Courtesy of A24

November 18, 2020

LU | Becoming the Main Character

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As of the last few months, both TikTok and I have had a resurging fascination with the “main character trend.” Instructional and satirical TikToks keep populating my For You page, instructing me how to be the protagonist of my own life by creating playlists to become the soundtrack of my morning routine or by wearing specific combinations of patterns, prints and textures that straddle the border of mainstream disapproval and being just mismatched enough to still look cohesive — and cute.

The main character trend stems from the coming of age genre, mostly in movies and TV shows, where the young protagonist is figuring out both life and who they are. But this genre seems as old as the bildungsroman, its book-form cousin, so why the sudden upsurge in its desirability? 

On a place like TikTok where every subgenre seems to have a home — and a dedicated family — I’m not surprised that a generally enjoyable genre of entertainment would gain such traction. (After all, if Ratatouille fans are writing a whole musical, complete with choreography and marketing materials, then this feels more plausible than normal.)

Marking my personal dive into coming of age movies, however, would have to include the context of the pandemic. Since coming home in March, I’ve spent over eight months at home — over eight months of time spent in rooms decorated by my sixth grade self (filled with my elementary school graduation mementos and a Hunger Games poster) and bookshelves of chapter books. Perhaps my version of “reverting back to my high school self” wasn’t so much about interests, habits or personality, but the nostalgia of it.

Part of the charm of coming of age movies and shows are their specificity in time and place. Ladybird and The Half of It are both characterized by their small-town settings, contrasting Ladybird and Ellie’s aspirations against the smallness of their immediate surroundings. Both films are led by the arc of high school senior year and the question mark of hope, uncertainty, and new potential that come with college applications and the imminent change of the future. In contrast, Frances Ha is set in New York City and revolves around post-grad life and juggling one’s passions and dreams with the reality of adulting.

But even though these movies follow characters in different life stages, there is something important about referential time in watching and re-watching coming of age movies. When I first saw Ladybird, I was also a senior in high school and I found the act of watching to also be of identification and projection — I could relate to her experiences of craving change and wanting to leave my hometown. However, my year was filled with a fraction of the turbulence and excitement that hers was, so it also became a way for me to vicariously experience things. Rewatching it this year, nearly three years since leaving high school, felt like I was looking back and ruminating through my own memories. It wasn’t necessarily reliving or revising my past, but through the same act of association, I had mentally or emotionally tied Ladybird to a specific point in my personal timeline as well.

The likability of coming of age movies is easy to understand, but how has it spawned into a Gen-Z obsession with being the main character? Is it an act of narcissism and self aggrandizing or one of reclamation and futurism — especially for people who don’t see themselves represented as on-screen main characters? 

Part of the main character trend pitfalls into an obsession with being different, and using one’s individualism — whether it’s in fashion and self expression, habits, or even taste — as cultural currency. A quick Google search might also lead to “Main Character Syndrome,” the living out of a fictitious reality in which the world revolves around the ‘main character.’ These aspects aren’t to be written off as extremities, but they are also symptoms of a selfish and/or self-obsessed personhood, not necessarily unique to a ‘main character.’ 

What the main character trend does bring to light, however, is the ability for one to reclaim agency in one’s own life. In the midst of the ongoing pandemic and a presidential transition (amongst, I’m sure, other stressors), having the ability to take pride in small actions like how one dresses or what music one listens to can be an assurance against the everyday flux. Romanticizing mundane tasks can be a propellant for enjoying what little we can hold on to. Being the protagonist in one’s own life may seem obvious to some, but for the ones who feel unworthy of monologuing or too insignificant to be in their own limelight, becoming one’s own main character can be an act of empowerment — of seizing permission, rather than waiting for it to be granted.

Cecilia Lu is a junior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. She can be reached at zcl5@cornell.edu. Breathing Room runs alternate Thursdays this semester.