Once upon a time, there were Disney Princesses. Come to think of it, there still are. They are pretty and perfect and have tiny waists and those eyes. They can sing and dance, and the woodland creatures love them for it. And, they are princesses, people. All in all, these cartoon women set an impossible standard for young girls to aspire to — and they have been doing it since 1937.
As a kid, I learned fast that I would never become a Disney princess. I’d never even come close; I was an uncoordinated, bespectacled beanpole, and legend has it I didn’t smile until I was seven. So, I began to replace those aspirations with less cartoonish role models; I plowed through my parents’ ancient VHS collection, marveling at the dramatic beauty of Ava Gardner, Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, and both Hepburns. These gals also seemed pretty perfect — but at least they were human, right? Still, it quickly became clear that the Hollywood stars of yore boasted an impeccable combination of bone structure + money + hair/makeup/wardrobe that made their lives just as inaccessible as Sleeping Beauty’s. Plus, they were women; I was just a little girl. Luckily, there was someone watching out for me. That someone was cable television.
It all started in 1991, when a weird girl named Clarissa showed up to explain it all. She was talky and confident, but also kind of awkward, and her outfits were ridiculous. She got pimples, and she wore a training bra. She was a person, not a princess. But, even Clarissa was a little too feminine and flamboyant and, well, too cool to entirely resonate with little nerd-me.
Luckily, 1994 brought the kindred spirits I had been looking for all along, in the forms of
Claire Danes Angela Chase and Alex Mack. These chicks wore plaid, and overalls, and all those hats. One of them was far too smart, introspective, and awkward to ever feel at home in her normcore school. The other, you know, was involved in a chemical spill that gave her bizarre superpowers. SAME-SAME. Angela and Alex proved it was cool to be a freak — literally or otherwise.
These imperfect non-princesses weren’t alone, either. TV hit the ground running in those years, ushering in The Era Of The Weird Girl. In 1993, Boy Meets World premiered, and Topanga Lawrence became the first-ever hippie-kid-geek-turned-sexpot. If that weirdo, with that name, with that dad from the Monkees, could become the object of adolescent affection on a national scale — then it could happen to any of us.
In 1996, awkward got animated. It’s safe to say that both Doug and Hey Arnold are almost entirely devoid of truly attractive, graceful, and/or cool people. Doug is a balding child, for crissakes; Arnold’s bizarre, football-shaped head is basically the premise of his entire show. And, the ‘toon girls are not exempt. Sure, Helga was kind of horrible. But, she was also kind of badass — and she nailed the femme-tomboy-combo look, not to mention unibrow-chic. And, where would we be without Patti Mayonnaise, of the orange face? Of the single, polka-dotted outfit, worn every day for four seasons? Of the absurd nasal voice, provided by none other than Future Yoga Jones? Patti was bizarre as hell, but Doug loved her. And, so did we.
Then, there was Pepper Ann and her ragtag crew of soon-to-be drama club nerds. There was Daria (O, Daria!), the teenage misanthrope. Back in live-action-land, Lori Beth Denberg was killing it as an acerbic, plus-size, comedic genius who could provide vital information for literally anyone’s life. There was Shelby Woo over in Canada, nerdily solving mysteries (much to the dismay of her grandfather, Mr. Miyagi). And, the decade ended with a sci-fi bang as 1999’s So Weird introduced amateur computer-coder and probably-witch, Fi Phillips — a.k.a. the Dana Scully of Disney — who spent her time gallivanting around with banshees and demons and Erik Von Detten. Fi was whip-smart, terribly tattoo-chokered, and above all, she was so, so weird.
Then, of course, Fi got replaced by this inane, pop-singing blonde, and the Disney Channel started to go downhill. I kind of checked out of kid-TV around then, but from what I heard, there started to be a lot of shows featuring teen pop stars and jocks who could sing. The golden age of awkward-cool was over, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t carry me into adulthood. Because of Angela and Alex and Fi and even Helga, I had faith in a seemingly impossible concept: that a female-bodied person could go through life being awkward, quirky, intelligent, geeky, and — despite it all — cool.
Today, girls are faced with an entirely new brand of Disney Princess to emulate. The Mileys and Hilarys and Selenas of the world are far more intimidating than Cinderella and Ariel could imagine, and they do what cartoons cannot: They grow up — sometimes terrifyingly. These teen idols are held to far higher and more unfair standards than their ‘90s predecessors, and too often fold under the pressure. Plus, it’s not just Hannah Montana and Lizzie Maguire who are leading double lives these days; nearly every teenage girl has to grapple with the line between real life and her Internet persona.
Still, everything that was once old will be new again, so maybe we’ll be in for an awkward-cool renaissance circa 2025. Until then, we can don our tattoo necklaces, snap into our Lisa-Frank-adorned rollerblades, sip our Sunny-D, and remember a simpler time — when weird girls ruled.