Symbols of Youth: The Things That Define Us

The year is 2008, I am 7 years old playing with my Ben 10 toys in my room, life is good. Nine years later it is 2017, I am 16, Brockhampton have just released their album Saturation II, I spend the next week listening to it, staring blankly at my ceiling, gripped with anxiety regarding the future. As we grow our tastes change, and the things we cling onto that define our own self identity do as well. This specific dichotomy can be observed in the short films Adam, Cobalt Blue and I’m Not Your F***ing Stereotype. These films sit firmly within the coming of age genre and the symbols of youth the protagonists interact with in the form of toys and music, serve to characterise them and their larger struggle.

(Toys in Adam dir. Shoki Lin, 2019 and Cobalt Blue dir. Aung Phyoe, 2019)

In Adam and Cobalt Blue, as compared to I’m Not Your F***ing Stereotype, which follows a teenage girl, both films feature young boys as protagonists and the objects used to characterise their struggle are toys. In Adam, the film begins with the protagonist, Adam playing with his toy car, which in its striking red colour, is controlled to fall down stairs, then, is picked up to fall again. This action can initially be interpreted by the viewer of one borne out of boredom, a futile task he repeats until his car shatters. It is only later that the audience gains the context of Adam’s abusive home life and realises that act of playing provides him with a source of escapism, a symbol of his innocence that is smothered at home. 

(Maryam’s room in I’m Not Your F***ing Stereotype dir. Hesome Chemamah, 2019)

In Cobalt Blue, the symbolic use of the protagonists toys are used in a more subtle manner. In a single scene the film’s protagonist, a young boy, is seen slouched next to a wall playing a handheld water ring game that many of us can remember from our youth. The camera focuses on the game as colourful hoops swing around until one lands on a stick, the shot is then reversed as we see a smile gradually fill the boys face. However, the focus then shifts as the camera glides to the left, capturing the quiet struggle of his mother, packing their things in their transitional period of moving out of Yangon. In this case the child’s toy is also used to symbolise escapism, but it serves to insulate him from the struggles of those around him.

As we grow older we seek a sense of escapism in things other than toys, in perhaps music. This change is interest is best seen in I’m Not Your F***ing Stereotype, as what defines Maryam’s struggle is not an object she interacts with but the music that scores her journey.

(Left to Right: Matangi by MIA, 2013, Oracular Spectacular by MGMT, 2008, Oil of Every Pearls Un-insides by SOPHIE, 2018)

The film features licensed music from the artists MIA, MGMT and SOPHIE, making up what would be a killer Spotify playlist but also an accurate reflection of what a teenager like Maryam would be listening to. For teenagers, the music we consume reflects our mood, helping us rationalise our own emotions, music in the film is used in very much the same way. The film opens with a montage recounting Maryam’s life and the rise of global terrorism and Islamaphobia, blaring in the background is the MIA song Bad Girls, with the infectious hook “Live fast die young bad girls do it well”. On a surface level the song acts as the soundtrack for Maryam’s stewing rebellion against her prescribed sense of identity. However, on a contextual level the life of MIA, whose government name is Matangi Arulpragasam, is startlingly similar to Maryam’s, being  displaced by conflict, namely, the Sri Lankan Civil War, acting today as a political activist. It is easy to see the link director, Hesome Chemamah, sees between MIA and his protagonist, and perhaps why Maryam would identify with her music as an outlet to vent her frustrations.

Early in the film Maraym’s mother remarks to her “Insolent! You’re acting like people with no religion listening to music”. This characterises the crux of Maryam’s struggle with her religious identity, to choose between living a life according to her religion, or be influenced by the ways of society like music. This conflict makes her act of rebellion all the more compelling as Maryam’s removal of her hijab is scored by the soaring MGMT banger Kids. However, a great sense of irony is communicated as her moment of rebellion is scored by a song about self control and regulation, featuring the chorus “Control yourself, take only what you need from it”. The contradictory nature of the song with the scene highlights the complicated nature of Maryam’s self identity, despite making the attempt to strip herself of her religious identity, she is still portrayed as deeply confused by the end of the film.

The film ends with Maryam sitting silently in a bus contemplating her identity, as the atmospheric song Pretending by SOPHIE plays. The song draws us into her introspective state, but our understanding of the scene can be enriched by the context of the song itself. SOPHIE is a Scottish transgender artist whose music tackles ideas of personal and gender identity. The song Pretending, features almost inaudible vocals stating “I was just pretending, pretending, pretending, yeah, pretending”. In the context of I’m Not Your F***ing Stereotype, these lyrics echo Maryam’s own emotional journey as the audience is left to contemplate whether her acts of rebellion are facsimile attempts to conform or are out of a genuine desire for change. The ways SOPHIE dissects identity hence, reflect on Maryam’s own emotions and her attempts to parse out her sense of self. 

In conclusion, in Adam, Cobalt Blue and I’m Not Your F***ing Stereotype, symbols portray how characters process their own emotions in their youth. Toys in Adam and Cobalt Blue act as forms of escapism, to cling to a sense of innocence despite the harsh outside world. While music in I’m Not Your F***ing Stereotype, reflects how Maryam processes her own struggle with identity. The use of these symbols as such provides an insightful glimpse at how different things define us as we grow.

– Matthew Chan