Instep Today

Woke Watching

Instep Today
By Amina Baig
Sun, 05, 21

As with everything that needs to be ‘sold’, so does entertainment and content. And as with any item up for purchase, content too is created for and marketed at audience segments.

The easiest way to take a stab at getting to know someone better is no longer through their star sign or Hogwarts house or whether they like Atif Aslam or Ali Zafar. One only has to scan a birth year for things about the object of their interest to click into place. Gen X or Millennial or Gen Z? Sort your subject into one of these demographics and a peek into their very soul is just a Google search away.

Or you know, simply look at the cultural references they make and guess the generation (old Millennial: reporting for duty!).

As with everything that needs to be ‘sold’, so does entertainment and content. And as with any item up for purchase, content too is created for and marketed at audience segments. Of course, the hope would always be that your product has mass appeal, but sometimes it has to be on-the-nose and to-the-point.

What do you remember about growing up?

We’ve all heard stories from parents or older relatives about how only one family in the neighborhood owned a television and how gathering at their home on Thursday nights to catch the next episode of a beloved serial was a community-building ritual.

Older siblings romanticize watching sporting events telecast live to PTV at ungodly hours.

We’ve heard stories, seen memes, and Buzzfeed listicles that address the shared experience that was growing up as a millennial. Dial-up internet, MSN Messenger and Limewire can almost be the punchline to any Millennial joke.

Tail-end Millennials and Gen Z folk grew up in a consistently advancing digital world. Interestingly, while Millennials are more likely to pay for streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu, and 85 per cent of YouTube’s audience is made up of teens, the screen that is most popular with both generations is the smartphone screen. So regardless of age, we are all constantly connected to and consuming some kind of digital content.

But here’s the thing. While Gen Z comes of age in a world that is wireless, contactless, and just fantastically accessible, we have to remember that they still are coming of age. Younger Millennials are still tackling the many, many enigmas and hurdles of adulting. Life is still not easy, hearts are still breaking, dreams are still shattering; the world is still a terrible, beautiful place to live in.

Like anyone else at any point in time, we are all still trying to simultaneously make sense of what matters to us, talk about it in poignant ways and distract ourselves when it all gets too much.

Like our parents in the ‘60s, staring at a screen for 30 or more minutes at a time is sometimes the highlight of our week; our savior on a bad day.

Whom did you look up to while growing up?

A recent re-watch of ‘90s sitcom Two Guys And A Girl made me realize how utterly rubbish the messages imparted to ‘90s and early ‘00s teens and kids were. On the surface it’s a cool show about the eccentricities of Ryan Reynold’s character, his boring AF roommate and their black-hearted friend Sharon.

In a very bromance-y show, Sharon was portrayed as cold and calculating simply because she was ambitious. One plotline involved her boyfriend spending too much time with another girl because Sharon was ‘too busy’ with her job to be constantly available to him.

And of course, we don’t even have to mention how problematic the holy grail of TV romances, Ross and Rachel were. As a young teen or adult, did you ever find yourself totally accepting your boyfriend’s jealousy because FRIENDS taught you that’s what love looked like?

Let’s go back a bit in time and examine cult classic PTV serials such as Ankahi and Tanhayian. In the former, Sana Murad is a sassy, confident, self-sufficient adult woman who ultimately gives into being with her stalker-y harass-y frenemy, Faraz. Did this teach young women of the time that light harassment is actually flirtation? Did Zahra Ahmed in Tanhayian having to be punished for her ambition with an accident and subsequent dumping by her dishy fiance impress upon impressionable minds that a woman who wants to be wealthy and powerful is just setting herself up for disaster?

Let’s leap forward to the ‘00s and the absolute slew of TV serials that focused upon the following recipe:

1 chaste girl, wrongly accused

1 easily duped manchild

1 evil mother-in-law type

Pinch of evil female side character, inevitably westernized and ‘modern’

Mix well. Create several hit TV series. Launch Pakistan’s new darlings. Reiterate to women and men alike that women will forever have to prove their love and worth to the men in their lives. Feel a little sick in the pit of your stomach forever.

Why was this little history lesson important?

Each generation has had a slightly different experience with growing up. ‘80s babies came of age during Pakistan’s media boom. Suddenly they went from two basic TV channels to 75. They crossed over from a very Shariah-compliant childhood into an enlightened and moderate young adulthood. They just couldn’t believe their luck at being able to breathe a little easier albeit in a tumultuous political climate. And they found new avenues of expression and careers that weren’t accessible or thought legitimate before.

‘90s babies came of age in a Pakistan with exposure to more diverse brands, fashion, music, and cultures. With a lot of ridiculous – with ridiculous being the operative word here – stigmas removed from their paths, they found it easier to pay attention to issues beyond the immediate. And because they started talking about it, on platforms popular with older and younger demographics, the collective mind couldn’t help but pay attention.

Yes, we all care about equal rights, but we have never spoken about them so frequently or casually before. We have all cared about authenticity – in fact that’s one thing Millennials look for in the products and services they consume - but the outpouring of support for locally-produced or women-led ventures is unprecedented.

Regardless of generation, age, or which side of the skinny-jean-debate you stand on, you are forced to pay attention to the discourse about equality on your social media, in your local communities, and on your screens.

What memories are we creating for future generations?

To sum it up most succinctly: good ones (hopefully). Every generation is very aware of its limitations and traumas, and instead of following that script, we are now turning more towards canceling generational trauma.

Of course Gens Z and Alphas may well turn around in 20 years and talk about how their woke culture was plagued by the incel sub-culture, or how they just did not understand why Millennials were married to the side-part.

But the content that is coming alive on screens now is more and more promising. A detergent ad will promulgate the sharing of responsibilities between male and female family members. It is not just the wife in a chai ad who is making her work-weary husband tea when he comes home late; it is the other way around. Our long-form content too is looking at more than just traditional coming of age themes; it is taking into account the concerns and conversations of the audience is caters to.

Most recently, Moxie on Netflix unfolded a tale of a silent but raucous feminine revolution. The film, directed by Amy Poehler, doesn’t sweeten the teen dramedy with themes like ‘girls should be allowed to play on the boy’s football team’, or ‘girl works hard and studies hard to get into med school but then meets a prince’.

In fact, Moxie’s protagonist is so unlike the young women portrayed as rebellious or fighting for change in most teen movies, this may just flip the script for similarly quiet, mostly obedient young women in the audience. You don’t have to be a brash, bra-burning feminist with clever comebacks: you just have to care enough to do something.

And in this way, content like Moxie is bound to strike a chord with younger generations. Gen Z is more supportive of, and more vocal about causes such as the environment, equal racial and gender rights. While Gens X and Y focused on creating discourse around and creating opportunities for the gold having-it-all-standard, Gen Z doesn’t shy away from being more socially-minded and responsible for their communities.

We need to talk more, listen more, create more

So, if you stream on Netflix at all, you’ve probably watched Bombay Begums. If you haven’t, you’re not entirely missing out on a creative masterpiece, but definitely missing out on an interesting observation of the issues of equality we struggle with every day.

From aging to sexuality, social standing to women in the workplace, Bombay Begums attempts to address it all. Whether the 8-episode drama creates positive role models or not, it does create positive conversation opportunities.

We tend to sweep any issues pertaining to female sexuality or body under the rug. Menopause is considered shameful. As is your period. Being able to climb the corporate ladder is covetable, but so is embracing motherhood. In its messy way, Bombay Begums reminds us that women are still struggling to have it all, all the while being assaulted, undermined and gaslit.

The differentiator here is that the show lets us observe women at all stages of life. You may or may not agree with the artistic treatment of Bombay Begums, or the character-specific situations, but will agree with the collective experience of all the women that make up its narrative. Or at the very least, it may open debate about the various stories the show brings forward, and how applicable they are to the lives of the people you know.

So are we getting it right?

Yes and no. We can love the messages and themes of shows and movies like Bombay Begums or Moxie, but still succumb to our deeply-ingrained need for instant gratification in the form of bite-sized content. Would audiences with attention spans of eight to 12 seconds rather watch a 120-minute-long movie, a 54-minute-long episode or just skip through the boring or slow bits so they can understand the memes?

The messaging is taking shape. We are creating better role models and better expressions of the world around us. And of course, film and television always remain creative forces to reckon with. But considering the audiences these creative pursuits will increasingly cater to will help tailor content to their concerns, capabilities and quirks even better, thus distributing the messages or stories we want to bring to them more effectively.