The Radical Kindness of Teenage Girls
They build each other up, mindful that the world will try to tear them down
The show doesn’t start for another hour, but the line to get into the 9:30 Club already stretches around the corner. It’s cold, and my 14-year-old daughter is restless, her blood pumping with the nervous excitement that accompanies a first-time experience. We thread our way along the sidewalk, following the line of fired-up ticket holders around the corner, down the block, past the alley, almost to the next corner.
We are here to see Billie Eilish, the 16-year-old American singer-songwriter who got her start as an internet sensation. I have been to countless shows at this club over the past few decades, including some big-name alternative rock bands, but I have never seen a line this long. Despite the cold, everyone appears happy, bubbling over with anticipation. The energy is infectious.
My daughter and I finally reach the end of the line and slot ourselves into place, bouncing on the balls of our feet to keep warm. The two girls in front of us are talking low and serious, while the middle-aged woman accompanying them stares at her phone. In front of them is a group of friends—maybe eight girls in all—laughing, fixing each other’s hair, and posing in dozens of configurations against the graffitied brick wall beside us. “Really good backdrop for Instagram,” my daughter murmurs.
Behind us is a group of girls just a bit older than my daughter. They are clearly attending a club show for the first time, and I listen to them worry about logistics. “I’ve been to a concert at the Verizon Center, but, like, there were seats,” one says.
I turn around and smile. “It’s a great venue. Don’t worry; you’ll have a great view from wherever you are.” I ask them how close to the stage they want to be, then offer them a few suggestions of spots where they might want to stand. They thank me, visibly relieved.
There is a sudden ripple in the crowd. A man in his mid-forties is making his way down the line. Maybe he’s not actually checking the girls out. Maybe he’s walking so slowly and looking so closely because he’s searching for his own daughter. I give him the benefit of the doubt, but the girls are instinctively on guard. I watch as they turn away and shoot him dark looks over their shoulders. Everything about them says, This isn’t for you.
He assumed that going to see a concert performed by a teenage girl, with an audience largely made up of teenage girls, was distasteful, tedious, excruciating.
The man doesn’t seem to pick up on any of it. He stops next to me.
“Ah, looks like you were dragged along too, huh?” he asks. “Of all the things I could have been roped into chaperoning.” He smiles, expecting solidarity.
I smile back. “Are you kidding? I love Billie Eilish. I can’t wait!” The man chuckles and holds up a hand, my bad. He continues his shuffle, seemingly unaware of the waves of discomfort he’s causing.
I’m pissed, but it takes me a moment to figure out why. It’s not that he assumed I was a middle-aged fuddy-duddy dragged here against her will. It’s that he assumed going to see a concert performed by a teenage girl, with an audience largely made up of teenage girls, was distasteful, tedious, and excruciating. I’m offended on behalf of the girls around me, on behalf of my daughter, on behalf of my own teenage self.
This man was perpetuating stereotypes so pervasive in our culture that it never occurred to him that I might disagree. We all know how dumb teenage girls are, right? How vapid, shallow, materialistic, and self-centered they can be? How downright mean they are to each other?
I have overheard girls openly discuss their insecurities, safe in the knowledge that their friends won’t exploit the vulnerability but try to repair it.
But that’s not what I see. Standing in this line, I have watched a girl carefully tuck a loose thread into another girl’s sweater. I have heard a girl whisper, “Does anyone have a tampon?” and witnessed a dozen hands dig into purses and backpacks in response. I have overheard girls openly discussing their insecurities, safe in the knowledge that their friends won’t exploit the vulnerability but try to repair it. “No, seriously, you can totally pull off those boots. They don’t make your feet look big; they make you look fierce!”
Over and over, I witness the girls’ radical kindness. If you are lucky enough to have teenage girls in your Instagram feed, just watch what happens when one has a birthday. You have never seen such an outpouring of love and thoughtfulness. They are effusive in their praise of one another, but also specific. They build each other up, day in and day out. They seem to know how much the rest of the world will try to tear them down.
When I was in seventh grade, I traveled to Italy with my mother. I was a nervous flier and my mom was worse, so I wondered aloud to my friends about how I would distract myself on such a long flight. My friend Kate made me a care package that included not just a multi-page handwritten letter, but also an elaborate hand-drawn crossword puzzle, with clues only I would get, based on a thousand inside jokes and shared experiences. It was the kind of incredibly thoughtful and time-consuming gift that only a teenage girl would give, and it was perfect.
For my daughter’s 14th birthday, one of her friends gave her a box full of cards in separate envelopes. Every envelope was inscribed with a situation — “For when you can’t sleep,” “For when your heart is broken,” “For when you’re stressed about school” — and inside each one was a carefully handwritten letter tailored to what my daughter might need in that situation. It was one of the most beautiful gifts I’ve ever seen, and I smile every time I notice that one of the letters has been slipped from its envelope, grateful that my daughter is surrounded by so much care.
Finally, the line starts to move. The girls around us are giddy. They sing snatches of their favorite Billie Eilish songs, riotously off-key, in a cacophony of joy. We are ushered through the doors and slip upstairs to find a spot in the balcony, right against the railing.
At last, when Billie comes onto the stage, the audience erupts. And for the next hour and a half, this 16-year-old powerhouse holds the entire room in her spell. She is dressed in a loose-fitting baseball jersey, basketball shorts, and comfy sneakers—perfect for dancing and leaping across the stage. She looks comfortable in her own skin and on the stage. The girls around me radiate love and appreciation toward her, and she reflects it back. It’s the kind of affirming feeling I used to get as a young woman at Ani DiFranco shows, the feeling that there is a safe space in which we can experience the emotions her music fires up in us — anger, rebellion, sorrow, delight — without judgment, without fear of what the outside world would do if we let our guard down. A place where earnestness won’t be mocked. A teenage girl created this space.
For the encore, Billie plays my favorite of her songs. It starts out soft over an eerie synthesizer, her voice breathy and sweetly menacing, a caricature of girlishness turned dark. She coos: “You say / Come over baby / I think you’re pretty / I’m okay / I’m not your baby / If you think I’m pretty…” and then the music stops before she leads the beat back in, all heavy distortion and drums, with a growling “You should see me in a crown / I’m gonna run this nothing town / Watch me make ’em bow / One by one by one.” A power anthem if ever there was one. An incredibly talented girl claiming her rightful place. The girls in the audience stomp their feet and scream, and I feel so lucky to be among them.