More and more young people nowadays struggle with their emotional and psychological health. However, it isn’t just the youth who have been slipping into states of dysphoria recently; our entertainment seems to be following the same trend. The loner outcast is the new star of the show, and portraying dissatisfaction as a shortcut to relatability has become the new obsession of the media. Instead of the unrealistic, cotton candy portrayals of high school as the best years of one’s life, the entertainment industry has struck up a preference for illustrating the angsty, gloomy bits we all experienced during that time. But is this new ‘relatable’ approach any better than the idyllic narrative we had before?
It’s reckless love in the late ‘50s. Cue a California backdrop and some sock hop dance scenes and you have Grease, the iconic 1978 American movie musical and the quintessential coming-of-age story of the 20th century. The sun gleams brighter in that movie, and the biggest problem main characters Sandy and Danny face is the possibility the school year will end with the status of their relationship uncertain. Sandy realizes the key to winning over the hotshot Danny is as simple as switching out her long, pastel skirts for tight, black disco pants. She emerges: big curls and in a silhouette so desirable that it erases all of their previous relationship issues. With his cartwheel heart and her all-black ensemble, Danny and Sandy fly off into the sunset together (literally) as the credits roll.
Fast forward four decades. The 21st-century take on the coming-of-age story sinks its claws into radically different subject matter. The major characters of our modern-day adolescent narratives no longer echo the looks nor the issues of the leather-clad Sandy and lead T-Bird Danny, who won over the audience whilst winning over each other. By contrast, the characters dominating our screens today take on angstier roles. Think of the dejected Violet Markey in All the Bright Places. In the film, death is at the center of Violet’s story, and she struggles to find a purpose for her existence beyond grief and loss. Or consider the flawed titular character of Lady Bird (aka Christine). As her senior year of high school comes to an end, she finds herself under constant strain because of familial tensions, financial difficulty, and uncertainty about her future. Instead of Danny, the audience is presented with Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He is severely depressed, doubtful, and self-effacing, but he attempts to move beyond his traumatic past to make the most of his time in high school.
There is a thin line between representing and glamorizing the angst and complexity of the high school years, and the transformation of the coming-of-age story may have already crossed that line.
These new characters represent the evolution of the media’s depiction of the coming-of-age story, which has moved from feel-good narratives to hard-hitting stories of grittiness and discomposure. While the former perspective was fluffier, easier to digest, and quicker to draw people in, it lacked substance and was rooted in unrealistic adolescent experiences. Modern-day entertainment has replaced such idyllic portrayals by telling stories that were avoided before. They are raw and real and painfully relatable. This is not to say that the new focus on emotional distress and intrapersonal conflict is the gold standard that media and entertainment should strive to achieve. There is a thin line between representing and glamorizing the angst and complexity of the high school years, and the transformation of the coming-of-age story may have already crossed that line.
In the presence of attractive actors, cinematic camera shots, and a spot-on soundtrack, shows and movies cannot help but seem like better versions of real life. It can be easy, then, to latch on to the idea that what is presented on screen is that which we should work to attain. From this view grows glorified thoughts of how cool Lady Bird was in her nonconformity and simultaneous showings of irritation and apathy, or how Charlie’s emotional discomfort in Perks made him so counterculture and individualistic. We run the risk of ornamenting unpleasant experiences by associating them with such a commercialized form of entertainment. Take the extreme case of 13 Reasons Why. In this show, the character Hannah Baker takes her own life and leaves behind tape recordings that explain all that led up to her decision. Whether it was the good-looking celebrities, the music, or a combination of both, the portrayal of suicide in the show led to a considerable increase in teen suicide rates in the months after its release. The show’s approach to mental health and suicide blurred the line between representation and glorification, and the cost was the loss of life.
We run the risk of ornamenting unpleasant experiences by associating them with such a commercialized form of entertainment.
Still, there are advantages despite these risks. As there is an increase in the number of young people in the U.S. struggling with mental illnesses, the shift of the coming-of-age story allows those individuals to see themselves on screen. The altered perspective opens the door for these individuals to discover comfort in the fact that they are not the only ones struggling with their mental and emotional health. Further, mental illness is no longer as heavily stigmatized in the media as it once was—although there is still progress to be made.
The revision of the adolescent narrative to emphasize mental illness and trauma came about as more teens are affected by such issues. As a result, the impacts of the grittier portrayals are difficult to untangle. Did we ask for more shows tackling the topic of mental health? Not necessarily. There was a lack of content that showed the true awkwardness and uncertainty that comes along with being a teen. We just wanted to stop seeing the false narrative of high school as the best four years of our lives, as I am sure very few of us find that to be true. The entertainment industry took it upon itself to move beyond general relatability to more openly show characters struggling with mental illness and trauma in a potentially-detrimental way. Are these portrayals better than the unrealistically ideal stories of the 20th century? That is up to us—the viewers— to decide. While our teenage years are filled with both desirable and unpleasant moments, neither should be emphasized as a dominating theme in stories about adolescence. Content that romanticizes despair in an attempt to be relatable cannot be a trend we embrace. However, stories that idealize every aspect of the teenage experience are just as faulty. Reality does not exist in the extremes, and neither should our media.
Written by Amara Gordon, Photography by Fei Wang.
Models: Leyah Owusu, Thanh Pham, Lauren White, Zarielle Anthony, and Ella Banerjee