GILMORE GIRLS Rory Gilmore: secret superhero.

SMART GIRLS ARE everywhere on TV now, but they weren’t in the early ’00s, when conventionally beautiful American “teens,” the audiovisual parallel to high school mean girls with proper makeup technique who’d make fun of you for having a good vocabulary, populated our celluloid psyche. Where were the smart girls?

In the early ’90s, there was only one: Angela Chase, played by a 14-year-old Claire Danes in Winnie Holtzman’s quietly wonderful short-lived series My So-Called Life. Angela was the first TV character I ever identified with, even though I didn’t see the full series until my 20s. When I did, it was, as Angela says, like “when someone says something really small, and it just fits into this empty place in your heart.”

Pop culture is full of nerdy boys, and their all-kinds-of-problematic “struggle” to get girls to have sex with them. We don’t hear as much about the smart girls who don’t fit in, whose search for identity is an ever-present existential puzzle. I was one of those girls, and I still am. The difference is that as an adult, you realize these are superpowers, not weaknesses. Angela Chase’s creators understood this.

Which brings us to Gilmore Girls’ Rory, with her college applications and her world of books and her unwillingness to fall in line with her school’s snobby East Coast caste system—and who carries on the legacy of Angela’s pioneering, short-lived appearance as TV’s first smart girl. So do girls like Veronica Mars and Daria. When the world doesn’t make sense, they’re the voice of our confusion, our pain, our questions. The more I see of them, the more I think they’re our only hope.