Growing up is hard. Thank God we have an entire category of films dedicated to the pain, embarrassment, and excitement of adolescence that everyone can enjoy and relate to.
Except we don’t. Who really comes of age in coming-of-age films?
Mainstream teen films are and have been characterized by their incredible amount of heteronormativity, sheer lack of diversity, and a depressing shortage of everyone else who is not able-bodied and does not fit the Eurocentric standards of beauty.
To exist as a young person and watch films where straightness and whiteness are embraced as normal, the standard, and everything else as an “other” is harmful. Growing up is hard, and it’s even harder when you never see any representation of yourself and your experiences and instead are forced to enjoy smug love letters to privileged teens and their “relatable” lives which are – guess what? – not relatable at all.
Too many films are catered towards these straight, white, middle-class teens and their oh-so-eventful lives while we hang around in supporting roles as the comically stereotypical “gay best friend”/”sassy black sidekick”/”weird Asian exchange student”. It’s not exactly breaking news that nonwhite, LGBTQ characters in such films are regarded as jokes or props – our only purpose being things for all the other characters to mock or to use so they gain some sort of sick satisfaction. Which I can tell you, unsurprisingly so, is also paralleled by real life experiences! This is common and it happens to real people daily, 24/7. And just as the characters in these films face no consequences for their actions, neither do the people in real life. Let’s get this out there: microaggressions of homophobia, transphobia/transmisogyny, racism, and sexism are widely accepted and considered normal. And films encourage this.
What also happens with both young people of color and LGBTQ youth is a kind of internalized dislike and hatred. You are young, you are impressionable, and you believe what these films tell you, that nobody wants to see you grow up because you’re already expected to be grown. You are truly and wholeheartedly convinced that you exist outside of normality and that you are somehow a freak, an outsider, or an “other” because you have no idea there are people out there who have the same experiences as you, or that no one around you seems to care that the standards for such normality in mainstream films are outdated and exclusive in every way.
Films are constantly overlapping with life; every film we ever watch influences the way we present ourselves. So now you can imagine what happens when we don’t bother to share and explore the experiences and points-of-view of the underrepresented. We’re simply letting ignorance and lack of understanding continue both in real life and on the big screen in pastel tones starring washed out actors and their washed out children. What is happening is this disease of bland teen cinema causing us to not even see oppressed teens as teens, or even admit to ourselves that this is happening.
I can think of two coming-of-age movies last year that created massive buzz but really were just as stale as their predecessors, only marketed in a way that had us all under the impression that they were somehow better or different. They were not either of those things, and their titles are Boyhood and Palo Alto.
Now I wouldn’t even have a problem with Boyhood if it faded into obscurity which I really feel is what it deserves, but it’s been racking up nominations and wins from every awards show there is. Which is not any surprise at all, I can tell you, as whatever committees that make these decisions are composed almost entirely of old white men whose greatest joy in life is rewarding mediocrity.
It comes down to this: white, straight, privileged people can watch and relate to so many more films than nonwhite people. Even LGBTQ-themed films tend to have an extremely white cast, though the LGBTQ community is much more diverse.
I mean, lack of racial diversity is old news. According to Metafilter.com “Across 100 top-grossing films of 2012, only 10.8% of speaking characters are Black, 4.2% are Hispanic, 5% are Asian, and 3.6% are from other (or mixed race) ethnicities.”
Not a lot has changed in these three years. And just think about how much of these tiny fractions are composed of bad stereotypes and misrepresentation.
Palo Alto was another disappointing addition to last year’s smorgasbord of anticipated films. (an alternate title for Palo Alto could be Whiny Heterosexuals Party and Make Casually Racist Statements While A Really Good Soundtrack is Wasted.) Since there are so few women involved in directing, I wanted to support Gia Coppola when it came out. I really did. Female directors get so little exposure you learn to be thankful for anything at all. But after watching this I learned two things: a) Never trust a Coppola. b) Halfway decent cinematography does not fix everything.
I’m not surprised, as the film was based off James Franco’s book and James Franco doesn’t seem to strike me as the kind of guy who really cares about anyone but himself. So I really don’t know what I expected. I can only hope Gia Coppola abandons this flop concept and can only evolve as a filmmaker and a person because, listen, we really need it.
But it’s amazing how much work people will put into a film and not for a second think about who they’re leaving out and who they’re really making their films for. Did Richard Linklater think for even once in those 12 years about who his real audience was? Does Gia Coppola lay awake at night and wonder what’s missing in Palo Alto? Or who?
However, it’s important not to erase the achievements of filmmakers, especially women, in the independent community who have redefined the coming-of-age genre. Women have been making funny, beautiful, heartbreaking films about other women. Women of color have been telling their stories on-screen. This is enormous to see, because until recent years, we only really ever saw men’s films from men’s perspectives, which meant the concept of being a woman has been distorted beyond recognition by the hypermasculinity that consumes mass media. But now it is being reclaimed, stripped down and portrayed truthfully. That’s something to look forward to.
There’s been progress, and some groundbreaking movies have been made recently, but it’s saddening to see the lack of exposure these films get. We can only hope these films gain larger and larger audiences and receive the attention and cult status they deserve.
Here’s a short list of movies that have recently attempted to broaden the definition of what it means to be leading men and women, and though these films haven’t quite gotten the same treatment as The Breakfast Club, they’re just as important, perhaps even more important, and should be celebrated:
MOSQUITA Y MARI
GUN HILL ROAD
LOVE & BASKETBALL
BOYZ N THE HOOD
SAVING FACE or HU DIE