10 coming-of-age girl power icons in pop culture

From Angela Chase to Denise Huxtable, here are the characters that helped get us through girlhood.

by Emily Manning and i-D Staff
13 August 2015, 2:25pm

We all know The Breakfast Club's final credo -- the defiant ballad of the brain, athlete, basket case, princess, and criminal. But while John Hughes' films have rightfully achieved cult status in the coming-of-age canon, most of us didn't end up like Molly Ringwald (no matter how nerdy her characters started out.) From Persepolis' punk rocker Marji to the ever explanatory Clarissa Darling, here are a few leading ladies whose on-screen journeys into adulthood guided our own.

Angela Chase: Back in 94, Claire Danes portrayed the most profound 15-year-old to ever grace network television on the tragically short-lived My So Called Life. While yes, she did get to call a teenage Jared Leto bae, Angela's coming-of-age conflict was driven only in part by her attraction to Jordan Catalano. Developing friendships far from the sheltered environment of her upper-middle-class nuclear family -- with the rebellious Rayanne Graff and Catholic, multi-ethnic, bisexual Rickie Vasquez -- Angela's awkward phase helped everyone in her life become more open minded. The show only lasted a single season, but its impact lives on.

Marji Satrapi: Sure you discovered punk as a teen, but did you have to illegally cop "Western music" from seedy mixtape hustlers on the street, or flee the country when you disagreed with teachers? Back in 2007, Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel series Persepolis was adapted into an Academy Award-winning animated film. Depicting Marji's life during the Iranian Revolution -- the war between Iran and Iraq in the early 80s -- Persepolis is a powerful transitional story that provides a vital perspective outside the stereotypical suburban setting.

Clarissa Darling: Melissa Joan Hart's Sabrina precursor might not have had magical powers (other than somehow pulling off all the prints happening in this outfit) but Clarissa Explains it All's title character was just as impactful in helping Muggle preteens find their way. Clarissa was actually Nickelodeon's first series to feature a female lead, and its wild success paved the way for more balanced gender roles on kids' television. Today, its screenshots have been repurposed for the informational Tumblr, Clarissa Explains White Supremacy.

Denise Huxtable: Lisa Bonet's most famous character might take this list's style crown, but it's Denise's journey from The Cosby Show's Brooklyn brownstone to historically black college on A Different World that make her journey so important. The 16-year-old was definitely popular, but carved her own path and learned her own lessons. And although she was fired from the spin off after its first season (pregnant with daughter Zoe Kravitz, Cosby would not write for an unwed mother in college) Denise helped pave the way for the important series' six successful seasons, which featured diverse storylines about social issues.

Ashley Spinelli: If the Recess gang's tough as nails tomboy was a real person, she would have bagged a Saint Laurent campaign years ago. Clad in a black biker jacket, beanie, striped stockings, and shitkicking boots, Spinelli not only forecasted our future wardrobes, but provided a much needed androgynous alternative to the snooty clique she shared a first name with, The Ashleys. 

Marissa Cooper: On the surface, The O.C. seemed to put all of its coming-of-age eggs into twee posterboy Seth Cohen's angst-addled basket. But Mischa Barton's bad girl was far and away the teen soap's most compelling character. Before meeting a tragic end, she battled with an impossibly rocky home life, various kinds of substance abuse, a criminal record, the suicide of a love interest, and no one taking her sexual fluidity seriously. Ryan Atwood might have started on the wrong side of the tracks, but Marissa's struggle to find herself in a world of superficial affluence was a powerful reminder that no amount of money can buy a stable and supportive environment.

Lane Kim: Tbh, I never really hopped on the Gilmore Girls train (they just talked so goddamned fast) but from what I did catch, Rory's kindergarten best friend Lane Kim killed it. Raised by a super strict Korean mom who disapproved of basically everything, Lane's struggle to find herself -- sneaking out to play drums in a rock band and dying her hair purple, a precursor to Glee's goth Tina Cohen-Chang-- in a predominantly white community was a much needed Asian American storyline.

Adèle: Blue is the Warmest Color's sex scenes generated so much fanfare, it's easy to forget that the film is actually a story about discovering desire and coping with loss. The French flick follows Adèle, who at the film's outset, is a shy 15-year-old dissatisfied with her friends' shallow fixations on boys. As the story progresses, she meets and develops a relationship with Emma, a blue-haired art student. It doesn't end at the pair's happiest moments, but sees the complex relationship through. It's hard to tell what's messier: the sex, the crying, or the alarming amount of close up shots of people eating pasta. But it's real.

Moesha Mitchell: Before Brandy Norwood put her acting chops to use alongside Whitney Houston in Cinderella, she portrayed Moesha, a teen whose widower father remarried the vice principal of her high school (man, that sucks!) In addition to the death of a parent, the show considered social issues like unprotected sex, teen pregnancy, drug use, and race relations where similarly structured series like Sister Sister and Full House often treaded a bit too lightly.

The girls of Hey! Arnold: Perhaps due to its New York City setting, Hey! Arnold was one of the most progressive cartoons on kids television. Ethnic and class diversity were celebrated as central components of the neighborhood rather than presented as outsider perspectives in one-off episodes. Although repressed, conniving unibrow Helga G. Pataki often served as their de-facto leader, the girls of PS 118 were free thinkers who held their own with boys in the classroom and on the field (well, street.) Phoebe, Rhonda, Sheena, Lila, Nadine, Ruth: we salute you. 


Text Emily Manning
Image via Flickr Creative Commons

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