Class & Status In Coming of Age Films

On Labor Day my uncle and I were having a conversation about racism and white people’s jealousy of Black folks, which turned into us bouncing ideas off of each other and analyzing the crimes white people often commit and why they do it. We went from discussing the infamous BBQ Becky video to how white people saw Black financial prosperity as a threat and proceeded to burn down Black Wall Street.

The discussion then turned into pointing out the many occurrences where white people have killed in the name of money and social status. Wives, husbands, grandparents, friends, children, killed at the hands of someone they loved because they either had a bounty on their head that was to be collected by the killer once they were gone, or they were holding back said person from reaching their goals or ruining their image. Insurance money, inheritance money, business ownership, etc. all sought after in the in exchange for someone’s life. We ended up talking about the many cases where spouses would kill their husband or wife for life insurance money, get married again, rinse and repeat. Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that white people are simply power hungry and agreed that it could be written off as a genetic disposition at this point because it’s all too common, even from a young age.

For centuries upon centuries, since the beginning of time really, white people have placed significant importance on social status. Likability wasn’t something they ever cared for, just power over others. Just ask Julius Caesar, assassinated and conspired against by the senate after being declared dictator for life in Rome. Nobody likes a dictator and their downfall always happens eventually, and most of the time it’s not pretty. There have been many like him since, inside and outside of political settings, that lust for power and to be in the position to control others and everything around them. Why? I’m not white so I’m not entirely sure.

White people’s thirst for power and obsession with status manifests in different ways at different ages though. The recent buzz of Sierra Burgess Is A Loser made me curious and I decided to watch it, which also solidified my decision to write this post. I’ve seen my fair share of coming-of-age films and have noticed a particular pattern; there are always popular white kids and teens that bully innocent bystanders and do whatever they need to do in order to keep their place in the school’s social hierarchy. The reason this stands out to me is because I’ve noticed that a majority of these bullies are ones that also come from a family of means as well.

In Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, the protagonist Sierra is your typical outcast: redhead, freckles, fat, wears glasses, pale, dresses like somebody’s aunt from the 80s, etc. The first scene of the film shows Sierra stepping out of the shower as she examines herself in the mirror, and I can’t help but notice the fact that she has her own bathroom. I don’t know anyone my age that has their own bathroom, ever in my life. That alone was an immediate indicator that she was at least upper-middle class, which also meant I knew that I wasn’t going to relate to this film as much as I’d like to, as a middle class Black girl living in Philly.

Her room is a size that I would probably consider huge and has a window seat, her house is beautiful, and her parents are sitting together in the kitchen as she enters the kitchen to eat breakfast before school, telling them about her dreams last night after they ask, as that seems to be a routine thing. Because you know, her parents have a close and healthy relationship with her it seems.

Throughout the film it’s clear that Sierra is somewhat dissatisfied with her life on some level, going as far as to catfish her crush with a girl that looks nothing like her. Her parent’s love, her intelligence and creativity, and the comfortable life she lives, still isn’t enough to fulfill her which brings me to my next point…

I’ve noticed the common underlying problem which the characters in these coming-of-age films have is that nothing is ever enough sometimes, nothing compares to the high they get from outside validation. Validation that’s often rooted the unhealthy need to be seen admired by others, to be put on a pedestal almost. It’s not enough for these teens to have a family that’s well-off and doesn’t have to struggle, it’s not enough that they’re spoiled and get everything they want from their parents, it’s not enough that they have loving parents that care for them, it’s not enough that their home life is normal and fine for the most part. They need that power and the validation from others that comes with it. And what better place to do that than school?

Think about it; in high school teens are going through puberty and starting to come into themselves, and although these are the formative years where they begin to find out who they are and what they want out of life, they’re still lost for the most part. They’re still pliable beings that are susceptible to the influences and people around them, good or bad. They will continue to internalize everything around them, everything that’s said to them, everything that’s done to them, good or bad. These popular kids are aware of that and know this is the perfect time reign in their parade because most of their peers are still being molded and don’t know any better, they’re easy to control. They spend 8 hours a day for 5 days a week, for 4 years, building up and perfecting their reputation to their liking. Building an army of followers to love and admire them.

One of the best examples of this would be the infamous Mean Girls and specifically Regina George. Regina was the most popular girl in school of course, the queen bee, the girl everybody wanted to be and she completely reveled in that 24/7. The admiration that most of her peers—girls and boys alike—had for her is what kept her going, it was her fuel, her happiness. She successfully controlled and manipulated everyone around her from her friends, to her boyfriend, to her own parents. She forced her parents to switch bedrooms with her because hers wasn’t big enough for her liking. Imagine.

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It’s clear that Regina obviously came from a wealthy family as well, but based off of her actions and how much stock she put into other people’s opinion and view of her, that didn’t seem to matter to her. Not as much as her popularity and reputation. I believe that if Cady Heron hadn’t tumbled into her life and turned everything upside down for her the way she had, Regina would’ve absolutely grown up to be even more of a raging narcissist. One that manipulates and disposes everyone around her with elaborate plans to sabotage everyone else’s plans and happiness in order to uplift herself. She would go absolutely unchecked until her own greed for status caught up to her in some way or another.

Another example would be Heathers (1989). Though Veronica’s actions were not exactly in line with Regina’s, quite the opposite actually, I still found it interesting that she was a part of that clique in the first place. Within the literal first 5 minutes of the film it’s clear that Heather Chandler is the leader of their clique and they’re all afraid and intimidated by her. But why remain friends with someone whose morals and behavior doesn’t align with yours? Someone you fear? Because status. They remained under Heather Chandler’s wing because they knew it would be a good look just to be seen and associated with her, no matter how badly she treated them or how shallow their friendship was.

“Why can’t we talk to different kinds of people?”

'“Fuck me gently with a chainsaw, do I look like Mother Theresa? If I did I probably wouldn’t mind talking to the geek squad.”

“Does it not bother you that everybody in this school thinks that you’re a piranha?”
”Like I give a shit. They all want me as a friend or a fuck! I’m worshipped at Westerburg and I’m only a junior.”

To the Heathers and Regina George, torturing and embarrassing those around them was used as a form of entertainment, a way to pass the time, despite them having the means to do more productive things like go to therapy or take up a kickboxing class. If that isn’t sociopathic behavior then I don’t know what is. However, I don’t believe every character on a quest for popularity and to be seen is as extreme as Regina George and or as desperate and passive about it as the Heathers. You have more low-key characters like Nadine from Edge of Seventeen (2017) that long for popularity but do it from afar in a wallflower kind of way, again ignoring the fact that their home life isn’t the worst in the world. Or characters like Cher from Clueless (1995) whose image and reputation was important but she wasn’t a ballistic tyrant about it. I actually love Cher because she was a kind, popular girl that wanted to use her status and privilege to help her friends and improve their life, something you don’t see much of from these kinds of characters.

From all of the coming-of-age films I’ve seen, I’ve come to the concrete conclusion that white people have a very different and privileged perspective on class and the lifestyle of your average teen. It couldn’t be truer when I say that the collective of them live in a bubble while somehow thinking everyone else lives in that same bubble as well. That sentiment becomes crystal clear when you view movies like ATL, Freedom Writers, Boyz N The Hood, Mississippi Damned, and even others like City of God and Precious.

Just Another Girl On The I.R.T is another favorite of mine and I would probably call this a cult classic, and if you haven’t seen this yet I’m very disappointed in you nephew. The film centers around Chantel Mitchell, a high schooler living in Brooklyn, as she strives to make something of herself despite her environment. She’s Black girl with book smarts and street smarts yet still makes the same mistake that many of the women around and before has made; in the midst of wanting to be a normal teenager that dates and has sex, she became a teen mom despite being a very smart girl. Throughout the film she hides her pregnancy as she attempts to continue going to school and working while trying to figure out the next step to take so that she isn’t held back and reduced to another statistic.

Seeing a funny, loud-mouthed and opinionated Black girl like me on screen that also lives in a lower-income neighborhood and goes to public school was the best thing I could’ve asked for. Just Another Girl On The I.R.T gave me that and more. The feeling you get when you see accurate representation of yourself as a teen is unmatched and this film is one of the few that got the depiction of Black girl youth in inner cities right.

Films like those I mentioned before Just Another Girl On The I.R.T focus on the daily lives of Black teens and teens of color, lives filled with abuse, turmoil, violence, and perpetual struggle which is something that I love and hate. I love it because these are true stories and is unfortunately the reality for MANY Black teens and teens of color. From locations to the hardships they face down to their home-life, it’s always very accurate. There are no private bathrooms with spacious bedrooms decorated with fairy lights and a Mac desktop computer. The teens in the aforementioned films are lucky if they have their own bedroom, let alone a bathroom.

There are no cafes and smoothie shops to walk to with friends after school, just papi stores and corners and playgrounds to loiter at after hours. Corners where drive-bys happen and stop and frisks have found their home. There are no two parent households with luscious gardens and backyards, healthy marriages, and healthy child-to-parent relationships. Just apartments in the hood, the projects, small 1-2 bedroom houses in low-income neighborhoods where danger is their neighbor.

There are no public schools with pools and an extensive selection of extracurriculars and sports to choose from with an entire stadium. Just a football and basketball team, maybe a cheerleading squad, and maybe band to perform at assemblies and school games. There is no elaborate homecoming or prom that everyone has access to because around here, we pay around $100 for a ticket—in addition to hair, makeup, dress/tux, and transportation—because we have to book a different venue because our gyms are too small, because we have too many students, because funding is low, because the school district tries to stuff as many students into public schools as possible without the proper accommodation.

There are no lunches with freshly cooked food that actually looks appetizing and healthy. Just mystery meat, genetically modified prison food, pizza with enough fake cheese to give you diarrhea, salads that sometimes have bugs in them, and vending machines where a bag of chips is $1 instead of $0.25. There are no large parking lots where the students can park their cars, that’s reserved for faculty only. We’d be lucky if we could afford our own car in high school, let alone a designated parking spot.

There is no waking up for school when the sun is already up and mom is downstairs making pancakes and bacon with a glass of orange juice. There is no time to eat breakfast at home because me and mama are up at 6am, beating the sun, and getting ready for school and work. There are no rides to school from mommy or daddy or driving my own car, just taking the bus and or train and hoping that I make it to school on time and that I’m able to eat breakfast before they stop serving it because the public transportation is never on time. And most of the time when I do make it for breakfast, the food is horrid and I end up starving until it’s time for lunch, hoping they’ll have something good to eat that doesn’t make my stomach hurt or taste like depression.

There is no weekly allowance to go shopping every weekend with and hangout with friends at the local pizza. Just teens working jobs right after school, even sneaking out of school early to catch the bus or train so they can get to work on time because our parents don’t have enough disposable income to give us on a consistent basis. Just working from 4pm-9pm most nights during the week with not much of a choice because graduation dues and college application fees need to be paid, struggling to keep up with grades because sleep is a rarity most nights.

There is no time or energy to worry about who’s most popular and trying to become popular because teens like me are too busy just trying to get through school, to get through life. We don’t have the time, resources, and energy to spend focusing on other people and what they think of us, there’s bigger shit going. Things that are bigger than all of us.

But I sometimes hate these depictions as well because despite how accurate they are, it’s all we seem to get. Not every film about Black youth has to center on race, violence, and other graphic topics because not every young Black person deals with that, even if they do live in that environment. I’m sure there are kids in the hood that are happy despite not having all the means to live comfortably. We need variety and need to see happy stories being told even for the ones that do come from the hood and lower-income environments, it’s not everyday trauma-porn for the kiddies. Every coming-of-age film centering on a white protagonist is ultimately occupied with some form of external validation and social status, whereas Black kids and kids of color are trying to survive. It is becoming repetitive on both ends and there needs to be more films that portray a happy medium because I absolutely believe you can have fun while living in the struggle.

I’ve previously touched on the class differences between white schools/neighborhoods and ones that are predominately occupied by Black teens and teens of color in my review for 13 Reasons Why. My point isn’t to erase or diminish the valid struggles that some of these characters go through, like Nadine from Edge of Seventeen whose father passed and subsequently dealt with depression, feeling like she’s alone now because her mother is more doting to her older brother AND her best friend begins dating her brother, who also happens to be the more popular sibling. I’m not saying that they should be happy solely based off of the material things they have but when you compare coming-of-age movies centered on the stories of Black/teens of color and white teens, the disparities between each group become glaringly obvious on what’s most important and what’s really valued in life to each group.

But it doesn’t always have to be so black and white (no pun intended). Everyone’s story should be told, from the Black kids who live in the projects but still have the best adventures to the Black kids and teens who don’t let their surroundings and trauma consume them and define their life story. We also need to put an end to the White Coming Of Age Film Industrial Complex because it’s the same old story every time, either tell a new story or don’t make the movie at all. Let’s literally flip the script and see some stories of popular Black teens who rule the school and get into ridiculous shenanigans and plot against each other, because we deserve more than the constant dark struggle stories filled with sadness and grief.