Teenage girls have it very hard.
Anyone who has ever been one knows this instinctively. Navigating your newfound emergence into the contradictory social and sexual politics and expectations, where your body is weaponized against you and your value dictated by its degree of conformity to a Barbie doll, where you're either a slut if you have sex or a prude if you don't, where eating disorders are tacitly encouraged and you're constantly told to be quiet, be small and meek and always complaisant, and stay out of the way – it's a lot. Their argot is maligned, their speaking habits policed, their manner of dress demeaned and insulted as vanity, and their interests automatically deemed shallow, frivolous, and intellectually deficient by their mere association with them. In short, being a teenage girl isn't easy.
But Greta Thunberg, named this month as TIME Magazine's Person of the Year at the young age of sixteen – smack in the middle of some of the most difficult and complicated years a girl can have – is proving something we've long ignored: that teen girls are amazingly influential drivers of cultural change.
This is documentable. To cite one of my favorite examples, we need only look at the English language, which teenage girls have been on the bleeding edge of defining for literally hundreds of years, as linguist Gretchen McCulloch argues. You may remember the way mallrats and Valley girls were derided back in the 1980's for using "totally," you know the way we totally all do now. And it's so much more fundamental than that; the demise of words like "ye" and the shift from "hath" and "doth" to "has" and "does" are all first documented in the personal letters of teenage girls hundreds of years ago. It's so well-documented to the point of being actively a cliché; women, far more than men, drive innovation in how we speak to each other, and even what we speak about.
That's been true in the twenty-first century as well; the place feminism has in our public debates owes itself to young women hanging out on the internet and sharing their experiences. And so it should come as absolutely zero surprise that the leading light of this day and age's climate change movement is a teenage girl who is 100% finished with being dismissed and insulted – even by the president.
Greta amazes me. I think of myself as a pretty future-oriented, driven, focused person, but I didn't have a fraction the initiative, follow-through, and bravery she has, singlehandedly turning the solitary protest into a global following behind a voice that presidents, prime ministers, and princes all must acknowledge. And she's done it in less than two years.
Perhaps that's a testament to the anxieties of the age; climate change looms for younger generations in a way those of us who won't live to see its most devastating consequences probably can't entirely understand. Similarly, the last twenty years have been the story of declining faith in institutional responsibility, and that's true on all sides of the political spectrum. From clergy sex abuse scandals to the Iraq War to Brexit to the "liberal media elite" and Donald Trump, we've been buffeted on all sides as the ongoing crisis of the twenty-first century has unfolded around us. And it is undoubtedly true that Greta tapped into that. There would be no public movement without a public ready and willing to join.
But I would be remiss if I failed to highlight how remarkable it is that it's been spearheaded by the clarity and resolve of a teenage girl. She's succeeded where every climate activist group, every climate lobbyist, and every politician has failed by galvanizing public opinion into public, clear-throated, take-no-prisoners action.
Greta is also unbelievably canny. She has had the foresight to know that putting her up on a pedestal gives you permission to ignore the things she's actually saying and to keep the focus, as much as she's capable, on her generation rather than on her. She's spoken, forcefully, about how the people who will be most affected by rising temperatures are the ones without the power to do anything about it. In other words, she is beholden to no one and doesn't give a single damn about what you think about her. Or even what I think about her.
She's been compared to Joan of Arc, which isn't much of a reach; both teenage girls who stuck their heads in where they were profoundly unwelcome to force through action. And both did it from positions of profound social weakness; if women are second-class citizens, girls are doubly, with all the burdens of girlhood atop those of youth. Yet despite that, she is fomenting rebellion and anger and, thank goodness, hope.
It's theorized that the reason young women drive language change is because women learn language from their peers and men learn it from their mothers. That women, historically, build stronger and broader social networks, and so are able to exercise under-the-radar influence. Maybe both of those things are at play here, too: that young women are uniquely situated to internalize new facts, new politics, new ideas, and then to mobilize those things into action. That's a power history has willfully ignored, and which we, in the slimmest of silver linings, are lucky to have the opportunity to witness on a grand scale.
If nothing else, I am grateful for that.
WRITTEN BYLiz Elting