Essay by Ekaterina (Katya) Ryzhikh for Contextualising Practice


The rise in the availability of technology and media as entertainment has had a profound impact on the experiences of growing up. While technology, in particular mobile phones and tablets, were not a significant part of my childhood film and television were a major form of comfort. In my adolescence, their importance grew, becoming a form of escapism. When immersing myself in the fictional world that had been created, it was easy to forget the outside world, whether it be the mundane routine of life or something upsetting. The relationship that I formed with key television shows and movies, in my formative teenage years, has shaped who I am. In this essay I will discuss this coming of age experience and how it has been envisioned in my practice. I will do this through an exploration of Petra Collins photographic practice and two of my collage works, If only I was older.. and I am not him, both of which directly address how television shaped by identity and processing of the world.

Entertainment has been an important vessel for conveying values and behaviours to an audience, with teenagers especially susceptible to their influence. This has been highlighted by a multitude of studies. For example Döring & Hillbrink (2015) found that adolescent viewers changed their values to match the protagonist of a film’s attitude towards older people depending on their level of education (Kubrak 2020). While the studies acknowledge that these changes in the teenager’s beliefs are only temporary, unless reinforced, others recognise the emotional connection and affinity younger audiences have with fictional characters in film or television arguing that they transcend time. When engaging in a story, audiences can form a social bond with characters, feeling real grief when a character dies (Wall Street Journal (Online) 9 November 2016). According to Falcón-Díaz-Aguado and Díaz-Aguado-Jalón (2014), being able to relate to fictional characters and see them go through trials and tribulations is considered an important basis to identity building, as they are used by teenager’s going through hardships as a point of reference.

An artist that has informed my practice is Petra Collins, who photographed her coming of age experience through images of herself and her friends. In her artbook, Collins discusses the impact of the Lolita complex on her first artworks, creating photographs that mirrored the male gaze (Collins et al. 2017). As she and her art practice grew, the influence of horror films subverted the hyper-sexualisation of the female body. She challenged the voyeuristic lens by creating photographs with sinister undertones that communicated the discomfort she had with a woman’s worth being synonymous with her body. This is seen in Untitled, from her The Teenage Gaze series. The foreboding atmosphere is communicated through the muddy and grungy colours, and the model has a powerful stance that juxtaposes the partially revealed body. This nuance is something that Collins had aimed to communicate through her images, as she felt that while film and television informed what it had meant to be a teenager, it had missed the darkness she had felt when coming of age (Strand Book Store 2017).

A collage of the artists with characters from Dance Academy
Fig 1. Katya Ryzhikh, ‘If only I was older..’, 2023, mixed media collage

The experience of girlhood is often represented in an overtly feminine way in the media, with MacDowell (2019) arguing that it is through targeted commercialised rhetoric towards young audiences, that this narrow definition of what it means to be a girl is marketed back to young people. In my work, If only I was older.. (Figure 1) I aim to retrospectively explore my femininity in my childhood through my obsession with the Australian teenage drama, Dance Academy (2010-2013). The work consists of ripped up images of an eight-year-old Katya dancing, mashed together with a screencap of a scene from the show, including the characters, Christian, Kat and Tara (who have been covered by the childhood image.) The collaged photos are matched with naive and girly-like decoration, mixed with stickers, crayon and soft oil pastel scribbles, and paint marker hearts. These mismatched, messy and over-the-top aesthetics make reference to early 2000s scrapbooks, such as the Mean Girls burn book, which is owned by ‘Queen Bee’ Regina George and adorned with magazine cut-out text, lipstick kiss marks and hot pink decorations.

While all these aesthetics communicate a very stereotypical image of femininity, eight-year-old Katya was anything but. When I was younger, I had imagined myself as a boy, (growing up with two older brothers as role models can do that to a young girl) and considered myself a ‘tom-boy’ rather than a ‘girly-girl’ (Holland and Harpin 2015). While I was not outwardly feminine, and I did not “conform to glamorous feminine ideals,” Balles (2017:211) states that this was still a valid experience of girlhood. My hobby of dance and infatuation with the series Dance Academy was a way for me to explore a more feminine side of me while still staying true to who I was, and years later in my adolescence it had allowed me to be comfortable with embodying a more ‘girly’ lifestyle that is represented in the utilisation of stereotypically feminine components in the artwork. 

The technique of retrospective narration is commonly used in coming-of-age film and television, creating a sense of nostalgia. At the end of Dance Academy, it is revealed that Tara’s narration through the series is based on journal entries. The story of a girl who had defeated all odds and attended the most prestigious dance school in Australia was every young girl’s dream, creating a false sense of nostalgia from personal ambitions and the retrospective narration. Smith (2020) notes an importance to this kind of nostalgia and teenage content, as it is written from an ‘adult lens’ and often warps the perception of what youth was. This reminiscence marketed towards younger audiences written by adults also runs the risk of becoming narcissistic nostalgia according to Lizardi (2014), where it masks negatives from the discussion of what adolescence is like and romanticises the past.

While Dance Academy was marketed towards teenagers on the brink of becoming an adult, eight-year-old Katya had felt an immense pressure to grow up quickly and experience the ‘firsts’ that Tara was. This included things such as first kisses and relationships even though, at eight, I had not even experienced my first crush. The work If only I was older.. imagines this disconnect through a retrospective lens of my childhood, connecting myself and the romantic lead Christian, together as in love. The utilisation of collage and imperfect sticking together of my childhood self, emphasises the disjointed nature of the past and my false nostalgic memories. Despite the danger of remembering the past through a nostalgic lens, memory and re-evaluation is key in constructing identity as I become comfortable with growing up and experiencing those ‘firsts’ I had dreamt of achieving (Kaklamanidou and Tally 2014). This time, for me, represented a shift towards ‘femininity’ away from my former, tomboy-ish childhood.

When I was a child, the protagonists of my favourite TV shows and movies were role models and as a teenager turning into an adult, they were relatable as if they were my friends. Vaage (2014) describes this phenomenon as moral partiality, as especially in television series, we begin to judge the characters as we would our family, friends or loved ones. Through character development we understand the inner workings of the fictional character’s minds, and we connect with them through an emotional level, rather than objective and rational. This connection is explored in the collage work If only I was older.., as scrapbooking-like methods were used to replace the protagonist Tara with an image of myself to be in the longing gaze of Christian. Christian attends the prestigious school under bail conditions for robbing a service station. Despite this tumultuous backstory viewers empathise with as his character develops depth and responsibility throughout the series. As a young girl, his actions were permissible because he was attractive and talented and was judged emotionally through the storytelling lens of Tara. In the work If only I was older.., I place myself in the position of Tara figuratively and literally as I have judged the characters of the series with moral partiality disregarding their fictitious nature.

A watercolour that depicts the artist beside the character from Robot. Both have smudged faces.
 Fig 2. Katya Ryzhikh, ‘I am not him’, 2023, mixed media collage

Hello friend. Hello friend? That’s lame, maybe I should give you a name. That’s a slippery slope, you’re only in my head, we have to remember that (Mr Robot 2015)

Moral partiality is also evident in my relationship with another television series, Mr. Robot (2015-2019). I watched the American psychological thriller as it aired, and I grew up alongside the protagonist Elliot Alderson. My obsession with the series developed when I experienced my first significant depression and anxiety at the age of 13 and I watched the first season six times. The protagonist Elliot, talked to the audience as his imaginary friend, as he did so he became a friend of mine, even though he was fictional.

This occurrence is embodied in the collage work I am not him (Figure 2), as the experience of identifying and looking up to a fictional character is so strong that one must remind themselves that they are separate. The blurry nature of identity is explored through the blend of imagery from my own personal life, mixed with scenes of the television series. The background consists of a photographic transfer of the apartment block Elliot lives in, paired with a gouache painting of a photograph my father took on our trip to New York in 2015. In the foreground, two blurry figures are looking down on the audience, one of Elliot and one of myself. In the original reference image, the second figure beside him was the character Mr. Robot, the ghost of his late father who he had imagined to be real. He would control and coerce Elliot into doing things he thought were wrong and became his subconscious friend. By replacing his figure with my own, the work acknowledges that Elliot is as real as Mr. Robot is, and that I have been impacted by him in a subconscious way beyond my control.

This experience of affinity with a character from a television series or movie is studied by Nauman (1997) who notes that sixth graders are influenced and feel a connection towards fictional characters that have something in common with them. This is seen in even subtle connections such as a young Indian boy in a primarily Caucasian class, whose favourite character is a Robot that is positioned as an ‘outsider.’ However, my relationship with the character of Elliot can best be understood by a study conducted by Cole and Leets (1999) who analyse the attachment styles that people form with fictional characters. My spiral of anxiety and depression was largely attributed to toxic friendships, which had changed my attachment style to ‘anxious-ambivalent’. At that time, every relationship was a gamble as I was a socially awkward teenager. Therefore Mr. Robot, which had a central protagonist that was anxious and isolated, was relatable even though we were in every other sense very different people. The series was a world to escape to, where I could feel secure. This is way of coping is even present in the show when, in episode eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes, Elliot endures the trauma of being in jail by living in an imaginary sitcom (Esmail, cited in Travers 2022).  In I am not him Elliot’s world is on the left and my own is on the right. Through juxtaposition the work seeks to understand how my life was mirrored in the television series, and how those crossovers translate into my own identity and growth.

The experience of growing up into an adult is not an easy ordeal and through film and television we find characters and stories that not only make us feel seen or heard, but also better understand how to navigate the uncomfortable process of forming identity. Through collaging techniques, I unpack how television series such as Dance Academy or Mr. Robot have given me a space to escape to, as well as grow as a person over the many years of rewatching and re-understanding myself in the process.


Reference List

Balles A (2017) Fairy Tales on the Teen Screen: Rituals of Girlhood, Springer International Publishing, doi:10.1007/978-3-319-64973-3.

Cole T and Leets L (1999) ‘Attachment Styles and Intimate Television Viewing: Insecurely Forming Relationships in a Parasocial Way’, Journal of social and personal relationships, 16(4):495-511, doi:10.1177/0265407599164005.

Collins P, Simmons L and Minter M (2017) Petra Collins: coming of age, Rizzoli International Publications Inc., New York.

Döring A and Hillbrink A (2015) ‘Brief report: Into the wild? How a film can change adolescents’ values’, Journal of Adolescence, 40(1):78-82, doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2015.01.006.

Esmail S (director) (2015-2019) ‘’ [television program], Mr. Robot, USA Network, New York.

Falcón-Díaz-Aguado L and Díaz-Aguado-Jalón MJ (2014) ‘Adolescent students as media fictional characters’, Comunicar, 21(42):147-155, doi:10.3916/C42-2014-14.

Holland S and Harpin J (2015) ‘Who is the ‘girly’ girl? Tomboys, hyper-femininity and gender’, Journal of gender studies, 24(3):293-309, doi:10.1080/09589236.2013.841570.

Kaklamanidou DB and Tally M (2014) HBO’s Girls: Questions of Gender, Politics, and Millennial Angst, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Kubrak T (2020) ‘Impact of Films: Changes in Young People’s Attitudes after Watching a Movie’, Behavioral sciences, 10(5):86-99, doi:10.3390/bs10050086.

Lizardi R (2014) ‘Introduction to the Perpetual Individual Nostalgic’s Playlist Past: Nostalgia & Generations’, in Mediated Nostalgia: Individual Memory and Contemporary Mass Media, Lexington Books, ProQuest Ebook Central.

MacDowell P (2019) ‘Girls’ Perspectives on (Mis)Representations of Girlhood in Hegemonic Texts’, in Smith A (ed) The Girl in the Text, Berghahn Books, New York.

Nauman AD (1997) Reading boys, reading girls: How sixth graders understand and are influenced by fictional characters [PhD dissertation], University of Illinois, accessed 31 May 2023, ProQuest database.

Smith F (2020) ‘Rethinking the Hollywood Teen Movie: Gender, Genre and Identity’ in Looking Back: Nostalgia, Postfeminism And The Teen Movie, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Strand Book Store (16 December 2017) ‘Petra Collins | Coming of Age’, Strand Book Store, YouTube, accessed 30 May 2023.

Travers S (2022) Trauma in American Popular Culture and Cult Texts, 1980-2020, Palgrave Macmillan, doi:10.1007/978-3-031-13287-2.

Vaage MB (2014) ‘Blinded by familiarity: partiality, morality, and engagement with television series’, in Nannicelli T and Taberham P (eds) (2014) Cognitive Media Theory, Taylor & Francis Group, London.

Wall Street Journal (9 November 2016) ‘Notable & Quotable: Read a Novel; ‘The friendship is imaginary, but the emotional attachment is real.’’, Wall Street Journal, accessed 8 November 2023, ProQuest database.

Werner J (producer) (2010-2013) [television program], Dance Academy, Werner Film Productions, Sydney.

, , ,
Essay – The Modern Teenager: the impacts of film and television on the construction of identity
Tagged on: