Bo Burnham’s award-winning independent film, Eighth Grade, is such an authentic glimpse into the psychological portrait of Kayla Day (played by Golden Globe nominee for this film, Elsie Fisher). Kayla is a 13-year-old who is about to graduate middle school, and she’s certainly ‘coming of age’ in the digital age of American culture; a digital age that brings about positive and negative consequences, especially for young teenagers.
“I wanted to make a story about a young girl expressing herself online,” Burnham said during an interview on The View. “I wanted it to not feel like a memory; I didn’t want it to be a projection of my own experience. The disconnect is two-fold; I was never a 13-year-old girl, and I was never a 13-year-old now. And I think both of those lend themselves to a specific experience.”
I think many of us can agree that middle school can be rough, to say the least. And while I didn’t have that particular brand of social anxiety that Kayla has in Eighth Grade (she has a hard time making friends and connecting with her peers), there were still bumpy moments — there were still growing pains. High school was definitely easier; however, I’d even make the claim that it wasn’t until my senior year where bouts of self-consciousness diminished, and I felt more comfortable amongst the cliques and the gossip. As I got older, I was able to ‘come out of my shell’ and participated a lot more in my classes.
Kayla is a young teen who, like other young teens, uses the Internet to share her thoughts and feelings. She posts self-help videos on Youtube, where she legitimately discusses vulnerability and how it could be hard to be yourself when you’re afraid others won’t like or accept you. And even though this character is frequently struggling with such matters, even though she feels “nervous all the time,” these videos are her cathartic outlet. These videos are her personal means of talking herself difficult social scenarios, whether it’s tips on how to be more confident or advice on how to ‘put yourself out there’ with your peers, in the hopes that friendships can develop. In this instance, technology is her ‘safe space,’ her go-to place to share what she is going through, not only to help herself navigate through these hard feelings but to potentially help others who are going through similar situations as well.
But of course, technology has its cons and it’s a double-edged sword that kids are dealing with at a much younger age now. (Just for some perspective, I was in high school when texting became popular — SnapChat, Instagram, and Youtube were not platforms that were used back in my middle school days.) And it’s in this digital world where Kayla feels the plight of loneliness.
We see this manifest when she tries to talk to the popular girls at school who are plugged into their phones and won’t give her the time of day. And we also see Kayla’s loneliness kick into gear when she is alone in her bedroom at night, scrolling through all the feeds on her phone; she sees her classmates post pictures and selfies that dictate their happiness, and all she can do is compare her life to her peers.
“I think (social media) makes us much more self-aware,” Fisher said on The View. “And that probably leads to a lot of anxiety, because no one is really narcissistic on the Internet, we’re all just trying to fit in I think, and we’re all posting photos of ourselves because that’s what everyone does. So it’s more of a shield, but that can make you anxious, just observing yourself and observing others watching you.”
Burnham likens social media anxiety to performance anxiety, and he relayed that he felt similar anxieties as a stand-up comedian on stage as well. “I thought my anxiety was so tied to my specific experience, which was I was a 25-year-old male comedian with an audience,” Burnham said. “And I would talk about those problems on stage and 14-year-old girls would come up to me after the show and say ‘I feel exactly like you do.’”
He advocates that this version of performance anxiety and stage fright has truly become a staple in young kids’ lives since they feel as if they’re performing on a stage all the time — in school, but also within the prevalent platforms of social media, too.
“As Eighth Grade highlights, there’s no going back to a pre-digital world,” the 2018 Pop Matters article, “Social Media and Identity Formation in Bo Burnham’s Film, Eighth Grade,” stated. “What matters is how we use digital media to fashion and frame our ever-shifting self, and how we use media to create new meanings and forge new communities.”
Bo Burnham’s recent film, Eighth Grade, is currently being talked about as an impactful film that genuinely showcases what an eighth-grader might be going through during a challenging time in their personal life, a time which also parallels with the ups and downs of digital media in today’s society.
For all the tough days, though, I really liked what Fisher’s character had to say in the film; a piece of advice that signifies a hopeful message for those who relate to her journey: “Just cause things are happening to you right now, it doesn’t mean they’re always going to happen to you.”
A poignant reminder, indeed.