CANNES, France—On the Terrace Stage here at Cannes Lions, Adolescent Content led a Monday session about how Generation Z is redefining masculinity, moderated by creative director Ramaa Mosley and featuring photographers Myles Loftin and Laurence Philomene and director Shea Vaughan-Gabor.
It doesn't seem long ago that all anybody cared about was millennials. The truth is, we're old now, bemusedly enjoying that transition into obsolescence. That we grew up when the world transitioned into digital, yet remember Life Before, was once prime evidence of our unique place in generational canon. Now it just means we're Olds.
Gen Z, on the other hand, ranges between ages 4 and 25, depending on what study you're looking at. They legit have no memory of life before pixel-powered connectivity, and do all kinds of things we don't understand—eschew Facebook, make tons of Instagram accounts then delete them without remorse, and photograph the body hair we worked so hard to keep tucked in or (if we're long-term planners) simply Lasered away.
Loftin, Philomene and Vaughan-Gabor are shiny in youth and bright with savvy. They are natural anthropologists. And as they bask in the limelight of generational relevance, they're tasked with a critical job—forcing us to face ideologies we haven't questioned and thus impose upon a new crop of upstarts who know better and want more (much like us ... before capitalism ground us down and everyone started shouting at us about avocado toast).
"A lot of people in Gen Z tend to be all about breaking barriers, not fitting into what we expect a man or woman to be," Loftin told us. "A lot of us just show up as ourselves. We exist in so many different ways. Through my photography, that's what I like to celebrate—the different ways we exist."
"Hooded" is "about trying to create a more positive representation for black people, specifically teenagers—a softer side of masculinity," Loftin said.
"Hooded" was published via the Milk Agency's editorial platform and on Twitter. "People responded to the images, felt it was a reflection of themselves," Loftin said. "It was nice to see a different representation of black men in media."
This led to a collab with Polaroid, for whom Loftin photographed his friends and had full creative control. Curated by Ryan McGinley, "Polaroid Originals" focuses "on how a lot of my friends don't necessarily subscribe to either masculine or feminine stereotypes; they express themselves through dress and gender presentation in any way they feel," Loftin said.
One of our favorite campaigns he's done is the launch work for clothing company CHNGE. It reminds us of what United Colors of Benetton used to be, before it became something less.
"Even things as simple as two men kissing, and showing that on camera, can be revolutionary," Loftin said. "People see themselves through imagery. If you don't see yourself represented, it's very hard to see a future for yourself."
He also emphasized the importance of abandoning our tendency to dedicate a single month to Pride, or Black History; representation should be a year-long effort.
"Queer people are becoming the majority, and it's important that brands wake up to that and realize we're not just one month to advertise to," he said.
Next came Philomene, who started posting work on Flickr at age 14, then got a degree in commercial photography. Among their biggest ongoing projects is "Puberty," a series of daily self-portraits that began when Philomene started taking testosterone shots.
"A lot of stories of trans people are told by cis people," Philomene said. "When I start a project, I ask, 'What do I feel is missing in the media landscape? What do I want to see, what story is mine to tell?' "
"Growing up, I never had a frame of reference for what a trans body might look like; what it can look like to be in transition, between genders," Philomene said. "The idea is to redefine not only what you think of masculinity for cis men, but also trans men and trans masculinity, showing there's a lot of different ways that can look."
The series features a menagerie of everyday scenes—Philomene eating, watching Rupaul's Drag Race, lying in bed. While the trans experience may seem foreign to cis folks, "at the end of the day we're all the same," Philomene said. "We go through the same daily tasks, are all human. That's what I want to do with my work—make us feel more connected outside of gender lines."
"Lucky" is an ongoing documentation of Philomene's best friend, who is intersex and trans. There is a palpable benevolence in the photos that demonstrates how important representation really is, even behind the camera: In moments banal or surprising (like a frank view of Lucky's naked body), there's no sense of prurience, performativity or outrageousness.
You feel instead that Philomene loves Lucky, and Lucky in turn trusts them with something truthful.
Trans identity, Philomene added, is "not something from point A to point B, but rather a slow process—[it's] looking at gender not as a box you're stuck in but rather as a space for self-growth and exploration."
Philomene also shared their Non-Binary Portrait series. Even trans identity is understood in a binary way, and Philomene sought to break that down, depicting sexual identity in its varied, subversive fluidity.
"When we talk about androgyny, sometimes we think in terms of personality traits," Philomene said. "I want to think about how certain body parts can be gendered … I want to think outside of that. A breast can be masculine and feminine at the same time, and the two can coexist in one body."
"I invite you to look at these people and rid yourself of gendered expectations you may have about them," Philomene continued. "You may assume this is a man or woman, but they're all non-binary, regardless of what you feel."
The series was published in Broadly, followed by Teen Vogue, Refinery 29 and Courrier International.
Vaughan-Gabor just graduated from college, and already has a few projects that many will recognize. She pointed us to a social experiment she uploaded to YouTube—shots of people reacting to being called beautiful. It's clocked over 20 million views.
This led to work with Samsung, which, for its "Lets You Be You" campaign, asked her to make the video all over again.
"I wanted to redefine beauty," Vaughan-Gabor said. "Often when we think of beauty, it's very feminine. Think of the last time you called a man beautiful, or allowed yourself to think that without making it feminine. Gen Z is at this point where we just want beauty to be genderless."
"Honest Yearbook," another project we know well, was created with the Ad Council.
"It's a lot about vulnerability," says Vaughan-Gabor. "Showing high schoolers, especially high school boys, reacting"—being sad, or discussing something sad without resorting to anger—"isn't something that's shown in the media. Not just high school boys, but men in general."
She also called us on the prevalence of the word "authenticity" in ad land. "I've heard that word a billion goddamn times. People keep saying it in advertising, but don't actually define what it means. With Adolescent, authenticity is vulnerability."
This extends to depicting men talking about their feelings and experiences, including being bullied, bullying others or simply crying. "It's unfortunately still a radical act," Vaughan-Gabor said.
Reflecting on this survey of Gen Z creators challenging not only masculinity but the relevance of gender constructs overall, we were briefly reminded of something Philomene said about androgyny: "Androgyny can look a million different ways, and I think that's important to my generation. We don't want to be put in boxes. We want to say, 'This is who I am; I am a human outside of being gendered.' "
None of us has ever wanted to be in boxes, frankly (with exceptions for cats and toddlers). But maybe Gen Z's got the best shot of any of us so far at examining, and tearing down, the legs of a social system that, lately, feels like it's more about division and categories than unity and community.
We don't know, but we're willing to watch. In the meantime, some advice from Vaughan-Gabor: "If you're making something about teens, or LGBTQA+, hire those people to do it. That makes the most authentic work. If you want to target the Gen Z audience, get Gen Z on board."