Thirty, Flirty, and (Not) Thriving

Mothers: tell your daughters.

In the spring of 2004, American sweetheart Jennifer Garner starred in Thirteen Going on Thirty. 

The film begins at the birthday party of freshly thirteen-year-old protagonist Jenna Rink. She is an awkward middle schooler who simply wants to be cute and popular. When she faces rejection from the cute and popular crowd at school because her childhood best friend, Matt, is acting like a weirdo, she hides in a closet in shame. Kicking herself, expressing hatred for Matt and for her life, Jenna wishes that she would be “thirty, flirty, and thriving” instead of her current misery. Hilarity ensues when her wish is granted, and she is transported across seventeen years to her thirty-year-old life, where she is a sexpot fashion journalist in New York City. It’s glamorous. There are clothing montages. Jennifer Garner (thirty-year-old Jenna) is radiant.

Ultimately, Jenna comes to discover that her amazing career, apartment, and social status were only possible because she had been personally conniving and cold. She realizes she loves Matt, but he’s getting married. It’s too late. Magically, she returns to her thirteen-year-old life, and, doing it over, chooses to marry him instead.

As saccharine and silly as it was, the movie was a huge hit; its influence on its target demographic, millennial women, is greatly understated. 

If you were thirteen in 2004, you’re turning thirty this year. This is true for the hosts of The Cut, a podcast from New York Magazine and Vox media, who released an episode by the title “Thirty, Flirty, and Thriving” a few weeks ago. In it, the podcasters reflect on their perspective shift watching the movie at thirteen and now at thirty. Unsurprisingly, viewers-as-tweens were more captivated by the film’s sparkly moments than its banal message about the importance of being nice and being yourself. Avery, the main host, muses:

When I was 13, I was mostly struck by this exciting fantasy of adulthood. That was my salient takeaway: “Wow, 30, flirty, and thriving.” Rewatching it now, I realized I more or less forgot the middle part of the movie. The part where Jenna realizes that her older self has become a narcissistic and conniving and vindictive b***h. She has focused so narrowly on building her glamorous life that her existence is ultimately shallow and empty... Rewatching it now, I found myself wondering if the ending is actually totally at odds with the rest of the movie? In this new, revised future where Matt and Jenna get married, does Jenna still work for the magazine? What about her cool career? Her experimental wardrobe? All the parties? That was all the fun stuff in the movie! All the stuff I wanted 30 to be. That I still want 30 to be. I want all the exciting, thrilling parts, without being selfish and shallow. I don’t know if this is truly possible. It’s something I lose sleep over. It’s been happening more and more recently. Every time I hear about another friend getting engaged or buying a house or having a kid. Any one of these milestones that just seems eons away from where I’m at. It just makes me think, “Am I the bad Jenna?” Will I also suddenly look back at my shallow life full of regret and it will be too late? I know, it’s a movie. It’s just a movie. It’s just a movie!

Another host goes on to mention, “My 30th birthday was really sad. I really wanted it to be 13 Going on 30–themed, but it happened during COVID and it was just so womp-womp. It was the moment, it was almost like night and day, that my mom started pushing me about kids.” 

Like Jenna Rink, millennials prioritized the superficial markers of achievement while disparaging the idea of marrying or having children in their twenties. Unlike Jenna Rink, they will not be able to turn back time and marry their first love, or have his babies, when they realize what they’ve sacrificed, knowingly or not.  

For the women who internalized the phrase “thirty, flirty, and thriving” as tweens, biology is beginning to butt heads with myth. Geriatric infertility, the standard female experience (save some divine intervention), is a hard, cold truth. But the millennial still believes that she may kick that can down the road indefinitely, even as her body betrays her. How deeply unfair that the second speaker would be surprised by this type of question from her mother. The subject of getting pregnant is only broached as it becomes a matter of now or never. Not a moment before. Why is this? Why are the girls of this generation so deeply ignorant about their own bodies? Where is the millennial’s mother, and why won’t she tell her daughter what’s what? 

This is one of the quiet tragedies of feminism and modernity: the disappearance of intergenerational female friendship. We are now reaping the bitter rewards of a total failure of older American women to convey the inescapable reality of female biology to their daughters and granddaughters. Instead of roadmaps corresponding to reality, millennials were silently handed birth control and college applications; screens took care of the rest. The transvaluation of femininity on the altar of material consumption has normalized a profound lack of charity between women that has been disastrous for us all.

As television filled the vacuum where the wisdom of older women once provided a practical, long-view sexual education, it filled the heads of the children it raised with delusions of grandeur. Because of programs like Thirteen Going on Thirty, as well as Sex and the City, Secret Life of the American Teenager, and Teen Mom, a new culture of shame emerged around youth and fertility. You’d have to be crazy, dysfunctional, low-IQ, or low-status to sacrifice the glamour of independent urban decadence, represented by the first two, for the catastrophic humility represented by the latter. 

The way women raised on a steady diet of anti-natalist programming treat other women who marry and have children during their most fertile years (between the ages of 16 to 25) is how I imagine women once used to treat homewreckers: with a great deal of shame and judgment commingled with performative pity. The given reason is that she, the child bearer, has squandered her elusive economic potential. We regard young women with babies the same way we regard young men with face tattoos. What a dramatic lapse in judgment. What a waste. She becomes an outcast, an alien to the girls she once knew as friends. For women especially, shame is a powerful deterrent.

We are learning now that parents who outsource moral instruction to the television never become grandparents. In other words, this problem of disappearing parents emerges from a problem of negligent parents. No one was brave or honest enough to tell millennial girls that life isn’t like the movies. A significant chunk of these women will soon pass the point of no return for having kids, and they will face a litany of cascading social and emotional consequences of a lie long believed: namely, loneliness. Put simply, millennials are about to learn the hard way that this cost of endless flirting and thriving is biological denialism, and the cost of biological denialism is death.