Saturday, June 12, 2021

ATX Festival Recap: Growing Up is Hard to Do [Contributor: Jenn]


I know that a lot of people make fun of YA, whether they dismiss novels or television shows centered on young protagonists as "low brow," but I've always found that odd. Young adult novels, films, and television shows are often some of the most poignant pieces of entertainment. They focus on characters who aren't yet jaded by the world but who are desperately trying to find their place in it and uncover a deeper sense of belonging. Coming-of-age stories are powerful and I'm glad that ATX Television Festival had a panel devoted to them this year.

This particular panel featured showrunners and writers Gina Fattore and Tracey Wigfield, as well as young adult actors Michael Cimino and Kaylee Bryant who talked about the significance of YA stories in media.


Tracey talked about why she loves writing for television shows with young adult characters: because everything is high stakes and “decisions in the characters’ lives are not locked down yet.” Gina Fattore, who also wrote for Dawson's Creek, is the sole Gen-X member of the panel who noted that there weren't always a lot of shows on television made specifically for teenage audiences like there are today. Both Gina and Tracey though talk about how there is no shame in watching young adult shows in your twenties, thirties, or even into later adulthood. 

Since Michael and Kaylee are a younger generation, their influences were things like iCarly, Drake & Josh, and The Vampire Diaries. "I liked that these teens who were in high school ... had to handle these insane issues on their own," Kaylee said.

In spire of the fact that all of the panelists work on different types of shows, they recognize that there are common themes that thread throughout their shows: their characters are deciding, most for the first time, who they are and what they value. Gina joked that she's spent her whole career writing for teenagers whether on Dawson's Creek, Gilmore Girls, or Parenthood because they just keep pulling her back in. And there truly is something magnetic about watching young adults come into their own and fall in love for the first time, explore their hobbies and interests, and form who they will eventually become. Tracey noted that working on workplace comedies about people in their thirties, you don't get that opportunity; those people are already formed and shaped by their previous experiences. Working on a show writing for teenagers allows that fluidity.

And that's why so many people are drawn to the coming-of-age stories: they transcend age groups and pull us in because every time is like a new, first time we experience someone's formative journey. Michael noted that people watch YA shows to feel seen, whether it's to feel something, to relate to someone's journey, or to understand young adults as parents/adults. 


Shows about YA protagonists also have a strong fanbase and get social media feedback, which is something unique: their audiences are the ones watching and responding to the show in real-time. Legacies star Kaylee Bryant noted that the show's fanbase has an incredible presence. She considers it to be a gift, especially when so many fans have approached her about how her character's pansexuality has helped them come out and be true to themselves. "That's been incredibly fulfilling because I didn't have queer representation growing up. The fact that my character is helping other people is incredible," she said.

Love, Victor star Michael affirmed that, talking about how years ago the only kind of queer representation you'd see on television was some sort of stereotype of a gay best friend. "The reception is really good because it ... shows that there's a market for LGBTQ stories. ... Everyone deserves to be represented on screen."

Switching gears to talk more about social media presence, writers, Tracey and Gina talk about how grateful they are for their casts and how incredible it is that the people they cast on the show, despite being young actors, often have huge social media followings and a lot of influence. Gina gives us all a wonderful throwback by talking about message boards and how writers couldn't respond to fans in real time since they were always writing multiple episodes ahead. There was no ability to have any sort of real-time response.

Tracey noted that the writers know the show they want to make and while they appreciate social media response, they often don't switch gears because of things they see posted. But one thing she truly appreciated, as did the rest of the writers, was positive feedback from trans teens who noted that they appreciated how Lexi (played by trans actress Josie Totah) was a powerful mean girl at school. 

"I want to see a gay romance where it's not about coming out. ... I think it would be cool to see ... more things in that space. I think we're entering that space," Michael noted. He pointed out that it's important to have YA shows that spur LGBTQ people and people of color to become writers, directors, and actors. If these shows can inspire them, then these shows are doing their jobs.


How do you know when a story is organic or being told well? Tracey said that it's important to have the right people in the room. There's a trans character on Saved By the Bell and it's important that there was a trans writer in the room, in addition to there being diversity throughout the rest of the room. While the YA actors themselves don't often get consulted about storytelling, Tracey did note that Josie had been curious about the process so she'd been sitting in the writers' room in the show's second season.

Gina said that it's important to have communication between actors and writers just so that she's able to craft the realistic portrayal of who the character actually is. Kaylee and Michael affirmed that it's important for the writers and actors to just have open lines of communication so writers can ask questions about the characters that only the actors may know answers to (for example, Kaylee noted that she was consulted as a queer woman since a straight man was writing the episode).

Overall, this panel was filled with lovely conversations and information about young adult characters and the way stories get crafted about them. And ultimately YA media resonates with all of us for different reasons. Whether it's helping us understand the world or allowing us to escape back to a time when we didn't have as much baggage as we do now, I'm grateful for YA stories and their impact on our media landscape!


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