Her clothes aren’t right. Her old man doesn’t understand her. And her love life? Nonexistent to abysmal. She’s too cool for the nerds, too square for the cool kids. She’s the alterna-girl, one of television’s most beloved archetypes—and she’s in trouble.
In the plaid-draped mid-’90s, Angela Chase squirmed through her so-called life and Daria Morgendorffer weathered suburbia under an armor of sublime snark. At the turn of the century, Freaks and Geeks’ Lindsay Weir picked up Daria’s mantle, that trademark army coat. But the 2000s have seen a peculiar shift: Teenagers on TV, especially girls, are suddenly cool. Even aspirational.
In years past, shows about high schoolers served a dual purpose, allowing their peers to sympathize while offering post-grads a weekly nostalgia trip. But it’s difficult to imagine Angela Chase hawking flip phones, or Lindsay Weir inspiring ready-to-wear lines at Target, as their modern counterparts on CW’s 90210 and Gossip Girl have done (indeed, as their franchise success has demanded). The alternagirl is basically unsaleable—most of us already know one, were one, or are one.
She’s a dying breed, but not yet extinct. You just need to know where to look—namely, the big screen, which has become a haven for alternagirls cruelly ousted from TV land. Zooey Deschanel reigns as Hollywood’s queen of quirk, though Ellen Page is on the rise after Juno (a film with a hyper-referential script that featured at least one My So-Called Life nod). Actresses Kat Dennings, Emma Stone and Charlyne Yi add a bit of alt-weirdness to anything they touch—and with the increasing crossover between indie and mainstream cinema, their reach is widening.
Still, there’s nothing quite like the serial catharsis of watching a girl finagle her place in the world over the course of a few dozen TV episodes. Some are holding tight to TV in their own small ways: Friday Night Lights’ Julie Taylor feels a bit too smart for Dillon, Texas, and Ugly Betty gives the archetype a campy spin. Strangely, it’s one of TV’s biggest recent success stories that most embodies the alternagirl spirit—Tina Fey’s proxy, Liz Lemon. Sub in Jack Donaghy for the maddening father figure and the TGS writers and stars for the kids at school, and welcome to 30 Rock High.