Where are all the grown-up Punky Brewsters?

I’m walking down 6th Avenue in Brooklyn and this beautiful little girl with big hair is walking behind me with her singing loudly and proudly, “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world…” She knows every single word. She is performing the shit out of this song. Her mother is ignoring her but she doesn’t care, she is in her own world and she is loving it.

It is right after the “3 fictional characters” meme has gone around, which I have participated in. I have decided that the 3 fictional characters who best represent me are Punky Brewster, Lisa Simpson, and Angela Chase from My So Called Life. Punky is spunky and absolutely enchanted me as a child; football would always preempt the show and I would call the local NBC affiliate and complain. Lisa is smart and passionate and kind of in her own world with herself, and Angela is just so emo. I am self-conscious that all three of these characters are children, or, in Angela’s case, a teenager. Is my growth so stunted, that I only relate to characters under the age of 18?

Punky, Lisa and Angela

Punky, Lisa and Angela

Then I see and hear this girl on 6th Avenue who is spunky like Punky and it suddenly strikes me that I relate to the spark in all three of those characters and that the world is barren of female characters OVER the age of 18 who maintain that spark.

I arrive at a dimly lit restaurant where I’m meeting my friend Colleen for dinner. I share my revelation. “Can you think of a single adult female character who’s spunky?” I ask her. She is stumped, but offers that perhaps Phoebe from Friends fits the bill. Yes, that’s true. But Phoebe is also ditzy. You can be spunky without being ditzy. Why must we always take female characters down a peg?

We both think of the trope of the “spunky” female reporter but that spunky is a demeaning kind of spunky, like “look how cute that she won’t give up.” Awwwww.

Then of course there’s the trope of the manic pixie dream girl, the adorably eccentric girl who enchants a man, but I am talking about a woman with inner spunk and style who is her own person, joyfully, and whose story is not about saving a jaded or otherwise fucked up man. Who marches to her own beat. Whose spark has not dimmed.

I say I want to write about this and Colleen offers that maybe some of you will have ideas, will reassure me with plenty of examples of spunky adult female characters. With grown-up Punky Brewsters. So I’m handing you the microphone and asking… whatcha got?

POSTSCRIPT: In writing this post, it suddenly struck me that I know the answer to my own question: Leslie. Fucking. Knope. She is lit up from within. She has spark and drive and passion and her own way of doing things and she exists beyond the frame of a man’s adoration… and she’s competent. God bless you Mike Schur and Amy Poehler and the entire Park and Recs writing staff. God bless you.

(I’d still like to know if you have any other ideas!)


If the subject of how women are represented in media interests you, I recommend following the Women’s Media Center. Here are some other things I’ve written on similar topics:

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