Gen z characters onscreen are overwhelmingly written by people from older generations. And we’re seeing countless media stories dissecting Gen z tastes, spending habits and trends, but they’re often written from a distance–like scientists studying a foreign species. Our culture has collectively decided that today’s young people are constantly online, hyper-woke, pessimistic party animals. So… how accurate are all these cliches?
These days, our culture is obsessed with understanding who Gen Z really is–but are we asking the right people? Gen z characters onscreen are overwhelmingly written by people from older generations. And we’re seeing countless media stories dissecting Gen z tastes, spending habits and trends, but they’re often written from a distance–like scientists studying a foreign species. So what has our culture collectively decided that today’s young people are like?
In film and TV, Gen Z characters tend to follow certain patterns. Like:
They live online and seemingly can’t function without access to a wi-fi connection.
They speak like they’re online too, in constant internet slang straight out of a meme.
They’re hyper-woke (but wouldn’t use that word) Gen Z characters seem universally plugged into issues of social justice and super-articulate in politically correct language of sexuality and identity. They’re pessimistic–they’re hardly the first angsty teens, but for gen-z characters it’s not just a vague ennui. They’re even more doom laden in a global sense–worried about the climate crisis, the pandemic, and rises in serious mental health issues. And yet, they’re party animals , with a wilder, more reckless, sometimes more desperate party culture than previous generations were known for. Some portrayals suggest these characters might be using substances less for youthful pleasure than to escape and shut out a painful reality. So…how accurate are all these cliches? Let’s take a closer look at what holds up, what doesn’t - and what actual Gen Z-ers have to say for themselves.
“Oh my God this bitch’s feed is so fake.”
“How do you know?”
“Uh, I’m American and I’m 15?
- You: Season 2, Episode 1
CHAPTER ONE: EXTREMELY ONLINE AND INCREDIBLY WOKE
If millennials were the first generation to grow up with the Web, gen-z were the first generation to grow up permanently online, never knowing a life before social media. 64% of gen-z describe themselves as ‘always online’. So there is something to the portrayals of Gen Z that captures this. But on screen, these hyper-online characters are often presented as shallow, self-obsessed, and disassociated from what’s actually going on in the world. In Spree, wannabe influencer Kurt has a dangerous obsession with going viral and getting famous–to the point that he kills people live on camera to boost his numbers. Obviously it’s an extreme satire, but it speaks to the common assumption that, if young people are living on social media, their priority is simply popularity and attention at all costs. In fact, this is probably more revealing about how older generations view the Internet. While it’s true that gen z are more online, it’s important to underline they also have a different relationship to their onlineness—one which strives to use certain tools to express their authentic selves. Gen-z’s relationship with the internet isn’t just about self-promotion or striving to be an influencer; it’s also a key means of engaging with and understanding others.
And their onlineness also isn’t their only quality. A more balanced representation comes in You’s Ellie Alves. She has an affinity with social media, but her advice to Joe on using it isn’t about gaining followers or attention, but how to appear authentic. She is already a fully rounded person, and the internet just becomes a place for her to showcase that. Similarly, Kat in Euphoria has a whole online life that’s unknown to her school friends but this is partly an escape providing what her in-person life doesn’t, not the only dimension we see of her.
“The summer before high school, Kat started writing fan fiction. By the year’s end, she had become one of the most prolific smut writers on Tumblr.”
- Euphoria: Season 1, Episode 3
Communicating online opens Gen Z’ers up to different communities and ways of life–which is part of why a 2018 McKinsey study describes Gen Z as “radically inclusive”
And the portrayal of Gen Z characters as largely progressive–caring about diversity and open-minded approaches to sexuality and gender identity–does match evidence that they’re overall a more socially conscious and liberal generation. Still, a whole generation isn’t a monolith-there are also young people with different or more conservative views, including plenty of visible ones on TikTok. And again, when Gen Z’s liberalness is depicted onscreen, it’s often painted as one-size-fits-all, with a condescending or reductive tone–and frequently framed as mainly youthful naivety. In Sex Lives of College Girls, Kimberley is so eager to appear tolerant and understanding of different cultures that she comes across as awkward and embarassing.
“I come from a small town in Arizona and it’s really exciting for me to have a black friend.” “Oh.” “Or is it African American? I don’t know, there are two schools of thought on that one.”
- Sex Lives of College Girls: Season 1, Episode 1
Characters might even come across as a little vicious about catching out older generations and using their rhetoric as a typical youthful rebellion to annoy their parents.
“Like she actually cared about the working poor. “
“She was a neolib and a neocon.”
“Oh, is that the trendy thing they’re teaching now, to hate on Hillary Clinton?”
“Mom, don’t get triggered.”
- White Lotus: Season 1, Episode 1
But this overlooks ways in which Gen Z’s progressiveness seems to be a more lasting difference–like for example, in their views about more fluid gender identity. In Why Are You Like This? Penny and Mia are immediately introduced as having progressive, woke values, but it feels skin deep. They flip between political positions at the drop of a hat, depending on what the situation calls for, so it still feels like they haven’t quite figured out what it really is they believe. While in Edge of Seventeen, all the typical gen-z cliches are used by the central gen-z protagonist Nadine as a way to separate her from the rest of her generation. The fact that it’s her who spouts the criticism almost legitimizes these cliches.
“My entire generation is a bunch of mouth breathers, they literally have a seizure if you take their phone away for a second, they can’t communicate without emojis, and they actually think that the world wants to know they are eating a taco.”
- Edge of Seventeen
Another reason gen-z characters can seem jarring onscreen boils down to their language. Right now, since writers’ rooms are heavily lacking in this younger generation, more often than not writers get an idea of how gen-z sounds based on how young people express themselves online. And movies or shows can be over-eager or clumsy in their attempts to create a language barrier between gen-z and older characters. So, for example, while gen-z writer Francesca Crumpton praises HBO’s The Fallout for its representation of the aftermath of trauma, she also says “the over-use of this slang often reserved for the internet or sarcastic conversations seems to mock our generation.”
CHAPTER TWO: DESPERATE PARTYING AND PESSIMISM
Youth cultures have often been depicted as hedonistic, reckless party animals. Ironically, on the whole, gen-z doesn’t fit that mold. Studies have shown that as a generation they’re drinking, using substances and having sex less than previous generations.
However, some of these portrayals do capture important differences in the nature of today’s party culture and young people’s emotional state. Euphoria has been criticized for glamorizing drug culture, but the way the show depicts partying reflects a generation in turmoil. The addiction issues main character Rue struggles with aren’t painted as textbook teenage rebellion, but instead a tragic self-medication against crippling anxiety. This juxtaposition between reckless gen-z behavior and the wider, more tumultuous state of the world is also reflected in Bodies Bodies Bodies.
“We can just live in the moment.”
“Yeah that’s because you went to rehab and you’re not on drugs so you’re all like ohh why don’t we just be cool man?”
- Bodies Bodies Bodies
As the characters all descend on a mansion in the middle of nowhere to drink and party, there’s a darker, nihilistic energy to it. The hurricane that rages outside, and that motivates them to get together in the first place, acts as a metaphor for all the problems that the generation are shutting out. At the same time, it also acts as a literal embodiment of maybe the biggest problem gen-z face, and one of the main drivers of their anxiety: the climate crisis.
So while film and TV may misrepresent the extent of partying amongst gen-z, it is accurate in terms of showing why some members of this generation are turning to substances. A 2021 study from the Journal of Adolescent Health found that among this generation, there is a greater association between substance use and depression.
As well as experimenting less with substances recreationally, gen-z are having less casual sex than previous generations–something you wouldn’t know from watching them on TV
This image of young people as being more thoughtful and careful about sex is played with in Netflix’s Teenage Bounty Hunters, set at a Christian school where the topic of sex seems to dominate conversation. However, while this depiction reflects the Gen-Z “puriteen” stereotype, in actuality, this change in habit isn’t typically motivated by questions around morality. GQ’s Maddie Holden writes that this behavioral shift is more a result of “economic and technological factors.”Gen-Z are living at home longer, spending more time online, and moving away from dating apps like Tinder that encouraged hook-up culture amongst millennials.
Gen-z have also been shaped by growing up in the shadow of #MeToo and intersectional feminism, more aware of consent than older generations, and more focused on the need for having good conversations around sex. Sex Education feels somewhat at odds with the trends of contemporary life for its portrayal of teens as overwhelmingly sexually liberated, active and sex-positive. But the show does underline, above all, the importance for good communication and emotional connection to lay the foundation for good sex. So while it overrepresents young people’s activities with sex, drugs, and alcohol, it does show its characters trying to redefine these sphere in ways that align more with their modern values.
“You make sex sound terrifying, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be fun and beautiful and teach you things.”
- Sex Education
CHAPTER THREE: WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
Some gen-z representations can feel like projection from an older generation onto a younger one. But when portrayals feel more like a conversation between generations, we can get a more honest analysis of generational differences, as well as a sense of what the future might hold.
This conversational framework is the backdrop to Mike Mills’ Cmon Cmon–about an NPR style journalist who travels the country interviewing kids and teenagers about what they think the future will be like. These characters aren’t judged, pathologized, or reduced to some kind of monolithic category–they’re allowed to be themselves. They come out with statements that are sometimes hopeful, sometimes surprising, sometimes confrontational. There’s a similar generational conversation going on in Netflix’s Big Mouth. While none of the voice actors are actually from gen-z, the story’s writing empathizes with its gen-z characters whose identities are emerging, showing how switched on that generation is and avoiding jokes at their expense. We see kids grow into themselves as bisexual, pansexual, and non-binary, and these labels get explained to us in a really thoughtful, natural way. This focus on diversity is one of the reasons why gen-z’ers have said they felt more represented by the show–and the same goes for Sex Education and American Vandal.
“They probably wasn’t raised like I am, knowing how to treat people and how not to treat people.”
- Cmon Cmon
Given the cultural hunger for stories and insights about Gen-Z right now, it seems overdue that we hear more from actual Gen-Zers in our writers’ rooms and as show creators or screenwriters or film directors. But until we do, inter-generational curiosity is a superior way for creators of other generations to engage in this dialogue accurately, without making reductive assumptions based on what we see in a brief TikTok or an Instagram comment.
Whenever a new generation comes of age, there’s a natural curiosity to see what kind of people they are, and how they’ll shape the future. Cliched depictions that lack this curiosity flatten out what makes a generation unique, and unnecessarily stoke divisions. So, let’s take these clichés with a pinch of salt, but search for the depth of interest and desire to understand that brings us to these stories in the first place.