I have really grown to appreciate a good documentary in recent years. These days, it’s hard for me to watch the news, and I often don’t have the fortitude to jump in to the weighty dramas that I usually enjoy in film, yet fluffy fun movies seem too frivolous to deliberately choose during my rare leisure watching time. So documentaries strike a pretty good middle ground for me. Currently, I’m working on a list (stay tuned – it’ll show up here soon) of documentaries featuring teen protagonists. Not documentaries about teen problems and society, but rather about teen lives. There are some really fabulous ones out there, and I’d love to hear what your favorites are. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.
What I want to talk about is what I noticed as I started seeking these films out. All too often, despite the varied settings and interesting lives and amazing teens featured, the story arc is similar, and it culminates in a competition. A big game, the big match, the test, the dance-off, the pageant, the final challenge. And as film after film was recommended to me, or came up on my Netflix suggested list, it started to sink in how pervasive this story of competition is. What does it mean?
Well, clearly a competition is a great way to frame a story. There’s the preparation, the team building, the challenges and false steps and redemption, the personal growth and development. There’s the excitement and adrenaline of the big moment, then there’s sportsmanship and lessons learned. Teens involved in high stakes (or even dedicated to low stakes) competitions are likely to be engaged, motivated, and driven – good characters. It’s a good story. But it’s not the only story. And I can’t believe it’s the story teens would tell of themselves.
In the few documentary projects created by teens that I’ve seen, this is not the narrative they typically choose. There are practical reasons that play into some of this: a teen created documentary will likely not have the flexibility in time to show this whole arc, or show it from as many angles as a professional production crew could. But I believe there’s more to it. Teens in the thick of their experiences see as much diversity and nuance as adults see in their own lives. When adults look at teens, it’s much easier to see what’s on the school calendar: the theater performance, the games, the Science Olympiad, than to see the people behind those events. As teen services librarians, it’s part of our job to connect with these people, and to remind the adults in our sphere of influence that yes – teens are people, not just players in the competitions we set out for them.
The other side of this is what the media is communicating to teens about themselves. When the most prevalent narrative of real teen lives is one of competition, it’s unsurprising that this seeps into all corners. There are the very real competitions that we all encounter in life like admission to college or selection for a job. There are the “soft” competitions of life too as we seek out friends, romantic partners, and affirmation of our hobbies and interests. And despite the badge that appeared after we clicked “submit” on our tax return last month, congratulating us and letting us know we had “Won At Taxes” I’d prefer to believe, and encourage our teens to understand, that most of life is not a competition.