There is nothing that strikes more immediate fear into my heart than one withering look from a particularly well-dressed and clearly popular teenage girl. This is my truth, and it is something that I, at 31 years of age, can admit. Sure, high school was over ten years ago, and yes I have a career and a life, and I do know now that nobody can make me wear low-rise jeans if I don't want to. But I am also ready to acknowledge that maybe I have not totally gotten over adolescence. I mean, does anybody? Have you?
Be honest. I'd like to think that I'm adult enough now to be secure in my own tastes and interests, but I swear to god, one smirk (or imagined smirk) from a pretty and popular 17-year-old girl and I immediately feel like I'm in 10th grade again.
The White Lotus teens Olivia and Paula, played by Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O'Grady, are perfect examples of intimidatingly cool teenage girls. The series begins with the two of them engaging in some light judginess, making up stories about the dirty secret lives of their fellow guests at the bougie Hawaii hotel. When earnest blogger Rachel, unknowingly married to The Worst (oh god this is an outdated phrase isn't it), approaches them on the beach, it's not just that they basically mock her to her face, it's that she seems legitimately deflated by it. With their absurd intellectual reading material, their expensive sunglasses, and their flat vocal affect in response to her chipper uptalk — you basically watch Rachel regress from self-assured adult to insecure high school junior as she realizes she's just been mean-girled by a pair of terrifying 18-year-olds. She may have thought she could impress them with her hot husband and her cool internet job — nope. They are powerful.
That a grown woman can still be intimidated by cool teens is also the whole conceit of the Gossip Girl reboot. Tavi Gevinson's character feels so victimized by her wealthy influencer students that she sets up a revenge gossip blog just to watch them squirm. I mean, I kind of get it — not to the point where I'd emotionally torment and stalk high school students, obviously — but let's be real, that feeling of inadequacy and the immediate need to be approved of by the coolest girl in school is still in there, and not all that deep down.
It would be much easier to imagine that I have simply outgrown all of the insecurities and emotions and little dramas I had as an adolescent, but come on. First of all, teen girls are way more emotionally sophisticated than anyone is willing to give them credit for, and it seems a bit strained to pretend that the things that influenced me when I was 17 no longer hold any sway over my feelings. This is the period of life in which people develop their strongest, core sense of self. And for some of us, part of that sense of self comes from wanting Olivia Mossbacher to think we're cool. Or, at the very least, not to make fun of us behind our backs.
Not to mention the undisputed fact that cool teens' tastes and judgments wield tremendous influence. This is how we get indignant millennials defending their side parts and Hogwarts houses on TikTok. And why else would The New York Times write a whole essay on the word "cheugy" which deeply uncool grown-ups such as myself then spent hours debating? I heard someone say no-show socks were "cheugy" and I had a mild crisis of faith and have been awkwardly attempting to style crew socks ever since.
Cool teen girls are intimidating because they are powerful. The expression of constant disdain Olivia on The White Lotus wears everywhere she goes is unsettling! Because everything she says, from her bored pronouncements to her veiled threats, is spoken with the confidence of a girl who has the power to rearrange social hierarchies at will.
Maybe I'm still intimidated by cool girls because they remind me of my own vulnerable teen self, and that I'm not as different from that person now as I'd like to think.
Still, even if I am momentarily undone by a Zoomer prom queen's side-eye (is that still a thing?), the joy of knowing that I never have to go to high school again will last a lifetime.