From 'Euphoria' to 'The White Lotus': How TV Is Starting to Get Gen Z Politics Right

We're moving beyond outdated takes from older millennials sitting in writing rooms.

24 February 2022, 5:17am

Why Are You Like This?, an Australian TV show based in Melbourne, hits the nail on the head when it comes to depicting the social and political hellscape facing the upcoming generation. 

With a satirical and comedic take on Gen Z politics, it personifies the most extreme version of political correctness through the lense of two “woke” best friends, who, in their pursuit to progress social and political ideas, actually disrupt the status quo negatively.

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Though released almost four years ago, its message coincides with a number of other shows targeted at young audiences that deliberately riff off the uber-political mindsets of Gen Z. However, rather than outdated takes from millennials sitting in writing rooms, these are fresh in perspective, funny, and most of the time, true.

In Why Are You Like This? the show’s protagonist, Penny, is a people-pleasing ally-to-all who lives according to a three-tiered “Whom Can Talk Over Whom” chart. At the top, under “must talk” are black women and gay asian men. At the bottom – “don’t talk unless necessary” – are cis white men. When interrupted in her all-male workspace, Penny, being a white woman, trumps all. It’s problematic, yet well intended.

And that’s what the show is: intentional. The characters are there to make fun of the complexities of our generation's social cues and thought processes. It’s a theme that television – streaming and traditional – has been flirting with since the start of the 2020’s.

Shows like The White Lotus, the 2021 US comedy-drama, focus on the bandwagon mentality that has become commonplace in the internet era. Elsewhere, Euphoria has been grappling with complex, coming-of-age storylines alongside a transparent approach to life as a young person trying to make sense of yourself in both the digital and physical world. It has been criticized in older circles for being exaggerated and overplayed, but many young people have responded with a fairly accurate and appropriate response: it’s not exaggerated, you’re just old.

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These days, our social currency relies on intelligence as much as it does beauty. The more you know, the sexier you are. The White Lotus does well when it argues that because the younger generation seems well-read, their ideologies around theory seem true, too.

The two teenage protagonists, Olivia (played by Sydney Sweeney) and Paula (by Brittany O’Grady), are often seen poolside reading theorists like Freud. Their language surrounds breakdowns of social theory. But, often, their logic is flawed.

When Olivia’s Dad, Mark, finds out his father has died from AIDS and has been sleeping with men secretly throughout his life, Olivia’s response is along the lines of “He was probably just a bottom,” before pointing out that her father’s anger or confusion is homophobic. Olivia’s mother shushes her, insisting her daughter be empathetic. In this world, empathy is trumped by political correctness.

And while the show doesn’t necessarily paint younger generations in the best light, the not-so-subtle interactions between parent and child do show a change in generational thinking. In this attempt at writing Gen Z, “wokeness” is weaponized, Olivia and Paula are often painted as selfish, and both are seen as the perpetrator of illogical thought.

Even re-imaginations of old-school classics have chosen to confront the way politics and social currency is changing.

Sex and The City’s latest instalment, And Just Like That, was criticised by many – and an often cited reason is Miranda’s story arc from confident lawyer to college life and its new, updated, Gen-Z politics. Miranda’s first college class sees her bumble pronouns, comment on the black professor’s braids, and slowly descend into alcoholism. Carrie, too – once written as the driving force of early 00s cultural commentary – can’t keep up with the open conversations surrounding sexuality in her venture into podcasting. Ultimately, the beliefs of America’s youth are cast as something middle-aged women should be greatly intimidated by.

As Gen Z comes of age, popular TV, like it did with millennials, has found creative and satirical ways of portraying them. In the case of the young, it’s in a manner that coincides with internet-obsession, teetering politics and heightened political awareness. While shows like Why Are You Like This? do a good job of showing this in a comedic way, others, like Sex in the City, are outdated, with lesser nuance, and more stereotype. 

As the next generation begin their ascent into teenage years it will be Gen Z who is tasked with confronting the evolving politics of a younger generation. But with only a smattering of television currently forcing the conversation forward, that’s a challenge for a later date. For now, production seems stalled between a world that wants to accept a younger generation’s attitudes towards social currency and one that is happier to question if it matters at all.

Follow Julie Fenwick on Twitter and Instagram.

Read more from VICE Australia.

Tagged:

Politics, Australia, Television, NEW ZEALAND

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