We’ve always been obsessed with the stories of teenagers. Hollywood film and TV, in particular, have thrived with their depictions of youth. For years, coming-of-age stories on-screen have painted teen lives as exciting and X-rated. From John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles through to Sam Levinson’s Euphoria, we have watched 20-somethings play 16 year-olds and engage in all sorts of morally dubious behaviour.
With the proliferation and popularisation of online streaming sites, like Netflix, more and more coming-of-age stories have been produced, with many different focus areas. Their target audience is getting younger and younger, capitalising on the hordes of teens who will advertise the show for free online. With this increasing exposure, there seems to be a panic surrounding the representation of teen lives in mass media and the impact it might be having on younger kids. Is there a reason to be worried?
Controversy surrounded 13 Reasons Why when it aired on Netflix in 2017. The show addressed serious subject matter, such as suicide and sexual assault, which left audiences in turbulent discussion about the appropriate manner (if any) to address these issues in entertainment. The first season’s narrative followed Hannah’s revenge fantasy and Netflix suggested in public statements that the show was a ‘conversation starter’. You know what’s supposed to come after a conversation starter? A conversation. In season two it seemed like Netflix was well aware of the controversy, and spun the show into more of a straight drama, with a similar tone to that of Pretty Little Liars (just with more graphic scenes of sexual assault). With the release of the season three trailer, which hints that the upcoming season will be a mystery whodunnit, Netflix simultaneously announced the removal of Hannah’s suicide scene. This retrospective edit comes after so much outcry about the triggering nature of the show. 13 Reasons Why exploits serious issues to amplify drama, giving no real barriers to access for people shouldn’t be watching it. Rather than starting much-needed conversations, 13 Reasons Why opens doors to cliff faces for those who don’t have the ability to self-regulate. This is an incredibly counterproductive move for a show that claims to be a positive force in these sensitive conversations.
Love, Simon fulfils a more innocent and helpful space in the collection coming-of-age films. It joins the likes of She’s All That and 10 Things I Hate About You, full of cheese and innocent romance. At the time of release, the film received many comparisons to John Hughes’ filmography. The film warmly fills the script with cute tropes, in the most Hollywood manner possible. Which is rad! This was the first time that a major Hollywood studio produced a gay coming-of-age movie. It was made with the teenage target audience in mind, and acknowledged that gay men could lead a film, rather than presenting them as the catty comedic relief. So that’s, like, 1 cheesy teen rom-com out of hundreds. Indie *cinema* and prestige films have touched on queer stories before, but this film in particular sets a good precedent, hopefully spurring more Hollywood movies about queer stories. Some scenes in this film surprised me with their warm and loving tone, with the heart of the movie so clearly in the right place. Some critics have suggested that the film looks to primarily serve heterosexual audiences, and doesn’t look to challenge troubling forces of homonormativity. The director, Greg Berlanti, is gay, and has spoken about the intentions he held while making Love, Simon. In his interviews he constantly acknowledges the potential and precedent of his film, stating that it was important that he create opportunity for other members of the LGBTQ+ community. He seems well aware that his representation in this film establishes a stepping stone for future Hollywood stories.
Booksmart, a much more recent release,joins the company of other rambunctious and raunchy coming-of-age films. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut has garnered positive reviews and many flattering comparisons Superbad (Bernie Feldstein happens to be Jonah Hill’s sister). The indie flick follows two best friends on a quest to party hard the night before graduation. They attempt to reclaim their high school experience, after discovering all the popular kids who had partied, while they studied, were accepted into Ivy League schools too. Booksmart is sweet, fresh and fun, with an authentic take on teen friendship and encouraging representation of the high school experience. The girls also feel completely safe throughout the entire movie. You’re never concerned about sexual assault, or instances of bullying and homophobia, which were so prevalent in coming-of-age films from the noughties. There is really diverse representation of sexuality, race and gender performance. The characters who make up their classmates feel so familiar, you feel as though you’re staring your high school yearbook. Unfortunately, despite critical acclaim, this jewel of a film was crushed by Disney’s Aladdin upon release. The film made just over half of its projection of $12 million during opening weekend.
The future of coming-of-age media shows real promise, in regards to indie and mainstream film. Uplifting stories and diverse representation seem to be encouraged by audiences and new directors, hopefully not to be squashed by major studios and their cursed remakes. By the nature of the medium, TV shows accessible through streaming are more likely to be avidly consumed. Shows like 13 Reasons Why and Euphoria, which walk the line between authenticity and exploitation, may need to be monitored a little closer. But I grew up without American Pie seriously tainting my worldview. I think the kids will be alright.