Caroline McNally
October 15, 2018 8:15 am
Warner Bros. Pictures

When I was a tween, I wanted to be like the characters I saw in movies. I based my expectations of teenage life on Disney Channel shows and teen rom-coms I had seen dozens of times. One of the characters I wanted to be most like was Daphne Reynolds from What A Girl Wants, the 2003 comedy starring my then-idol, Amanda Bynes.

When I look back on What A Girl Wants, which is now 15 years old, I realize it was actually a pretty feminist movie for the early 2000s. Here’s a refresher if you need one: Daphne, an American teenage girl with a single mom (Libby), has grown up her whole life never meeting her British politician father (Henry) because he doesn’t know she exists. Before going to college, Daphne decides to put this missing piece back into her life, so she travels to London to meet her father. Henry Dashwood has a bright political future as the least scandalous candidate in the country, and his campaign advisors—and stuck up fiancé—see Daphne a threat to his career.

As Henry and Daphne grapple to get to know each other, it becomes clear that Daphne doesn’t fit into high-society life. She ends up facing the choice of conforming to another culture or never getting to have a relationship with her dad.

The plot wasn’t groundbreaking—a teenager raised by a single parent wants to reconnect with her other parent. But for me, what sets this movie apart is the protagonist played by Bynes.

Daphne Reynolds was (and still is, honestly) one of the raddest 17-year-olds we’ve ever seen in a movie.

She is a kind, mature, and clever person who tries to make others comfortable in awkward situations—like when she’s a waitress at a wedding during the opening scene, and she finds the groom drunk under a table. Daphne’s problem-solving skills kick in and she shoves a piece of the ice sculpture down his back to wake him up. He jumps up and down frantically to get the ice out of his shirt, and Daphne pretends he’s dancing. She joins him, and signals to her mom (the wedding singer) to sing the song “Jump” so that the groom doesn’t stand out. Everyone starts dancing like Daphne and the groom, and the crisis is averted.

Daphne’s confidence in tough situations was very inspiring to me when I was young—and it still is.

Awkward and clumsy movie characters are a dime a dozen, but Daphne never gets embarrassed—she just rolls with whatever happens. After accidentally finding herself on a fashion show runway, she embraces it and struts like a model. When she falls off the runway, it barely fazes her; she just collects her beret and moves on.

Daphne is clued into something not a lot of teens are: Making tiny mistakes isn’t the end of the world. This self-assuredness even inspires other characters throughout the movie. After attending a party for twin sisters who seem miserable at their own event, dressed in floofy creampuff-like gowns, Daphne gets everyone on their feet. At a different event later in the movie, those same twins wear much more stylish outfits and mention that Daphne gave them fashion tips.

By being herself, Daphne inspires her long-lost father. After realizing what he has missed out on for the last 17 years, he starts to let loose—and even returns to former habits, like wearing his old leather pants for a dance montage. Halfway through the movie, Henry starts eating his coco pops in plain view and defends Daphne’s broken protocol to his advisors. He begins taking things less seriously once he understands that he could have been living life to the fullest this whole time: When Daphne accidentally causes a scene at a regatta, Henry grabs a motorbike, and they speed off to spend the day together. At a flea market, Henry sees Daphne freely head bang to music in public, and he seems wistful.

Without intending to, she teaches Henry that life can be boring or it can be an adventure. She shows the audience the fun and excitement of being different, because when she tries to conform to rules, life is dull and unimaginative.

Daphne Reynolds is also resourceful and determined.

She first meets her father when she climbs over the garden wall at his mansion, knowing there’s no way for her to sweet talk the guards at the gate. From the jump, she shows us that she is not a girl who is easily discouraged. Later, Henry’s father and her grandmother, Lady Dashwood, warns Daphne that people will be rooting for her to fail. She grins and says, “Bring it on.”

And people certainly do. Henry’s fiancé, Glynis, and her daughter, Clarissa, are a textbook evil stepmom and stepsis combo. Glynis, clearly insecure in her relationship, gives Daphne an ugly gown to wear to a party. So Daphne DIYs it into something sleek and classic. Clarissa tells Daphne she doesn’t fit in, but throughout the movie, Daphne proves that standing out can be a good thing.

And when Daphne does try to fit in, it’s with the best of intentions. Henry senses his political ambitions are in the toilet, so he asks Daphne to make a few changes to help his poll numbers. In an effort to get to know him, she agrees and temporarily becomes the perfect young socialite and even has a debutante coming out party—but she is miserable, devoid of personality or spark.

After hearing Lady Dashwood explain that a queen is made by what’s in her heart, not the crown on her head, and unexpectedly seeing her mother at her debutante party, Daphne finally realizes that “fitting in” to appease her father’s critics simply isn’t worth it. She tells a story about her birthdays as a little girl, when she’d imagine that if she was good enough and wore her best outfit, then her dad would come find her. And there she is, all dressed up with her dad—and missing herself. Daphne understands that impressing people who will never respect her or her mother is pointless and the duo heads back to New York, heartbroken but true to themselves. This inspires Henry to be the kind of father Daphne deserves, and the kind of man Libby once fell in love with.

There is a moment in the movie when Daphne tells Henry that she wishes she could be more like her mother because she is content with who she is. Daphne hadn’t realized that she was already exactly who she needed to be before she ventured to London—being abroad just reinforced her personality and sense of self. As Libby wisely points out at the beginning of the movie, Daphne has to get to know herself; knowing the man who gave her half of her DNA isn’t going to do that.

During the movie’s final voiceover, Daphne says, “Things aren’t how you imagine them—they’re even better.” Cheesy, but correct. Being thrust into tough situations brought out her already existing kindness, resilience, style, spunk, and personality even more. The hardest trials revealed that Daphne will always stand up for what she believes is right.

Daphne Reynolds proves that having fun and making mistakes is better than never even trying to step outside the box.

Being perfect is boring and you can’t make everyone happy, so you might as well ruffle a few feathers and be yourself. For everyone, but especially for young girls, that’s one of the most important lessons you can learn.

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