Crowd DNA New York’s Eden Lauffer examines the ways in which film and TV teen narratives must evolve to resonate with the complex identities of Gen Z...
Today’s teens draw from an array of influences that weren’t available to generations before them. Consider the effects of teenhood played out alongside the internet, versus an analogue adolescence of decades gone by: the worldwide web alone provides inspiration and opinions, outlets for creative expression and peer pressure in equal measure. As the challenges and motivations of teens have changed drastically over time, media responses have shifted to reflect this complexity.
Here, we challenge film to stray from the traditional and highly stereotyped coming-of-age story – as portrayed in high school classics like The Breakfast Club (1985) and Mean Girls (2004) – to speak more authentically to Gen Zers.
In the early 2000s, film began to sympathetically make light of the awkward teenage years, rather than mocking them. Recall the lead in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) getting too drunk at a party and dancing on the table, or American Pie’s (1999) lead unknowingly doing a strip tease on a livestream for the whole school. These embarrassing moments of 90s film read as negative.
The early 2000s instead celebrated the sheer embarrassment of being a teenager and told us not to take it too seriously. Those who were previously labeled outcasts or geeks now reigned as sarcastic, witty leads. For example, in Superbad (2007), the protagonists were nerdy boys striving to impress girls they’ve always crushed on, while in Easy A (2010) our bookish lead hilariously conquered the double standard against high school girls and sexuality.
Meanwhile, outside of the US, millennial teens got an even more raw narrative on the teenage experience. Humour was a vehicle to tackle teen challenges often viewed as taboo – from sex, drugs, bullying and teenage pregnancy. In Canada, Degrassi (2001) allowed teens to fumble through mistakes without neatly tying episodes up with a moral message (as was done in the 90s). In the UK, Skins (2007) showed awkward struggles, with taboo teenage moments served with a side of surrealism. But while these dramas were seen to be more gritty and ‘real’, they were also criticized for glamorizing teenage rebellion.
Embracing the messiness of teendom
Moving on from the Skins and Degrassi’s kids breaking the rules, recent depictions have looked at the more everyday struggles of Gen Z – from online bullying to FOMO.
While remaining extremely innocent, Eighth Grade (2018) used actual kids (acne and all) to make each painful moment of being 13 palpable, coupling awkwardness with the complexities of being a teenager in the age of social media. Similarly, Lady Bird (2017) shone a light on the tension-ridden mother-daughter relationship, making its angsty, precocious protagonist relatable. These kinds of ‘everygirl’ leading ladies would both have previously been sidelined in teen film, but now their limelight gives teens someone strong, yet familiarly flawed and smart, yet naive, to relate to.
This summer, Booksmart (2019) graced us with something perhaps more akin to the ‘regular’ high school experience. Like Superbad, the story follows two hard-working girls who feel they’ve missed out on the classic high school experience. As they seize their opportunity on the night before graduation, going to a party and kissing the boys and girls they like, they interact with a range of different teenage characters along the way. This film sourced its relatability through letting the audience know that everyone lives out high school in their own way, and that’s okay.
Complex and hybrid
While Booksmart successfully captures relatable high schoolers, each character is still fairly one dimensional, defined by a single characteristic: nerdy, stoner, slutty, etc. For Gen Zers, identity is defined by several factors existing alongside each other – race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, political views, social justice involvement – the list goes on. They don’t want to be pigeon-holed or defined by a singular trait.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) weaves the lead’s Asian heritage into the storyline, making it a celebratory narrative. Euphoria (2019) plays on the typical teen archetypes, but muddies them with complexity. We still have jocks and popular girls, but each sits on a spectrum of gender identity and sexuality, insecurity and confidence. In Big Little Lies (2018), a child suffers a panic attack because of her overwhelming anxiety about climate change. Both in Euphoria and 13 Reasons Why (2017), toxic masculinity (used to conceal one’s sexuality) has an extremely detrimental impact on said character and those around them. Of all the titles mentioned above, only one (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) has a rating that would even allow teen viewing.
There’s still room for progress
There’s evidence that film is beginning to consider the multidimensional, contradictory nature of Gen Zers, but more can be done to make characters feel authentic to teens in a setting that’s PG enough for them to watch themselves. Diversity also remains an issue, with Zendaya becoming one of the first black, teen female leads in a major channel show, and Hunter Schaffer the first trans actor (Euphoria).
However, tension will forever lie in the contrasting needs to achieve both entertainment and realism. Film is meant to help us escape our own realities, so run of the mill house parties are unlikely to ever be featured on screen. But where is the happy medium between truly relatable and glamourized? Continuing to build on representing a range of teenage voices seems a good place to start.
There are currently more than 2.5billion Gen Zers worldwide. For more thinking on how to speak to this generation and its duality, check out our work on the Hybrid States Of Gen Z.