A few years ago, when actor Molly Ringwald suggested in an article for The New Yorker that some of her best-known 1980s films could be considered “racist, misogynistic, and, at times, homophobic,” Gen X was abuzz.
Here was an icon of 1980s teendom shining a harsh light on movies like “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles” that had marked a generation of high schoolers, myself included.
Revisiting films of the era with my own 15-year-old daughter has brought similar moments of awareness.
This awkward walk down memory lane got me thinking: Will today’s youth – my kids and college students included – question their generation’s on-screen portrayal in the future?
Will Netflix owe Gen Z an apology?
I can’t speak for Generation Z, the group born between the late 1990s and early 2010s, but I watch a lot of films and series about them. I'm a not-so-secret fan of the genre, no matter how many years separate me from high school. And though I’m obviously not the target demographic, I’m a parent, I work with college students and I'm paid to write about movies, so I watch closely and with a critical eye.
Lately I’ve noticed some commonalities in how Gen Z is being portrayed on screen. These feel increasingly like unchallenged clichés from older generations looking down. What follows is my top 5.
None of this is limited to Netflix, by the way. Nor to the US: these are global platforms depicting a global generation.
1. Gen Z is social media obsessed.
The most prevalent, and laziest, cliché about today’s “screenagers” is that they’re physically attached to their phones, more concerned with their online image than what happens IRL, and will do anything for followers and likes.
For example, the social media status of the French teens in Netflix film “Dangerous Liaisons” is likened to the rankings of royalty in the court of Versailles. The lead character, initially above all this shallowness, finds social acceptance and happiness only after she starts sharing her life on Instagram.
“When the Wi-Fi goes out, it’s like they lose oxygen,” the Gen X director of new Gen Z slasher satire “Bodies, Bodies, Bodies” told The New York Times of her characters. For good measure, the Times quoted a college professor who suggested that asking today’s youth to step back from the virtual world is “like asking them to imagine living without solid food.”
Sure, the stereotype itself is often what’s being exploited. In Hulu’s recent “Not Okay,” a fame-seeking young woman pretends to be the victim of a terrorist attack only to discover internet celebrity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
But what’s missing is the critical take that questions whether these digital natives might actually be more skeptical of social media thanks to their fluency with it than we digital immigrants.
Twenty years from now, I suspect the portrayal will feel as out-of-date to them as “You’ve Got Mail” does to us today.
2. Gen Z parties… hard.
If we trust what we see on screen, typical teen experimentation has gone ballistic.
Shows like “Sex Education” (Netflix) and “The Sex Lives of College Girls” (HBO Max) suggest teenagers are urgently, sometimes indiscriminately, seeking sex. At least this is now equal across genders and sexual orientations, unlike in hetero male-oriented ‘80s movies.
Today’s teens are also consuming a lot of drugs, judging by Netflix’s Spain-set murder mystery “Elite,” HBO Max’s dystopian suburban drama “Euphoria” and others. This isn’t Spicoli’s mellow stoner; we’re talking pills and powders.
The escalation is often portrayed as rooted in anxiety, discontent and cynicism. “The world’s coming to an end, and I haven’t even graduated high school yet,” the tormented Rue quips in episode one of “Euphoria.” The angst is intensified by global events and parental mistakes.
Which brings us to…
3. Gen Z's parents are to blame.
Last March, a tweet went viral suggesting “Millennial filmmakers are slowly creating an entire genre of fantasy films where parents apologize.” Media outlets picked up on the idea. Vox wrote about the “millennial parental apology fantasy,” involving “stories where the parent has to realize how badly they’ve treated their child.”
This trend has stretched beyond family dynamics. On screen, older generations are being taken to task for pretty much everything wrong with the world.
In the Netflix revamp of Danish series “Borgen,” the former prime minister is accused on live TV by her Gen Z son of being part of a generation that ‘destroyed the world,’ leaving their kids to clean up the mess. The 53-year-old mom responds: “And your generation has a bad habit of always playing the victim instead of creating some change.”
Of course, anyone paying attention knows this isn’t true. From climate advocacy group ‘Fridays for Future’ to anti-gun violence ‘March for Our Lives’ to ‘Gen Z for Change,’ activist groups comprised of fed-up young people are taking matters into their own hands.
4. Gen Z is excessively ‘woke’ (but don’t call them that).
Which leads us to the next common Gen Z portrayal: that they’re all politically aware, active and on the “correct” side of history. The jerks of today rarely get the girl, like they did in 80s films – see the comeuppance of creeps in outwardly feminist movies like “Moxie,” for example.
Meanwhile, Broadway-quality high school musicals are replacing the patriarchal prom in much teen fare, and on-screen Gen Z inhabits an equity-conscious world where friend groups invariably fulfill a checklist of racial and sexual identities.
It’s a lot to live up to!
In Netflix parody “Senior Year,” a 37-year-old woman wakes up from a coma and goes back to high school, discovering trophy cases have been replaced with pro-environment “art” made from tampons, popularity contests have been banned and the cheer squad performs chants about sexual consent and saving turtles.
“I’m just trying to build my most authentic, socially conscious, body-positive, environmentally aware, and economically compassionate brand,” the school’s top influencer explains through a stiff smile. Take that, “Mean Girls.”
The satire works because it’s based on a familiar representation. But is it reality?
5. Gen Z is entitled.
Young people today were “born with hurt feelings,” are best friends with the internet (or their parents), and have way too much self-esteem, complain the 50-something characters of Netflix comedy “Wine Country.”
Recent Paramount+ film “Honor Society” agrees. The tale’s protagonist is a top student who believes herself profoundly superior to her classmates, teachers and parents. She casually schemes to win a coveted Ivy League recommendation, only to find herself outmaneuvered by an even more devious and entitled senior.
Let it not go unnoticed that this blatantly cynical portrayal of Gen Z was written by a man born in 1962.
Like most of these depictions of teens, from “The Breakfast Club” on, what we’re seeing is an adult view of younger generations. Are they basing their ideas on what they see in teens today, or what they’ve already seen on screen?
Gen Z has a whole lot more to choose from, audiovisually speaking, than previous generations, but the view of them is surprisingly uniform. It’ll be interesting to watch how they reckon with this portrayal in the future -- and who they'll hold accountable.
This article originally ran in The Seattle Times.
Images courtesy of Netflix and Hulu.