Throughout every decade, and for each new generation, the values, concerns, and goals of adolescents are redefined. Naturally, respective eras of film tend to reflect these shifts.
This phenomenon is modernized through the “identity crisis” facing Gen-Z, which has ultimately stemmed from an overexposure of online communication. The growing reliance on social media threatens “one’s journey in developing and expressing personal identity,” according to communication scholar Melissa Newman.
Amidst this crisis of individuality facing younger generations, there is also a collective desire to enact social change on the various social, legal, and economic facets of culture that have persisted from generations past. Ironically, the online presence that has been deemed detrimental to this age group has also strengthened the conviction behind this cause, as users online are able to engage in mass communication to share and unify ideas. Through this process and their efforts, Gen-Z’s have earned the nickname “philanthroteens.”
The angst imbued within these circumstances is expressed in the films of today that are being marketed towards younger audiences such as Gen-Z and Gen-Y (Millennials). What remains to be seen is how this pattern will carry over to the films marketed towards audiences that are even younger, and how the generations to come are affected.
The cinematic expression of all these experiences of younger generations takes the form of films that are making strides to be more progressive and to “sidestep some of the more problematic aspects of [genres’] past,” as stated by author Katie Baker. For example, the comic book films that have released in recent years feature more diverse protagonists than similar films of the past. Captain Marvel (dir. Anna Boden, 2019) and Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins, 2017) each featured female superhero leads, with the former being the first such film to reach a billion dollars at the box office. Both films have sequels in development. Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2018) received acclaim from audiences who applauded the representation of a black male lead and a racially diverse cast. Similarly, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton, 2021), an upcoming Marvel film, will feature the studio’s first Asian lead.
Beyond the large-scale Hollywood blockbusters, stereotypes of all genres are being re-examined. Love, Simon (dir. Greg Berlanti, 2018) was a successful romantic comedy featuring a gay male lead, something not commonly seen before in the genre. A spin-off television show followed the film on Hulu. The Danish Girl (dir. Tom Hooper, 2015) and Dallas Buyers Club (dir. Jean-Marc Vallee, 2013) are two different films that, respectively, feature transgender characters and LGBTQ+ representation.
The films I have mentioned encompass only a few examples, but nonetheless they illustrate the ways in which the current mediascape has shifted cinema to become more inclusive of different races, gender identities, and sexual orientations.
The Gen-Z and Millennial generations have ushered in this era of film, but when it comes to the films that are being targeted towards children and generations to follow, significant changes are still yet to be observed. There is certainly some influence of the new era, as can be seen by some of Disney’s recent films such as Moana (dir. Ron Clements & John Musker, 2016), which features a diverse collection of fictional characters and settings inspired by Polynesian culture and the Māori people. In their latest release, Raya and the Last Dragon (dir. Don Hall & Carlos Lopez Estrada, 2021), many elements of Southeast Asian culture are represented through the fictional people and places of the film.
Both films are targeted towards younger audiences (even though they appeal to all ages), and subsequently fall into the category of “children’s films.” Nevertheless, these are only two examples and the children’s film genre as a whole still needs to reach the same level of progressiveness that can be seen in films marketed towards teens and young adults. But, of course, it stands to reason that we will not see the effects of the newer generations on the film industry and mediascape as a whole until the next decade, so we will have to wait and see.