This weekend my roommate and I were scrolling through Disney+, when we stumbled upon a childhood favorite of both of ours: Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. I distinctly remember watching the trilogy in the early 2000s, and I thank the movie for giving me a completely skewed perception of what life is like on a space station. Now twenty-two years into the 21st century, I decided to give it another watch. As I rewatched I asked myself, what makes Zenon a “21stcentury girl?” What can girls in 2022 take away from a late 1990s depiction of girlhood, and do these depictions hold up over two decades later?
First, a short synopsis of the movie: the year is 2049, Chelsea Clinton is the President of the United States, and Zenon and her scientist-parents are aboard a space station run by the Wyndcomm company. Zenon, age thirteen, left Earth at age five and has been orbiting Earth for eight years. Her best friend Neb and their school friends, donning bright colors and using technology resembling early versions of the iPad, bond over the superiority of living in space. The crew cites climate change and violence as reasons they are grateful for not living on Earth.
Zenon is curious, adventurous, assertive, and caring toward her friends. Her curiosity, however, leads her into trouble during a visit from the CEO of Wyndcomm. In an effort to uncover a plot to take down the space station, Zenon is caught snooping in a confidential zone, and her parents send her to live with her aunt on Earth.
Once on Earth, Zenon must adjust to middle school, learning to swim, ride a bike, pay for goods with money, and navigate petty drama from the mean girl in class. She quickly earns herself a love interest, and him and his friends help her navigate middle school. Amid falling in love and adjusting to life on Earth, Zenon must lead her friends to uncover the Wyndcomm plot to take down her home space station. It is then up to Zenon to convince the adults to believe her and to save her friends and family.
Overall, the fictional Zenon serves as a positive heroine for girls watching in 2022. Zenon is a leader among her friends, determined, self-confident, and puts others’ needs above her own. Girls navigating the complexities of middle school, fitting in, coming of age, and interacting with an adult world that devalues young peoples’ voices because they are young, could relate to the young protagonist.
Where Zenon falls short, however, is in its portrayal of romantic relationships, by falling into heteronormative tropes: Zenon’s crush saves her after she falls into the deep end of a pool and foots the bill at dinner. In one scene, Zenon’s aunt confesses to her that she never had Zenon’s confidence and sense of adventure. Thus, she never got married and had children. This moment shared by the two female leads had the potential to argue a need for adults to retain curiosity, ambition, and playfulness of their youths. The message instead seemed to be that these positive qualities served only for the end goal of getting married and having children—an antiquated and heteronormative view of necessary life paths.
Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century is one of many late-90s, early-2000s films that feature girl protagonists. The film characterizes the young girls in an empowering way suitable for audiences in 2022. Compared to more recent films, however, Zenon’s heteronormative dating tropes date the movie somewhat as more space in the entertainment industry has been given to girls of color and girls in the LGBTQ+ community. Nevertheless, the movie is a great way reflect upon how the ideas of Earth’s future have changed since the 1990s. And hopefully by 2049, we can imagine a female president that is not the daughter or wife of a former male president.
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