AEmma Raducanu’s US Open triumph is just the start, commentators say. She has been hailed as a sports savior, a model of resilience, an antidote to xenophobia, and a potential lucrative powerhouse. Her historic victory unwittingly engaged her in a game she could never win: the cultural obsession with exceptional teenage girls and young women.
Taking adolescent girls seriously – beyond their commercial potential – is a surprisingly recent phenomenon, ten years old if so. The first teenage prodigies, from Emily Dickinson to Beyoncé, have been accused of being the puppets of powerful men and subjected to exploitation. That was until social media gave a generation a hands-off voice to define their own culture, fight the injustices they hold dear, and speak out about the pressures and abuse they endure.
The first wave of coverage of these remarkable young women, from Malala Yousafzai to Tavi Gevinson, marveled at their distancing from the aerial stereotype perpetuated by industrialized pop culture of the ’90s and 2000s. It quickly metabolized into the idea. of these girls as a corrective to the mistakes of previous generations.
In its most innocent form, attention is a result of the overwhelming allure of youth seen by those who feel theirs drift away (as with the recent millennial obsession of 18-year-old pop star Olivia Rodrigo ). At worst, reducing a girl to her most ambitious attributes is dehumanizing – especially for black girls, who have to be hyper-exceptional to be deemed worthy of attention in the first place.
In her recent cover of American Vogue, poet Amanda Gorman, now 23, recounted a collaboration with toy brand American Girl that was born during her stint as an 18-year-old Los Angeles laureate. . The company produced a doll whose biography borrowed bare some of the most inspiring rhythms from Gorman’s own history. The experience distorted Gorman’s reality. “I built this narrative in my head that, you know, I had to be kind of a ‘role model’,” she said.
Petrifying teenage girls, still in the early stages of shaping what they might become, hamper their potential for growth. Billie Eilish has always expressed her displeasure at being presented as a “good” example for hiding her body in loose clothing, and how that denied her the opportunity to change (and put her peers to shame). When she revealed more of her figure earlier this year, she faced backlash and allegations of hypocrisy from people disappointed that she didn’t live up to their standards. idea of who she was. The new image sparked more outrage than Your Power, the first single from her second album, in which Eilish addressed abuse and statutory rape within the entertainment industry.
Focusing closely on a girl advocating for something usually only serves to obscure her cause, the supposed reason we care about her in the first place. One need only look at the stacks of unofficial books with Greta Thunberg’s face on the cover to see just how misunderstood and devious her position is: Anyone who cares about the environment wouldn’t print books for cash. She knows that politicians treat her like a mascot and then break their promises to adopt green policies.
The same goes for Malala Yousafzai: in 2015, writer Ayesha Siddiqi wrote an essay for Vice titled Does America Deserve Malala? in response to a film that all but took her subject out of context as a young Pakistani activist for girls’ education and avoided acknowledging international responsibility for fueling conflict in the region. “The war on terrorism is not a beautiful story of triumph over adversity; yet he named me Malala, ”Siddiqi wrote. “How do you assess a film whose central narrative is activated by a reality that the film ignores? “
Even those who are perceived to have social capital and power are often left vulnerable, both to exploitation and to bear the brunt of its exposure. In a recent essay for The Cut, Tavi Gevinson, now 25, wrote about her 18 years and her relationship with a much older man who believed, as she believed at the time, that his status as An influential writer and actress “nullified the power he wielded as a grown man,” providing cover for his possible abuse. By hiding her identity to protect her family, she wrote, did she allow further abuse? Was she responsible for self-proclaimed militias online speculating on her identity?
Simone Biles has opened up about being sexually assaulted by former U.S. gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar as a teenager. Now 24, she competed in the Tokyo Olympics – the only team member to publicly identify herself as a survivor of her crimes – in part to force accountability within an industry that welcomes still suspected assailants such as American fencer Alen Hadzic, who traveled to Tokyo despite facing three allegations of sexual misconduct – which he all denies. “I feel like if there hadn’t been a survivor in the sport, they would have just put it aside,” she told Today ahead of the games. After stepping down to protect her sanity, Biles said the pressure to represent survivors had weighed on her. Yet she was the only victim of horrific abuse for falling short of professional expectations and the damaging stereotype of the “strong black woman.”
Much of the cultural obsession with exceptional teenage girls emphasizes the same standards of respectability – selflessness, positivity, poise, “unhysterical grace,” as an off-balance Times editorial wrote about Raducanu – which have always constrained them. The leash is just a little longer these days. If they blunder – look their age – they are blasted. If they challenge the limited imagination of the cult that has been built around them, or admit its pressures, they are a disappointment, an ungrateful, an inconvenience. This suggests that a girl’s “potential” is something best to speculate on, a disembodied promise of a brighter future that we can all feel happy to harbor. It is not a party, but a trap. “Recently when I win I don’t feel happy, I feel more like a relief,” Naomi Osaka said when announcing that she would be taking a break from tennis this summer. “And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think this is normal.
I don’t want to sound pessimistic about Raducanu, who said she doesn’t feel any pressure after the win. She allows herself to live in the moment like rabid prognosticators, obsessed with her future glories and earning potential, are not. “I’m still only 18,” she said. “I just have a free swing for anything that comes my way. This is how I have faced every game here in the United States. It got me this trophy so I don’t think I should change anything. She deserves her freedom; anyone genuinely obsessed with their potential should focus on recognizing any structural forces that might stand in their way.