Coming of Age: does life end with graduation?
Whirlwind romances, break ups, road trips, parties and even… solving murders? Coming of age is a beloved and undoubtedly popular genre of works ranging from films and TV shows to books. What most of us consumed as children romanticised the teenage years, leading us to believe that high school would be the pinnacle of our lives. A time when we would develop cool original identities, party like Skins, fall in love like Twilight, read like Dead Poets Society and navigate insane high school drama like Gossip Girl. But this begs the question: what is left for life after graduation?
Everything that could fit into a life transpires in the mere 4–5 years of high school, so are the rest of our lives filled with the boring stuff? After discovering ourselves in school follows a lifetime of paying taxes, jobs, dinner parties and no adventures. This seems to be the implication of many films and TV shows portraying the high school experience. But I’m sure many of us would disagree, after all the university experience is filled with more excitement, new possibilities and freedoms (securing us at least 3 to 4 more years of adventures). Then why are there so few examples of the university experience? Were we meant to live out the coveted ‘teenage dream’ in high school?
There’s such an oversaturation in the representation of the glory of being a teenager, that I myself made a bucket list of things I ought to accomplish before I turned twenty and upon failing to complete it, I was disappointed. I desperately wanted to experience the ‘teenage wasteland’ that The Who sang about in ‘Baba O’Riley’ and euphorically stand in the back of a moving car proclaiming ‘we are infinite’ like Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Many teens growing up feel as though they’re wasting their golden years if they don’t meet these unrealistic standards, often feeling cheated out of the promised glory. But can most even relate to the infamous partying of Skins and Euphoria and realistically, would we want to? These experiences seem an over-glamorised attempt to sell us a dream that would always be just out of reach. When in reality, the teenage years, just like any other age, are filled with mundane moments and a few exciting ones.
There’s a commodification of the teenager, buy these clothes and you will be cool, listen to this music to be unique. As the narrator of Matt Wolf’s Teenage states ‘to be young was the style. And it was for sale’. Coming of age media is not just storytelling but also a marketing ploy to sell the dream. The most powerful and influential demographic as many speculate are notoriously the teenage girls, so marketing these lives and personas to a young audience is beyond profitable and the industry has known this for a long time. These lives are more often to be sold, not lived.
But there are some phenomenal representations of adolescence, notably Lady Bird (2017) and Submarine (2010). Lady Bird desperately tries to establish her individuality, dying her hair, hanging out with the right crowd, dreaming to leave Sacramento for the exciting New York. The film doesn't shy away from awkward sexual encounters and tense family dynamics. It’s not filled with wild adventures and experimentation but focuses on the protagonist’s struggle through the awkward age. Submarine doesn’t take itself too seriously and perfectly portrays Oliver’s teenage mindset. He’s unapologetically over-romantic, caught up in his own fantasy of what his life should be. This makes these films relatable to the average teenage experience — they don’t try to sell you the perfect life but rather expose the universal awkwardness of the age.
So, if the promise of adolescence didn't work out, can we transfer it to our twenties? Media often skips this chapter, opting for those that are more identifiable — teenage years spent in high school or adulthood spent employed and getting married. It appears that the media doesn't ignore our twenties because we should’ve ‘lived it up in high school’ but rather because of its complexity. Some of us will be in universities or travelling while others are already employed. We aren't confined to the same friend groups or classes, but we can still romanticise listening to “Ribs” by Lorde and fall in love but also pay bills. This lack of representation doesn’t stem from irrelevance but the opposite, it is so unique that it is hard to grasp.
Illustration: Lauren McAndrew