According to the commentators, Emma Raducanu’s triumph at the US Open is just the start. She has been hailed as a sporting saviour, a model of resilience, an antidote to xenophobia and a potential money-making powerhouse. Her historic victory has unwittingly entered her into a game that she can never win: the cultural obsession with exceptional teenage girls and young women.
Taking teenage girls seriously – beyond their commercial potential – is a shockingly recent phenomenon, a decade old if that. Earlier teen-girl prodigies, from Emily Dickinson to Beyoncé, were accused of being the puppets of powerful men and subject to exploitation. That was until social media gave a generation an unmediated voice to define their own culture, to fight against injustices they cared about and to speak out about the pressures and mistreatment they experienced.
The first wave of coverage of these remarkable young women, from Malala Yousafzai to Tavi Gevinson, marvelled at their distance from the airhead stereotype perpetuated by the industrialised pop culture of the 90s and 00s. That quickly metabolised into the idea of these girls as a corrective to the mistakes of prior generations.
At its most innocent, the attention is the result of the irresistible lure of youth observed by those who feel their own slipping away (as with the recent millennial obsession with 18-year-old pop breakout star Olivia Rodrigo). At its worst, reducing a girl to her most aspirational attributes is dehumanising – particularly for Black girls, who must be hyperexceptional to be deemed worthy of notice in the first place.
In her recent US Vogue cover story, the poet Amanda Gorman, now 23, recounted a collaboration with the toy brand American Girl that came about during her stint as the 18-year-old youth laureate of Los Angeles. The company produced a doll whose biography nakedly borrowed from the most inspiring beats of Gorman’s own story. The experience distorted Gorman’s reality. “I built up this narrative in my head that, you know, I had to be some type of ‘role model’,” she said.
Petrifying teenage girls, still in the earliest stages of working out who they might become, stymies their potential for growth. Billie Eilish has always expressed her displeasure with being held up as a “good” example for concealing her body in baggy clothing, and how it denied her the possibility of change (and slut-shamed her peers). When she revealed more of her figure earlier this year, she was subject to a backlash and claims of hypocrisy from people who were disappointed that she hadn’t lived up to their idea of who she was. The new image prompted more outrage than Your Power, the lead single from her second album, in which Eilish addressed abuses and statutory rape within the entertainment industry.
The close focus on any girl who stands for something usually serves only to obscure her cause, the supposed reason we care about her in the first place. You only have to look at the stacks of unofficial books with Greta Thunberg’s face on the cover to see how misunderstood and misappropriated her stance has become: anyone who cared about the environment would not be printing cash-in books. She knows that politicians treat her like a mascot and then flake on their promises to enact green policies.
The same is true of Malala Yousafzai: in 2015, the writer Ayesha Siddiqi wrote an essay for Vice titled Does America deserve Malala? in response to a film that all but removed its subject from her context as a young Pakistani activist for girls’ education, and avoided acknowledging international responsibility for stoking conflict in the region. “The war on terror is not a feelgood tale of triumph over adversity; yet He Named Me Malala is,” Siddiqi wrote. “How do we evaluate a movie whose central narrative is activated by a reality the film ignores?”
Even those perceived to have social capital and power are often left vulnerable, both to exploitation and bearing the weight of its exposure. In a recent essay for The Cut, Tavi Gevinson, now 25, wrote about being 18 and in a relationship with a much older man who believed, as she did at the time, that her status as an influential editor and actor “cancelled out the power he wielded as an adult man”, providing a cover for his eventual abuses. By concealing his identity to protect his family, she wrote, was she enabling further abuse? Was she responsible for the self-appointed vigilantes online speculating as to his identity?
Simone Biles spoke out about being sexually abused by the former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar in her teens. Now 24, she participated in the Tokyo Olympics – the only squad member to publicly identify as a survivor of his crimes – in part to force accountability within an industry that still accommodates alleged abusers such as the US fencer Alen Hadzic, who travelled to Tokyo despite facing three claims of sexual misconduct – all of which he denies. “I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side,” she told Today prior to the games. After she withdrew to protect her mental health, Biles said that the pressure to represent survivors had weighed on her. Still, she was the one subject to horrendous abuse for not living up to professional expectations and the damaging stereotype of the “strong Black woman”.
So much of the cultural obsession with exceptional teenage girls insists on the same standards of respectability – self-sacrifice, positivity, composure, “unhysterical grace”, as one unhinged Times editorial wrote of Raducanu – that have always constrained them. The leash is just a bit longer these days. If they blunder – act their age – they’re lambasted. If they defy the limited imagination of the cult that has built up around them, or admit to its pressures, they’re a disappointment, an ingrate, an inconvenience. It suggests that a girl’s “potential” is something best speculated on, a disembodied promise of a better future that we can all feel good about harbouring. It’s not a celebration, but a trap. “Recently when I win I don’t feel happy, I feel more like a relief,” Naomi Osaka said as she announced that she would take a break from tennis this summer. “And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.”
I don’t mean to sound pessimistic about Raducanu, who has said she feels no pressure post-win. She’s allowing herself to live in the moment in the way that the rabid prognosticators, fixated on her future glories and earning potential, are not. “I’m still only 18 years old,” she said. “I’m just having a free swing at anything that comes my way. That’s how I faced every match here in the States. It got me this trophy, so I don’t think I should change anything.” She deserves her freedom; anyone sincerely fixated on her potential should focus on holding to account the structural forces that might stand in its way.