Gender Roles & Young Adults: Little Game

ben

As a Young Adult writer, and even more as a writer of diverse fantasy, I consider myself a fairly open-minded human. Creating a world where teens are able to break down barriers, conquer adversaries, and challenge the status quo, is an important part of my writing life. The question of gender roles is one I must examine without prejudice, and even more, I must be alert to what teenagers are saying on the subject.

Listening, writers are always listening. We have to hear in order to tell the story accurately.

So when my nephew, Benny (Ben J. Pierce) a 15-year-old actor with his own YouTube channel and ever-growing following on Twitter and Instagram, debuted his first single Little Game, I paid attention. *Note: I am always paying attention to what my nephew produces. I cast him in his first stage play, I knew when he was nine he was going to be something fabulous. 

A few weeks ago, on his show KidPOV, he tackled a touchy subject for a teenage boy (for anyone, really, because hot button issues tend to make people stupid and use nasty emoticons): sexism in the media. It was thoughtful. It was generous. It was nicer than I would have been.

Ben is not your typical boy. He never has been. So it came as no surprise to me that for his first single he chose to address the pressure placed on young men and women, boys and girls, to conform to societal norms regardless of desire or proclivity.

As a female who always liked dresses and dolls and boys, who was a princess who sipped tea from china, I wasn’t picked on as a kid. But the sweet-faced blonde girl with red patent leather shoes also liked to give bullies bloody noses, and bullies learned to stay away. They learned to stay away from friends and siblings, too.

But it’s cute to be a curly haired tomboy with a crush on Christian Bale in Newsies…when you’re a girl. Reverse this quirk to a boy who would rather tap dance than play football, and regardless of open-mindedness, no matter the change in times, certain names are used. With the pervasiveness of online bullying, these names become a permanent fixture in social media.

As we get older, we are expected to exchange childhood whims for more decidedly adult ones. We are expected to get in line with everyone else, and if we don’t, we are labeled. These labels are damaging. As a teenager, still very much forming who you are and what you want, still trying to wade through all your desires and curiosities, putting a word to a way of feeling or thinking can alter self-image and create self-hatred in a way that becomes irreversible. But not always factual. Not necessarily a true representation of who you are.

Say you are a thirteen-year-old girl who has always played sports, never wears make-up, doesn’t talk about boys you like because all the boys you know are either your friends, or gross. Say someone calls you a dyke. Tells you, you must like girls because of how you look, because you don’t talk about boys. Say you question yourself, and you discover no, you aren’t gay, but no matter what you say everyone still wants to label you that way. And because you are labeled that way, you are treated differently. You are side-eyed.

Or maybe you discover you are. And maybe you don’t want to talk about it yet.

Another person’s label cannot dictate who we are. There is no way to silence voices against you when voices want to be heard. There is no way to make everyone see you for who you truly are without bringing their own preconceived ideas into the mix. The need for acceptance is basic. It is human. Only a few opinions really matter. Ignore the rest.

Getting to that point, though, not so easy. Videos like Little Game, Young Adult literature written for and about teens, talking about these things honestly, helps.

I am not the only one that thinks Ben’s single is worth discussing. This week Buzzfeed picked up the story, and linked to the video. That, combined with others popular in the YouTube world speaking out in favor of his video, the views have jumped to (as of posting) 292,000 views. Ben is not the first to speak this message, as the article notes, and he won’t be the last.

Ben is a teen, speaking to teens, about what it means to be a teen. I am an adult who is listening.

Recounting a day of filming

This weekend was a busy one. I spent Saturday evening setting up a fake diner for the shoot on Sunday with our teen actors . My co-teacher and I wondered around the location, searching for a small podium to use as a hostess station for about thirty minutes before we finally found the person who knew where it was. We learned we can’t fold linens with any skill, and decided light switches should all be on the wall right inside the door, not across a dark and perilous room.

To the benefit of us all.

The set was ready Sunday when the kids arrived, mostly in costume and off-script. I say mostly because with teenagers, everything is a little haphazard and mismatched, especially this close to the new school year. Right off, we had casting and costume issues, which led to me playing a street kid with two lines in one of the scenes we were scheduled to shoot.

The two actresses in the scene with me, both teens, informed me I am not thug. I was in agreement, especially when they wanted me to pop-lock (I think that’s what they called it?) and I looked like I had a wedgie instead. It was also 100 degrees outside, where we were shooting this scene in direct sunlight, and I was wearing a hoodie. This was for two reasons 1) my Doctor Who T-shirt had to be covered, 2) I am a 28 year old woman wearing make-up, not a dirty-faced a 14 year old girl.

We managed to get the scene. I never crossed the thug threshold, but that’s ok. I was hot and slightly irritable the rest of the day.

Shooting multiple scenes with quite a bit of blocking takes a while. We shot for five hours, at the end of which we still had four scenes to get and decided to come back for another day to finish.

The kids were troopers. When you’re working with professional actors, shooting is trying, the waiting around is frustrating, and the pressure to perform sets everyones nerves on edge. When you are working with untrained kids, everything feels exponentially harder. That said, they have all my respect and admiration for how they soldiered on. Filming is not glamorous. Getting usable footage is difficult and requires multiple takes, from multiple angles, and a lot of repetition.

I am excited about what we accomplished yesterday, and I know they can’t wait to see the final product.

Week One as a Teacher

As I mentioned on Wednesday, I am doing a writing and acting workshop with a group of local teens. Our first day we attempted to make the elements of Story Arc and Character Arc both interesting and accessible to a group of teenagers whose summer brains are operating at full-force.

Aside: Summer brain is the slush your gray matter changes into over the break from school due to the sweltering heat, the many hours spent playing video games, your transformation into a creature of the night, and all the slushies/Frostys/Acai Berry Bowls you can eat while still not getting your ass up off the couch. Being a teen on summer break was, seriously, the best!

Their brains seemed relatively intact, which made our jobs a lot easier. (And way more fun.) The first thing I learned about teaching teenagers comes from the wisdom of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and is poorly paraphrased here, by me: Success depends on winning decisive engagements quickly. 

I’ve yet to meet a teen, or a 28-year-old writer spright, with a tolerance for blathering. My co-teacher (who is a more patient person and a highly trained actor) and I divided to conquer. We also talked really fast and tried to make them constantly answer questions so they wouldn’t fall asleep or yank phones out of pockets to Tweet about their lame-ass teachers. We knew they would stay awake, but what we wanted was them to care. Teens, as a rule, can’t openly care. But there are subtle hints they give you that show they do (again, not getting on their phones) and that means you’re winning.

Our second tactic for holding their interest comes from my belief, and strong support for this belief from educators and scientists, that finding a common interest breeds trust. In our breakdown of the story arc, we went through a very popular book and film that every teen in the world has read or seen: The Hunger Games. Whenever we saw interest waning, we brought it back to Katniss. Not only was I thoroughly impressed by their knowledge and understanding of the story, but by their nearly spot on evaluation of the plot based on the formula I had given them for story arc.

When discussing common character arcs, we opened it up for them to try to figure out which films or books followed which arc. And mostly, they nailed it. These exercises proved to me that they were learning, and to them that these skills could result in their own brand of awesomeness. In a story they can actually be proud of. In characters we actually might care about.

The goal of all of this was, of course, not just to gush over The Hunger Games. The goal was to lay a foundation for understanding character and story so that when they began writing their own short-films, they would have knowledge beyond instinct and personal desire to draw from.

We then put the plan into action. My co-teacher played a piece of instrumental music and the kids brainstormed what they saw, or felt, or interpreted from it. Next, we broke them into groups and played another piece of music, giving each group the task of creating a story — with a beginning, middle, and end— to the music.

They attacked the task and all managed to pull together a story — largely consisting of some kind of superhero or galactic battle at either a wedding or dance.

Next week — screen tests and rough drafts. Woo-hoo!