There’s a moment in Skate Kitchen, a drama following the lives of teenagers on the margins who share a passion for skateboarding, that encapsulates what it’s like to be a teenage girl living in the #MeToo era.
In the film, which debuted in theaters Friday, a group of girls exchange a flurry of horrific experiences on a subway train. Indigo (Ajani Russell) rehashes her night with a boy, after which she woke up terrified next to him — they both had a bunch of scratches on their backs, and she didn’t know why. Indigo asks him about it and he brushes it off, even after she tells him it looks like she tried to fight him off her.
Then, her friend Quinn (Brenn Lorenzo) recounts a boy taking her hand and placing it between his legs while they were sitting on a bench. Indigo, completely fed up at this point, responds, “I’m going to start doing that, putting their hand right here [gesturing to her crotch] and saying, ‘Daddy, what’s up?’ It’s like, feminism.”
This reaction may not seem like the most progressive response to the situation, but it does show just how prevalent sexual assault is among teens — and how they often don’t have the words or the power to adequately confront it. Skate Kitchen is just one recent example of how TV and films for and about teens have grappled with sexual assault, amplifying voices of a young generation that have long gone unheard. These are young people who are being forced to react to situations in which they feel helpless and may not understand.
More than 40% of middle school students experience sexual harassment at the hands of their peers, according to Science X. And approximately one-fifth of high school girls actually report being physically or sexually abused in their romantic relationships. Those statistics have a major impact when you consider Eighth Grade, a film in which the introverted Kayla (Elsie Fisher) feels compelled to shake off an awkward sexual experience in the backseat of a car. A male peer from her school named Riley (Daniel Zolghadri) invites her out and gets more than a little handsy with her, apparently to make her more comfortable with sex so she can approach her high school crush with confidence.
Riley stops his advances when an uncomfortable Kayla tells him to. He’s clumsy about it, though, because the moment ends abruptly and he’s left sitting there rejected and perturbed. Kayla especially feels odd about it because she desperately wants a friend and doesn’t want to jeopardize that by pushing him away. She’s almost apologetic — like so many girls and women, she’s expected to be accommodating even when that’s not reciprocated. Ultimately, her yearning for friendship is what compels her to forgive what happened.
Like in Skate Kitchen, the incident seems more like a rite of passage for Kayla and many other teens like her, something she must endure and quickly forget. She doesn’t see it as a larger problem to confront because it’s never been vocalized as one. Maddy Eichenberg, an 18-year-old who the New York Times interviewed in April about #MeToo, seemed to agree with that notion.
“It’s just something high school girls know they have to deal with,” Eichenberg said at the time.
This lack of understanding of how to talk about sexual assault and its significance is also what complicates the narrative of the Netflix high school drama 13 Reasons Why. In both seasons one and two, the show’s young protagonists are forced to reckon with the bullying, social pressure and sexual assault that led Hannah (Katherine Langford) to commit suicide. Her death compels them to put into words their own ordeals, moments they skirted past because they’ve been conditioned to do so — because they don’t feel there’s a space to discuss it. It is something Aria Bendy, 15, echoed in a conversation with Youth Radio in 2017.
“As teenagers, as much as being woke is a trend right now, some things we just don’t want to talk about because we feel like we don’t have a place to talk about it,” she said.
In season two of 13 Reasons Why, Jessica (Alisha Boe) is urged to come forward about her own rape in an effort to vindicate Hannah, who is posthumously shamed for being a so-called promiscuous teen who got too close to their school’s popular football star Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice). Jessica, a cheerleader who harbored her assault for the sake of her emotional health as well as her reputation, must wrangle with the idea of being seen as the hero who breaks the piercing silence around her or moving forward with her life publicly unscathed. This illuminates a common plight teen victims face — to speak out or get over it. As these portrayals highlight, they often choose to stay quiet.
What it often comes down to for so many girls is having the power to claim their sexuality on their own terms — undefined and unmanipulated by their male counterparts. Even something as seemingly innocent as bragging about a consensual sexual experience is insensitive, as is the case in the Netflix comedy On My Block that focuses on a quartet of young friends in South Central Los Angeles.
In On My Block, Monse (Sierra Capri) is completely humiliated when Cesar (Diego Tinoco), the guy she’s been secretly dating, tells everyone they slept together, giving her no authority over her own experience. Though he says he does this with good reason — to protect her from his gangster older brother Oscar (Julio Macias), who wants her for himself — Monse is still offended because her sexuality is used as leverage with neither her knowledge nor consent. When she approaches Cesar about this, he’s confused by her outrage. He thinks he’s helping her avoid a disaster, but he actually makes her feel like a sexual possession he’s claimed for himself.
TV and films portray the toxic culture that still prevails in today’s #MeToo era. But they also highlight the powerless and very specific positions in which teenage girls find themselves when confronted with sexual situations they may still be struggling to understand. Teens don’t always have the tools or the language to interpret moments like these; instead, they’re often suppressed and disenfranchised in the movement.
Correction: Aug. 16, 2018
A previous version of this story misidentified the name of one of the characters in Eighth Grade. The reference has been updated.