When “The Kissing Booth 3” came out last year, it became the perfect finale to a horribly-reviewed trilogy, with clips such as this one going viral for how painful they were to watch. This kind of dramatized interpretation of how Generation Z speaks to each other persistently appears in media centered around today’s teenagers as older writers try to grasp how we communicate. As modern TV shows continue to portray the generation as one-dimensional, self-obsessed teenagers absorbed by social media, they make it increasingly difficult for Gen Z to connect with the characters we are supposed to relate to.
What it means to be a teenager continues to evolve, and film writers are working to incorporate the new norms of being a teenager into their media. However, they are not succeeding. Take the new remake of “He’s All That,” for example. Instead of a trained actress, this film stars TikTok star Addison Rae, and embodies every modern teenager cliché possible. The characters are mean, addicted to social media and primarily focused on popularity and fame.
Productions such as “Riverdale” and “The Kissing Booth” have gained popularity with our generation, but instead of being recognized for what they got right, they’ve gained attention for how much they get wrong. Standout issues range from the actors that are 5 to 15 years older than their characters to the agitating dialogue that makes you wonder, who thinks we actually speak like that? The issue is that these shows encompass all of the stereotypes of today’s teenagers that older generations perceive, and little to none of the depth that actually is present in Gen Z, such as their adamant political activism, advocacy for social causes or transparency surrounding issues such as mental health or diversity.
In contrast, one movie that portrays an accurate representation of teenagers is “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Unique for its raw (and sometimes uncomfortable) discussions on mental health, this 2012 film encapsulates the more realistic parts of being a teenager, such as struggling with mental health, drug abuse, sexuality, academic hardships, anxiety, sexual abuse and suicide. Although they are intimate and challenging topics, these are some of the issues that consume our generation’s daily lives, drive our conflicts and heavily impact our relationships. This honesty is what has led to this film’s lasting impact and the precedent it has set for other meaningfully relatable films in the future.
Gen Z experiences heavy battles with mental health. This generation is the most anxiety-prone yet, with 90% reporting having experienced psychological or physical symptoms due to stress in the past year, and 70% saying anxiety and depression are significant issues among peers. Although our heavy use of social media is criticized and ridiculed by older generations, our instinct to turn to social media platforms like TikTok for advice isn’t due to some deep-rooted narcissism or desire to “go viral.” Instead, people struggling with mental health turn to social media to share experiences, seek information about getting help and find and give support.
So where does this lack of understanding of how Gen Z interacts with society come from? Well, for starters, the majority of film writers in the U.S. are over 40 years old, and are additionally primarily white, straight and male. The homogenous nature of the writers leads to the repetitive misinterpretation of minorities. Gen Z is more racially and ethnically diverse than other generations. We have the largest LGBTQ+ population, with approximately 21% of Gen Z over 18 identifying as a part of this community. Yet, in a survey conducted by VICE media, 50% of Gen Z respondents said they felt that the current level of diversity in media does not reflect modern audiences. The vast differences in the identities of our generation and the demographics of film writers lead to the common misconceptions we see on the screen, and make it drastically harder to relate to characters.
It’s time to incorporate more writers of Color, female writers, LGBTQ+ writers and young writers into modern media. In a day and age where 79.2% of people over 15 watch TV daily, it’s important that what people are watching is as reflective and representative of all people as possible. The most accurate way to write about experiences is to have gone through them yourself, hence why hiring writers with directly applicable perspectives is essential. By changing the primarily white, straight, older and male model of people with influence in film, we can begin to bring more depth and authenticity into media centered around Gen Z.
We must also re-evaluate the issues that lay at the center of modern teenage shows. Trying to incorporate “trendy” language into films about obsessions with social media and popularity is an overdone and inaccurate archetype. Instead, diving into some of the aforementioned issues (mental health, activism and diversity) would allow viewers to see their struggles and passions more accurately represented. Films need to allow LGBTQ+ characters, characters of Color and characters with disabilities to be represented in such a way that these characteristics are not the sole defining part of their identity, so that viewers see characters who reflect their own multifaceted identities.
Changing the precedent of modern television by increasing diversity in film writers and topics is a necessary step in creating more accurately representative television. It’s time to give Gen Z modern and multidimensional characters to relate to and learn from and break out of the rigid stereotypes older generations have forced them into.
Claudia Flynn is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.