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Lithium Growing up on Western teen media as non-Western teenagers

Jun. 3, 2019
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Collage by Vivian Chambers

There have been about a million personal essays on Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird since its release a year and a half ago. And I mean, sure, that’s not the actual number, but you get the point: everyone was smitten by this movie that made them cry and feel seen and want to call their mom. It kickstarted the collective realization that contemporary coming of age can be the kind of relatable that pierces the soul instead of the kind that merely makes viewers laugh because it reminded them of something dumb they did in high school. Soon this evolved into a clamoring for more stories of this kind, to see oneself bared and laid out on the big screen once more. Apparently all we wanted as teenagers was to be seen, to be understood; and apparently Lady Bird was the first to actually achieve that in the magnitude that it did.

There have been about a million personal essays on Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, and I have no intention of burdening you with the 1,000,001st one, so let me start again: there is a very distinct sense of confusion when you are raised on media that doesn’t quite belong to you.

That’s not something you immediately recognize, however. I’m a Filipina living in the Philippines, and my first language is Filipino; I use it every day and so do all my friends, and yet when you listen to our conversations we’re talking about the latest John Green. We’re talking about Skins. We’re talking about Lady Bird and her New York dreams and Sacramento neighborhood. For my whole life, that’s been my norm—I didn’t rewatch The Goonies for the hundredth time at age 10 and think, “Huh, the fact that I depend on this and so many other American movies—as opposed to local films—is alarming and emblematic of my borderline xenocentrism.” Nope—I was 10 and it was the best movie ever made. Of course it would be be dethroned by Mean Girls the next year, then Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events the next year, then Little Manhattan the next year.

Nirica, a 21-year-old student from India, shares my sentiment, but with literature instead of film. “I read a ton of YA books in my preeteens/teens. Percy Jackson to Twilight to obscure fantasy and everything in between,” she says. “I think they all contributed to creating this idea of what my life should look like, which reality totally did not [live] up to.” 22-year-old Nikthya, a student from Mexico, feels the same way, admitting, “[During] my preteen and teen years, I loved Twilight, Mean Girls, Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging, A Cinderella Story, and the Bring It On movies. [The latter] actually got me into cheerleading, [but] I dropped it when I [turned] 16 and discovered that it wasn’t real—at least not in my country.”

The teenage experience, while known for its ubiquitous relatability, is not monolithic, especially when viewed through a global lens. It is, however, a universally vulnerable time. Erik Erikson did say the biggest crisis of this age is identity versus role confusion, after all; we find ourselves clawing for belongingness because it gives us a semblance of identity, because being part of something is easier than becoming something, because the only gratification we want and know how to get is the validation from the people around us. Every fiber of our realities is intrinsically shared with these peers yet none of us know what the hell is going on, so we follow the templates conveniently laid out by movies. All the cool girls dress the same, every straight-A student has a superiority complex because John Hughes made them believe that being smart and being fun are mutually exclusive, the popular boys all do sports, every teacher is the spawn of Satan, the big dance is the defining moment of your youth, etc. etc. These are all cliches, sure, but isn’t the reason they became cliches is because enough people experienced them? 

“You begin to expect that you should fall in love, have sex, and go to parties [like] the ones you see in the films. I constantly feel like it’s too late for me,” says Tabs, a 24-year-old Filipino working in a drug information publishing company. “It’s like a gaping hole in my lifetime and sometimes it makes me insecure. ‘You haven’t dated anyone? You haven’t been in a relationship?’ It’s a mix of insecurity and envy.”

For the better part of my teenhood I believed I was born in the wrong country. It was the peak of internet fandom, and almost every time I would introduce myself to a Twitter mutual, they would say, “Oh, I thought you were American!” and oh my, did I melt. It was the biggest compliment my tiny brown self had received. Looking back, I can’t blame these dear Twitter mutuals—I did act American. I wanted people to think I was American, and receiving comments like that wasn’t a surprise as much as it was an expectation. I thought I wouldn’t be happy until I moved away and lived in the States; I thought that was where I belonged. I longed for the American dream that was exactly that—American. 

This widened the disparity between the amount of foreign and local media I consumed, and at the time it didn’t alarm me—it seemed like a mere matter of preference. But media is never merely media, never merely a preference. By the time I realized I should seek more local media, I felt like I was too late. It’s like I grew up outside of it, like I was intruding a space that was supposed to be mine. “Every time there are new [Filipino] memes on Facebook or Twitter, I’m like, ‘What?’ It’s like I don’t know anything about it. I don’t interact with it. I mean, I’m not required to interact with any kind of media, but with this in particular, I just don’t care. It gives me secondhand embarrassment, which is bad. There’s some kind of colonial mentality which is hard to unlearn,” says Jay. 

The disconnect we feel from our own culture very frequently coexists with feelings of shame and embarrassment. Nikthya admits, “I always felt like my city wasn’t enough, that I should be ashamed of how my Christmas dinners consisted of tamales and not turkey, that everyone viewed my country as poor and stricken with alcohol and drug cartels.” Along with the ideals we learned from years of consuming Western media were Western perceptions of PoC—of us. “I carried internalized hatred toward my community. I thought they were backwards and unfair at times,” shares Jen, a 22-year-old Nepalese who spent most of her formative years in Brunei and England. “I find that Western media and living in a Western country have informed my attitude toward marriage, having kids, and religion, so I’ve ended up butting heads with elders [from my country]. It made me realize that I might not ever be able to comfortably live in my home country,” Jen adds. 

Being out of touch with our own cultures doesn’t exactly mean we feel more connected to Western culture either. “I’m not white. I will never experience those things [in the movies] because I’m not white, I’m not American. Of course the PoC experience is different, so there’s a disconnect. You admire it, but at the same time, you know you will never experience it,” says Jay. After all, what we experience is not so much assimilation to the Western way of life, but the disruption and colonization of our local culture. This erosion of tradition results in loss of meaning, and in turn, identity confusion. 

This was magnified by Lady Bird, whose universality is anchored on specificity—where else can I hear a teenage girl ask her mom, “What if this is the best version [of me]?” That movie was my waking up moment. It’s like a switch flipped in my brain and all of a sudden I stopped shortening Andrea to Andie because I realized my life isn’t Pretty in Pink; all of a sudden I wasn’t so sure I could survive college in New York just because Lady Bird did. And I know this isn’t a valid critique of all Western teen movies—I know Greta Gerwig doesn’t owe me a movie about my life—but I can’t help but feel disappointed when I can’t find solace in something everyone has deemed universally relatable. It’s very othering, and when you’re a teenager, being othered feels like the end of the world. As Nirica shared, “I harbored dreams for years to move to New York. These movies have made me long for things that are completely out of my reach. I can’t hope to go to the colleges these characters go to or the cities they live in and have the same experiences as them—it isn’t realistic, and it’s been awful to want something I cannot have.”

Jay shares the sentiment, but for a slightly different reason: “I realized that the Filipino media I [do] interact with, especially indie films, isn’t really Filipino. It’s American. I mean, you can say that it’s Filipino because it’s made by a Filipino, but it’s so detached from [local culture]... What I consume is palatable to Western audiences. I don’t even know what truly Filipino media is. What I consume is Westernized media—devoid of Filipino identity,” they say. 

Diaspora folk are not exempt from these disconnects. “Growing [up] in spaces where whiteness and English language [are] the standard robbed me of the opportunity] to learn more of my language and culture when I was younger,” Jen shares. “I realized that having to replace my first language with English really [restricted] what parts of my culture I got to experience.” 

Drea, a 23-year-old Venezuelan currently living in the U.S., feels the same way. “I regret not consuming local media when I was younger, because I think it would have helped me connect more with my home country. I’m losing my fluency in Spanish because of how much time I’ve spent here in the U.S., [but] I don’t feel like I’m fully American because of the stuff I’ve experienced in the past,” she says. 

Tomisin, a 19-year-old student from Nigeria who is currently living in London, points out the disparity between her media perception and that of her peers: “White people couldn’t quite understand why I interacted with Western media in the way I did. They didn’t focus on the same parts; they didn’t think they were as important. And if they did it was mostly performative ‘representation matters!!!’ stuff. Like when I watched Wild Child when I was actually in an English boarding school, I saw all the things the white kids could get away with, and I [realized] that Wild Child really was the perfect depiction of English boarding life. In my old school, the students would’ve been expelled after Poppy’s first few pranks. And in my new school I know that I would not have experienced the same leniency from the staff. I mean, there was a teacher who [told] a black student that he didn’t expect much from her because black students perform badly. And my white friends aren’t thinking about that [when they watch movies like Wild Child].”

On the other side of that, however, is Western media’s role as common ground. “It helped with understanding social norms. It’s little things like that which makes friend-making so much easier,” Jen reveals. Drea adds, “Had it not been for growing up on Western media, I wouldn’t have related to my American peers as well as I did. When I was younger everyone would talk about shows like Lizzie McGuire and That’s So Raven, [and] after watching them, I definitely could relate to [my peers] a lot better and could understand their conversations.”

In a lot of ways, Western media’s pervasiveness has helped not only diaspora folk but also us non-Western POC. “I think there's so much that can transcend cultural boundaries! The Edge of Seventeen and Lady Bird made me feel so seen, and neither of those experiences are wholly similar to mine. Movies like Black Panther also are a joy to watch because white narratives can't go unproblematized forever. I think I'm a lot more aware and critical of how I engage with [media] now, too. For YA books especially, I now find it pretty hard to read a contemporary romance about just white characters. [Authors] like Holly Black have always been writing inclusive and diverse YA, which is just amazing to read because that's what's real,” says Nirica. “[LGBT characters] weren’t a thing I ever came across in my daily life and in Indian media, or at least the limited Indian media I was consuming. So TV shows and movies and books in my late teens were really important for that, shows like The Fosters and books like Call Me By Your Name,” she adds.

When Lady Bird first came out, I immediately felt that tinge of disappointment and isolation, yet I still found myself obsessively rewatching it. And I cried. I cried many, many times during the many, many times I would revisit the film. Not because I saw myself in Lady Bird, but because I wished I was Lady Bird. I wished I was living in her Sacramento, being friends with her friends. I wished I could trade my Filipino Catholic school with her American one. I wished to share her dreams, and the things she wanted to leave. And for so long I always felt cheated, because I thought the universe made a mistake putting me here. Hearing Lady Bird’s mother ask, “Are you ready to go home?” always reduced me to a mess, because I was ready, but what I considered home was somewhere I’ve never been to before.

I didn’t write this essay because I wanted to police teens of color and order them to stop consuming Western media or finding comfort in them in a crazy, ethnocentric fit of rage—I personally feel very seen by movies like The Edge of Seventeen and The Diary of a Teenage Girl—but I wanted to emphasize that consumption of such media should not come at the expense of our identity and our connection to our culture. I know this is a very layered issue—cultural imperialism, white idolatry, and class all play into it—that I can for sure never unpack, but examining our relationship with media and how it affects our identity is a good start. As Nikthya put it, “I realized that there’s a lot to be proud of in growing up here, [like] all the cultural events and rituals I've participated [in] with my family. All the people and places that I've come across [here] are beautiful, and there’s nothing like them anywhere else. It’s okay to want something different and to travel, [but] a part of me will always belong here.”