Winona Ryder turns 42 today. That’s pretty shocking, since it seems like only yesterday she was bonding with the ghosts of Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis and plotting with Christian Slater to destroy the popular girls. Winona defined the ‘90s with her interesting, offbeat characters and her offscreen persona as Johnny Depp’s grungy girlfriend. She became known for playing alienated young women who dabbled in dry wit and general dissatisfaction with the world and the people who inhabit it. From death-obsessed Lydia in Beetlejuice to institutionalized Susanna in Girl, Interrupted, with Heathers and Reality Bites in between, Winona totally nailed the role of world-weary outsider.
Angsty characters obviously existed before Winona, but she ushered in a new generation of actresses who became known for their disillusioned, sarcastic onscreen personalities. Their general cynicism (some might call it realism) often manifests itself in punk or goth fashion choices and deadpan line delivery. They tend to question authority and see through bullshit. The character type can be hard to pin down because there are so many variations and each girl is her own emo snowflake, but you know it when you see it.
Growing up, these were the characters I loved watching the most. There are probably a lot of reasons for this, and I won’t try to psychoanalyze myself right here, but I’d guess it had something to do with their honesty. It was nice to see teenagers who recognized that people can be pretty sucky and the world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and who were willing to say something about it, often through humor. As extreme as their cynicism might be sometimes, and as self-involved as they might seem, their personalities are usually based in intelligence and reason.
I thought it would be fitting to take a look at how the angsty teen character type has evolved since Winona broke onto the scene in the late ‘80s by talking about a few other actresses who embody those iconic traits. Warning: much sarcasm and general disdain for human existence await you if you dare.
Famous angsty roles: The Addams Family, Addams Family Values, Casper, That Darn Cat, The Ice Storm
You don’t get much more angsty and deadpan than Wednesday Addams. She takes general misanthropy and turns it murderous. And let’s not forget Christina’s revival (pun intended) of Winona’s “hanging out with a ghost friend” plot in Casper. She and Winona even starred together in Mermaids when Christina was itty bitty, so maybe some of her angst rubbed off.
Famous angsty roles: American Beauty, Ghost World
Nobody understands poor Thora Birch. In both American Beauty and Ghost World, arguably her two most famous angsty roles, she meets a guy she can finally stand, but it doesn’t turn out how she expects. Whether she’s watching her boyfriend’s pretentious plastic bag video or dying her hair green, she’s the epitome of disillusionment.
Famous angsty roles: My So-Called Life, Romeo + Juliet
Claire Danes is an interesting example because she’s carried the tortured, dissatisfied character type over into her adult career, along with her famous cry face. Angela Chase of My So-Called Life might not be quite as overtly sarcastic and biting as the other girls on this list, but her voice-over lets us into her head and tells us what she’s really thinking.
Okay, so obviously Daria is a cartoon character and not an actress known for multiple angsty roles, but there’s no way I would leave her off this list. From her emotionless delivery to her jaded approach to life in general, she really epitomizes this character type. She’s so iconic she’s inspired celebrity Halloween costumes.
Famous angsty roles: Panic Room, Twilight series, Adventureland, The Runaways
I struggled with whether or not Kristen belonged on this list. Then I came to the conclusion that she was worth putting on here to show how this character type can take a wrong turn and become intolerable. Kristen has all the dissatisfaction without any of the bite. She goes beyond disinterested and becomes lifeless.
Famous angsty roles: Hard Candy, Juno, Smart People, Whip It
Ellen Page is an interesting case as well, because she’s not quite as deadpan or philosophical as some of the others on this list. Still, she has the kind of world-weary, sarcastic attitude that makes her a good fit. It just goes to show how many different iterations of this character type there are.
Famous angsty roles: Parks and Recreation, Safety Not Guaranteed, The To Do List
Whereas Winona’s characters were often played for laughs and emotion, Aubrey Plaza’s persona, specifically as April Ludgate, is pretty much completely comic. If Winona defined ’90s angst, I think Aubrey defines the angst of the new millennium. She’s become such a great example of the character type that she even played Daria in a spoof movie trailer. You have to admit that’s pretty perfect.