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‘13 Going On 30’ Is About Your 20s

Musings on Jenna Rink, Sylvia Plath, and Billy Joel

Kat reflects on the iconic noughties chick-flick '13 Going on 30', and how it shaped her expectations of early adulthood

A few weeks ago, I watched ’13 Going on 30’ for the first time since I was thirteen. Now, at 24 I still have some of the allusions of grandeur of what my 30s might look like – success, calm, shiny, sparkly, stability – to be “thirty, flirty, and thriving”. I watched the film with my step-sister who is Australian and knew the film by its other title: ‘Suddenly 30’. Jenna Rink does indeed become thirty suddenly, and gets the career, boyfriend, and wardrobe of her dreams. But, as expected, she doesn’t know how to handle it. It is impossible to be thirty, flirty, and thriving, because she was never twenty, tentative, and terrified. She missed that essential middle of teenagehood and what I have come to consider ‘baby adulthood’.

Friends of mine will have heard me say that the 20s are the baby adult years. When you are twenty-one you are one, just starting to toddle about without someone holding your hand, just starting to find your own words to express your feelings. As I researched this article on the milestones of a four year old, phrases like “begins to understand time” ... “begins to become less aware of only one’s self and more aware of people” ... “believes that his or her own thoughts can make things happen” ... made me laugh out loud. Surely that is describing being twenty-four?

We are adults about 80 years longer than we are children, and so we won’t know how to do it straight away – and that’s ok. It’s that messy middle that Jenna misses in the film. It’s those mistakes she doesn’t make and so doesn’t learn from, those fears that she doesn’t have and so never feels relief at seeing how they work out, those paralysing cross roads she doesn’t have to face and so doesn’t know how make choices, and those heartbreaks that she doesn’t have and so cannot know that they won’t actually kill you (even if they feel like it). The absences created by wishing away the teens and twenties build a thirty year old who cannot survive adulthood.

Sitting, as I currently am, in the unease and instability of being in your 20s, I find myself wishing away time just as Jenna does. Or else fantasising about a road not taken, which might have taken me down another road to another and another. A state of early adulthood is a life in constant flux, and at times it seems all the lives you might live are sprawling out before you, and you sit overwhelmed by all that might and might never be.

It is this very state of being which my friend Matty and I call “the figs problem”, or sometimes just “figs” or even “things are feeling a bit figs-y”. It is so named from the passage of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It is a most beautiful piece of writing which returns to my mind regularly. She writes,

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. […]

I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

(Read the whole passage unabridged here).

And while, like much of Plath’s work, the sequence can leave you sighing and sad, I feel it is really about seizing life. The truth is whatever fig I pick will be wonderful and sweet and tough and bitter all at once. The good thing about life in flux then is that unlike Sylvia, I think we do get to pick more than one fig, we just have to start somewhere.

Telling Matty about my musings on ’13 Going on 30’, and how figs-y I was finding it all, she announced that she had found the remedy to fig-overwhelm: ‘Vienna’ by Billy Joel. It took a moment to dawn on me, and then I realised ‘Vienna’ is used in ’13 Going on 30’, when Jenna is overpowered by adulthood and needs to go home, Billy Joel sings,

Slow down you crazy child ... Where's the fire, what's the hurry about?
You better cool it off before you burn it out ... Slow down you're doing fine
You can't be everything you want to be before your time

(read and listen here).

Sometimes stopping, slowing down, listening to ‘Vienna’ in the dark and crying, is the most productive thing you can do.

Sometimes we need the figs, we need to pick a path, seize it, gobble it all up and enjoy it. And sometimes we need to remember to slow down. It is both that make this strange decade of life possible.

So, when you next rage at the instability of being a twenty-something, or have a figs-based-panic, I recommend watching ‘13 Going on 30’ because for a film without a single person in their twenties in it, it is a love song to the messy middle.

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Hi, I’m Kat. In 2021 I graduated from my English degree at Exeter University, and am currently an MA student studying Gender Studies at SOAS in London. I love writing prose, poetry and (sometimes) even essays! I am fascinated by people, their quirks and thoughts, their weird and wonderful ways. I strive to learn more about human beings and that magic that is human connection. Luckily, this is also what Matriarch is all about! Be it through literature or academia or just a conversation with a friend I find there is so much to learn, and I am eager to soak it all up.


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