‘I Am Not Okay With This’: Netflix’s New Telekinetic White Girl
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If I described a white girl with telekinetic abilities in a dress covered in blood you would think I was talking about Carrie White. Except in this case we’re talking about Sydney “Syd” Novak in Netflix’s latest comic book adaptation, “I Am Not Okay With This.”
“I Am Not Okay With This” is an interesting take on the superhero genre and has an impressive cast (finally, teenage characters being played by teenagers!), but it isn’t anything new. Since Stephen King’s 1974 novel “Carrie”, we’ve had “Matilda” (1988), Eleven from “Stranger Things” (2016), Jean Grey from “X-Men” (2000), and now Syd in “I Am Not Okay With This” (2020). The tone for these works are different but all focus on this idea of lonely young white girls who have psychic abilities. These characters can be considered powerful while still maintaining the fragile, delicate image that Hollywood has placed on its white women. In addition, most of the protagonists in these works look like the typical, regular “girl-next-door”. The reason this genre is so popular today is that the female adolescent audience can still relate to these characters in every other aspect beyond their abilities. “I Am Not Okay With This” is most similar to “Carrie” (1976) in terms of our protagonist’s social status, familial tension, and the consequences of their powers. In the 1976 film, Carrie is an adolescent girl being tormented by her peers for her naivety surrounding her body while her mother deems her body inherently sinful and continually accuses Carrie of being a witch. The hostility towards her body results in Carrie having telekinetic abilities, as her mind is the only thing she can rely on because of her negative association with her body.
Syd is also a loner and struggles with the pressure that is placed on young teenage girls as they mature. On the other hand, Carrie White weaponizes her power against all her classmates and intentionally inflicts damage to all around her, embracing her abilities without question. Throughout the series Syd has difficulty accepting this part of her and questions the origins of her powers until she learns about her father and why he passed. Rather than embrace what she’s learned, she avoids it which culminates in her inability to control herself in front of Brad and killing him. “I Am Not Okay With This” and “Carrie” use telekinetic abilities as a metaphor for different issues; for Carrie her abilities are really the result of demonizing the female anatomy and a lack of support. For Syd, her powers can be interpreted as living with mental illness and how difficult it is to share your experiences with others. The difference in what these superpowers represent is what distinguishes “I Am Not Okay With This” from the “Carrie” film.
“I Am Not Okay With This” examines the roller coaster of emotions of puberty in addition to having superpowers. While the protagonist Sydney Novak (played by Sophia Lillis) has telekinetic abilities and a heart-of-gold sidekick Stanley Barber (played by Wyatt Oleff), this series doesn’t have the same tone of most superhero shows. The usual superhero show like “The Flash” involves the protagonist being saddled with a superpower through some unusual event, deciding to use their abilities for the greater good and defeating the super villain, and falling in love all while keeping their superhero identity a secret. IANOWT places its focus on Syd’s inability to process her emotions, her fragile relationship with her family, and her distance from her classmates. Her superpowers occasionally come up, often when she’s upset, but overall we don’t get to learn a lot about why she has them or the extent of her powers. This show isn’t focused on her actual superpowers or using these powers for heroism, but rather how destructive and daunting mental illness can be. In episode 6 we learn a little more about Syd’s father, in which his experiences with mental health (described by Maggie, Syd’s mother) parallels Syd’s. The super abilities Syd has also serves as a metaphor for her mental illness as it can be destructive, isolating, and difficult to explain to others. Syd has difficulty opening up to people and when she does the reactions typically aren’t favorable, such as her mother telling her she’s “Aiming too high” when she confesses that she feels like the people she loves don’t love her back. The loneliness we feel when the people around us can’t understand our experience applies to Syd’s story, her father’s, and those living with mental illness. IANOWT does a good job in adding another layer into the superhero genre, as the only way for Syd to totally control and accept her powers is to heal from her trauma and find support from those around her.
There are times when the show feels repetitive with Syd’s inner dialogue and her pining over her best friend Dina (Played by Sofia Bryant). Dina happens to fall right into the “Token Black Friend” trope in which every aspect of her underdeveloped character revolves around Syd or Dina’s boyfriend Brad (Played by Richard Ellis). The characters that aren’t Syd or Stanley fall flat and seem to serve no purpose beyond moving the story forward. Dina is one dimensional as a character; her purpose in the story is to serve as Syd’s love interest slash best friend. There are moments between Syd and Dina that are intimate and tender; the two of them lying on the bed at the party or Dina putting makeup on Syd. These scenes should evoke something but it’s hard to empathize with Dina when we know nothing about her. She’s not given much characterization beyond Syd’s exposition. At one point a side character named Jenny is introduced for the sole purpose of stirring the pot. During detention she pressures the others to play Fuck-Marry-Kill just to provoke Syd, and then find out Brad conveniently cheated on Dina with Jenny at the party. While many anticipated a healthy portrayal of a queer relationship between Syd and Dina, the majority of the first season is spent with Syd getting mixed signals from Dina. It’s apparent that Syd is a queer woman but Dina’s sexuality remains a mystery, and the relationship between Syd and Dina feels a lot like queerbaiting. Hopefully season 2 will be longer and will expand on Dina’s character as well as explaining a bit more about the origins of Syd’s powers.
As a whole, the show drags on and little to nothing happens until the final episode of the season, in which Syd accidentally blows Brad’s head to bits at the school dance. We come back full circle where Syd is running down the street covered in blood (seen in the opening scene as she narrates her diary entry). The season attempts to end in a cliffhanger with a mysterious figure apparating behind Syd and saying “Let’s begin”, but you aren’t truly left in suspense because of the pace of the show and its lack of buildup. The potential “I Am Not Okay With This” has ultimately gets spoiled by its slow-paced scenes and a reliance on teen coming-of-age cliches that hinder the plot and its characters.
Although the show and its sub-genre feels repetitive and lacks diversity, we can still hold out hope that other creators might produce unique directions that haven’t been done yet. Yes, “I Am Not Okay With This” does have its flaws and cliches, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t curious to see what’ll happen in season 2.