I Finally Understand the Real Meaning of 13 Going on 30
And it has nothing to do with age
It was 2003 and I was walking towards New York City’s Fifth Avenue when Jennifer Garner stumbled out of a swanky apartment building wearing a purple slip dress and polka-dot trench coat. Pedestrians had been carefully choreographed to make the sidewalk look busy, but not too busy, and Judy Greer was waiting on the curb to hand a confused-looking Garner her coffee. Even though there was a camera crew blocking my view and a perturbed PA urging me to move along, catching a glimpse of this scene was a bit of “wishing dust”-level magic.
At the time, I had just gone from 13 to 14 and was about to enter high school with braces, acne and a drive to climb the social ladder that rivalled my dedication to my actual studies. In many ways, the deeply self-conscious teen I was at the time paralleled the 13-year-old Jenna Rink that I would see the following spring when 13 Going on 30 hit theatres. Like Jenna says in the film, I was operating under the unofficial manifesto of “I don’t want to be original, I want to be cool.” And “cool” often meant trying to act like an adult.
The film dealt with many relatable adolescent struggles, from mean girls in matching outfits to the awkwardness of puberty, while still staying firmly within the rom-com mould. It was an instant classic, one that held a special place in my heart because we saw it being filmed that day in NYC. But when I recently popped 13 Going on 30 into my DVD player (yes, I still own a DVD player) 15 years after its initial release date, what struck me wasn’t the unrealistically swank depiction of life as a magazine editor or the now-cringeworthy performance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” It was how this film isn’t actually about life at 13 or at 30. It’s about our perceptions of what constitutes an “adult”—and as a woman who is on the precipice of turning 30, that feels relatable on a whole new level.
It’s no secret that millennials like me are struggling to meet the milestones that used to be considered prerequisites for adulthood. Legit, the generation that’s currently between the ages of 18 and 35 feels so far behind their parents that the term “adulting” was a) invented and b) applied to everything from cooking a simple meal to doing your taxes. I’ve literally had “adult in training” in my social media bios for more than a decade and, even though I’m mere months away from my 30th birthday, I’m still not ready to take the “in training” off.
13 Going on 30’s grown-up Jenna Rink, who’s also 29, more than meets the criteria to be considered an adult, though. She has a full-time job at a well-respected women’s mag, while the majority of millennials today—particularly those in journalism—are precariously employed. (In fact, a 2018 survey found that only 44% of Canadians under 35 have full-time gigs.) Jenna appears to have her own swanky place on Fifth Avenue, an achievement that has become less attainable for Canadians between 18 and 35 thanks to soaring housing prices—so much so that the recent federal budget named affordable housing for millennials as a key issue. And then there’s Jenna’s hockey-star BF, and other not-so-official romantic partners. Today, being paired up would make her part of the minority, seeing as there has been a marked increase in young singles. So yes, even though the movie came out before these struggles were trending on Twitter, in theory, Garner’s Jenna Rink is successfully “adulting.”
But as I rewatched 13 Going on 30, I realized that Jenna’s definition of being an adult doesn’t actually hinge on conventional milestones. At 13, she wants to be “30, flirty and thriving” and when she wakes up as Jennifer Garner, she finds she has technically fulfilled that wish—though she later learns that her new life isn’t all she thought it would be. Watching the movie as an adult, however, made me understand that 13 Going on 30 isn’t just a magical rom-com switcheroo that helps Jenna land the boy next door. It’s about feeling like a grown up in a way that would make your younger self proud.
That’s a concept that still terrifies me. If I could meet my 13-year-old self, with her box-dyed burgundy hair, oversized Claire’s earrings and unabashed belief that I was destined for a rom-com-worthy life, I think I would be afraid of her. Not because she was scary, but because what my life is turning out to be at 30 is so very different than what I had envisioned at 13. When I was a teenager, 30 felt worthy of senior citizen status. Like, by then, I figured I would definitely have my life well set up with a hot husband, a few kids, a house, an adult wardrobe, a car and a confident understanding of finances and business (i.e. the parts of the newspaper I would skim past on my way to the comics). At 29-and-10-months, all of those things remain a work-in-progress. But I grew in different ways, ways that I couldn’t have predicted at 13. I stopped trying to be “cool”; I lost my mum to cancer; I decided to go to therapy regularly—and each of those milestones made me feel more adult than a car ever could.
“I think all of us wanna feel something that we’ve forgotten or turned our backs on,” adult Jenna says in the movie. “Because maybe we didn’t realize how much we were leaving behind.” In that moment, she’s talking about her shot at love with puppy-dog-in-human-form Matt Flamhaff (Mark Ruffalo)—but watching it now, this sentiment hit home for me. I realized that my struggle to feel like an adult, both as a teen and now, is really just me wanting to feel in control of my life—which becomes increasingly complicated with age. It’s the same reason that Jenna winds up back at her parents’ house when everything falls apart—a scene that with the uncertainty of employment, housing and romantic prospects, feels all too real today. Even though I’ve seen 13 Going on 30 dozens of times, when I watched that scene recently, it made me tear up, reminding me of the many times that things did not go according to plan and I was left feeling like a mess of a human in need of a mom hug. Those feels are *real*.
It’s trendy right now to rewatch classic rom-coms and critique them by today’s standards to see if they “hold up.” To me, the magic of 13 Going on 30 is as real as that day I stumbled across the set in New York City, even though my takeaway has changed. Watching it now, I see that even if my life did fit exactly what my 13-year-old self envisioned, that wouldn’t make it better. Partially, that’s because, at 13, I didn’t know sh-t about real life, but mostly because the movie helped me realize that being an adult isn’t so much about what you have, it’s about who you are.
So, I choose to see myself as “30, flirty and thriving.” (Razzles not included.)