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K–12: Social Justice or sensationalism?

By Olivia Van Nguyen, September 11 2019 —

was a fan of Melanie Martinez’s debut album, Crybaby. The album had a very distinct and interesting tone and it didn’t shy away from dealing with important issues. Songs on the album included themes of beauty and plastic surgery culture on “Mrs. Potato Head” and dysfunctional families on “Dollhouse.” Melanie Martinez also has a very unique voice which I liked. Four years later, Melanie has now released a new album, K–12, accompanied by a feature-length movie.

The opening of the movie is very promising, my favourite part. Crybaby (Melanie Martinez) wakes up in a pastel-pink, Carrollian bedroom, which I adored. The entire movie has a whimsical tone which can dive into dark territory — it’s biggest strength. The sets and costumes are lavish and the accompanying album acts as a soundtrack, making the music distinct. The incorporation of the opening song really is smooth, catchy and upbeat. The sequence made me optimistic for what was to come. Then, the movies issue’s began.

I assumed that since the album was written to accompany the movie, it would play out like a musical and the songs would elevate the plot. Instead, it’s clear the songs were written first. K–12 suffers from jukebox musical syndrome. The plot is messy and meandering and it feels like the characters are acting out any needed scenario for the songs to play in order. This is fine if you’re watching for the world and music, but if you were expecting a central message, K–12 is unable to provide one.

The acting is another issue. Melanie Martinez is a good singer and musician, but I’m not confident in her acting. She needs to convey some heavy emotions throughout the story, and it comes off as stiff, especially next to the other actors.

This is a very social-justice oriented film. It attempts to make statements about social issues such as drugs, racism, suicide, taxes on tampons, sexualization of women, rape culture, pedophilia, eating disorders, fame, crowd mentality, gender roles, transgender politics, misogyny and Donald Trump to name a few. Since this film has so much to say, your attention is drawn to how ill-equipped the plot is to deal with it.

It’s not enough to simply bring up an issue, you also need to make a statement about it. K–12 doesn’t spend enough time on each issue to do that. There’s a scene where a black student refuses to stand for the pledge of allegiance and gets dragged off by guards with no follow-up. The scene lasts thirty seconds and the student isn’t seen again. In another scene, a teacher gets fired for coming out as transgender, but it’s also ineffective for the same reason.

The motif is limiting. With the first album, you got the sense that Martinez was working with child-like devices such as toys and elementary school. It was an interesting shtick, but not everything in the album had to tie directly into it. Since K–12 is a movie and follows the storyline of a character dressed in pastel clothes going to elementary school, the motif can’t be turned off when it doesn’t fit. Even though the message about legalizing cannabis holds up, it’s a little hard to agree with when it’s being spoken by characters who are supposed to be children.

Other issues include some sexually explicit scenes done by actors who are supposed to be portraying kids. I suppose the age of the characters is ambiguous, but it still leaves an uncomfortable feeling. There’s a song about bulimia called “Orange Juice” that conflates  bulimic people with juicers because you put in solid food and liquid comes out. Another song is called “High School Sweethearts” and is one of those ‘I’m a hot mess and you’d better put up with it’ songs. It’s a little concerning that the typecast “good guy” is singing that.

The closest thing to a plot is that Crybaby and her friends have superpowers and they’re trying to find other people who have those powers. I’m not sure what the superpowers represent here, but every possibility I can think of is problematic in some way.

This is a bold statement that may be presumptuous, but I think this film does not actually care about the social issues it presents. I am not saying Martinez or the people involved in the film don’t care. I am saying that the film does not care.

There’s an entire sequence dedicated to eating disorders, in which the protagonist states to the camera that your body is perfect the way it is and you’re beautiful at any size. This is a great message. However, it’s a little hard to believe that the movie believes this because there is not a single plus-size actor in it, either as a main character or an extra. Not one. Even the actress portraying a bulimic character is conventionally beautiful.

There’s a scene about sexism, in which the protagonist again states directly to the camera that people should not be limited to certain roles because of their gender. But again, does the movie actually believe that? So many characters are just gender stereotypes. Characters with traditionally feminine traits are all catty, drama-stirring villains, and characters who are traditionally masculine are all misogynists, pedophiles and rapists. All of the men in this movie are villains except the two POC men, and non-binary representation is nonexistent.

The film discusses racism through a ham-fisted Colin Kaepernick parallel. But it’s hard to imagine there was no racial bias on set when every single “bad guy” character is portrayed by a white person. Eighty-five per cent of the cast and extras are white, and the remaining minority is predominantly black. I can count the extras of other ethnicities on one hand. To me, that’s a good sign that the casting would rather not be diverse, and a small group of black people were cast out of white guilt.

K–12 exemplifies everything wrong with what I like to call social justice sensationalism. In areas where the audience is paying attention, the film is more than happy to spout lines about progressivism. But where the audience isn’t paying attention, the movie is practically stuck in the eighties. K–12 doesn’t care about impeaching Donald Trump, it just wants you to know it hates Donald Trump. K–12 doesn’t want to do anything about racism, it just wants you to know it hates racism. This is a syndrome that spreads to plenty of other films claiming to make a social statement.

The next time you see a piece of media that claims to be making a social statement, think critically about what it actually believes. Does this “strong female character” movie truly believe women are just as strong as men? If so, then why are all the villain’s hench people portrayed by men? Does this black character represent diversity? If so, then why is he the only black character? If we judge K–12 by the messages it sets by example, it’s that women are superior to men, white men are the root of all evil, and all authority figures should die. So overall, Melanie Martinez’s K–12 gets a rating of 2/10. I do recommend watching it though, if only for the visuals, music and for the realizations it gave me.

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