I fell in love with Amber Holt on “Parenthood” during last season’s Halloween episode, when she skipped the traditional “animal ears and lingerie” costume route and showed up to a frat party dressed as a giant banana. Her friend, sporting the classic scantily clad barmaid look, balked. The older SAT tutor her friend was lusting after raised his eyebrows. But Amber didn’t care, and her sincere confidence in her banana costume was even better than her wacky appearance.
Originally presented by NBC as “a rebellious and willful teen whose only interest at present is her wannabe rock star boyfriend,”Amber has developed into one of the more honest, complicated teenage girl characters on television. Last season ended withAmber spiraling out of control after finding out she didn’t get into her dream college or back up school. Teen girl characters with dashed college dreams are a television classic. What’s not classic is Amber’s story: There’s no boyfriend jetting off to a faraway school. There’s no relationship drama about trying to go to the same school. In fact, there’s no boyfriend, period. The dismantling of Amber’s college plan is traumatic because she’s bright and worked hard. Amber spent the first half of the season interning, networking, and investing hard to come by cash in an SAT tutor, only to be left with no post-graduation plan. Every piece of her problem is refreshingly focused on own sense of personal agency. What does she need? What does she want? Where will she go from here?
Amber takes her first stab at moving forward by trying to be a normal high school student for the rest of her senior year. She even lines up a blind date and revamps a dress from her grandmother’s closet so she can go to prom. But Amber finds that prom, like much of her high school experience, doesn’t really work for her. Her second attempt to move forward is worse. Drugs, alcohol, and a going-nowhere-guy figure prominently into her plan, which is capped off by a serious car accident, leaving her with a totaled car and several minor injuries.
This season, Amber could have gone back to rebel wild child, or spent more time floundering. Instead, she gets that banana-suit-gumption back and shows off her incredible strength. Amber moves out of her family home and into a decrepit basement in a neighborhood that has the euphemistic monikers of “up and coming” and “chock full of artists.” She transforms the basement into an attractive, livable apartment, complete with posters of girl bands like Tegan and Sara. She continues to show off the work ethic she developed early last season by supporting herself financially based on her earnings from a full time job at a coffee shop. And in Amber’s spare time, when she’s not enjoying her hobbies (writing and playing music), she’s busy flipping traditional gender roles in her family.
Amber doesn’t call her burly grandfather or laundry list of uncles when a giant rat makes his presence known in the middle of the night. Instead, she reaches out to another strong woman on the show, her mom, who rushes over in the middle of the night to help her identify and capture her new rat roommate. When the younger males in her family have non-rat-related problems, Ambertakes a cue from her mom and comes to their rescue. She helps her younger brother decipher the dating world by teaching him how to talk to the girl he likes. She offers to drive him on his date and though she annoyed him by talking too much in the car, her in depth conversation with her brother’s date about eclectic classic and modern music was one of those rare Bechdel Test moments. Two girls, on screen, totally engaged in a conversation about a common interest that isn’t men. Later, in a particularly touching episode this season, Amber teaches her autistic cousin Max how to deliver a sincere apology by talking out the issue, showing him videos of classic apologies through history, and offering her stash of Tootsie Rolls when he succeeds. Her empathetic, no-nonsense style earned her the honor of being one of the first members of her family to get past Max’s communication issues and connect with him.
It’s refreshing to see a teenage girl whose story arc this season is focused on her strength and self sufficiency. Amber might make more mistakes this season; hopefully not of the caliber of last season, but who knows? What I do know is that she won’t make those mistakes because she’s some boy-crazed-teen-rebel-caricature; she’ll make them because she’s human. A flawed, striving, strong teenage girl on TV, allowed to thrive without the intervention of horrible consequences or the validation of a man? It’s as rare and wonderful as a giant banana suit wading through a sea of frat-party-goers.