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Have film and TV got Gen Z all wrong

By Amanda Caroline  •  September 24, 2022  •  22

Triwer – Everyone has their thoughts on Generation Z – known colloquially as zoomers and Gen Z for short, the cohort born in the mid- to late-1990s to the early 2010s – the generation that was raised online and that uses social media as its diary and scrapbook. They are regarded as tech-addicted and device-dependent, having come of age in an era of screens that encourages us to "Be Real" and share everything, with everyone, all of the time. Hollywood now seems on a mission to grapple with the Gen Z zeitgeist, and to capture our ever-evolving online literacy and virtual social culture.

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Defining the category of a "Gen Z film" remains elusive – the recent spate of releases offers a genre in its infancy as a malleable entity. So far, in the race to create the Gen Z-defining film, the canon sees predominantly twenty-something women concerned with self-identification, social media literacy, and performativity in search of their authentic self.

Hollywood's most recent addition to the Gen Z cinematic universe is Netflix's black comedy Do Revenge. Writer-director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson offers a Gen Z incarnation of Mean Girls with a dark teen drama set in the social scene of a Miami private school. The revenge-seeking tale plays out in a sea of mint and lavender-shaded school-uniform berets and blazers. The soft aesthetic clashes with a narrative edginess, as sex tapes are leaked and revengeful schemes are concocted, emphasising a distinction between the lived and the presented.

Do Revenge examines the volatile social dynamics of Gen Z after Drea (Camila Mendes) falls from the heights of the school's popular elite. Eleanor (Maya Hawke), meanwhile, is the new kid at school, an introverted lesbian who is seeking revenge for a homophobic lie that plagued her youth. The film plays out with a tart self-awareness indicative of the "Gen Z movie", as both young women participate in a takedown of male privilege, most memorably Drea's ex's campaign for a "Cis Hetero Men Championing Female-Identifying Students League". However, in trying to handle teenage disaffection, Do Revenge ends up appearing inauthentic as the texture of youth is glazed with a glossy varnish.

Media centred on our generation tends to miss the mark because the people making [the films] end up getting caught up in the idea of what Gen Z behaviour is like, as opposed to what the reality is – Jihane Bousfiha

In practice, Do Revenge is so eager to solve the pathology of the youth, trying to capture the zeitgeist in a cinematic time capsule, it fails to truly subvert the Gen Z stereotypes it tacks on to its characters. While the film's feminist approach and lesbian characters can be celebrated, the nuances of teenage life aren't explored – Eleanor's painful isolation is painted as mysterious and Drea's position as a victim of revenge porn is reduced to a plot point. Teenagehood feels rudimentary and observed rather than lived-in. As culture writer Jihane Bousfiha tells BBC Culture: "The majority of media centred on our generation tends to miss the mark because the people making [the films] end up getting caught up in the idea of what Gen Z behaviour is like, as opposed to what the reality is." While Do Revenge is self-aware about Gen Z, it still has a sanitised perspective on today's youth – a viewpoint that is preoccupied with their apparent desire for popularity, and which has a tunnel-vision focus on cancel culture.

If Do Revenge is the Gen Z Mean Girls, Bodies Bodies Bodies is this generation's Heathers. Halina Reijn's A24 slasher-comedy follows a group of wealthy twenty-somethings who reunite for a weekend getaway. A storm plunges the house into darkness, the first corpse is found, and a whodunnit begins that sees the friends turn on each other in a satire on class and privilege. Influenced by the language of social media progressiveness, characters are regularly engrossed in arguments about identity politics. It's one of the defining features of this new canon of films, as Xuanlin Tham, film programmer and critic, tells BBC Culture: "Identity and sexuality aren't treated so much as destinations any more, but indefinable, constantly ongoing processes."