Have movies and TV gone wrong with Gen Z?

Bodies Bodies attempts a certain balance between empathy and cynicism, more often leaning towards the latter than the broad general observations of a plugged-in generation where buzzwords like “gaslighting” , “triggering” and “unhinged” are laughed at. The film delves into Gen Z interactions but fails to unpack the full extent of a hyperconnected climate. Early on, there’s a celebratory popping of Champagne, followed by Alice (Rachel Sennott)’s exclamation: “It hurt so much! I can’t believe I didn’t video that.” Alice may be the closest to a stereotypical Gen Z archetype to appear on screen to date – an oblivious, entitled, self-absorbed podcaster – but nothing has been done to deepen this mindset.

Living online

In another new film that captures Gen Z’s relationship with social media, Quinn Shephard’s 2022 black comedy Not Okay takes the subject of performative activism to new heights as Danni (Zoey Deutch), a young woman aspiring influencer lifestyle, was wrapped in a lie about being a survivor of a terrorist attack. As Bousfiha says: “[Gen Z] the films tend to be highly stylized, with catchy, catchy lines tailored to go viral.” Subsequently, they age like milk, and Not Okay is a prime example. In scenes of Danni grasping the reality that there are people behind trending hashtags, the film isn’t realistic enough to be a portrait of Gen Z or sharp enough to be a satire. Culture writer Iana Murray shares the Bousfiha feels that Not Okay is “almost out of date in an era when photo-shoots and authenticity are what’s in, and ‘relatable’ stars like Emma Chamberlain are the It Girls of the moment. But if [Not Okay] had been released, say, a year or two ago, maybe that would have been more true to life.”

A common theme in these films is the decentralization of Hollywood’s white male hero, another Gen Z cinematic recalibration; women of color are in big lead roles, and take up bigger parts of the stories. Hollywood’s investment in Gen Z sees a space carved out for today’s diverse youth in a world that doesn’t seem ready to embrace them. “A glance at their racially and ethnically diverse casts tells us a lot… [they] work as a perfect match for their darkly satirical takes on contemporary reflections on sexuality, celebrity and violence,” said Dr Christopher Holliday, lecturer in Liberal Arts and Visual Cultures Education at King’s College, London. However, he added : “The desire for some Marginalized identities to be ‘visible’ is a requirement that can falsely equate visibility with development, giving rise to questions about the burden of an individual to represent the collective and, as a result, who can – and should – hold the power to speak for a particular identity or social group.”

As Dr Holliday notes, the voices that make up these stories are also the subject of dispute; the age gap between the creators and their Gen Z characters means there’s an immediate lived-in disparity. Not part of this generation himself, Sam Levinson has created the closest thing to a project that defines Gen Z: Euphoria. The teen drama’s melodramatic treatment of highschoolers follows 17-year-old Rue (Zendaya) as she navigates love and addiction, and incorporates the Gen Z aesthetic, which Tham notes is “the prevalent visual cues of neon, bright colors, dancefloors and dark nights”. The show’s Instagram-worthy, ultra-stylish look – filled with dark depths beneath the surface – plays to the instability and chaotic narrative of Gen Z media.