Virtual Realities: SOCIAL MEDIA AND COMING OF AGE IN EIGHTH GRADE.
The more honest among us will readily admit that our memories of our early secondary school years are riddled with awkwardness, acne and a lot of general confusion. Adolescence is a time when our friendships become complicated, our bodies betray us and the opinions that tend to matter most are those of our peers. Eighth Grade (2018), written and directed by YouTube star Bo Burnham, is a coming-of-age film that remains true to these themes. Where this narrative differs from those of films of the same genre from an earlier generation - such as John Hughes' The Breakfast Club (1985) and Sixteen Candles (1984) - is the way it portrays the trials of being a teenager in the digital age, a time in which nearly every important moment, staged or real, is recorded and published on social media. Set within this context, Eighth Grade is more than just an interesting example of a coming-of-age drama; it reflects a period in history when the construction and representation of teen identity (private and public) have become intrinsically entangled with and reliant on technology. In particular, it explores how contemporaiy teenagers obsessively engage with multimodal text - that is, text that communicates using a variety of modes, including audio and video - through their use of social media. As a film, Eighth Grade is entertaining as well as insightful; as a cultural document, it is both a snapshot of the Zeitgeist and a window into the complicated ways in which a teenager builds their social identity, and the private gap or void that this construction can create. The film can thus be studied for its relatable characters and themes, or for its demonstration of the unique relationship that teens have with multimodal text as a means of engaging in creative acts of self presentation and meaning formation.
A time of transition
The traditional coming-of-age narrative structure involves a metaphorical journey in which the main characters) must choose to confront something that they initially may not even be fully aware of, or are afraid to face. However, in order to deal with this obstacle, the character has to be willing to face uncertainty around questions regarding what will happen to them and who they will become, and choose to face physical or emotional pain in exchange for gaining self-knowledge and wisdom.
Eighth Grade implements an intelligent and sensitive modern-day application of this structure, following thirteenyear-old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) as she lives out her last week of middle school before embarking on the next chapter of her growth. The film takes the audience on an excruciating emotional trajectory as Kayla wrestles with crippling social anxiety while fighting to become the idealised version of herself that she desperately yearns to be.
Kayla's process of transitioning into a high school student is made even more poignant by the fact that she has already suffered a significant loss: that of her mother (although we don't ever find out the reasons for her absence, Kayla's father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), makes passing reference in a conversation to 'when Mom left'). Her innocence has thus already been dented by this presumed abandonment, one of the most emotionally painful and confusing life events that a child can experience. She still has the love and commitment of her father - a man who is genuinely interested in emotionally connecting with her even if he doesn't always get it right - but it is understandable that the transition from girlhood to young-womanhood is not something that Kayla feels able to share with her father, no matter how nice, interested or caring he is. Although this is never spoken out loud, Kayla's sense of isolation and her inability to communicate her problems to her father, especially those of a potentially embarrassing nature regarding sex and boys, mean that she effectively faces this transition alone. As the story unfolds, her secretive behaviour at home and the false confidence that she exhibits on social media and in her YouTube videos lead her further down the path into territory that she is not only completely unprepared for, but also extremely vulnerable in.
While academic theory is not usually a consideration in the secondary English classroom, there are some interesting scholarly observations that can be made about Eighth Grade that may help teachers to understand the role that intertextuality plays and to gain some insight into how to weave that awareness into class discussions in meaningful ways. Burnham's film is an example of a text that exists in a post-postmodernist context, but that also exhibits some postmodernist techniques and phenomena such as intertextuality, self-reflexivity, technoculture and hyperreality, among other things. It also represents traits that delineate the shift in dominant theory from the postmodernism that prevailed over the mid to late twentieth century to its various successor paradigms, one of which is metamodernism. As defined by cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker in their 2010 essay 'Notes on Metamodernism', (1) this concept is characterised by a cultural desire for re-engagement with early-twentieth-century modernist ideals of hope, optimism, sentiment and storytelling while acknowledging a necessary oscillation between these preoccupations and those of postmodernism. (2)
Eighth Grade exhibits features that can inform prospective discussions about metamodernism in a secondary English classroom. Characterised by an honest and unflinching exposure of her insecurity, disconnection and lack of confidence, Kayla's coming-of-age story is told without the self-conscious, pronounced cynicism of the postmodern text. On the other hand, Kayla's narrative is informed and shaped by the hyperreal technoculture of 2018, which is unrecognisable to generation X parents such as Mark. This world is dominated by sophisticated technology that has produced a complex cyberspace that facilitates children's and adolescents' engagement in repetitive acts of self-conscious representation, intertextuality, pastiche and bricolage. In this world, vulnerable young teens like Kayla can become trapped in a cyber-world of simulacra, of endless copies of an image or images that are posed and performed on social media - one in which the formal boundaries between 'high' and 'low' culture have been levelled and reshaped by websites such as YouTube. In these spaces, individuals are empowered to create and publish videos promoting self-agency and empowerment; yet, at the same time, these sites pose significant mental-health risks for vulnerable users such as Kayla, because there is no guarantee that anyone is watching. This reality is illustrated through Kayla's experience with her YouTube channel, Kayla's Korner: despite putting a lot of effort into regularly creating videos, not only does she not receive any likes or comments, but this lack of feedback is translated into further fodder for her anxiety and lack of self-confidence. An analysis of Eighth Grade can be enriched by attempting to understand what it reveals about the complex relationship that young people have with the abstract textual spaces they increasingly operate within.
'Creating the self'
Pivotal to understanding Kayla's character is the very modern conundrum of young people being both extremely creative in their use of technology and also exceedingly dependent on it. Although this situation may appear to be alien and depressing for anyone over the age of forty, it is important to remember that digital technology and social media are essential tools for young people living in the twenty-first century. Kayla is a typical modern teenager in the way she engages with and uses computers, smartphones, the internet and social media. She treats them not only as natural tools of self-expression, but also as instruments for creating an image of who she wants to be. Through her story, vital information about how identity is expressed, enhanced and created using these tools is conveyed. The film represents this obsession with humour and verisimilitude, yet there is also an unspoken edge of concern to its depiction of daytime scrolling turning into unsupervised all-night scrolling. Not only does this point to the physiological effects of obsessive use, but relationships are shown to suffer as well. When Kayla and her father are at the table having dinner, it is clear that, while they are occupying the same physical space, their mental and emotional spaces are completely separate. Leaving her meal and her father ignored as her earphones pump loud music, Kayla scrolls through her Instagram feed, completely disconnected from everything else. This scene demonstrates a familiar teen-parent battleground; while limits can be put in place, the disturbing truth for many parents is that this technology can act as a further obstacle to connection with their children. (3)
Young people's construction and performance of 'self through multimodal text in abstract, digital spaces is unique to the current day: unlike their earlier counterparts, they actively engage with and use this method of communication on social media to assert both who they are and whom they want others to see them as. Eighth Grade cleverly picks up on these issues and highlights that, when used by those who are still maturing, social media can foster anxiety, self-comparison, disconnection and a range of other factors that can have damaging effects on an individual's mental health. When teenagers post on platforms like Instagram, Facebook or YouTube, they are not merely 'talking to their friends' or 'being social'; what they are doing is participating in a far more complicated act of identity management, one that creates more room for them to perform different aspects of their identities through textual means. This has been described by researcher Carmen Lee as 'presentational culture', a milieu in which 'the different forms of participation and senses of audience in social media seem to have changed the way people think about themselves and thus their ways of constructing self-identities online'. (4)
In her 2016 article 'Creating the Self in the Digital Age: Young People and Mobile Social Media', cultural studies professor Toshie Takahashi further explores why young people engage with this media and examines how they use social media engagement as a tool for self-creation. Takahashi focuses on how people create and re-create themselves, a process that, she argues, involves a negotiation between opportunity and risk. Takahashi summarises that young people will persistently participate in online 'impression management' activities regardless of the risks, because, more than anything else, they want to be recognised by their friends and gain popularity. (5) Kayla demonstrates this urge repeatedly, desperately trying to create an identity for herself through her posts, comments and
YouTube videos in a quest to banish the self-doubt, anxiety and terrible loneliness that plague her. Another conclusion made by Takahashi through her research is that young people feel they need to reference everything they experience in relation to social media in order to know if they are living their lives properly or, in the words of researcher Yoshitaka Doi, 'going [in] the right direction'. (6) This is reflected in Kayla's reaction to the small number of likes she is receiving on her YouTube channel. Her key moment of self-actualisation comes only when she is able to stop feeling the need to make these videos as an external measure of her worth.
Takahashi also identifies in her research that, while the number of comments or likes received on posts indicates recognition, the comments and likes that young people leave on posts created by others are forms of self-expression and proofs of their own existence. (7) Kayla's story supports this idea: even though her compulsive acts of liking and commenting may seem like sad substitutes for 'real' social interaction, social media is a place that allows her to hide in plain sight and to bypass the paralysing social anxiety that renders her near-incapable of connecting with others or expressing herself away from the internet. Kayla's example highlights one explanation of why social media is such an appealing outet for those who use it: it is able to provide - in the short term, at least - a virtual way to exist, relate and be socially recognised with a confidence that eludes many in face-to-face social situations.
Coming of age
Eighth Grade uses the coming-of-age narrative as a vehicle to explore the important transitions involved in growing up. As the film's protagonist, Kayla is confronted with some significant challenges on the path to feeling able to embrace a more authentic sense of self, in contrast with who she thinks she should be in the eyes of her peers, her father and society in general. A classic 'shy girl', Kayla is introverted, unconfident and stuck in her own head. She struggles to connect with those in her age group, and rarely talks to anyone at school. The causes of Kayla's social anxiety are never openly divulged, but it is reasonable to assume that there might be a connection to the loss of her mother. Kayla's father is unfailingly caring, but also often embarrasses her, and appears to be unsure of how to talk to his daughter. As a consequence, Kayla struggles with her feelings and her problems alone, and she is constantly reminded of her insecurities or perceived failings by the images relentlessly posted on social media by her peers. That Kayla doesn't realise the posts she is viewing are carefully constructed -just like her own posts - is not surprising. In fact, one of the things that the film cannot help but point out is that these kids lack the critical skills required to interpret and understand the virtual world that they are inhabiting as a textual construct. Obviously, this does not make the already-difficult process of growing up any easier for Kayla, and contributes profoundly to her social anxiety, which is made significantly worse by her failure to access anything other than endless surface-level impressions.
Kayla's transition from middle to high school symbolises the transformation she most wants to go through: from the shy and awkward girl, nominated by her class as the 'most quiet' in her grade, into the person she feels she should be. This person, the one she portrays in Kayla's Korner, is cool, articulate, pretty and popular, but also nice.
In a clip recorded two years previously, at the end of Grade 6, she articulated her longing for this identity, congratulating her future self for her presumed achievements and wondering out loud whether she would have a boyfriend and what cool things she might have experienced. This video - ostensibly created at the direction of her teachers - was stored on a USB stick and placed in a time-capsule box, which is given back to her upon graduating from middle school. At first hesitant to look at the contents, she watches this clip again towards the end of the film, and her reaction reveals that she feels deeply that she has let her younger self down. She has spent much energy projecting her longing for popularity and acceptance onto Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), the popular 'it girl' whose pool party she attends under sufferance, but who represents everything she thinks she wants to be. By the end of the film, Kayla comes to realise that Kennedy is not worthy of her idolisation, and that the self she has been longing for is not an authentic one. This realisation signifies a major turning point for Kayla, and is only made possible after a series of events forces her to accept herself for who she really is in that moment. Pivotal to this moment is the character Olivia (Emily Robinson), the down-to-earth, sweet, together and enthusiastic high school girl who is assigned to Kayla as her 'buddy' on her high school orientation day. Olivia's instant and effusive acceptance of Kayla, in complete contrast to Kennedy's sneering rejection, is - particularly coming from an older girl - the kind of female mentorship that she sorely lacks. No amount of sincere but awkwardly fumbling support from her father can do for Kayla what her short but significant experiences with Olivia can.
This newfound joy is destined to be short-lived. On her way home with Olivia's friend Riley (Daniel Zolghadri), Kayla is confronted by her first experience with a sexual predator. When Riley pulls over the car and slides into the back seat beside Kayla to 'talk', his ulterior motives become clear. As they play a tense game of Truth or Dare (initiated by Riley), a nervous Kayla stammers her way through his provocative questions, desperate to maintain the illusion that she is both cool and experienced. It is only when Riley pressures her to take her top off that she panics and adamantly refuses to keep playing. When Riley sulkily returns to the front seat and Kayla starts to apologise for her assertive refusal, he begins a manipulative tirade against her, shaming her for not doing what he asked:
Now you're going to have your first hook-up with some asshole at a party, and you're not going to be good at it, and he's going to tell all his friends about it, and you're going to get made fun of and feel like shit [...] This was about you, okay? I was trying to help you.
This ugly moment triggers an anxiety attack for Kayla - one that she cannot hide from her father, and that ultimately brings emotional catharsis in the form of acquired self-knowledge.
Kayla's story ends on a positive note: although things are not perfect for her, she has established a fresh honesty with her father, acknowledged that the self she portrayed in Kayla's Korner was not authentic, been assertive with Kennedy and begun a genuine friendship with Kennedy's cousin Gabe (Jake Ryan). In one of the final scenes of the film, Kayla asks her father to help her burn something in the backyard. As the two sit and talk, she places her time-capsule box on the fire. Symbolising her newly established connection with herself, the fire has connotations of rebirth, one brought about by something old and no longer useful being burned away. Having passed through the fire and survived, Kayla is free to move forward in a life that is more authentically representative of who she really is. In this way, the film offers a moral lesson, one that is reflective of Kayla's newfound sense of self: if you accept yourself for who you are, the right people will find you.
Rich with meaning and a superb depiction of the complex ways in which young people use technology and multimodal text, Eighth Grade is an ideal film to bring into a secondary English classroom: not just for its characters and themes, but also as a way of starting a conversation about how social media is used by young people (positively as well as negatively), and as a means of helping students to think more critically about the abstract realities that they are operating within.
Meg Roberts is a qualified secondary school English teacher and has taught in Australia and China. She is the author of a textbook for secondary school English students titled The Heinemann English Project: Research Skills (2005). and also wrote sample A+ essays and articles on VCE English texts for Insight Publications from 2005 to 2015.
(1) Timotheus Vermeulen & Robin van den Akker, 'Notes on Metamodernism', Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, vol. 2, no. 1, 2010, available at <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/lo.3402/jac.v2i0.5677>, accessed 24 September 2019.
(2) Luke Turner, 'Metamodernism: A Brief Introduction', Notes on Metamodernism, 12 January 2015, <http://www.metamodernism.com/2015/01/12/metamodernism-a-brief-introduction/>, accessed 18 September 2019.
(3) See Jim Taylor, 'Is Technology Creating a Family Divide?', Psychology Today, 13 March 2013, <https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-power-prime/201303/is-technology-creating-family-divide>, accessed 7 October 2019.
(4) Carmen Lee, 'Language Choice and Self-presentation in Social Media: The Case of University Students in Hong Kong', in Philip Seargeant & Caroline Tagg (eds), The Language of Social Media: Identity and Community on the Internet, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke and New York, 2014, pp. 92-3.
(5) Toshie Takahashi, 'Creating the Self in the Digital Age: Young People and Mobile Social Media', in Digital Asia Hub, The Good Life in Asia's Digital 21st Century, Hong Kong, 2016, pp. 44-50.
(6) Yoshitaka Doi, quoted in Takahashi, ibid., p. 46.
(7) Takahashi, ibid., p. 47.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2019|
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