OK, so the world right now is a pretty dark place to live in. Political uncertainty, a quickly deteriorating environment and the current outbreak of a deadly pandemic have made 2020 one of the scariest years in recent history. With so much chaos compacted into a short period of time, it’s not hard to resign oneself to a pessimistic view of the future.
Enter Generation Z. Born in the years between 1997 and 2012 and characterized by a love of memes and a distrust of authority, the young people that comprise Gen Z (occasionally referred to as “zoomers”) have grown to dominate social media and pop culture while also becoming increasingly involved in social issues. The largest, most ethnically diverse age group in the history of the U.S. has simultaneously disavowed the establishment and called for change with social movements like #NeverAgain and the March for Our Lives, in response to the numerous school shootings that have defined many childhoods.
Gen Z, while undoubtedly politically and socially active, maintains an air of nihilism that often earns them labels like “apathetic” or “spoiled.” This disconnect between their perception and reality may lie in Gen Z’s multifaceted attitude toward the future. That attitude, while complex and evolving with age, involves contradictions between idealism and realism, hope for progress and fear for the inevitable.
The reasons for Gen Z’s unique outlook lie in the social, political, racial and cultural dynamics that define the modern world. While all these influences play a role in developing the Gen Z mindset, one small aspect of popular culture may serve as one of the best ways to describe the average Gen Z kid: The abundance of goth girls in children’s cartoons.
While not the most highbrow media trend to analyze, the ubiquity of the “goth girl” trope in ’00s and ’10s kids’ TV may give insight into Gen Z’s tendency to appear apathetic while actually harboring deep empathy for those around them. This trope, though used since the inception of the goth subculture in the early 1970s, was most visible during the mid-2000s — formative years for the vast majority of Gen Z.
Many shows produced on popular children’s networks like Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network feature a specific stock character of the goth girl with a black heart of gold. These characters are often presented as walking contradictions: Sam Manson from “Danny Phantom” hunts ghosts, but is a steadfast vegetarian; Gwen from “Total Drama Island” always has a sarcastic one-liner for her competitors, but also has the intelligence to make it to the faux-reality show’s finale. Thorn and the Hex Girls of the “Scooby-Doo” franchise have a witchcraft-themed heavy metal band, yet care for the planet as self-proclaimed “eco-goths.” These characters, each meant to act as unlikely protagonists and role models for the young audience, have two important traits in common: a gothic aesthetic with an uninterested exterior and a secret passion for supporting the people and causes they believe in.
Gen Z viewers watching these goth girls take TV by storm were paying close attention. E-girls and e-boys have recently emerged as lifestyle trends on youth-oriented apps like TikTok, and memes heralding the goth women and men of the 2000s are all over the Internet. Clearly, these cartoon tropes have made an impact on popular culture visually, so the idea that they may have had a strong influence on Gen Z as kids may not be so far-fetched.
Though cartoon goth girls only provide a small glimpse into the childhoods of this generation, analysis of this trope contextualizes the simple, everyday media messages that Gen Z grew up with. In understanding the actions and motivations of Gen Z today, it’s worth examining why exactly we became so hopeful and pessimistic. We do not exist in a vacuum — we did not make ourselves this way. As this generation ages, realizing what created us informs how we can move forward.