As a society, our attitude to kids can be pretty messed up – doubly so when they’re troubled teens. Fortunately, science fiction is here to save the day. And fortunately for the people inhabiting fictional versions of London and Tokyo, the teens are here to save them.
When Empathy Fails
It’s difficult for us, as adults, to find the right balance with any kid. The desire to protect the vulnerable can turn into disempowering them, taking away their ability to make choices and take risks. But if we don’t protect them enough then we put them at risk. After all, everyone needs help once in a while, and the younger you are, the less experience you have to work with.
Still, our attitude to most young people is built around empathy and a desire to help them. That falls apart for some of those who need help the most – those in their teens in deprived areas. A combination of failed structures and lack of prospects can leave them with little hope and vulnerable to the lure of crime. They empower themselves in ways that aren’t good for people around them. As they start harming others through vandalism, theft or even petty territoriality, most of us start to see them as a threat. That’s not unfair – to us, our lives and our world views, they often are a threat. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t people worthy of empathy and representation. If our culture can make us empathise with Stringer Bell or Darth Vader, it can certainly do the same here.
Troubled Teens Make Great Heroes
Fortunately, there are stories that get this. They include two of my favourite sci-fi movies – Akira and Attack the Block.
In case you’re not familiar with them, Akira is a classic anime set in the city of Neo-Tokyo in the near future. A gang of teenage criminal bikers runs into a secret military experiment and a group of rebels looking to change the world. This draws their leader, 15-year-old Kaneda, down a path of unexpected and sometimes misguided heroism, all while retaining some of his obnoxious side.
Attack the Block, a low-budget British film, is set in a run-down London housing estate, and in particular the tower block at its heart. A group of teenage wannabe gangsters, fresh from mugging a nurse, run into the beginnings of an alien invasion. Their fight for survival turns into an unlikely attempt to save their community and by extension the world. Their leader, 15-year-old Moses, becomes a hero without ever rising above his outsider status.
One of the things I love about these two films is that common character thread. Both Moses and Kaneda have been dealt a shitty hand by life. Both have responded by empowering themselves through criminality. And when threatened by something monstrous, both respond not by passing the buck but by becoming heroes on their own terms. They never gain social approval. Unlike classic fantasy heroes, it doesn’t take a rise in status to enable or reward their heroics. They show that anybody can do worthwhile things.
Representative Vs Empowering
Of course, there are other stories that do this. Misfits, possibly the best British TV show so far this century, does a more realistic job of representing teens from such difficult backgrounds and their response to extraordinary circumstances. It’s less heroic and the characters are more real to their roots – also making them harder to empathise with for the middle-class audience TV drama focuses on.
While Misfits does a better job of showing this part of humanity as it is, Akira and Attack the Block show the potential in neglected young people. Like any heroic drama, they give us something to aspire to. Heroes for an abandoned corner of society.
This is why, out of the three, I like Attack the Block‘s approach to its characters the best. It doesn’t romanticise criminal delinquency in the way Akira does. It doesn’t focus on the shitty side of behaviour as much as Misfits. It says that what young petty criminals do is unacceptable, but that doesn’t make them unacceptable people. It’s a blend of nuanced and heroic that suits the film and its characters. It’s touching stuff.
Everybody deserves a chance to see themselves in science fiction. These films help to fill a gap in that, and they do it well.