Existing in the world tends to come at a price, and for Gen Z a part of that price is enduring cringe and awkward depictions of how older generations perceive you. The longer we exist in the world, the more numerous these depictions become, and it gradually becomes more and more impossible to avoid confronting our own reflections through the distorted lens of the Millennial/Gen X/Boomer gaze. Clips such as this one from Ginny and Georgia can be simultaneously soul-crushing and confusing as questions such as “why the dog filter?” and “what is that song?” and “what does it all mean together?” race through the mind. It can be hard not to feel slightly hurt that this is what older generations make of our behavior and that they feel so confident in that perception that they have the audacity to try and sell it back to us as relatable content.
At the end of it all, we’re left with one central question that aims to tug at the foundations of a newly instilled image that has us doubting the very essence of who we are as a generation: Why do they keep making us like that? In this article, we’re going to unpack two wildly different but particularly popular portrayals of Gen Z in film and television to not only analyze what they get right and wrong (mostly wrong) about our lives but also what terrifying forces are at play in driving them to such acts of utter and absolute madness.
Mean Girls (2024)
This movie musical based on a musical based on a movie is one of the most recent and most popular projections of Gen Z life as it lives in the minds of those who are not Gen Z. As has effectively become genre-standard for contemporary teen movies, the narrative is laced with screen recordings and screenshots that mimic the appearance of platforms such as TikTok and Snapchat. The outfits, makeup, and lighting all skew towards a colorful, maximalist aesthetic, rendering the production design as a whole a clear homage to Gen Z’s well-documented affection towards the camp and novel. Things are described as “slay”, corsets are common, and the team made a really good, honest effort.
That said, as with so many before it, something is off. Though the Gen Z characters are often online, the way that they’re online doesn’t quite feel like the way Gen Z actually spends time online. Gen Z’s relationship with social media is more linked with catharsis than ego. While Gen X-ers and Millennials see the internet as a type of unfailingly “hello world”-attached place to project one’s public persona, Gen Z has come of age amid an online landscape so densely saturated with content that posting tends to feel more like screaming into a void (could just be me though idk). The characters in Mean Girls post in a very posed, contrived way that doesn’t really reflect the way that a lot of Gen Z actually posts. They also all seem wholeheartedly thrilled to participate in this online culture. As online as Gen Z is, my experience is that it generally stems from a place of compulsion more so than enthusiasm. We’re online because it’s hard not to be, not because we are all genuinely so excited to show ourselves off to the world. I’m sure a sizable portion is, but I do not personally observe this as the norm.
In contrast, the characters in this HBO series are largely unified by a pretty jaded outlook. This show has been both scorned and applauded for its portrayal of Gen Z as generally a bit… fucked up, but it has undoubtedly struck a chord. Rather than seeing Gen Z as a generation defined by its screen addiction and the narcissism that’s fostered, Euphoria understands Gen Z as a generation defined by its screen addiction and the struggles with self and isolation that’s bred. Though usually extreme in its plotlines, Euphoria gets closer to accurately reflect some of the core components of how Gen Z-ers relate to each other and ourselves.
With that in mind, Euphoria is far from perfect. Though it captures a kind of twisted atmosphere that resonates with many and which distinguishes it from many other depictions of Gen Z life that are out there, it does exaggerate. Its tendency to drive things to the extreme is undoubtedly a large component of its appeal, and as a television show, part of its function is to keep audiences captivated, but in terms of relatability and representing Gen Z experiences, this does create a barrier. Gen Z is dealing with a lot, but it is not always quite as high stakes as Euphoria presents.
These two examples are only the relatively arbitrarily decided tip of an entire iceberg of Gen Z portrayal, but they both highlight what appear to be two relatively common pitfalls for media-makers who set out to create Gen Z content. We’re not all necessarily using social media as wannabe vloggers in the most 2010s sense of the word, and we have inner and outer turmoil that is valid, albeit not always as challenging as that experienced by the characters on Euphoria. Older generations producing content aimed at Gen Z know that we are online often and are often dealing with inner and outer turmoil. Based on these conceptions of Gen Z life, they draw their conclusions and produce their shows accordingly. This misses a crucial step, which is to empathize with the characters they’re portraying.