to have on their young, vulnerable minds.

Effy Stonem was almost as dangerous a character– mysterious, troubled and depressed. Boys wanted her and girls wanted to be her, not simply for her looks, but because she was charmingly “messed up”. Skins, as a show, told us that having a mental illness made her more attractive and interesting. It made her slow mental breakdown look romantic, and not realistic.

These characters, supposedly intended to be cautionary tales that also help to raise awareness, were grossly misjudged. Their issues, that were not dealt with responsibly on screen, became appealing and even, in some cases, inspirational. The unforeseen and devastating effects this may have on impressionable minds is now growingly apparent.

Bridget Jones was an iconic, clumsy and totally relatable British heroine. We all watched her slide down that fireman’s pole (probably at a younger age than we should have done). Yet, under her chaotic exterior, there was a neurotic obsession with her weight, an incessant quest to be skinnier. Her diary entries shockingly attached exact numerical values onto what she deemed a desirable weight and what was “repulsive” and required a “return to calorie counting tomorrow”. Gaining a boyfriend and being thin, is what she taught us life was allabout for a woman. Now, a collection of body confidence influencers are rightly calling out the character, who for some, helped them, at an early age, to feed unhealthy obsessions with food and internalise the view that being “thin” is one of life’s great goals.

The American tv shows that occupied much of my youth: The OC, 90210, Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill were full of enviably beautiful and stick thin women, who never ate on screen. Merissa, in The OC, waves around a single chip for an entire scene, before declaring “I’m stuffed”. All our young eyes saw were popular, attractive, skinny girls that don’t eat. I wonder, how much we internalised of these messages?

A healthy space for female characters is further thinned by the Manic Pixie Dream Girl cliché –  coined by the film critic Nathan Rabin in 2005. It describes the one-dimensional template of attractive female characters that exist, almost exclusively, to help transform the young and broody male lead. A MPDG functions to show him how to embrace life in its full and help him to reach his true potential.

Teen fiction and films that I adored growing up were riddled with MDGPs, namely Leslie in Bridge to Terabithia, Sam in Perks of Being a Wallflower and characters in numerous John Green novels. They featured teenage girls that were exciting, wild, adored and almost always deeply unhappy and on some self-destructive path. The male character is always left better for his experience with a manic pixie, whilst she is likely to die tragically, disappear or forever be immortalised on the page as she’s left with no resolution. It is a trope as tired as time, and proliferates the idea that women are not the centre of the story, but simply the dispensable muse.

Where were our real female leads back then? Characters who weren’t being boxed into tired clichés or appealingly suffering from mental illnesses? Who weren’t fixated on either being too fat or too skinny or too sad? Whose roles were not to save a boy or be an object of male desire?

We needed them then.