Media must stop asking youth activists to ‘save the world’

Why should it be the responsibility of teenagers to “save the world” in the first place?

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The past few years have seen young people around the globe emerging as leaders in the fight for transformative change—on issues ranging from climate change to gun violence to gender equality.

Because stories of youth resistance are powerful and deserve to be told, it’s time to reevaluate the way that media have been telling them. Why are some young activists granted international fame, while others, despite organizing in their communities for years, struggle to make their voices heard? Who looks out for the well-being of young people “elevated” into the spotlight of corporate media celebrity? Why should it be the responsibility of teenagers to “save the world” in the first place? And what wisdom is lost when intergenerational organizing is overlooked?

These are questions worth asking for the sake of young activists and the future of movements—which are really the same thing.

Singling out a ‘last hope’

When writer Tavi Gevinson was 15 years old, she founded Rookie, a feminist-minded magazine for teenage girls. Shortly after Rookie’s launch, Gevinson remembers scrolling through her phone at school and having a panic attack after seeing an article that referred to her as “Girl Power’s Last Hope.”

“That felt like so much responsibility,” Gevinson said. “One person can’t be the face of feminism.”

Youth activists from the Fridays for Future movement.
Original photograph of climate activist Vanessa Nakate (left) with colleagues Isabelle Axelsson, Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer and Loukina Tille.

Greta Thunberg, as a Swedish 15-year-old, became the public face of the school climate strike movement in 2018. While allowing all manner of hateful, absurd insults, media simultaneously laud Thunberg as the “voice of the planet” (CBS, 8/13/19),  while young organizers of color doing equally laudable work receive far less media recognition, even when they come from communities that are already facing the consequences of climate disruption.

This proactive neglect was made glaringly evident when the Associated Press published a picture of Thunberg alongside three white climate activists at the World Economic Forum in 2020. Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate was cropped out of the photo,  and her comments from the press conference were not included in the article.

Upon discovering the omission, Nakate said that she felt “sad and worthless,” and condemned media for disregarding voices from the Global South in favor of news that would sell, adding that “Africans have truly been erased from the global map of climate action.”

Climate youth activists with Vanessa Nakate cropped out by AP.
The same photo as published by AP (1/24/20), with Nakate cropped out.

Xiye Bastida, a 19-year-old Mexican/Chilean climate activist based in New York, has faced similar erasure, even as someone who has received far more media attention than many of her peers. In her words, she is one of the “Indigenous peoples [who] have been defending their territories, ecosystems and biodiversity for thousands of years.” Despite her unique perspective, media have repeatedly dubbed her “the Greta Thunberg of the United States” (PBS, 9/19/19; Bulletin, 11/26/19; Today News Africa, 4/22/21).

Nine-year-old climate activist Licypriya Kangujam, who has also been on the receiving end of such coverage, noted: “If you call me ‘Greta of India,’ you are not covering my story. You are deleting my story.”

Despite Thunberg’s attempts to draw attention away from herself and towards the climate movement as a whole, Bastida and Kangujam are far from the only youth activists who have had their work diminished by lazy journalism. In December of 2019, Bastida attended the UN Climate Change Conference with young environmental advocates from over 50 countries. “One of them asked, ‘who here has been called the Greta Thunberg of their country?’’’ she said. “Everyone raised their hands.”

Of course, for every young activist who has been publically compared to Thunberg, there are thousands more around the world whose vital community work will never be acknowledged by media.

Myopic focus

New York: David Hogg
David Hogg on the cover of New York magazine (8/20/18).

Media’s myopic and homogeneous portrayal of organizing is not limited to the climate movement. After the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students founded the #NeverAgain movement to demand gun reform from legislators. In the months that followed, white student activists, including Cameron Kasky, David Hogg, Jacyln Corin and Delaney Tarr, landed magazine covers and primetime interview slots.

They too attempted to share their platform; a month after the shooting, they collaborated with The Peace Warriors, a group of  predominantly Black youth activists from Chicago, whose longtime campaigns against gun violence had been ignored by media.

Still, Black Parkland students reported feeling “underrepresented” and “misrepresented” in media stories about Parkland. When they organized a press conference to demand more coverage, only around ten media outlets showed up, most of which were local.

“We started noticing that a lot of Black people didn’t know that Black kids go to Douglas,” said Tyah-Amoy Roberts, one of the students who spoke at the press conference. “They didn’t know that this affected Black people. They kind of saw it as this white issue, because all they saw were the white kids that were advocating for it.”

In reality, gun violence includes street violence and police killings, and disproportionately affects communities of color, who have been organizing around the issue for years. By focusing only on a few young activists, media fail to portray the intersectionality and complexities of the issue—which can result in “solutions” that actually do harm to marginalized students, like increased police presence at schools.

Burden of the spotlight

For the activists who do manage to secure coverage, the platform comes with an endless barrage of scrutiny, hate speech and death threats. Even when they willingly seek out the spotlight to draw attention to their cause, being a teenager tasked with saving the world can be emotionally exhausting, especially when media show little regard for their mental health and well-being.

BBC: Cameron Kasky: How being a student gun control activist took its toll
Cameron Kasky (BBC, 2/13/19): “I spent so long in front of cameras that I forgot how to be a person.”

Few people know this better than Cameron Kasky, a survivor of the Parkland shooting and a founder of the March For Our Lives (MFOL) movement. In the months after the massacre, he and his peers found themselves on television almost 24/7—so often that Kasky once joked they were being “passed around [by media] like an STD in Florida State University.”

In a 2019 interview with the BBC (2/13/19), Kasky reflected on stepping down from MFOL and the toll of being in the spotlight as a 17-year-old, saying:

I think the concept that I could make gun control happen was seductive. And I started to see myself as the person that could make gun control happen. As if it was me. Not as if it was a large push for legislative change in this country. I had this messiah-like concept that I could do this. And I got so high off of that.

Over time, the unrelenting media coverage exacerbated Kasky’s struggles with PTSD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. “I spent so long in front of cameras that I forgot how to be a person,” he said. “I spent so long feeling like I was an avatar. Feeling like my body was saying things and doing things—my mind was just cut off.”

Kasky wasn’t the only teen activist from Parkland to look back on certain elements of their media appearances with regret. “We fucked up interacting with [media] like that,” Emma González said in the 2020 documentary Us Kids. “Not understanding where we can say no, and where we can say yes.”

Pressure on a pedestal

Even when young activists aren’t survivors of trauma, the pressure of being placed on a pedestal by enthusiastic reporters and well-meaning adults can become a heavy burden to bear.

Cultured: Rowan Blanchard Is Thinking Out Loud
Rowan Blanchard (Cultured, 2/10/20): “I needed my life to be about being a person.”

In 2015, 13-year-old Disney star Rowan Blanchard gave a speech about gender equality at the UN Women’s Conference. Soon after, the actress began using her platform to educate her followers on issues like LGBTQ+ rights, gun violence and the Syrian civil war, earning her a reputation as the “new voice of a generation.”

After Blanchard came out as queer online, she says the attention began to feel “uncomfortable” and “voyeuristic.” Five years after she began speaking out, she announced that she no longer identified as an activist. In an interview with Cultured magazine (2/10/20), Blanchard elaborated on her decision, saying:

Now that my brother is the age that I was when I started speaking out, I would never give him the mic to talk in the way that I was. I had to process everything in real time, and it became hard to keep up with it…. I just look back and ask, “How much can a child consent to all of this?” I needed my life to be about being a person.

The public eye is particularly perilous for teenage girls, who are thrust into what journalist Lauren Messervey calls “a patriarchal power structure that insists that if you’re old enough to fight for the environment, you’re old enough to be a sexual object.”

Thunberg has often been victim to violent harassment from right-wingers; last year, a Canadian oil company circulated a sticker of her engaged in a non-consensual sex act. Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump aide, has referred to her as “thunder thighs.”

Delaney Tarr, a gun reform activist and survivor of the Parkland shooting, shared her own experiences with being objectified in a series of tweets from 2019, saying:

A specific phenomenon to being a female activist in the public field is a RAMPANT sexualization, no matter the age…. I know this experience firsthand! And so do my peers! I can’t even tell you how many people would simultaneously say they want me dead and they want to f**k me. It’s disgusting and it’s so prevalent.

For some young people, being idolized by adults with good intentions can be equally damaging. As a teenager, feminist blogger Tavi Gevinson was praised as “the icon for an activist generation.” As a 24-year-old, she views the media emphasis on youth empowerment through a new lens.

“Youth does carry currency, which can be mistaken for power,” Gevinson wrote in a recent essay for The Cut (2/23/21). “If you are a woman, however, this currency is not on your terms.”

Being labeled a prodigy in her youth ultimately gave her the impression that she was too exceptional to be taken advantage of, even while she was in abusive relationships with far older men. “I…struggled to see the power dynamics at play because I held fast to the assertion that teen girls are as intelligent and capable as anyone else,” Gevinson wrote. “I had built a career on it.”

Then there is the question of what happens when young activists grow up.

When Rayne Fisher-Quann was a teen, she led one of the largest protests in Canadian history. “I was basically a professional teenage girl. You would not write about me without putting the word youth in front of my name,” Fisher-Quann told Teen Vogue (3/5/21). “It’s terrifying to think about, what happens when you age out of that? When what you’re doing is no longer impressive because you’re not 16 anymore?”

Misunderstanding organizing

Media’s youth-centric and individualized vision of organizing is detrimental not only to young people but to movements as a whole. By its very nature, movement building is a collaborative pursuit—one that is rooted in thousands of ordinary people coming together and demanding change, not just a few chosen heroes.

Teen Vogue: Generation Wars Between Boomers, Millennials, and Gen Z Are a Distraction
Priya Dalal-Whelan (Teen Vogue, 4/28/21): “America’s structural crises are harmful to people of all ages—and have been for centuries.”

By devaluing the wisdom and experience of elders in favor of uplifting a handful of teen activists for clicks, media underplay the collective power that can come from intergenerational cooperation.

When it comes to organizing, people from every age group bring unique gifts to the table. With age often comes access to institutional infrastructures and financial resources, as well as a deeper understanding of history. Adults’ grounding in past movements can also make them powerful mentors for young activists, especially those who are experiencing burnout for the first time.

Meanwhile, Gen Z is the most diverse generation in American history, with a more innate understanding of intersectionality than previous generations. They also possess the energy, drive and radical optimism necessary for challenging the status quo—particularly because current political developments will continue to shape their lives in the coming decades.

We have seen the power of intergenerational collaboration innumerable times in recent years: In Chicago, students, teachers, parents and grandparents have repeatedly joined forces to save public schools. In New Jersey, a movement of undocumented people, including middle-aged organizers, children and young adults, successfully secured driver licenses for all. More recently, a Minneapolis janitors’ union teamed up with a youth climate organization to demand better wages and benefits, along with green-cleaning training from their employers. Working together, the coalition was able to win all of their demands.

Despite these victories, media insists on subjecting readers to countless articles on the phrase “OK Boomer” and clashes between Gen Z and millennials, fueling manufactured generational wars that serve no one.

In a recent Teen Vogue article (4/28/21), climate activist Priya Dalal-Whelan points out that the “adults failed youth” narrative is a lie. In fact, the failure can be pinned on a select few—the wealthy and powerful elites who have chosen to exploit the planet and its people for profit, withholding justice in favor of preserving empire.

“All generations have people who will try to perpetuate racial capitalism and those who will fight it,” she said.

Media often pushes the opposite narrative, pinning the responsibility on youth alone—but in the struggle for liberation, individual young people will not save us. For movements to succeed, people of all ages must step up and choose to save each other.

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