So I’m 16 and in grade eleven of secondary school, which is basically the same thing as high school except it starts in grade eight instead of grade nine. A few weeks ago, I was re-watching 90210 and realized that all of the characters were meant to be the same age as me. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about how drastically different my experience in school has been to the usual North American narrative of high school that’s presented in fiction.
Like, in most fiction about the North American Teen High School Experience, there’s a very clear hierarchy that students follow. The popular people are Cheerleaders and Jocks, and all the Theatre Kids are weird alternative types who hate the popular people, and for some reason REALLY GOOD LOOKING, REALLY TALENTED PEOPLE are so uncool they aren’t even on the chain.
You also get extremely similar plotlines on these shows—something Hayleyghoover hilariously breaks down in this YouTube video—and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because genre conventions are helpful for audiences to understand what’s going on in any given show, and obviously this media isn’t written specifically to cater to me, but I find myself very… alienated by content that’s meant to be relatable.
So here is a chart that I made (mostly in jest… mostly) about how my actual North American Teen High School Experience would have played out if I were a character in a teen drama.
Disclaimer: This chart is a joke. And I understand that a lot of anyone’s North American Teen High School Experience is going to be influenced by where exactly that experience happens. I live in Vancouver, where people are generally pretty progressive (which is why I’ve escaped a lot of bullying for being a fricking weird creative nerd). And I do think that even if shows address an issue like homophobia or mental illness or whatever and they don’t handle it super well, it’s better than ignoring it completely, and it will hit home for some viewers, which is important because people should know they’re not alone! I understand that content isn’t made for me, and I don’t expect brilliantly written material from 90210.
Maybe this is just the fact that I’m a teenage writer with a tendency to romanticize my life talking, but I actually kind of like teenagers. And I like writing about teenagers. And I mean, hopefully I never get to a point in my life where I find what I’m doing uninteresting (life in your 50s just seems like a lot of work), but adolescence is such an interesting point in anyone’s life. So much happens and changes and that makes dramatic writing really enjoyable. There’s such a wealth of experiences to delve into and portray, and I guess I just find it kind of amusing to see so many weak and non-complex depictions of teenagers in fiction when I’m surrounded on a daily basis by bright, funny, fascinating teenagers who deal with CRAZY STUFF all the time.
Can someone just force Shonda Rhimes to write a teen drama that respects the age group it portrays, please? That would be great.
So here’s something I’d like to do in 2014: write more about films. I’m currently in my third year of film classes at school– my teacher is quite literally a genius, and he singlehandedly instilled in me a love of film. I’d been making youtube videos for a couple years prior to my first film class, but I hadn’t connected it with, like, actual movies.
Half the course is in film production, and the other half is in film studies & analysis. I’ve gotten a decent amount of practice writing about films now to, I think, have something semi-worthwhile to say about them on this here blog. These posts will include a lot of stills, a bit of analysis, a bit of reviewing, and (for my favourites) a bit of how these films have affected me personally.
Also, in the breakdowns of my rating I’m only including things that are relevant to that specific movie. Perks of Being a Wallflower isn’t getting judged on its sound design, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind probably would be.
Anyway, now that me trying to convince you that I’m at least somewhat credible is over: let’s talk Perks of Being a Wallflower.
This adaptation of Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 novel of the same name was written and directed by Chbosky himself, and he knew exactly what to cut from the book to make the plot as clear and focused as it is. Protagonist Charlie (Logan Lerman), who’s just starting to stabilize after being deeply depressed, starts high school, meets seniors Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), and quickly gets wrapped up in their dramatic, beautiful world as he deals with his mental illness.
One of many reasons I love this film is because of its treatment of mental illness. Lerman’s impressive portrayal of depression humanizes people with an illness that makes them feel much less than human. Seeing a protagonist with a mental illness that isn’t seen as a joke in a mainstream, comercially successful movie, makes me really happy. The only other films I’ve seen that deal with depression so well are films about depression.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is about so much more. It’s about growth and learning, it’s about first loves, it’s about leaving (and being left behind), it’s about drugs and sex and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And some really beautiful shots, damn.
The key to the movie’s relatability to, like, every teenager ever, is in the writing and the acting of the perfectly casted characters. As soon as Charlie meets Sam, the audience falls just as in love with her as he does. You get drawn to Patrick easily by his gallows humour and easygoing vibe. Your heart soars and breaks with these characters as their story unfolds. Chbosky captures the dullness of adolescence beautifully with lines that go from hilarious…
…to almost painfully honest.
Perks deals with typical teenage drama, and issues that teenagers shouldn’t even have to think about, brilliantly. And all without invalidating the feelings of their characters because of their young age– which, side note, is made clear by really clever costume designing. They don’t all dress like they have a stylist. The costumes capture some of the awkwardness of teenage forays into fashion super well. Though not necessarily a feel-good movie (watching Charlie’s friends go off to university kind of kills me– a lot of my friends are graduating at the end of this school year, it’s just #2real) it leaves you with a message of “hey. Hey you. Your feelings are ok. Have feelings. Okay good bye.”
Except maybe more eloquently than that. Probably way more eloquent than that.
I will never ever understand why people care about the dumb things I write about but I’m glad they do because it gives me an excuse to post essays I write in my spare time explaining the difference between modern art and abstraction and why abstract painting is important on the internet? Like I never talk about feminist issues anymore and this is about art history which is entirely different? I don’t even know why I write about this stuff? I just care about things? None of these sentences are actually questions, grammatically speaking, so I don’t know why I’m ending them with question marks?
This is probably why people think I’m weird.
BUT ANYWAY. LET ME BRIEFLY RANT ABOUT MODERN ART.
So either you have heard something like this, or you have said something like this:
People usually say that after seeing paintings by Jackson Pollock, or Mark Rothko, or something that was probably influenced by them. And the immediate problem isn’t how wrong they are about those paintings being “a bunch of blobs,” (even though they are so, so wrong) the immediate problem is that they think modern art is just abstraction. I have no idea how terminology amongst the public evolved so that we picture abstract art whenever someone says something about modern art, but it should stop. The art magazine curator in me is being killed very slowly because of it.
Here’s why people don’t “get” modern art: because the way we refer to it makes it seem like it’s just another art style, and not a whole period of art development that took place over almost an entire century that is filled with hundreds of movements—including abstract art (or abstract expressionism), which is all we picture when we hear the term.
Modern art encompasses the work of artists like Edouard Manet, Vincent Van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, not just Pollock or Rothko. Modern art was simply about ignoring the standards of a time and experimenting, doing something different. There’s no way to really mark a clear start to this idea of “omg guys we can do things other than neoclassism,” but a lot of art critics & historians credit Edouard Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe as being one of the first paintings from this period, and it was first exhibited in eighteen freaking sixty-three.
In 1863, shockingly enough, depicting a nude woman chillin with two clothed dudes was not really a thing that was socially accepted. It created a lot of controversy by doing something unheard of. Something new. Something modern. And boom, art development period started.
Look, here’s a list of all the movements that took place within the modern art time period. There are… There are a lot. And all the art made during them count as modern art. Which is why it’s extremely confusing to me that people generally only recognize abstract expressionism as being Modern Art. And then they make fun of it. Despite it having an incredibly valuable role in art history. It was what solidified New York City as the center of the art world. Pre-World War II, Paris reigned supreme, and most people figured if you wanted to be A Real Artist, you ought to go to Europe. During World War II, more and more of Europe fell under Hitler’s rule, and “degenerate” artists were frighteningly intensely persecuted. Artists could either flee or change their styles to escape artistic tyranny—and many of them chose to go to New York, which had been the art capital of America for a long time. Abstract expressionism soon evolved (in the late 1940s) and it was what put American art on equal playing field as European art for the first time.
Personally, and this is just coming from some teenager who researches art history in her spare time because she’s wildly uncool, not an academically-trained historian, I just find it important because it’s art for art’s sake. The process of its creation is usually more important than its result. Every time I hear someone say “I could’ve done that,” I want to cry. Because like, yes, you could have done that, but you didn’t. Abstract expressionism seems like such a simple concept to us now, it seems so obvious, but before the 1940s, nobody had ever thought of anything like it. Nobody had ever splattered paint all over a canvas and called it art before. And that is why it’s important: because it was innovative.
And I mean, I guess I can see where people are coming from when they look at White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) and think, “I don’t get it,” but something that we all need to understand about art is that, well, art isn’t always about being understood.
ps: I’m not actually an elitist art snob this is just one of my pet peeves
pps: some of this might be historically inaccurate and if it is please tell me
Before really diving into talking about this, I’d like warn you that I am going to get angry. Also, huge trigger warning for depression, addiction, self harm, enablement and romanticization of mental illnesses– all that fun stuff.
Look, baby, I love you. You know that, seeing as I’ve wasted at least a little time on you nearly every day for the last three years. And this isn’t a break up letter, you’ve just kind of started scaring the shit out of me lately. There’s this part of you, this, dark, freaky part– that really loves to romanticize mental illnesses. It’s the Soft Grunge part of you. I don’t like it. It’s really dangerous behaviour. You’re worrying me.
Text me or something, alright?
If you’ve been following my internet adventures then you probably know that I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety a while ago. I’ve tried to be fairly forthright about it recently, because 1) it’s pretty obvious anyway, 2) the shame that so many people feel about their mental illnesses is really really awful, and I’d like to be part of the admittedly small portion of people trying to end that stigma, and finally, 3) I’m trying to do this thing called Get Better, which for me involves embracing it.
Also, I really love Tumblr. And teenage girls. Not in a Humbert Humbert kind of way, more in a, “we are young, smart, strong ladies, and we’re going to take over the whole damn world one day,” kind of way. Discovering feminism has made it pretty hard for me not to be bursting with girl love.
Which is probably part of why the soft grunge craze makes me so angry– this is my own kind, severely disappointing me.
“Soft Grunge” isn’t what happens when you put a Nirvana CD in a washing machine with some fabric softener. It’s a term that evolved to describe a specific type of aesthetic common among teenage girls on Tumblr in recent years. Lana del Rey is basically the human embodiment of this phenomenon. This Urban Dictionary definition is condescending, but also pretty accurate:
[They] create a “hardcore” persona on Tumblr by reblogging pictures of inverted crosses, dip-dyed hair, ying-yang symbols and toilets. They like to pretend that they listen to grunge music by wearing stylish Nirvana tees that match their $200 pair of Doc Martens. If you were ask them who the Misfits were, they’d probably say anyone who isn’t sporting spikes this season.
This breakdown, however, misses out on the really weird romanticization of mental illnesses, especially depression, that runs rampant in these blogs. I creeped a few Tumblrs (that I would normally link to, but I’d really rather not encourage more people to look at this stuff, but reverse image searching is a thing if you really care) and found a lot of seriously fucked up imagery– it’s wildly popular, too, judging by the notes these posts get.
You see this, right? You’re seeing these pictures?? They’re there in front of you and you can see them??? Or am I just losing my mind completely???? Do people not find this messed up????? I also found a lot of pictures of bruised knees and bleeding cuts in my travels to the terrifying side of Tumblr, but looking at them makes me want to vomit even more than the above images, so I’m not posting them here.
I’ve tried to describe what depression feels like a thousand times before, and I can never really get it right. Sometimes, depression feels like nothing. It’s the absence of feelings. Which is why to people who’ve never really learned about it, someone with a severe, life-threatening mental illness can just kinda look like some dude who sleeps too much and won’t do stuff.
Notice how the words “pretty,” “beautiful,” “romantic,” or “#pale” didn’t show up in that description. Because it’s none of those things. It just sucks. In one of my vlogs I described depression as “kind of like a 24/7 party inside your brain, where everybody that you invited is a sad drunk, so really you’re all just sitting on a couch together, like, sobbing over nothing, and it’s like, hey, brain, wanna… not? Maybe? That would be cool.” And I’d say that’s still right. Although the sobbing part isn’t always apparent in people– it’s indicative of a marginally less severe form of the illness than an apathetic kind of depression.
Basically, no matter how it manifests, depression doesn’t really tend to look like decorated cigarette boxes and artfully running mascara. And I’m willing to bet money that a huge chunk of these girls have no diagnosed illnesses.
Which isn’t to say that no girl with a soft grunge blog is actually diagnosed with depression (or any other mental illness), because I’m sure many are. And I think I can kind of understand the appeal. Feeling like you’re a part of something can be comforting, and so can seeing that other people feel the same way you do. When you’re in the healing stages of a mental illness, having support isn’t just important, it’s a necessity. But the soft grunge subculture doesn’t support the “Sad Girls” it idolizes, it enables them.
Every time you reblog pictures of a computer screen that says “stupid sad girl” or Marlboro cigarettes with sticky notes pasted on them saying “because you broke my heart,” every time you contribute to a culture that makes depression seem like a quirky thing to add to your “about” section instead of a serious disorder with one of the highest death rates of any illness, you are actively making it okay for people to ignore their health problems and just be sad. That’s enablement.
People need to stop posting pictures of pills and tagging them #death, #suicide, #self hate, #soft grunge, and #pale. Trust me on this one, overdosing on pills: not really a good time. It’s nothing like the pictures of parties that are scattered all over your dashboard. A pretty blue-eyed boy will not come up to you when you’ve been lying in an ER bed for four hours because you can’t walk and tell you how beautiful you and your sadness are. Maybe that’s because you won’t be wearing pants at the time (I wasn’t), or maybe that’s because you’ll barely be able to speak because your mind is so distorted by the drugs. He won’t kiss your fucking scars. In fact it’s likely that nobody ever will, because seeing the mutilated flesh of someone you love is terrifying.
I think that’s something that needs to make its way back into our perception of mental illnesses: terror. I don’t mean that we should regress to a state where as soon as someone tells you they’re depressed, you run and hide, but we can’t look at depression as something that’s beautiful in any way. I would never want anyone to be afraid of a loved one of theirs with depression, but they should probably be a little bitafraid of the depression itself. Because in my experience, the fear is really what winds up getting people to get help. The things that depression can drive people to are terrifying. The way your own thoughts turn against you is terrifying. The shitstorm that your life turns into is terrifying. I’m gonna go full white girl for a second and quote some really beautiful Kendrick Lamar lyrics from Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst—
In case I’m not here tomorrow, I’m hoping that I can borrow A peace of mind, I’m behind on what’s really important My mind is really distorted, I find nothing but trouble in my life
The song isn’t about depression, it’s about growing up in Compton, California, and trying to resist the magnetic pull of gang life and violence, but I remember the first time I heard those lines they hit me like a slap in the face because they were just so easy to identify with. “My mind is really distorted” basically sums up depression in half a sentence. And before this rant turns into a post about how much I love Kendrick Lamar, let me just say this: creating a space where depression is so accepted that it verges on being promoted is just as dangerous as creating a space where depression is unaccepted. Much like everything else in life, we need to find a balance.
And really, it’s not that fucking difficult to just stop reblogging shit that promotes unhealthy views of mental illness.