The Great Teen Girl Activist Army of Gen Z
Teenage activists like Greta Thunberg, Emma Gonzalez, and Naomi Wadler predict a future in which girls, in fact, run the world.
Francesco Vezzoli, UNTITLED (FUTURE), 2019. Laserprint on canvas, cotton embroidery, artist’s frame. Courtesy of the artist.
We are not living in a time of grown-ups. The prime illustration of this: the giant infant occupying the White House, taking up all the air in the room, the room being America, or (worse, and as he would have it) the whole news-addicted world. Meanwhile, in the UK, another man baby of ego and ineptitude doubles down on xenophobia, racism, contempt for the working class, and general incivility. We’re all exhausted, in this unparented world.
Exasperation with our callow rulers hasn’t, however, kept us from falling into childishness ourselves. Much of our culture encourages us into inertia. The algorithms of social media reinforce an infantile solipsism by granting us the insidious sensation that we’re at the center of the universe. Our beliefs and prejudices are played back to us, threatening to turn us into small-minded, small-worlded beings. There’s a creeping infantilization, too, in sillier but possibly no less worrying ways: We’ve come to accept how our packaged snacks talk to us like we’re kindergarteners (“Eat me, I’m yummy!”).
Who will lead us kids, if our elected leaders are children too? More and more, the answer looks like a 2011 Beyoncé song: Who run the world?- GIRLS. Today, our worst crises are most visibly confronted by girls. Seventeen-year-old Greta Thunberg has become the global face of climate activism. Twenty-year-old Emma Gonzalez and 12-year-old Naomi Wadler are nationally recognized heroes of the gun-control movement. Twenty-two-year-old Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever Nobel laureate when she was 17, is celebrated as a symbol of female education—and of courage triumphing over extremism, after she survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban. There are more localized examples, too, such as Mari Copeny (a.k.a., Little Miss Flint), a 12-year-old who’s spent the past three years fighting for clean water for Flint, Michigan. That’s a quarter of her life.
Might there be something salutary, even transformative, about this youth-led culture? Writing in the New Yorker last year, Rebecca Mead praised the young speakers at March for Our Lives, the demonstration against gun violence, as “genuinely childlike, in the best sense of the term: uncompromising, passionate, forward-looking, fearless.” Mead’s sentiment could apply not just to Gonzalez and the other Parkland teens, but to all those girls mentioned above, most of whom we’ve come to know, as with our pop icons, mononymously. Greta and Malala, et al. are, however, distinctly teen-like rather than just childlike. They blend outrage with idealism. They are unashamed about their feelings, which are intense. Crucially, those feelings are inextricable from their politics.
In March of last year, Gonzalez stood silent on stage, tears streaming, for six minutes, commemorating the school shooting episode of that duration in which 17 of her schoolmates were slaughtered by a gunman. Then, in August of last year, Thunberg began spending her Fridays doggedly camped outside the Swedish parliament, holding up a sign that read, “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (“School strike for climate”). Fifteen months later, #FridaysforFuture is a global youth movement. Even the venomous men on the far right currently vilifying this girl serve only to demonstrate her power. The New York Times recently described her as “the first world political leader born this century.” The New Republic put it in even bolder terms: “Greta Thunberg is the most important person in the world.” Her speech to the United Nations last September, instantaneously viral no doubt due to her blazing, lucid rage, presented a landmark moment in the global history of climate change. It was clear that those five minutes might do more to wake us up than anything that’s gone before.
The phrase “as the father of daughters” (a piety about as affected as those “thoughts and prayers” that follow mass shootings) has been rightly mocked as a justification for male politicians to behave like feminists—and to congratulate themselves for doing so. Still, it takes on a new dimension when one considers that, as a recent sociology study shows, the fathers of daughters are more likely to have liberal views than the fathers of sons. One father of a daughter is 56-year-old Norman Cook, better known as the British DJ Fatboy Slim. Twenty years ago, he had a hit with “Right Here, Right Now,” a track that evoked the empty chemical urgency of (to use a bygone British idiom) “being off your tits” at the tail end of “Ibiza madness.” Recently, he overlaid Thunberg’s words with that track, giving them a new urgency—born of the spitting, hoarse fury with which she says “right here, right now.”
“I shouldn’t be up here,” Thunberg began last month as she addressed world leaders. “I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!” She was telling us, explicitly, that she wished she didn’t have to do this, that she didn’t want to have to do this. By contrast, if we were to watch a marathon of some of the highest-grossing movies of recent years in total ingenuousness, we might conclude—awesomely!—that Beyoncé was right: Here were girls running the world, and they were totally pumped to do so. Go, tech genius Shuri, the smartest person in Wakanda! Go, Katniss, prevailing with her bow and arrow! And go, Ms. Granger, casting spells, sassing boys, and generally running the show!
Often, however, pop culture functions more as wishful corrective than truthful celebration of reality. On screen, teenage girls “kick ass”; in real life, they’re more likely to be worrying about the size of their butts. (Un-fun facts: In 2015, suicide rates for American teenage girls hit a 40-year high. Seventy-eight percent of 17-year-old American girls are “unhappy with their body.”) In other words, there’s a significant disconnect between the realities of being a girl right now and how girlhood is being portrayed in our culture. Naomi Wadler, who later screamed when her mom told her Black Panther star Lupita Nyong’o had namechecked her on Instagram, was speaking to this dissonance when she addressed the March for Our Lives rally. “I am here,” said the then 11-year-old girl, “to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news. I represent the African American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential.” It was impossibly moving. It also should have made us wonder how it was that a fifth-grader was up there speaking about this. Shouldn’t we adults be more ashamed of ourselves?
Within the story of the teenage girl’s power lies the ongoing narrative of her weakness and disenfranchisement, a narrative grounded in social if not intrinsic realities. The way we receive Thunberg and co. depends on this subtext, which threatens the perpetuation of sexist condescension: a girl, a mere girl, having opinions! Remember how eagerly, in those high-alert first months of the Trump presidency, we championed Teen Vogue as the organ for speaking truth to power? It was delightful to us that a publication associated with lip gloss, selfies, and other sound preoccupations of female teenhood was now excoriating the administration. Soon, the website’s politics vertical outstripped its entertainment one in page views. In January 2017, a person called Kitty Chandler, with the handle @mightybattlecat, tweeted: “The year is 2017. America is a tire fire. The resistance is led by Teen Vogue, Badlands National Park, and the Merriam-Webster dictionary.” Over 50,000 retweets and 100,000 likes ensued.
The Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman has pointed out that “the truly valuable commodity” for news media is attention, not information. Teen Vogue, like any website in 2019, runs on clicks and views. Similarly, Thunberg’s reach has not come about through the content of her message, formidably well-informed though she is. Scientists and researchers have insisted on the same facts for decades, but sobering statistics and uncomfortable truths tend not to be retweetable—it’s emotion that gets us going. And it’s emotion that these young activists tap into. So we need a new term for these girls—not “telegenic” exactly, considering Thunberg is an awkward, frowning Swedish girl with Asperger’s. The unlovely neologism “viralgenic” is more apt for a plucky young girl with braids who started a global movement.
And yet, tweeting “GRETA IS MY PRESIDENT” does not allow us to call ourselves activists, even though we might do so in our Twitter bio. Nor, alas, does it make her our actual president. We’re in danger of salving our consciences by confusing sentiment for action. Last September, writer Lincoln Michel tweeted:
Of course, we’re right to champion and amplify these extraordinary girls, but we’re derelict in our duty if all we do is cheer.
Nonetheless, I’m struck by one certifiably great positive change illustrated by this Rise of the Girl. My own experience of girlhood was the era of Britney-as-schoolgirl, singing, “Hit me, baby, one more time” with her hair in pigtails, posing in her underwear on the cover of Rolling Stone while holding a stuffed Teletubby. As a British teenager, I felt a sick disenchantment, that cold creep of knowledge— Oh, this is how the world is—when a website began running a “countdown clock” to the 16th birthday of singer Charlotte Church, when she would be “of age” in England. In other words, not too long ago, girls most often became famous as objects of desire, even unwitting ones. Now, the world’s most famous teenage girls are known for global movements and international peace prizes.
Perhaps activism comes naturally to a generation coming of age in a time of widespread democratic, ecological, and humanitarian crisis. And certainly, no previous generation had social media at their disposal. As Gonzalez told the New Yorker last year, “We know how to keep people’s attention on us because we’re teenagers and we have the phones.” Her forebears did not. In 1963, a nine-year-old African American girl, Audrey Faye Hendricks, was arrested and jailed at a civil rights march in Birmingham, Alabama. Two and a half months after this Children’s March, Birmingham rescinded its segregation laws. If Hendricks were an activist today, she would probably be famous.
Halfway through writing this essay, I found myself wallowing in the despair familiar to anyone who lives in America and reads the news. I emailed a friend a bit older and a lot wiser than me to lament the way students seemed to judge fiction exclusively on how well it confirmed self-evident moral truths, and she wrote this back: “But beneath it all is one of the purest urges a generation could have towards equity, justice and kindness.” Yes. I think of the teenager I mentor, of how, at 17, she is so casually and comprehensively versed in feminism and the language of social justice—as she was at 13. I think, in particular, about how extremely excited she is to vote next year. What keeps me from despair, then, is the knowledge that she and all these girls, famous or otherwise, will soon become adults in the fullest sense of the word. By which I suppose I mean citizens. Politicians may discover the trouble with girls is that they grow up.