In the fall of 2016, CBS premiered “The Great Indoors.” The sitcom, starring Joel McHale, detailed the life of a Bear Grylls-type who has to work with a group of new millennial hires after the magazine he works for goes fully digital. By any means, the show left little to no impact. But even before it aired, there was something that stuck in the craw of many reporters and critics.
The show’s depiction of its millennial characters fell into a rather typical cycle. They were addicted to technology, overly sensitive and coddled by their families. David Sims from The Atlantic wrote that “The Great Indoors seems unwilling to paint a cord-cutting generation as anything but a band of entitled fools destined for their comeuppance.” For The Guardian, Brian Moylan wrote, “It’s the worldview of this youth bashing, status quo relishing nostalgia bait which is hard to get behind. Maybe if it was on Trump TV, where the rest of the audience supported its philosophy, it would be more successful.” During a pilot screening/Q&A with the cast and crew, a couple of young reporters practically snapped, voicing their frustrations at creator Mike Gibbons and co-star Stephen Fry.
This is far from the only time that young people have been depicted in such a light. The 2017 “Simpsons” episode “Caper Chase” took jabs at PC culture and protests on college campuses. Comedians such as Bill Maher have consistently made fun of the way that young people are always complaining, always whining. Maybe buzzwords like “SJW” and “snowflake” get tossed around.
Young adult representation in media has always been nuanced. For every “Superbad”, there’s a “13 Reasons Why”. Young people have always had a tough time getting some sort of break in being properly represented. Look at the film adaptation of “Hair”, or literally any eighties teen film. It will almost certainly be the case with millenials depicting gen Z and beyond. Nevertheless, it should be made clear that there isn’t anything wrong with making fun of young people; after all, they’re just jokes and the current generation could definitely stand to lighten up. But the problem isn’t that they’re offensive, hurtful or even insulting. Rather, the problem is that they’re just old. It’s a tired shtick. How many times can these jokes and depictions be made before they become hackneyed —if they haven’t already?
Apparently I’m not the only one who thought this. Throughout the past couple of years, films and TV shows such as “Love, Simon,” “Big Mouth,” “American Vandal” and, most daringly, “Eighth Grade,” have begun to take a different stance on how they portray young people. The shift in intelligence is almost night and day. They treat the audience with nuance. They make jokes about the current times, but they aren’t constantly berating their young characters. In short, the characters and audience are taken more seriously.
In 2018, social media is a big part in forming teenagers’ identities. One could argue that they live two different lives: one online, and one IRL. I’m not saying that’s a good or bad thing. It’s just how things are. But at the same time, it’s so hard to find media that presents this accurately. The second season of “American Vandal” has an emphasized focus on social media usage amongst teenagers. The season revolves around a group of teenagers who have been blackmailed into committing an assortment of pranks on their high school through a catfish they meet on Instagram. The show’s essence is summed up in one of the seasons closing lines: “We aren’t the worst generation. We’re just the most exposed.” This is a show that understands the correlation between identity and social media. For example, one of the characters, DeMarcus, a black man, constantly switches around how he talks depending on who he’s talking with (which is to say, he speaks with less slang with certain people, and more with others, a practice known as “code switching”). Another example is shown through the show’s depiction of social media and intimacy. When these characters are talking with their catfish, Brooke Wheeler, they confide with a great amount of insecurity. They do feel the toll of their pubescence. But at the same time, there’s nuance. They aren’t angst-ridden sad sacks. They do have moments of pride. They have moments of confusion.
Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, “Eighth Grade” takes its own approach to the topic. The film, which features the day to day hell that eighth grader Kayla faces as she approaches the final week of middle school, shows the way that technology plays a role in the lives of these young people. The film shows the characters on their phones, often ignoring the other person in the room (i.e. a scene in which Kayla and her dad are talking at the dinner table about the last week of school; another scene in which Kayla is trying to mingle with two popular girls.) But the film presents this in a way that doesn’t really draw that much of a judgement. It simply shows you more-or-less the reality, and lets the audience have their own experience. It’s putting a level of trust in the audience to reflect and think. It assumes that the viewer– presumably a young one– is capable of having such nuanced and complex thoughts.
So many shows on air nowadays try to force in the technological references in ways that are unrealistic. Whether it’s the film “The Internship” or the incels episode of “Law and Order: SVU”, or even this past season of “The Good Wife,” the height of their writer’s knowledge on the subject extends as far as the word “retweet.” “[American Vandal] is good because it doesn’t berate teens for the way social media takes up their lives,” Shailee Koranne wrote in an op-ed for VICE. “Rather, it carefully investigates how vulnerable young people are nowadays because of social media.”
But technology isn’t the only place where we see shows failing to represent young people.
Sexuality is something that seems rather absent from young adult entertainment. Or at the very least, it’s usually the sugary sweet mush we see from John Green novels or the crude, over the top kind seen in American Pie rip-off movies. But that’s where “Big Mouth” comes in. The show, co-created by comedian Nick Kroll, displays a group of young teenagers as they navigate the trials and tribulations of puberty. Part social satire and part adult comedy, the show tackles sex in a rather cartoonish manner. Through magical realism, the characters are guided through their changing bodies by means of Hormone Monsters, otherworldly creatures who represents their innermost urges and desires.
What “Big Mouth” understandably lacks in realism (it’s a cartoon, after all), it completely makes up for in education and satire. For example, this past season, the show did an episode conveniently titled “The Planned Parenthood Episode.” In the episode, a series of sketches takes the reader through an instructional guide to the functions of Planned Parenthood. One segment functions as a Woody Allen-style flashback to the main character Nick’s parents meeting and consummating. Another one features his sister choosing which contraception is best for her with a “Bachelorette”-styled reality competition. There’s a rather somber moment in which main character Andrew’s mother gets an abortion following a night out clubbing. Another episode, this one from season one, takes a look at the way young people question their sexuality. In episode three, titled “Am I Gay?”, Andrew begins wondering if there is anything wrong with him after he gets an erection during a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson movie trailer. The episode balances sex jokes (with anthropomorphic Vaginas and a gay musical number between the ghosts of Freddie Mercury, Socrates, and Antonin Scalia), while also incorporating emotional stakes. Andrew thinks he may be gay, and as a result, begins questioning if his gay muse is his best friend Nick.
Sexual development is nothing short of a painfully awkward and scary moment. “Big Mouth” shows the more awkward side, while “Eighth Grade” showed that and also a more brutal side to things. Towards the end of the film, as Kayla is riding home with an older love interest, she is subjected through a rather abrasive unwanted advance in his backseat. It’s within the scene that you can feel the raw toxic intimacy. Some may even flashback to similar ordeals in their own lives. This isn’t the first time that teenage sexual harassment or abuse has been shown in film. But it’s easily one of the most tasteful, empathetic one’s. There is a clear understanding of the way that sexuality isn’t just about being horny and fucking everything in sight. Adolescent sexuality can be a scary, uncertain, and even traumatic experience. Even with this film, this depiction could have gone so glaringly wrong. It could have been exploitive and cheap; a spiritual sibling to the Lifetime movie-grade garbage that is “13 Reasons Why”– a show that does literally the opposite of everything that the media mentioned here does; a show that proudly admitted to consulting a child mental health psychiatrist, only to then completely ignore them. Luckily, Bo Burnham is a little more culturally aware.
Through these shows, films– whatever it may be–, young adult entertainment is seeing a new era. There isn’t anything wrong with more simplistic forms of teen entertainment, whether it be CW dramas or teen rom-coms. But there is certainly room for improvement and variety. The way that teenagers are depicted in media is a joke, both literally and figuratively. Now, more than ever, in a time when teenagers and young adults have many things to tackle, whether it’s mental health, stress, or political frustration, the least that the largely gen X- and baby boomer-dominated media can do is give the current generation their due, or at the very least, keep making their voices heard. And if not, then maybe it’s time for millenials to step it the fuck up.