It’s never been easy to be a teenage girl. Between cafeteria politics, pressure to succeed in academics and extra-curricular activities and facing issues of self-esteem, body image and hyper-sexualization, teenage girls manage an extraordinary amount of expectations both from within their peer group and the world of adults. The inner lives of teenage girls are complex, high stakes and deeply individual.
Now, finally, teenage girls are beginning to have their say on stage. Not as peripheral characters in stories about adults (frequently, adult men) or in coming-of-age stories about their male counterparts, but as fully realized protagonists of their own stories. The Wolves is a standout among a spate of recent plays that center on the experience of teenage girls wrestling with who they are and who they want to become.
Adolescents have long populated films, including stand-outs such as Clueless, a 1995 update of Jane Austen’s Emma; Tina Fey’s 2004 hit Mean Girls (a musical adaptation heads to Broadway this spring); and, more recently, Blue is the Warmest Color. Even so, the girls at the center of these films weren’t always taken seriously. While Clueless doesn’t quite mock Alicia Silverstone’s character, she’s portrayed as an easily distracted, flaky girl. In recent years, these portrayals have deepened. Critics lauded the love story between Adèle and Emma in Blue is the Warmest Color for its depth and nuance, and the film won the Palme d’Or, the highest possible award, at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
Why has theater lagged behind? Writer and feminist Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, which was adapted into a the eponymous off-Broadway play), speaks to the challenge: “Men’s stories are seen as universal, women’s as particular. What women are up against is the battle not to be marginalized.” Throughout the history of theater, there have been exceptions to the rule, from Eurpides’ Medea to Henrik Iben’s A Doll House to The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman—a 1934 Broadway hit that stirred controversy for its lesbian themes and its portrayal of adolescent girls at a boarding school.
“We treat young women like they don’t have a right to a political conversation, and you can’t enjoy Kylie Jenner’s Instagram and worry about the future of this country.”
Stories about adolescent girls face an additional obstacle: teenage girls simply make things “uncool.” This has been true since before cool was even a concept in society. The diagnosis of hysteria, popularized during the Victorian era, was a way for doctors to pathologize female excitement. In the 21st century, examples such as Twilight, One Direction and thigh-high boots abound. Recently, Fox News host Tucker Carlson even tried to publicly discredit Teen Vogue reporter Lauren Duca during a live interview by referencing her article about Ariana Grande’s thigh-high boots. Duca responded with, “A woman can love Ariana Grande and her thigh-high boots and still discuss politics. Those things are not mutually exclusive…We treat young women like they don’t have a right to a political conversation, and you can’t enjoy Kylie Jenner’s Instagram and worry about the future of this country.”
Those seeming contradictions make up much of the text of The Wolves. The 16- and 17-year-old girls who comprise a club soccer team discuss genocide in Cambodia, human trafficking in Latin America and torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Typical teenage girl stuff, right? Playwright Sarah DeLappe’s point—echoed by Duca and others—is that these kinds of conversations do occur among adolescents, along with, yes, conversations about boys, fashion and social media.
It’s this very juxtaposition that makes The Wolves such a compelling and necessary piece of theater. The girls who populate this team are flawed, multifaceted individuals. While they’re not immune to world of boys and men, that world doesn’t appear onstage. There are no male characters in The Wolves, a fact that makes the play remarkable in and of itself.
Happily, The Wolves is at the vanguard of a number of stories about young women. Dry Land by Ruby Rae Spiegel, shocked critics and captivated audiences with its frank portrayal of a teenage swimmer’s decision to have an abortion. A recent off-Broadway hit by Jocelyn Bioh called School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play, takes the genre to Ghana, where students at an exclusive boarding school compete for the chance to be Miss Ghana 1986. A biting comedy, Bioh’s play is a crucial reminder that high school isn’t all angst. In 2015, the Goodman’s Feathers and Teeth explored how a teenage girl took charge in her family dynamic when her father remarried so quickly after her mother’s death.
The effort to diversify stories about young women has also found institutional support. The theater departments in the Big Ten Conference have created the Big Ten Theatre Consortium to commission a series of plays by outstanding female playwrights. These commissions must include at least six substantial roles for college-aged actresses. The resulting plays, written by some of the most acclaimed writers in the American theater, have grappled with such topics as the Steubenville rape case, racism on college campuses and animal rights activism. While these plays lift up the experiences of women on the brink of adulthood, they simultaneously speak to a much broader audience. Goodman Theatre has backed the initiative as one play to emerge from the consortium, Twilight Bowl by Goodman Theatre Artistic Associate Rebecca Gilman, was presented at the theater’s New Stages Festival in 2017. (In the past 30 years, 69% of Goodman world premieres were authored by women and/or playwrights of color.)
When we take the experiences of young women seriously, we also take seriously the notion that these young women are the world’s future leaders—in politics, business, sports and culture. This urgent and thrilling paradigm shift is happening everywhere from the pages of Teen Vogue to stages around the country. Perhaps the next shift is in our understanding of what it means to be a teenage girl at all, as current teenagers—members of Generation Z—have a much more fluid concept of gender than any previous generation. What this means for the plays of that generation is yet to be seen, but can only create a more diverse, electrifying canon of new work.