On Film We’re Briefly Gorgeous: A Call For Diversifying Coming-of-Age Media
Trembling while pinning a corsage on my date to the school formal and pricking a finger in the process. Swatting away ants on the grass by the Mississippi Levee in Baton Rouge watching the sunset. Rolling up my jeans to wade in the creek by a friend’s house and looking for crawfish. Skipping school to go canoeing and writing our names on the underside of the bridge in New Orleans City Park. Speeding over the bridge with snowballs in the cup holder threatening to spill over, blaring a remix of the song Youth by Troye Sivan. Holding hands while strolling through the botanical garden, picking flowers to dry, and to remember this moment by. These are just some of the memories that recount my rich coming-of-age experience in Southern Louisiana. Fortunately, I captured all these moments in my memories, my dinky digital camera from 2008, and in my red Moleskin, because I will never see moments like these in mainstream media.
Growing up as a Tamil woman, there were not enough coming-of-age films with characters who look like me. This is a personal tragedy as there is no other genre I relate to and consume more than female-centric coming-of-age media. The growing pain of leaving adolescence and entering this scary woe-filled adulthood is something I feel on a personal level. I’ve dressed up as Emma Stone from Easy A far too often for Halloween, devoured Otessa Mosfegh’s novels in one sitting, and can frequently be found, quite pretentiously, convincing my friends that Ladybird is simultaneously the protagonist and antagonist of Ladybird. I look up to and adore all of these authors and storylines, as they capture the nuanced essence of growing into womanhood. Taylor Swift said it best: “we are happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time; it’s miserable and magical.” However, this beloved genre is far from perfect. There is one jarring flaw binding all of this media together: these films and novels only star white characters, and the white adolescent experience is far from universal. People of color as a whole, and women of color in particular, are rarely given center stage roles in coming-of-age stories and when they do, they are often tokenized or stereotyped.
Not only are white-only films often lacking depth due to their homogeneity, but they are also often not enjoyed as much by the audiences that watch them. A new study from UCLA’s Newsroom, a news media and research publication, found that “[f]ilms with casts that were at least 21% minority enjoyed the highest online viewing ratings among all racial groups in the all-important 18–49 age category.” Thus, these films are not only giving the most representation to people of color, but they are also the most enjoyable to the largest demographic of filmgoers. Saira Mukherjee, a South Asian student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, said that she consumes more media that centers POC than white characters. She stated, “Obviously I want to watch people of color on screen, but, also, I just think the aesthetics are better and the plot is less tropey.”
Lack of media presence also has grave results outside of bookstores and Hollywood. Kiana Danielle, a writer for Luna Station Quarterly, a literary magazine centering female writers since 2009, writes that in media portrayals, “There seems to be a straight line from childhood to adulthood for POC. All the fumbling in between exists for us too.” When teens of color make mistakes, they are often used as an example of what not to do and are not given the same sympathy that their white counterparts receive. The absence of adolescents of color in coming-of-age media perpetuates a larger societal prejudice that young POC have no wiggle room to make mistakes like their white peers.
The effects of centering white people in coming-of-age media happen behind the screen as well, often barring writers of color from reaching the same levels of acknowledgment and status that their white counterparts do. For instance, Malavika Kannan, a queer South Asian author, scrutinized appraisals of Sally Rooney, a white woman, as the voice of her [millennial] generation in an essay for Electric Literature. The supposed universality of Rooney’s novels is an attribute that is “only afforded to white narratives,” Kannan writes. White writers are able to write coming-of-age narratives and assume that everyone else can relate to them, whereas POC authors are told that their novels cannot be published because no one will relate to them—while the inverse is also true, but never questioned, Kannan concludes.
Jessie Tu, an opinion writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, also writes about the whiteness we read in Sally Rooney’s novels, and really most white coming-of-age novels, stating that her “stories merely celebrate privileged white people doing privileged white things including going to elite colleges, voluntarily sleeping with bad men[, and] having hang-ups about those bad men.” The scope of Rooney’s novels and other mainstream coming-of-age media are extremely limited and do not explore the experiences of people of color, such as being forced to grow up faster, facing racism by students and faculty alike in predominantly white institutions, being fetishized by romantic interests, and being underestimated because of racial stereotypes. However, people of color also have messy hookup experiences, heartbreaks, and complicated relationships with their parents, just like white teenagers. LivV Fernandez, an Apache Indigenous English major at Tufts, spoke to the absence of storylines starring well-developed Indigenous characters. “I have never in my entire life seen a movie where there is an Indigenous character that isn’t completely tokenized; there [are] always certain character traits that they have, like loving nature and animals, and I can’t wrap my head around it.” Fernandez continued to say, “I can off the top of my head think of two TV shows that do a good job at showing Indigenous characters. However, this is never in cinema or high art, it’s always streaming sites with a young audience in mind, not anything that will receive critical acclaim.”
This isn’t the middle finger to Sally Rooney, whose novel Beautiful World Where Are You I hold close to my heart, or to any of the other works of art I’ve mentioned but rather constructive criticism from someone who wants this genre to be the best it can. I would not be the person I am without Jo’s monologue (you know the one) from Little Women or John Green’s extensive collection of novels. However, I am also equally shaped by the few pieces of media that star people of color and know there needs to be more like them. I don’t mean it lightly when I say that Celeste Ng is my favorite writer ever and that The Last Black Man in San Francisco is one of the few character and not plot-driven films I can root for.* I want to see change in a genre I love so much, and I hope youagree. The fault in our fiction can change. Okay?
*Some other media starring the stories of POC I’d recommend are: Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022), Severance by Ling Ma, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian, The Lovebirds (2020), Sheer Qorma (2021), and The Farewell (2019). I highly suggest you read these novels and watch these films and understand that even the parts you don’t relate to are still important and deserve to be showcased.