RIP Amanda Peterson, teenage dream girl

I didn’t know Amanda Peterson—who died tragically and far too early this week at the age of 43 in Greeley, Colorado—but I felt like I did. Peterson played Cindy Mancini in the 1987 film Can’t Buy Me Love, a film that came out just as I was beginning to understand beauty, sexuality, and what it meant to be a girl in a world of boys and girls. As Cindy Mancini, Peterson was the ideal teenage female human: She was tough, stylish, confident, outspoken, flawed, empathetic, and compassionate. She was the head cheerleader and an ‘it’ girl (the most popular girl in the school), but seemed to know it was all really bullshit anyway. As the daughter of a single mom, she was a bit of an outsider still trying to fit in. She was rebellious, but safe and relatable-feeling, a good girl with a wild streak but ultimately the self-protective sense to keep things from going too far. She was gorgeous but not snotty. She wore the hell out of a blazer. She was everything I wanted to be.

The plot of Can’t Buy Me Love is not so different than a thousand plots of a thousand teen movies: Perfect/popular girl/boy seems out of reach for nerdy/conventionally unappealing boy/girl. Shenanigans happen. Tension ensues. Epiphanies occur. Unlikely nerd person hooks up with the cool/beautiful person. Movie ends in kissing/sunset/my tears. But the difference with Can’t Buy Me Love was Cindy Mancini was a different kind of girl—she actually seemed like a cheerleader you could hang with; she wasn’t a perfect-pretty-blonde caricature, but a kind of vulnerable, fucked-up, struggling girl you could understand. As played by Peterson, Cindy Mancini is not all teenage fluff, but a full, jaded and wounded person, and she gave hope to girls like me who were carrying around their own pre-adolescent scars. Her love story with Ronald (played by a so-young-it-seems-impossible-he-was-alive Patrick Dempsey) is beside the point. Can’t Buy Me Love is, for me, anyway, about the star of Cindy Mancini, and, really, the brightness of Amanda Peterson.

Peterson appeared in a few movies and TV shows after Can’t Buy Me Love (she guest-starred on Doogie Howser), eventually quitting acting in 1994. But I will always remember her only as Cindy Mancini, the beautiful-accessible-flawed cheerleader who made it seem cool to love a nerd and was a hero, for a minute, to girls everywhere.

RIP Amanda Peterson, may you ride into the best teenage dream sunset.