Originally published in The Bottom Line, February 11, 2015
Watching movies from the past is a very similar experience to opening a time capsule. Cinema has provided the incredible means to record the fashion, music, slang, technology, cultural attitudes, politics, and societal norms of any day and age for future generations to witness.
Opening any time capsule of teen flicks from the past reveals a definitive shift of focus in Hollywood. It seems like not too long ago, teenagers on screen were worried about Ferris Bueller faking a sick day, a group of teenagers from different cliques serving detention together, or Cher and Dion navigating Beverly Hills High. Today, young adults are dealing with far greater challenges than touting the perfect outfit or scoring the perfect prom date. You’ll find today’s teenager on screen fighting oppressive governments, challenging societal norms, or starting a national rebellion.
Social disintegration coupled with sci-fi seem to have all but erased the happy-go-lucky themes of sex and comedy in teen flicks of the past, and it shouldn’t surprise any of us.
Generation Y, which researchers typically define as those born between 1983 and 2004 and are more commonly referred to as Millennials, face a much bleaker world than those who came before us. Unlike our parents who were raised during a time of unprecedented prosperity, we came of age during an era of terrorism, recession, massive wealth inequality, and a crippling housing crisis. Today, we are entering the workforce battling unemployment with a combined student debt that exceeds $1 trillion. To Millennials, it seems as though the system we are a part of is working against us.
In fact, we may be the first generation of Americans who aren’t as successful as our parents. The lack of opportunity available to us is translating into postponing major life events such as marriage, property purchases, car purchases, and having a family. As a socially-conscious, politically correct, and eco-friendly generation, we are also realizing the mistakes of the past and tackling solutions to the problems of our parents’ generation.
With such staggering odds against us, it is no wonder that we turn to characters on the big screen who are in survival mode. Films like The Hunger Games, whose 2008 book release directly corresponds with the height of the recession, have ushered in a new era of dystopian teen movies with similar themes. The massive success movies like The Maze Runner, Divergent, or The Giver are experiencing is largely due to the similarities Generation Y holds with the main characters. Almost all of the lead characters of similar dystopian films question the identity that society gives them, reject traditional ways of life, and are skeptical of authority. All of these attributes and more resonate with Millennials and present us with individuals to look to who are coping as best they can with the difficult hand life has dealt them.
The dissimilarities we hold with these main characters also seem to draw us further into our obsession with teen dystopian films. As Millennials, there is no question that we have it hard, yet seeing young adults on screen persevere through incredibly threatening situations is comforting to us. We may draw comfort knowing that if these teenagers can survive against all odds, then so can we. Or at the very least, we are comforted knowing we don’t have it as bad as them.
The underlying message in nearly all of these films points to the fact that the current system is failing and desperately needs upheaval. Mentors and adults are depicted as either unhelpful or perpetuators of society’s problems, and it is up to the young adults to make a change.
Young adults on screen are challenging broken systems and demanding answers, forging their own paths—something that Millennials deeply relate to. Millennials don’t just relate to these characters, but are going in troves in support of these narratives wherever they are offered. The Hunger Games became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, while many dystopian films since have enjoyed major box office success.
Despite more traditional narratives being offered to Millennials, we continue to support dystopian films, where we are given a chance to wrestle with real life issues in virtual reality.
There is no doubt that one day, when future generations living in the world Millennials created open the time capsule of cinema, they will find all these dystopian films and with them the attitudes of social change and resilience that characterize Generation Y. As more and more Millennials enter the real world, it is time to bring about the social reconstruction that has been demonstrated throughout popular film. Millennials have the power to replace a broken system while creating a brighter future for the next generation. May the odds be ever in our favor.