The “Problem Girl” Narrative—the Trope that Spawned a Generation

If you grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, you probably grew up idolizing “problem girls,” from Girl, Interrupted to The Virgin Suicides to Country Love. So when happens when you’re a generation raised on representations of girlhood laced with addiction, psych wards, suicide, and a plethora of other tragedies? By Maggie Clapperton

My girlfriends and I used to play this game. It was called Who Can Fuck Herself Up The Most Without Actually Dying? We never admitted to one another that we were playing this game—it was simply implicit in every twenty-sixer we downed in one sitting, every questionable sexual encounter, every half hidden scab and scar, our thick, tangled hair and even thicker eyeliner. It’s hard to write this without sounding dramatic, because dramatic is exactly what we were. We were 15-years-old in a small town, totally dependent on depictions of the outside world to tell us who we ought to be. While our misfortunes may have been inflated, even imaginary, the resulting behaviors were very real.  

What could possibly lead a group of well fed, well dressed, middle class girls down a path of such self destruction and self loathing? Well, it turns out that pretty much everything we watched, read and listened to at the time fell under what has come to be known as the “problem girl narrative”—a trope that ran rampant in late 90s and early 2000s. In this narrative, female protagonists are hit with a deluge of issues from eating disorders, to drug and alcohol abuse, to sexual assault, to suicide. (Think Girl, Interrupted (1999), Thirteen (2003), The Virgin Suicides (1999), the highly underrated Crazy/Beautiful (2001), Patricia McCormick’s novel Cut, and the high priestess of problem girls, Courtney Love.

And yet, through the twisted magnetism of pop culture, we romanticized these girls. At fifteen we couldn’t conceptualize the role we were trying to fill, but as we curled-up, hungover for our “angry girl movie marathons” we identified with these problem girls—or at least, we wanted to.

the-virgin-suicides-006The Virgin Suicides

In her graduate dissertation What are Little (Empowered) Girls Made Of?, Rosalind Sibielski writes that in the 90s and 00s, “versions of the problem girl colored virtually all media representations of adolescent femininity to one extent or another.” For instance, in Crazy/Beautiful, Kirsten Dunst’s character, a wealthy 17 year-old living in LA, has to endure parents who say things like “she is fabulous at taking a perfectly oiled train and running it right off the tracks” and “what kind of daughter are you?” The not so subtle message here is that this girl is fucked up. It’s just the way she is. Her mother committed suicide and she is destined to a life of similar psychological torment.

But rewatching the film as an adult, I was struck by how bright she becomes when given the slightest amount of agency. She is a passionate photographer and her work in the dark room empowers her to “play God” through the images she creates. Yet, she feels worthless 98% of the time: “I’m pathetic… I hate myself,” she says. Not once does a parent or teacher encourage her photographic pursuits, or explain how this could be a viable career path. Even as her parental issues are more or less resolved, it is her boyfriend who pursues his dream of becoming a pilot while her victory is that she is now okay, though she still sometimes “forgets to breath.”

999git_angelina_jolie_025Girl, Interrupted 

There are countless examples of this fatalistic view on women in late 90s and early 2000s media. Sibielski uses Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen as an example: “[The film] becomes particularly significant… both because it reinforces this idea that girlhood is always and only filled with problems for girls, and because in doing so it presents viewers with a representation of girlhood…in which the girl problem is unavoidable.” Similar to Dunst, Evan Rachel Wood’s character is left without any clear resolutions or path to inner peace. What can we expect? She’s a teenage girl in America, after all…

So, through the media we consumed, my friends and I unwittingly participated in this assumption that to be a teenage girl is necessarily a form of hell. But media does not occur in a vacuum. The notion that teenage girls have some preordained perdition is largely linked to the idea that women are born with certain levels of skill and intelligence. These assumptions are so culturally innate, so ingrained in the way we praise girls vs. boys that they are disguised as our own thoughts. Example: My dad takes my brother and I skating for the first time. Both my brother and I suck at skating. Me: “I’m so bad at this.” My brother: “These skates are broken.”


In the Psychology Today article, “The Trouble With Bright Girls,” Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson cites a study where fifth grade girls and boys were given the same complex, foreign task. She writes, “Straight-A girls showed the most helpless responses. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts, rather than give up.” She believes this is due to the different feedback given to females and males beginning at a young age. Girls are often told that we are smart, talented, good at x, y, and z. We are praised when we listen, when we focus, when we excel, and so we continually seek out these affirmations by doing what we’ve been told we are already good at (and avoiding what we are not). Boys are often told “if you’d only try harder, if you’d only focus, you could do a, b, and c”— praise that emphasizes effort over innate ability.

And so, as we move into our teenage years, females already carry a multitude of assumptions about ourselves and our abilities. When the complex, foreign problem of puberty blossoms within us, we are weighed down by a culture that trains us to accept the societal assumption that this is a time of pain, rather than challenge the constructs that may be causing said pain. The problem girl narrative is a reflection of this idea that as we move into womanhood, the stage is set. If we are crazy, we will always be crazy. Might as well make a film about it. And this message was passed down to girls like me, hungry for ideas on what womanhood entails.  

tumblr_mygezixjdc1ruze1fo1_1280Girl, Interrupted 

I’m a twenty-eight year old woman who grew up idolizing absurdly tortured, predominantly fictional women. Have things changed? Are teenaged girls as miserable and despondent as teens in the noughties? I would argue a hopeful, no. We all know that media has changed. Teens today have the privilege of generating their own content, which arguably helps them assert their individualism and seek out like-minded tribes. It’s no longer cool to be fucked up. Girls today have Tavi Gevinson and Petra Collins. They have Roxane Gay. They have modern day Beyoncé’s for Christ’s sake, and she gets fiercer by the year.   

As a product of the problem girl generation, I’m kind of jealous. I wish I had Rookie Magazine and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, even Taylor Swift when I was 15. But I’m not a dinosaur. Lucky for me, I am young enough to have turned with the cultural tides. I’m old enough not to glorify tragedy, abuse and mental illness, and I’m working on gaining confidence in things I’ve always been told I am bad at. So really, the same women and ideals influencing these girls are currently influencing me. Thank God/The Internet for that.

Maggie Clapperton is a writer living in Toronto



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