Learning How to Come of Age From Movies

From the High School Musical craze which took seven year olds by storm when I was in first grade, to the days spent home sick from school where I relived my parents’ memories of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Footloose, to the movies I came to enjoy as a young adult myself (The Perks of Being a Wallflower10 Things I Hate About YouLove Simon, and Ladybird to name a few), my childhood, from a certain perspective, seems like an anthology of movies about teenagers who, through their experiences, come to a greater understanding of themselves and the people they want to be as adults.

I love these movies because, by and large, the stories they tell feel real. The premise that our decisions and experiences as young adults can fundamentally change who we are as people has always seemed plausible to me. Despite this, I’d never thought about coming of age as something that would happen to me. Beyond the obvious sensationalization of ordinary life to fill screen time, I never saw my own experiences depicted in these films. The majority of these movies about are white, suburban, boys whose lives are all filled with the same tropes. Nothing about my life as a girl being raised by brown, immigrant parents in New York City resembled the life that the movies and television shows I watched seemed to suggest I should be living.

Of course, the small upper-middle class suburb with its one large high school full of students who drive themselves everywhere at the age of sixteen is a reality for thousands of students across the country, but the constant normalization of this image is limiting. Urban teenagers in movies are often shown as troubled individuals who are either addicts or living in abusive households; the children of immigrants (or non-white children generally) are depicted as overly rebellious against their cartoonishly old-fashioned parents; romantic desire is shamed in girls and idealized in boys. These stereotypes are dangerous not just because they spread harmful misinformation and reinforce systems of oppression, but also because they alienate large groups of people from the positive, encouraging messages of the movie or show.

I know I am not the first to say that the representation of more developed characters with diverse racial, sexual, and geographic identities is and will continue to be vital to thousands of young people across the country who look to these depictions for validation and even guidance, but equally important is the necessity of conversation. Experiences that deviate from the media’s ‘normal’ coming of age narrative are in no way uncommon, and it is necessary, for our benefit and for that of those around us, that people whose stories are different, whose lives are complicated by more than just aging talk widely and freely about the events and singularities that have made us who we are.

By Ayla Raana Jeddy