The recently-released movie Booksmart seems like the stuff feminist dreams are made of—but despite a 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it had a disappointing box office opening. The comedy showed at over 2,500 theaters over its debut weekend, but brought in only $8.7 million, which suggests that Generation Z viewers might not identify with overtly feminist protagonists as much as we might have expected.
The wild popularity of comedic duos like Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams in “2 Dope Queens” and Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson in “Broad City” suggest 20- and 30-somethings are all for stick-it-to-the-man humor. High schoolers may be less comfortable with it—as many are presumably still focused on basic social norming, or figuring out what the “norm” is and conforming to it as best they can.
Studies show that the young women and girls of Gen Z are likely eager to fit themselves into the mold that will give them the strongest sense of belonging. Developing an authentic identity that may cause them to stand out often requires a level of confidence they may not have yet developed. Instead, they’re likely focused on appearing Effortlessly Perfect—as though their grades, looks, athleticism and popularity are all maintained with ease.
Caring too much or trying too hard is the cardinal sin for teenage girls—but Booksmart protagonist Molly, played by Beanie Fieldstein, isn’t like them.
Molly refuses to bend to a stereotypically-cool-niche to fit in, opting instead to be unabashedly ambitious and outspoken. She is not one to hide the great deal of effort she puts into her studies and extracurriculars. And she is bullied for this. Someone draws a line through the C and L in her parking spot label: “Class President.” She overhears students calling her a “but-her-personality”—as opposed to a “but-her-face”—in the bathroom.
I related to Molly. When I was a young woman in my mid-twenties, me and my friends were unfairly stereotyped and ridiculed in class and the workplace. But it is understandable why 14-to-18-year-olds may feel a stronger impulse to differentiate themselves from Molly than to identify with her, which perhaps explains why they did not flock to see Olivia Wilde’s debut film as a director exploring progressive themes like female sexuality, the patriarchy and likability.
The opening scene includes snapshots around Molly’s room—showing what is essentially a shrine to strong female change-makers like Michelle Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Gloria Steinem. Later on, in the room of the other protagonist Amy, played by Kaitlyn Dever, hand-made posters that were obviously used in various protests line the walls. “Science Not Silence,” they screamed. “Black Lives Matter.” “My Body My Choice.”
These are young women who care deeply about causes, and who care about their academics enough to give up partying and an established social life to secure success in their courses. They are not Effortlessly Perfect.
The main plot of the movie is the girls struggling with this paradox. Molly’s absolute sureness in herself comes crushing to a halt when she realizes she only accomplished one half of the “work hard, play hard” equation. She was under the impression that she had crossed the finish line in first place, as valedictorian and a soon-to-be Yale University undergrad. That finish line moves when she realizes that two girls with a reputation for partying also got into Yale and Harvard, and a guy she had always written off as a jock was going to Stanford.
Molly: “Nobody knows we are fun… We missed out… We didn’t party because we wanted to focus on school and get into good colleges.”
Amy: “And it worked.”
Molly: “The irresponsible people who partied also got into those colleges…. We haven’t done anything. We haven’t broken rules.”
The partiers headed for Ivy League schools are examples of the Effortless Perfection myth—the notion plaguing GenZers that having the perfect life, looking perfect and achieving every dream imaginable, can all happen without hard work.
For a book I am writing on the aftermath of Effortless Perfection, I have interviewed more than 30 female undergrads at 15 small, private colleges and large public universities. Almost all the women I spoke with talked about feeling like it was not enough to just be valedictorian or prom queen—instead, you had to metaphorically be both.
One female student at High Point University explained that she needed to prove the rules of hard work did not apply to her: that she could go out every night and party hard, but still show up to class the next day and do well on every test and assignment, while somehow having time to make it to the gym. She wanted to prove she could do everything in excess and nothing in moderation.
The seeds of Effortless Perfection can begin in middle school or high school, the timing and setting in Booksmart. The characters in the film are headed to college, one after a gap year in Botswana, where Effortless Perfection reaches a crescendo for many. But what most of these characters have yet to fully discover is that this phenomenon creates a maelstrom of inauthenticity and discord.
When all individuals within a community choose to present themselves in accordance with the same overly publicized mold—only highlighting the parts of themselves and their experiences that best fit that mold—perception becomes more important than being present.
Buying into the myth means only uploading the photos and videos highlighting the best of their nights out when they look the happiest, prettiest and most popular. They project that they are confident and have everything figured out when far too often they may not feel like that at all. The perceived norm in these instances is often a far more powerful force than the actual norm.
The way Molly and Amy overcome the pressures of Effortless Perfection by the end of the film, staying the best of friends and realizing they were right all along, is the ending GenZers need—but perhaps it is not one they are ready to accept.