Jourdain Searles is Bitch Media’s 2018 Writing Fellow in Pop-Culture Criticism
The title character of Matt Spicer’s 2017 dark comedy Ingrid Goes West is a mentally unstable woman (played by Aubrey Plaza) who copes with the recent death of her mother, as well as other undefined issues, by stalking women via Instagram. Her latest mark, Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), quickly becomes a Single White Female–esque obsession; in an effort to be just like her new idol, Ingrid dyes her dark hair blonde and quickly adopts the tastes and speaking patterns of a white Instagram influencer. She sinks the money left to her by her mother into the delusion, with little to no concern for the people she hurts in the process—including, ultimately, herself.
Since the mass mainstreaming of social media in the 2010s, young women have been the easiest targets for shallow, reactionary cultural commentary about its potential for damage. And while Ingrid drew praise from reviewers who called it “wickedly funny” and “shrewd satire,” to me it read as a bleak, sexist caricature of a very common view about young women on social media. The film doesn’t just mock Ingrid as a lonely person who escapes into fantasy, it makes fun of women in general. Once Ingrid gets to know Taylor, she finds out that nearly everything her new friend posts is a lie. Taylor knows painfully little about the art and literature she claims to be interested in online; a book she claims is her favorite is actually her husband Ezra’s. A heart-to-heart talk with Ezra himself (Wyatt Russell) reveals that Taylor, too, is playing a role online, and no longer resembles the woman he married. Somehow, the power of all those Instagram hearts and comments changed who she was.
A cursory search for the terms “teenage girls” and “social media” yields a flood of hand-wringing articles about what Instagram, Snapchat, and, really, the entirety of the internet have done to ruin the lives and minds of young women and girls. Selfies are sabotaging their romantic relationships. Snapchat filters are making them forget what we look like. Revenge porn is driving them to self-harm and even suicide. Social media is becoming an occupation for them. And articles that counter this hysteria in any measured way are vastly outnumbered by panic-bait aimed at parents.
This is why Bo Burnham’s debut film, Eighth Grade, feels so important: Finally, teenage girls growing up in the harsh glow of social media have truly empathetic representation. Burnham’s humorous, emotional feature is a thoughtful exploration of what young women actually get from social media, rather than what adult journalists assume they’re seeking. Eighth Grade centers on Kayla (the phenomenal Elsie Fisher), who in her last two weeks of eighth grade is preparing—or trying to prepare—for the transition to high school. Kayla is a quiet girl (with what seems to be an undiagnosed anxiety disorder) who has spent her middle-school years as a wallflower. The only time she feels confident is at home, where she makes short YouTube videos giving tips and advice on life.
Searching for the terms “teenage girls” and “social media” yields a flood of articles about what Instagram, Snapchat, and the entirety of the internet have done to ruin the lives of young women.
Burnham, who started his own career as a YouTube performer, demonstrates a keen understanding of a seemingly contradictory idea: that the most comfortable place for an awkward teen afraid of personal interaction is often in front of a camera. The first four of the six videos Kayla makes cover familiar staples of self-help media: “Being Yourself,” “Putting Yourself Out There,” “Being Confident,” and “Growing Up.” The videos are bare-bones in presentation: She stands, looks straight into the camera, and offers up words of encouragement to her viewers, never revealing how much she struggles offscreen to take her own advice.
By the fifth video, however, Kayla comes clean, admitting that she really doesn’t know how to put herself out there, or be herself, or be confident. Not unlike Ingrid Goes West’s Taylor, Kayla had been employing a fake-it-til-you-make-it front that could no longer hold once real life became even more complicated. After watching Kayla slowly crawl out of her shell throughout the film, it’s heartbreaking to see her give up the one thing that always consistently managed to make her smile. As her father (Josh Hamilton) might say, to watch Kayla is to love Kayla: Though it’s clear that she’s not in the best place emotionally or socially to give advice, watching her is appealing, her signature sign-off “gucci” adorable in its corniness.
These videos, including a sixth that I won’t spoil here, display an earnestness that makes clear how much Kayla cares about other people and wants them to be happy. While recording, she often gets tongue-tied and stutters, but nevertheless powers on, fueled by positivity and a strong desire to be helpful. Though Kayla presents herself as more confident than she actually is, her videos never come off as inauthentic; rather, they show the world the person that she wants to be—worldly and wise. She’s not using YouTube to pitch bankable platitudes with the goal of eventually becoming a well-compensated brand. This is a girl who uses her videos to do the thing she desperately wants to do in real life: talk to people and be good to them.
It’s important for young women to see their lives as users and consumers of social media reflected as natural, well-meaning, and honest—something Burnham acknowledged when he made sure that the R-rated film could be seen by actual eighth graders, if only for a night. This may not defuse the pearl-clutching bombast of prevailing narratives about social media young women, or the fearmongering that’s clearly based in sexism. Lives spent looking at devices and screens is a reality for most of us, for better or worse; Eighth Grade is notable because it consciously avoids serving up a familiar media brew of technophobia and misogyny. Teenage girls can speak for themselves, but they need more of us to listen.