Grand Army: Just another teen drama?

tw: reference to sexual assault

Strangely, this ‘gritty’ teen drama didn’t get as much buzz as its counterparts. When I first heard the name Grand Army, it didn’t entice my cinematic appetite. Picturing knights and trenches and all the other wartime imagery instilled in me by Key Stage 3 English, I didn’t know it would become so addictive.

A chorus of Bodak Yellow is rhythmically twerked and shouted to in the periphery of the opening scene and, just like that, we’re directly hurled into a very ‘real’ high school setting. Absent is the private school glitz of Gossip Girl or the shimmery editorial wardrobes seen in Euphoria.

Instead, Joey Del Marco (played by Odessa A’zion) is furiously putting all her might into pulling something out of her best friend, Grace. Honestly, it was intense. The cut between the painful moaning with scenes of the grimy locker rooms and the other young girls banging on the door was anxiety inducing, as we have no idea what is going on — only to realise in relief that it is only, in fact, a used condom.

The condom chaos leads us confusingly into Grand Army’s main premise — a terrorist attack nearby which forces the students into lockdown protocol. This literal explosion begins to metaphorically symbolise different ‘bombs’ which are set off into the students’ own lives following the events of that day. 

There’s been some criticism on Twitter of the need to open with an Islamic terrorist attack, which wasn’t very relevant to the plot and seemed slightly out of touch. The show makes a point to highlight that the closeted Sid (portrayed by Amir Bageria) is not a Muslim yet is affected by the racism of Islamophobia.

Sid begins battling with the inner turmoil of prejudiced stereotyping following the attack as a result of what seems to be ensuing Islamophobia surrounding him. This is suggested through the stares of strangers, drowning out all sound, and the mocking racism (masquerading as ‘banter’) from the other members of the swim team, particularly Luke and George who repeatedly portray anti-Asian sentiment.

Sid’s advisor encourages him to exploit this trauma in his letter to Harvard in order to make him ‘stand out’ from the other students. She seems to encourage him to utilise an identity he hasn’t yet come to terms with in order to guarantee his place there, which makes him obviously uncomfortable. His initial struggles with Islamophobia and racism are soon intermingled with his struggle to accept his sexuality and come out as gay. Unfortunately, these two themes are separately mobilised until his story reaches a rather anticlimactic end. Although I love Sid as a character, his plotline is one of the least developed mainly because it’s forgotten. Grand Army wastes an opportunity to do something unique and interesting with Sid’s identity as a gay first generation Indian-American.

The strongest aspect of Grand Army is the nuanced storytelling with which it approaches so many complex issues that have been previously oversaturated by teen dramas gone by; from economic struggles to sexual assault. 

In contrast to Sid’s underdeveloped storyline, Dominique (played by Odley Jean) is one of the most likeable characters with the richest, and at times most internally frustrating, plotlines. She is an incredibly intelligent Black student with her eyes set on a psychology degree at the University of Washington or Hopkins.

Adultification often refers to the disproportionate hyper-sexualisation of Black teenage girls and children. However, Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a psychologist and host of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast, has said that adultification also surfaces when girls are often referred to as “little women” and are assigned household and caretaking chores from an early age. This is prevalent from the beginning, when Dom already grapples to balance caring for her siblings with the teenage struggles of crushes, team sports and schoolwork.

Her family’s already frail financial situation is dealt a blow when her sister hurts her back and her premature adultification is exacerbated. As they depended on this income to make rent, Dom is forced to work insane hours in order to help them survive, even though they’re a breath away from being evicted if anything else goes slightly wrong.

This places Dom in the extremely unfair position of having to consider an arranged marriage with a family friend in exchange for $10,000. In a scene where she finally has a breakdown outside an over-priced hair-supply store, Dom tells her friends “it’s not like we’re ignorant…you don’t [understand] though”. They sit on the pavement with her, then move up, down, up, down with her when she stands, providing real emotional support that the other friendships lack even as she struggles to explain how difficult her situation is to them.

The reality is that if you’ve never been destitute or forced to live in conditions close to poverty, you really can’t have any real opinion on her situation because you have the privilege of not having to choose between two terrifying options.

Odley Jean’s talent is so brazen that her acting seamlessly slips into first place. The emotional scene in which she explains why mental health is particularly important for marginalised people, especially Black and working-class women, is wonderfully written. But the way she performs it adds so much more strength and power to the words.

Luckily, her ending is deservedly one of pure joy. You can’t help but smile as the burdens of adulthood are, even if momentarily, lifted from her shoulders by her family, her supportive friends and, of course, John Ellis and his ‘cheesy’ prom-posal. Throughout, John (played by Alphonso Romero Jones II) never fails to provide an ‘awwww’ inducing moment. High school love at its finest.

The event which triggered Dom’s financial plotline was also on the day of the bomb. Yet it’s set in parallel to the story of Jayson Jackson (played by Maliq Johnson) and Owen Williams (played by Jaden Jordan). As a slightly immature schoolboy prank, they take Dom’s wallet out of her bag and accidentally drop it to the bottom of the stairs. When they can finally reach it, the money’s gone and she can no longer afford to pay for her sibling’s after-school activities.

The build-up of the first few episodes is slow but you come to see how important it is as the dots connect later on. The ‘school to prison pipeline’ which the Black Student Union (BSU) protest about in the later scenes is directly related to the way in which Grand Army sabotages Owen’s future as a musical prodigy with his sights set on Julliard. When he is given a 60 day suspension at his disciplinary hearing, he is prevented from attending any school activities and subsequently loses his seat at the school orchestra and, as a result, his place at the prestigious music academy.

Even though the boys pay Dom back immediately by busking in the subway, it’s the school’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy which not only disrupts Owen’s entire life but puts Jay into the infuriating position of choosing between being loyal to his friend and taking his seat in the orchestra. This mobilises the discourse between more revolutionary activists who want to change the status quo through protests (like Jay’s grandfather and the BSU) and older people like Jay’s father who disapprove of the system but think it’s best to simply work within it.

Each episode leaves us with the question of what Jay will choose, feeling the weight of the injustice the boys are face with as he struggles internally. Grand Army’s final scene doesn’t disappoint, as Jay chooses a third option. In a powerful peaceful protest, he refuses to play the saxophone when it’s his turn to perform, instead filling the entire hall with silence as he sticks a tape over his mouth and the screen cuts to black.

According to Christopher G Robbins, “the practice of zero tolerance and its consequences on students of colour cannot be understood outside of the criminal justice practice of zero tolerance, its consequences on African Americans and communities of colour, and the dominating political climate that rationalizes social exclusion”. 

The racism inherent in zero tolerance policies is highlighted within the stories of the Black characters; both the school’s threats to expel Dom for cheating without considering her situation, as well as their reluctance to admit that Jay and Owen did not steal Dom’s money.

Joey’s performative activism is so vital at the start because it is juxtaposed directly to the real activism by the BSU later on. Joey organises a ‘free the nipple’ campaign via Instagram with the support of the other dancers, her ‘squad’ and much of the school body who agree to show up braless.

While Joey validly seeks to disrupt the sexism of the dress-code after she’s slut-shamed by a teacher for wearing shorts, she’s the one who technically propels Owen’s suspension by reporting him. She fails to recognise her privilege and the conversation between the guys she calls “my woke boys” is meant to be cringe and obviously performative. Joey’s activism is the epitome of white feminism because it’s surface-level and fails to be intersectional. Black girls are often dress-coded more harshly in schools due to adultification and misogynoir (misogyny against Black women) that relies on gender and race based stereotypes. Yet her protest is not interested in how dress-coding disproportionately effects other students or the racism behind disciplinary policies.

Joey is deliberated painted as a ‘fun’ and ‘carefree’ character in the beginning of the season in order to set up the complexity of her later storyline (TW). She is sexually assaulted by her two best guy friends Luke and George while her crush, Tim, does nothing to intervene.

Her initial characterisation as a free, sexually liberated woman is combined with videos of her seemingly ‘consensual’ kissing them as tools used by the school body to slut-shame her and dismiss her very real victim-hood. The show explores victim-blaming and the danger of not believing survivors in a slightly more complex way than previous dramas because Joey soon reports the rape and comes to terms with the fact that sexual assault can be possible by anyone, even people you loved and trusted.

The assault episode begins as quite unassuming, seemingly just about a group trip to the movies, but gradually begins to unravel as the cuts to the different characters and the background noise of energetic musically chaotically escalate.

I’ve never wanted to stick my hand through the screen and bitch slap someone more than I did the two major villains (not counting the school’s systemic racism), Luke and George. The actor who plays Luke may be easy on the eyes but please please please stop making aesthetic edits of his character. He’s not a ‘bad boy’, he’s a rapist. Tim is simply a disgusting coward, the victor of the ‘I’m a nice guy so you owe me’ beta-male sexist trope.

I’d love to believe that Joey gets real justice in season two. But real-life cases, such as that of Brock Turner’s, where white and class privilege are weaponised to escape criminal sentences don’t give me much hope, especially since the boys were welcomed back to the school with open arms.

There’s hope in Joey’s finale, as she starts to pick up pieces of herself by re-discovering her love for dance and we watch her get more comfortable in her body again, reaching back to the high-spirited woman of the first few episodes.

You may have noticed that I’ve yet to mention Leila, the most annoying and downright bizarre main character in Grand Army. She has somewhat of a coming-of-age identity crisis and sexual awakening, where she internalises misogyny and lusts after George’s attention as well as any stray crumbs of social validation. She’s also incredibly tone-deaf in her interactions with people so that her story almost turns into comedic relief at times. She sent a fake bomb threat to ultimately receive oral sex??

Leila’s not a straightforward antagonist and the ‘wtf’ moments which spring out of her weird mindset are admittedly much lighter than the other narratives —with the exception of the final episode where she cements her instability. The creators also really thought they were doing something iconic with those graphically violent ‘girl power’ cartoons which don’t really fit with the show. But she does have some iconic lines such as “well, I’m a little dark” and “eat my cl*t!”.

Grand Army’s use of social media and text messaging is the most accurately portrayed I’ve seen to date. In contrast to series like Emily in Paris where simply hash-tagging #EverythingsComingUpRoses magically grants you 10K followers (very 2012), Grand Army shows very realistic comments/captions on Instagram posts. It also uses Instagram stories to emphasise the modern way teens communicate with each other to show a range of emotions. The camera lens is focused directly on hazy phone screens rather than placing the literal text messages magically next to the characters for the audience’s viewing pleasure (as in Euphoria, Elite or Jane the Virgin). This may be less clear for us as viewers, but it adds to the raw and authentic atmosphere.

When it comes to outfits, I wish Grand Army would step out of the realism and use some more flair for at least a few scenes. Some of the fits are super cute and true to what high school students are probably wearing, but there could have been some more glamour or edge, especially in a trend-setting fashion capital like New York.

Another significant critique is that Joey, a heterosexual white woman, is centred in the show and even in the show’s art (see top image). There were also racism allegations behind-the-scenes which clouded the show’s release. According to a tweet by writer Mind Peiffer, “The show runner and creator went full Karen and called Netflix hr on the Black writer in the room for getting a haircut. Yes you read that correctly.” She even quit the series because of this.

Grand Army gets bonus points for being the first show I’ve watched which mentions Coronavirus on the radio. Whether they’ll explore this in the next season or not, the little detail emphasises how ‘2020’ the series feels and again, adds to the realism of it all.

Is this the renaissance of teen dramas? Are we actually being rewarded for putting up with the meme-able likes of Riverdale and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina for so long? All I know is, I’m waiting impatiently for season two and the harem of imminent melodrama that’s to follow these distressed teens.

Images courtesy of Grand Army on Netflix

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