In Season 2 of Girls, the first line of Hannah Horvath’s forthcoming book of essays is revealed: “A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance.”
It’s a great line, and while the series itself often leaned more heavily on the drama of friendship than its grandness, this certainly seemed to be Hannah’s perception of her own experience.
However, the experience of engaging in a relationship with Girls for its five-year run might be defined as something closer to: “A relationship between viewer and creator can be more explosive and contentious than any actual enemy.” Like real relationships between college girls, watching all six seasons of Girls could be at times transcendent, very often mortifying, occasionally horrifying, and sometimes so funny you thought your face might split open from laughing. And as though this metaphorical college girl was coming off a three-day bender, it was impossible to know which one of those vibes you could expect from any given episode—which was, of course, part of the thrill.
Girls made plenty of missteps on its journey toward self-actualization, but the thing it got most right—the thing it got right from the very beginning—was the name. Simply: Girls. An economic use of a single word with a long history of conveying an immediate message: this movie or television series will be about girls (except that it will most likely be about women, and sometimes, a sexy, sexy Harrison Ford). In fact, there are so many intellectual properties featuring the word “girl” in the title that, should a blogger list them all out, it begins to seem like not a word at all. But rest assured, “girl” is a word, and while its frequent deployment in film and television doesn’t necessarily guarantee a quality end product, for many a title, it does just that.
So, in honor of the 10th anniversary of Girls’ premiere, I’ve dedicated myself to ranking the 24 most iconic “Girls” in popular culture. Now, I realize that “ranking girls” sounds like a pretty bad thing to do—but please understand I am not literally rating women or girls, merely the TV series and films they inhabit, specifically, any title that contains the word “girl” or “girls.”
There are only a few guidelines to shape this list up:
- With my apologies to the Cheetah Girls and their iconic trip to Barcelona, no sequels were considered.
- The movies or series must have already created lasting cultural impact to be considered. Will Girls5Eva one day be a cult classic that busts the door wide open on musical television? Peacock willing, yes. But for now, we simply have to wait.
- No “boys” allowed, obviously.
OK, time to get started…
24. The Girl Next Door (2004)
A subverted titular trope, a sexual awakening for all parties involved, a problematic time capsule of 2004, and a career-launching platform for the likes of Elisha Cuthbert, Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, and Paul Dano—all wrapped into one 109-minute package. Legend has it that if you haven’t watched at least half of The Girl Next Door on TBS with most of the “adult” parts edited out, they won’t technically let you renew your driver’s license.
23. Girl 6 (1996)
Directed by Academy Award winner Spike Lee, written by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, soundtracked by Prince, and starring Theresa Randle as a phone sex operator, Girl 6 is Lee’s most underrated and most unusual film. But, as unconventional as it was at the time of release, watching it now you can’t help but see that it was both ahead of its time and very much of its time. Simply put: you gotta have it on this list.
22. Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century (1999)
Disney Channel Original Movie Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century single-handedly launched frosted tips, defined a generation’s relationship to mock turtlenecks and pleather, and stands as a permanent touchpoint for describing what we expect out of the future despite being set in our present century. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when we’ll be treated to “Met Gala: Zenon, Our Supernova Girl.”
21. The Cheetah Girls (2003)
A list of invaluable life lessons I learned from the Cheetah Girls, in no particular order:
- “If he can’t respect my art, he can’t have my heart.”
- Cheetah print is a neutral.
- You’re a Cheetah Girl because of who you are and what you have in your heart.
- Velour is also a neutral.
- Raven-Symoné can literally do anything.
20. Uptown Girls (2003)
In the early aughts, there wasn’t a single role that Dakota Fanning and Brittany Murphy could not individually body. Paired together as an itty bitty odd couple where the adult wears the overalls and the kid needs to loosen up … they’re pure girl-fection. And please never forget Ms. Murphy in this dress:
Brittany Murphy wearing a Blumarine Spring/Summer 2002 dress in 'Uptown Girls' (2003) pic.twitter.com/mQH5RfW47w— Lena ♡ (partiels era) (@peppermintfroot) April 8, 2022
19. Derry Girls (2018–2022)
Derry Girls is the most current TV girl on this list, and it ranks not just because the Derry gals themselves have great accents and impeccable ’90s style, but because, after only two seasons, the demand for more Derry Girls was at an all-time high until the third and final season finally dropped this past week. The series takes the realistic yet often overlooked angle that the wheel of adolescence never stops turning, even during troubled times. There are still crushes, pop stars, and chippy orders. And not for nothing—put the Derry Girls episode of The Great British Baking Show: Holidays on a loop in the Louvre.
18. Girls Trip (2017)
In 2017, when a trailer dropped for a new comedy featuring Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, and Jada Pinkett Smith traveling to Essence Fest in New Orleans to get up to all kinds of shenanigans, we knew it would be instantly iconic; we knew it would be hysterical; we knew it would bring the looks. What we simply never could have imagined was what then-newcomer, soon-to-be-star Tiffany Haddish would go on to do with that grapefruit.
17. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Of David Fincher’s nonstop string of bangers from 2007 to 2014, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo may be the least rewatchable, thanks mostly to the brutal rape scenes called for by its bestselling source material. Nevertheless, Dragon Tattoo is a deep and dark, sick and twisted thriller, and its titular tattooed girl is played with chilling rigidity by Rooney Mara and Rooney Mara’s tiny bangs.
(We’re not officially ranking the 2009 Swedish version of this film, Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, given that its translation lacks the central “girl” required for this premise … but I should note that Noomi Rapace and her more voluminous Lisbeth Salander bangs are also well worth watching.)
16. What a Girl Wants (2003)
This movie has everything you want in a movie about girls and what they want: British accents, Colin Firth, turning an ugly dress into a stylish dress with nothing more than a pair of scissors and the will passed down through generations of girls by Maria von Trapp, singing boys with spiky hair, and of course … an actual girl. Coupled with She’s the Man (a perfect movie for a very different list), What a Girl Wants launched Amanda Bynes into the teen rom-com star stratosphere for what turned out to be a tragically short tenure. But for a perfect moment in time, this was the girl’s girls’ comfort movie.
15. Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Did you know that your aorta is in your chest, not your neck? Did you know that because Whoopi Goldberg said it to budding superstar Angelina Jolie in 1999’s Girl, Interrupted? Other Girl, Interrupted superstar performances include Winona Ryder, Brittany Murphy, and finding female friendship in the most hopeless of places.
14. His Girl Friday (1940)
It’s important to pay tribute to the Girls who came before us, and they simply do not make screwball comedy, pinstriped lewks, Rosalind Russell–level wisecracking, or Cary Grant–level charm like they used to. With dangerous wit and mind-bogglingly fast dialogue clocking in at 240 words a minute, Howard Hawks ran so that Aaron Sorkin could … also run, very, very fast.
13. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
A new twist on the classic vampire genre, an old-timey aesthetic applied to a completely modernized story, a gorgeous tale of horror … A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is in a genre-defying category all its own. I hesitate to describe it in too much detail because, high as it is on this list for breaking the arthouse mold, I fear there is a legion of people who still haven’t seen it. So let me just say this: beware of shadows, beware of societies that isolate girls into desperate loneliness, and watch this damn movie.
12. Funny Girl (1968)
Can girls really be funny? I don’t know, maybe the Twitter trolls who ask this question should direct future inquiries to Academy Award winner and titular funny girl Barbra Streisand in her star-making role as Fanny Brice. The short answer is yes …
The long answer is: Yes, and they can sing, and tap dance, and act the pants off Mr. Arnstein in a role so iconic that it demanded a Broadway revival 58 years after Babs originated the role in 1964.
11. New Girl (2011-2018)
I dare you to find someone who’s watched New Girl just one time through. It’s a comfort show, an endlessly rewatchable series that morphed and grew over the years into something special. But from the very beginning, New Girl had everything you could want in a young adult sitcom: an L.A. loft the characters couldn’t possibly afford, a signature hangout bar, the kind of ensemble that could be endlessly swapped around for hysterical new high jinks, will-they, won’t-they chemistry for the ages, a Schmidt, a Winston, and, of course, what will surely go down as the most electric fist kiss in sitcom history.
And at its center: Jessica Day, proving that just because a new girl brakes for birds, rocks a lot of polka dots, and has touched glitter in the past 24 hours doesn’t mean she’s not smart and tough and strong.
(Note: New Girl was added post-publication due to an unfortunate oversight in my list assembly process—not very adorkable of me!)
10. The Powerpuff Girls (1998-2005)
The Powerpuff Girls were more than a cartoon, more than a trio of flying girls with different hair colors and alliterative names; Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup were a lifestyle. Of course, they were also kindergarten-age superheroes conjured up in a lab with superpowers ranging from flight to superhuman speed and strength, to X-ray vision, energy projection, and thermal resistance. The series is a signature of Cartoon Network’s frequent goal to make animated series that are as entertaining for the adults watching them as they are for the children, and to this day the Powerpuff Girls remain pintsized symbols that girls rule and villains of Townsville drool—and you better believe there’s still meat left on that IP bone.
9. Girlfriends (2000-2008)
If you didn’t want to grow up and become one of the four fabulous girlfriends from Girlfriends, I simply cannot relate. Successful, stylish, sexy, and often more serious than other comedies were willing to be, Mara Brock Akil’s Girlfriends was UPN telling undertold Black stories at its finest. Thankfully, Girlfriends recently entered its cultural renaissance when it was added to Netflix in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, when all we needed was a little more direct access to Tracee Ellis Ross, Golden Brooks, Persia White, and Jill Marie Jones. And 20 years later? The themes of race and identity, feminism and sexuality, and of course, the comedy, still hold up. Girlfriends’ final season ended abruptly due to the 2007 writers strike, so I think it’s only appropriate to call for the “[eight] seasons and a movie” treatment right here, right now.
8. Gone Girl (2014)
Gone Girl doesn’t work without its lead performances. In Rosamund Pike, David Fincher found his cool, amazing—and later ice-cold—Amy. And with Ben Affleck, the uneasy striving comes pre-baked into the moviestar pie. Gone Girl’s plot is low-rent enough to go down easy as a Lifetime thriller, but highbrow enough to make you consider why you’re eating that plot up. How we’re just as complicit as Nick and Amy in the lies that they tell themselves, the status obsession and roleplay that pushes them to the brink. Just like its constantly masked characters, Gone Girl is merely playing dress-up, and it’s up to the viewer to decide just how many layers we want to peel back. Personally, I’d love to leave with you the eternal words of Lady Gaga: “I don’t believe in the glorification of murder … I do believe in the empowerment of women.”
7. My Girl (1991)
All it takes is six simple words—“He can’t see without his glasses!”—to open the floodgates of a certain generation. Has there ever been a more adorable face than little Anna Chlumsky as Vada? A more unlikely friendship than Vada’s with the tragically sweet Thomas J? A more charming character trait than Vada’s beyond-her-years existential “afflictions”? My Girl is about so much more than just the bee stings (although those loom admittedly large). It’s about love and loss and puberty, and growing up too fast and too slow at the same time. To which I say: bring back the nuanced coming-of-age story made for kids who are coming of age! (But also, maybe dial the tragedy down a smidge—I can’t watch another generation weep like I am currently weeping just thinking about Thomas J’s missing glasses.)
6. Girls (2012-2017)
Hate to love it, love to hate it: For better or for worse, Girls kept its half-WASP-half-hipster loafer on the zeitgeist’s neck for its entire duration, with every episode it aired, every ill-advised joke it told, and every ass it ate. Girls was a specific story about a specifically white and privileged group of people at a very specific time in America. It did not always tell that story well, but Lena Dunham always swung for the fences, resulting in a series that could haunt just as well as it could charm, just as well as it could make you want to absolutely curl up into a ball and die.
At the time it was airing, you would be hard pressed to find a person who didn’t have a strong opinion about Girls, and over the years since, those opinions have only been given the opportunity to take on new shape as Girls creator Dunham has continued to embroil herself in controversy. But my current and long-standing take is this: The fact that Zosia Mamet was never nominated for an Emmy for her role as Shoshanna is an actual crime against television that needs to be rectified, some way, somehow.
5. Working Girl (1988)
It takes a bold movie—a bold woman!—to say aloud that she has “a head for business and a bod for sin.” (An antihistamine coupled with a tequila shot also helps.) But Working Girl is just that movie, and even decoupled from its shoulder-padded sistren, 9 to 5, it offers a perfectly timely glimpse into rising up the New York City ranks as a woman in business in the ’80s. It’s a story about striving, a story about the cutthroat world of American capitalism—it’s also a story about Harrison Ford being hot. We’ve made it most of the way through this ranking without talking about men, but it’s here that I tell you that behind every good movie or TV series about girls, there is precisely one hot man. And no one is hotter than Harrison Ford in Working Girl, accompanying Melanie Griffith as Tess on her journey to learn the crooked ways of Wall Street, while creating a few more tenable rules of her own with billowing blazers as big as her ambition.
4. Gossip Girl (2007-2012)
When parents worried that the marketing of Gossip Girl would send their teens into a sex-fueled frenzy, do you think they ever could have imagined that, 15 years later, the series’ most lasting legacy would be the “Go piss Girl” meme? Nevertheless, Gossip Girl’s legacy is lasting—so lasting, HBO Max has rebooted it, though it’s best we leave that alone for now. O.G. Gossip Girl didn’t worry about being realistic or relatable—it certainly didn’t worry about being problematic. The series concerned itself with being stylish, sexy, and coupling and recoupling its stylish and sexy characters until the sexual partners flowchart looked like a Constance Billard A.P. geometry lesson … you know, actual things that actual teenagers concerned themselves with.
Gossip Girl did the most important thing a show about teens can do: it built a world close enough to ours that we could recognize it, but far enough away from ours that we could wish for it. And it fleshed that world out with hotties, many of whom have gone on to healthy careers full of interesting and fruitful projects. And despite the fact that they were playing at best, spoiled little rich kids, and at worst, stone cold monsters for six years—we really stay rooting for them.
3. Gilmore Girls (2000-2007)
Lorelai and Rory Gilmore loved nothing more than a pop culture reference, and in return, pop culture loved them back. It doesn’t take much more than a few-inch scroll of social media on any given day to find someone revisiting Rory’s reading list and trio of debate-inducing boyfriends, or freshly discovering that Lorelai has the occasional tendency to be a little awful in between being an icon. Because even if Gilmore Girls’ snark doesn’t always stand the test of time, its themes of family and conflict, fun and fanaticism do. For those who love it—and so many do—Gilmore Girls is endlessly rewatchable, and with its fast-talking mother-daughter duo, endless string of pop culture references, and time capsule fashion moments, it remains a series for girls, about girls, and, of course, created by one signature girl. Where Amy Sherman-Palladino leads, we have always followed—but nowhere has ever felt more like home than Gilmore Girls.
2. The Golden Girls (1985-1992)
They’re the grandmother pod we never had, and the babysitters we never needed because every latchkey kid you know is, was, and forever will be content to sit down and mainline one to four hours of Golden Girls a day.
I may have only recently discovered that, save Sophia, these women were written to only be in their 50s … but Golden Girls also never portrayed aging as something horrible to be avoided at all costs. Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia didn’t value youth, so much as they valued living their lives well, and even better, living them together. The Golden Girls worked and schemed; the Golden Girls dated and fucked; the Golden Girls were proposed to by pretty much every man who encountered them, as well they should have been. Could the gals be a little slut-shamy? Sure. But they’ve also raised generations of kids to be more open-minded and more at ease with less conventional social dynamics. Why are kids so obsessed with The Golden Girls? Maybe because Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia are safe; they’re soothing; and maybe because they’re so fucking funny. (And still inspiring others to be funny almost 40 years later.)
1. Mean Girls (2004)
On Wednesdays we wear pink. On October 3, we tell Aaron Samuels what day it is: “It’s October 3.” We are forever trying to make fetch happen, despite knowing that fetch is never going to happen. Because Mean Girls was, is, and always will be THAT girl.
Clocking in at an economic 97-minute running time, there is no more referenced, no more iconic, no more culturally relevant movie named after girls—and in this case, they really are girls—than the movie that made stars of Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried, gave one shining, perfect platform for Lindsay Lohan’s talent, and reminded us why there are so many pieces of media centered on teenage girls. It’s not because teenage girls are nightmares; it’s because they’re ferocious, fragile, funny, and fascinating. In Regina George, Tina Fey wrote an all-time terrifying villain who still manages to be aspirational. We also firmly understand who Cady Heron is and what she stands for before she briefly throws it all to the wind in exchange for a crush and a shallow stint of popularity. In a high school ecosystem like the one Fey creates in Mean Girls, these girls can cut you down with one line and build you up with a morsel of inclusion, whether genuine (“Why would we get you into trouble? We’re your friends”), or manipulative (“Oh my God, I love your skirt, where’d you get it?!”). Because these girls—they’re everything.
Like Clueless before it, Mean Girls only asks that its audience be a little smart, have a lot of fun, and extend its characters the same amount of grace that the film does. And while there are parts of the script we’d surely change if the movie was being made in 2022, there’s no changing the impact Mean Girls has had, and still has. That’s why our hair’s so big—it’s full of Mean Girls quotes.