On Watching White Girls

Winona Ryder as Charlotte Flax in Mermaids (1990) dir. Richard Benjamin. Orion Pictures.

by Sara Hashemi | March 6, 2021

Coming-of-age films are an integral part of popular culture. Films like The Breakfast Club (1985), Stand By Me (1986), Almost Famous (2000),and Superbad (2007) have defined generations of teenagers. Many films within the genre focus on girls: Pretty in Pink (1986), Mermaids (1990), Juno (2007). And yet, while these movies pretend to present different facets of the teenage girl experience, their protagonists are all white — a fact that distanced me from fully relating to their characters, but never stopped me from watching.

I would watch these movies religiously as a teenager — living vicariously through the characters on screen. I would see these American kids go to parties, yell at their parents, sneak out, and mess up in ways that I never could. In my own Canadian adolescence, my Iranian mother would not let me come home past 8pm, go to sleepovers, or have a Facebook account. I felt alienated from my group of white friends who, I assumed, were having the experiences I so badly wanted to be a part of. In a way, my relationship with those girls was similar to the one I had with the movies I watched: I wanted in but was constantly left out. Even as I watch coming-of-age films now, at 22-years old, I can’t help but feel like everyone is in on something I don’t know about, that there’s some universal teen experience I’ve missed out on.

Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles (1984)

Molly Ringwald is the bonafide queen of coming-of-age movies, with her iconic roles in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty in Pink (1986). Her characters in these films are unpopular but conventionally attractive, and they go through the typical motions of a teenager in the genre; she wants to go to the big dance, she’s preoccupied with social cliques, and has a crush on a guy more popular than she is. Nothing really happens to her, but she feels as though everything is happening to her. However, I was most taken by Winona Ryder, who played the foil to Ringwald’s more palatable, All-American characters in movies like Beetlejuice (1988), Heathers (1989), and Mermaids (1990). Her roles were often edgier — she played slightly neurotic, dark teenagers. That drew me in. “My whole life is a dark room,” she solemnly declares behind a black veil as Lydia Deetz. Ryder was the perpetual outsider, and for that, I felt a sort of kinship towards her. 

I was struck by Ryder’s portrayal of Charlotte in Mermaids when I first watched it at 15 — the melodramatic voice-over, the black collared outfits, the constant guilt. I was so attracted to this vision of Charlotte. It’s how I wanted to see myself. It’s as though the complete lack of diversity in film predisposed me to identifying with any character with dark hair. 

white girls body image
Winona Ryder and Cher in Mermaids (1990).

That’s the thing about coming-of-age movies. They’re meant to be relatable, perhaps more so than any other genre. The audience is supposed to look at the protagonist and recognize a part of themselves—either because they’re currently having the same experiences, or because of nostalgia for when they were—and feel comforted. Their whiteness is supposedly universal, and through it the audience is reminded that high school is miserable, their crush won’t pay attention to them, and their parents don’t understand them. They get to feel less alone. 

These negative experiences are still wrapped up inside the benefits of the leading characters’ whiteness — everything is coated in a privilege that is never addressed, and alienates non-white viewers. When you aren’t white and you’re looking to see yourself in these movies, watching them is like staring into a broken mirror. I’m searching for a reflection, but it can never be accurate. It’s not that high school wasn’t miserable, it’s that many of the reasons it was came from feeling othered by my white friends. They got to be the protagonists, and I was the token character who ate lunch with them; I wasn’t allowed to do much else. As Zoé Zamudzi writes, “[i]t’s almost as if characters like Lady Bird and Juno were created to prepare me for a life of subordination to the trials, yearnings, and humanities of white women.” 

I was a side character in my own story.

Clearly, I thought, there was something wrong with my life, and that’s why these things weren’t happening to me. I still do. When the lives you see in film are supposed to be “relatable,” it’s hard not to feel inadequate when they don’t match up with your own. My experiences aren’t given the same attention as those of white protagonists, even though I can recognize now that they are valuable. I love being Iranian, speaking Farsi, and eating Persian food. They’re all a part of how I was raised, and they make me who I am, but they seldom are reflected on screen in a nuanced, respectful way.

My reality was entirely different from Charlotte’s, just as it was from Ringwald’s characters, and just as it was from most other female protagonists. But I kept watching these movies, because if anything, they gave me a window into the teenage experiences I felt I was missing out on. I couldn’t fully relate to their narratives, but they helped me relate to the world.

Even in a time when diversity in capital-F Film is a hot topic, all of the major, critically acclaimed female coming-of-age movies I can name from the last five years feature a white protagonist. There’s Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017), Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018), and more recently, Karen Maine’s Yes, God, Yes (2019). But however varied their personalities, the protagonists all share a specific brand of indie-girl whiteness. Which isn’t to say I didn’t relate to them — their white “universality” leaves enough of a blank slate for me to project onto. 

white girls body image 2
Lady Bird (2017) dir. Greta Gerwig. A24.

Like the titular Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), I went to a Catholic-adjacent all-girls high school (most of the nuns had retired and we only had mass four times a year). I have an intense and often fraught relationship with my mother. I want to go to New York! At the same time, there’s a lot that separates me from Lady Bird. I’m Muslim, instead of Catholic; I’m Middle Eastern, not white; I grew up in Montreal instead of Sacramento. I also considered myself an outsider in my high school friend group for entirely different reasons than Lady Bird. Still, in a way, I felt connected to her — maybe that’s the point. In her review of the film, Aditi Kini writes that “white mediocrity is the lowest common denominator for experience.” Whiteness is seen as neutral, despite its very real — and often violent — social and political implications. People of colour aren’t afforded that same privilege.

My relationship to female protagonists today is a complicated one. Despite my love for these films, I’m simply too aware of the differences between us. Jia Tolentino articulates this feeling in her essay Pure Heroines: “My hesitation, as an adult, to find myself within the heroine universe has been rooted in a suspicion that that identification would never truly be reciprocal: I would see myself in Jo March, but the world’s Jo Marches would rarely, if ever, be expected or able to see themselves in me.” Ryder, who notably played Jo March in the 1994 adaptation of Little Women, embodies a figure far removed from my reality. She’s a wealthy middle-aged white woman. I’ve spent years latching onto Ryder and her characters, desperate to recognize a part of myself somewhere, but people like her have never needed to find themselves in me. Our relationship is entirely one-sided. 

There are, of course, many female coming-of-age films that do not centre a white character. Hearts Beat Loud (2018), Jezebel (2019), and The Half of It (2020) are just a few of the movies featuring young girls of colour, each of them tackling different themes. It’s not productive to say that these movies aren’t out there. As Nijla Mu’min states in a piece about Black coming-of-age films, “when we make definitive statements about the total lack of coming of age films about Black girls, we might actually aid in the erasure of the narratives that do exist, and that will exist.” Popular culture relegates these movies to the margins. 

Kiersey Clemons and Nick Offerman in Hearts Beat Loud (2018) dir. Bretty Haley

People of colour are told, again and again, that their stories aren’t as valuable as those of white people. It can be disheartening, especially as a teenager, when the things you most relate to, the ones that make you feel the most seen, are sidelined in favour of more of the same. Movies shape the world we live in, and they shape us. They’ve shaped me. They’ve brought me comfort, and they’ve made me insecure. They played a huge part in conditioning my perception of the world, but also of myself. Coming-of-age films made me feel as though my own story was not enough—that I should want to be more like the friends who made me feel like I did not belong. I don’t want to feel like that anymore. Kids of colour shouldn’t have to settle — they need to see more than just white kids growing up on screen. They deserve to know their coming-of-age experiences are meaningful. Our stories matter, too.


Sara Hashemi is a writer and editor from Tio’ta:ke (Montreal). You can find her buying statement earrings on Etsy, or on Twitter @sara_wtv.