My two best friends and I were three lonely children growing up in the ’90s without siblings for playmates. We eventually found each other, but we also found comfort and adventure in a spate of intelligent films about girls like us—heroines of non-franchised stories set in the real world rather than a computer-generated one. There was Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, Sara Crewe of A Little Princess, Fiona in The Secret of Roan Inish, and the protagonists of Matilda, Harriet the Spy, Fly Away Home, The Parent Trap, and Ponette. These girls were too young for love triangles or battling dystopian forces. Their stories and conflicts varied, but they served to eventually reveal certain qualities: resilience, imagination, audacity, and compassion.
Another thing these films have in common is that they came out decades ago. Today’s audiences rarely see movies like The Secret Garden and Matilda—live-action works for and about younger girls that celebrate the ambition and resourcefulness of their protagonists. For studios, big-budget sequels and reboots and remakes dominate the day. Kids’ movies as a whole are usually animated and/or feature protagonists who are a bit older (or four-legged). Combine that with other systemic problems like outdated ideas about gender and marketing, as well as a dearth of female writers and directors, and the result is a cinematic landscape for girls that’s in some ways less rich today than it was 20 years ago.