CW: whitewashing 

I have to admit, I’d barely made it five minutes into Netflix’s Fate: The Winx Saga before I was repeatedly checking that little red time bar along the bottom and getting more and more annoyed that it seemed to be working at half-speed. It wasn’t: the show was just limp. Watching the seconds drag by provided a better adrenaline kick than the show itself. This was disappointing – I am quite a geek for coming-of-age films and high school TV shows, so I had been hoping for some angsty fairies doing angsty fairy things, preferably to a similarly angsty soundtrack. I hadn’t watched Winx Club, the original cartoon, but a quick Google brought up a series of brightly coloured images all showing a group of young fairies in avant-garde fairy fashion – clearly very different to the teen show I had been hoping for. But I could see why those at Netflix would’ve approved an adaption. Take a set of interesting characters and their interesting traits and rev up the hormones. Sounds great. But what we have been left with is something which has drained all the life out of the Groovy-Chick-With-Wings aesthetic of the cartoon, and is quite simply bland

            There are plenty of reasons why Fate: The Winx Saga is not a modern classic before you come to its aesthetic qualities. As many have pointed out, the cast has been heavily whitewashed compared to the original, its side characters are stunningly dull, and you only appear to be given a subplot if you’re a white actor. It isn’t doing anything to revolutionise cinematography, and it falls concerningly short of being ethnically and racially representative of the world it supposedly exists alongside. It is lacking any significant depth or substance – and so episode one just trudges by. There is nothing there to grab you or impress you, and this persists right down to its aesthetic. The closest thing to a style is that one of the characters wears headphones. For a show so two-dimensional, it equally doesn’t establish an identity on the surface. The one thing it seems desperate to do is remind us that these people are teenagers – and painfully so. The first issue is that the cast all look about twenty-seven. But the bigger problem is that it is outrageously obsessed with teenage tropes. It crams in a clichéd reference to weed, sex, under-age drinking or parents-who-will-never-understand-you every thirty seconds, and then tries to smooth it out with completely shoehorned comments about Instagram or Harry Potter. It is trying so desperately to be hip that it becomes lost in its own contemporaneity. 

            Whilst Winx Saga is tripping over itself to scream 2020s at us, some of the most successful teen-based Netflix shows – Stranger Things and Sex Education for example – are both doing the opposite. Stranger Things is 1983 to its core, and Sex Education takes all the stuff we had in 2019, but makes it look like we’re watching a John Hughes film. Both these shows are fantastic visually, largely down to their retro aesthetics. 80s-isation appears to be a thing: a way of instantly making us aware of those canonical teen films of 40 years ago. Afterall, nothing says teenage quite like one of Molly Ringwald’s pink tops. Obviously, there are shows such as Skins which have successfully created a teenage aesthetic based on their own era, but I do believe that the crown rests with those puffy-sleeved dresses which have become the inescapable essence of any prom scene. 

            I love these films – I’ve watched The Breakfast Club more times than I am prepared to admit, and it’s the content of one of the three posters definitely not blu-tacked to my wall in college. The good ones are often described as ‘timeless’, but what is more striking is how they have retained their perenniality by infiltrating the very aesthetic of being teenaged, so much so that ‘coming-of-age’ appears impossible without some flannels and Doc Martens. Shows that have embraced this seem to have thrived – and the same is true in music, with the likes of The 1975 producing albums which lead songwriter Matty Healy has specifically related to the films of John Hughes. It was the golden age of the teenage aesthetic, and we are reluctant to let it go. Winx Saga is a perfect example of a show haunted by this, as it throws a thousand references to the 21st century at a wall and hopes they stick – but they just don’t. And where it could seek to counter the lack of diversity that runs through so many of the classic 80s teen films, it shies away from the task, in a way that Sex Education rose to the challenge. The Brat Pack films have an adolescent honesty and fragility to them which is eternal, and a show such as Sex Education can recall all of this by blasting out The The or Talking Heads. That definitively teen film aesthetic connects it into something bigger, whilst its modernity allows it to correct some of the issues which undermine the classics. Where the Winx Saga fidgets awkwardly with its contemporaneity, Sex Education evokes all that is immortal in Pretty In Pink and Sixteen Candles, but reminds us as it does so of the responsibility these coming-of-age shows have to display the diversity of youth, and not just the angst. 

Image credit: applecandy spica via Flickr

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