Reflection: In Defense of Teens

On the Netflix show Big Mouth, one of the most popular kids is a extremely confident gay kid, which is kind of a problem.

In the new series based on Heathers, the bullies are a black kid, a gay kid and a genderqueer kid (… played by a cis actor). As a refresher, the bullies in Heathers are the most popular (white, rich, straight, cis) girls who strongarm the rest of the school into submission. And that change is weird, at the very least.

While the existence of these shows isn’t the only reason I’ve been reflecting on my high school experience, it’s definitely been… interesting, seeing how (white, straight, cis, male) show runners are interpreting this new era of teens, which to them seems to be the gay generation, or at least The Ally™ generation. Queer kids aren’t on new shows in significant numbers, boy are they popular.

Now my school was a farm school. There was pretty much just one black kid in each grade, and maybe a handful of out gays in total (none in my class of ‘13). I doubt it’s changed a whole lot in the five years since, and my sister (class of ’15) and brother (class of ’17) experiences confirmed that. The average American high school probably doesn’t have a beautiful diverse team of popular kids at the top of the food chain, and it’s weird that shows with white male cishet creators seem to believe otherwise.

While I wouldn’t immediately point to this as malicious, or even having anything but the best of intentions, there is absolutely something uncomfortable with this perception of gay teens as not just externally as extremely accepted by the entire student body teachers and administration, but also internally as confident, intelligent and mature beyond their years. There’s nothing wrong with characters like this, but when this is the only representation it’s not only flawed, but says something about the people making these shows.

First, it says that they perceive the queer community as a sort of “untouchable,” people who they personally may or may not put on a pedestal, but regardless don’t feel comfortable giving any real dimension, as though the gay community will descend on them if given any story line other that tragic or perfect.

And second, it says that their entire perception of the lgbt community is based on the people they know — probably coastal people also in the entertainment industry who are confident, intelligent and mature adults. Like Joe Reid in the Decider piece says, these characters are “ the way you’d write a gay character if you’re not gay and you’re kind of intimidated by the smart, strident, unfailingly fashionable and always correct gay people you see out in the world.” Somehow while trying to write authentically for high school kids they missed the fact that gay kids are also kids. They’re still figuring their shit out, they’re arrogant and emotional and stupid just like every other teen. Which brings us to:

In Defense of Teens Pt. II: Who Are Idiots

This is not a defense of jagoff YouTube famous teens, just off the bat. This isn’t even a defense of me. This is a counter to the showbiz idea that kids today are unproblematic to a fault and out-of-their-way accepting of others (in addition to the above examples also see: 21 Jump Street).

When I was in high school, there was a distant understanding that racism, antisemitism and Islamaphobia was bad, but we really had no clue what that really meant. Again, I went to a 99% white het, 100% cis and maybe 95% working class school. We had a kid get a “stern talking to” for putting a big confederate flag on his truck and driving around the parking lot. My sophomore year we were on the national news because a history teacher let a kid try on a KKK robe and hood and someone in class took a picture.*

That’s all is to say that everyone in that school had wrong ideas about all other races, gay and trans people, Muslim and Jewish people, and so on. Now only a minority - and I hesitate to speculate how small of one -  considered these deeply held beliefs. But the fact remains that a running punchline in my friend group was calling each other “a Jew,” saying “jew’d” as in “jipped” (which is also racist) was common, and many thought that the n-word was fine if you ended it with an “a” and not a hard “er,” which just, why is that even an argument. But there was also the kids who drew swastikas everywhere and called Muslims “sand n****rs,” constantly and out of nowhere. 

Teens exist in a weird liminal space where they’re discovering all the basic things they learned about the world are actually wrong and everything is extremely nuanced and complicated, but also have absolutely confidence in their opinions, which are basic and wrong. They as a group are very righteous yet confused people.

Even if teens now have the Internet and smartphones, their opinions are going to be extreme and wrong. I had to be called tf out by other people, mostly on Tumblr, who knew shit I didn’t. Like that antisemitism is a thing, like what transgender actually means, like that bisexuality and nonbinary genders are a thing. Like what racism looks like.

There is so much that needs unlearned and teens have to do that immediately after learning it. There’s no excuse for people who’ve been exposed to the greater truth of the world and know better, but for people up to 20 and sometimes higher if they just don’t have access to an education or grow up in a homogeneous environment? That’s where calling in instead of calling out comes in, and where purity politics fail. 

When you immerse yourself in social justice or even just are primarily around progressive people, it feels natural to judge people who do or say racist or homophobic shit, but reflecting on the person you were before — who was probably not a bad person, just ignorant — is necessary. Because you were that person, you know how to speak to that person. You know what you would have rejected and what might have reached you.

This reflection also makes it easier to recognize when you’re being called out again. You can’t complete separate yourself from your culture or socialization, but the bar gets higher as people push for progress. Being “of your time” is an insult and doing better will always be possible.

So remember who you used to be, do better and bring others in. And, hire queer writers and actors to write and play queer characters.

*This happened because the kid who tried it in on was the class clown and my grade was notorious for bullying teachers. Seriously, they made one cry. But they also got one to buy everyone brownies, it was a mixed bag.