Tall Girl, Netflix’s 2019 attempt to advocate for legislature that will make girls over six-foot into a protected class, has been reviled by critics and Twitter teens alike. It was slammed by every major publication that deigned to review it as a misguided attempt at wokeness. In The New York Times: “It is undeniably tough to be ostracized, especially because kids zero in on difference with unerring meanness. But Jodi’s [the eponymous Tall Girl] fate ranks relatively low on the hardship meter.” Over at Harvard, the Crimson reported, “The theme of ‘Tall Girl’ is evident and meaningful, but the omnipresent clichés and Jodi’s lack of relatability make it less accessible. […] Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that this film is a self-aware satirical piece.” On Twitter, teenagers responded to Tall Girl with righteous tirades, an example being, “Tall Girl really out here saying ‘it’s so hard to be a tall, thin, blonde, conventionally attractive, upper middle class cishet white woman’ like ???”
However, after a deep dive into the world of nigh-unwatchable Netflix films, we have concluded that Tall Girl isn’t an example of ignorance on Netflix’s part, but rather a sophisticated satire-cum-marketing scheme. Netflix knows that it would be extremely difficult to make socially conscious films without being criticized in today’s hyper-vigilant cultural landscape. They also know that today’s teenagers are smart enough to realize that yet another shoddy romance about a milquetoast, vaguely attractive straight white girl is not going to be good. Instead, they’ve decided to make movies that intentionally draw negative responses from critics and logged-on teens, and to use these responses as publicity. And it clearly works: Tall Girl was streamed over 40 million times in the last two months, making it the fifth most-watched Netflix original of that period.
Audiences are satisfied by their low-budget, low-quality films because they function as an easy target for a populace convinced that canceling someone with a Twitter firestorm is praxis. By deliberately creating a work rife with cultural naïveté (the Tall Girl attends Ruby Bridges High School and her best friends are a Black woman and the gay-coded Dunkleman), Netflix has commodified the cult classic and hijacked the natural way that teens discover media and make it their own. They’ve already proven that they can produce high-quality, award-winning films (Roma, Marriage Story). But in this relentless hellscape of late-stage capitalism, that will never be enough. Netflix wants to capture the attention of every demographic—and spend as little money as they can in the process.
Nzingha Stewart, the director of Tall Girl, is likely not clueless about the impacts of oppression on minority communities. She has been nominated for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Directing in a Television Movie. She has directed episodes of Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder. She is a member of Shonda Rhimes’ inner circle. Stewart certainly has some filmmaking talent and awareness of the ironies in her own film. Contrary to the what the fifteen-year-olds on Twitter frothing at the bit to write Medium articles on the abjectly comic failure of Netflix’s latest venture into teenage oppression porn would have you believe, Tall Girl is at least partly satire.
It seems almost paradoxical that the most vocal audience of Tall Girl has been the very teens whom critics said it would alienate. In the past few years, marginalized young people have found a voice on Twitter and Instagram, and protesting bad representation has become one of the main avenues for so-called activism. Countless shows and movies have been torn apart by this particular iteration of cancel culture: The race-bent Heathers remake and Netflix’s Insatiable and To The Bone come to mind. With their demise, however, came waves of publicity. Television pilots die quiet deaths all the time, and Netflix releases dozens of original shows and movies that never reach the mainstream cultural consciousness. What made the aforementioned projects stand out was the way they functioned as a rallying point for an audience conditioned to avoid nuanced criticism and to lap up any chance they get to unequivocally burn something to the ground. With Tall Girl, Netflix has cracked the code: they’ve created a piece of media just subtle enough not to immediately scan as satire and infused it with enough irony to catch the attention of even relatively naïve viewers, setting off the “cancelling” alarm bells. The “size 13 men’s Nikes” joke, the biggest meme to come out of Tall Girl, takes place at the three-minute mark, ensuring that the audience won’t click away before they realize just how funny it is. Tall Girl is perfectly calibrated to our cultural moment—designed not for a genuinely invested audience, but for the hate-watcher and the twenty-second Twitter clip-maker.
Tall Girl may be a machine for Netflix’s world-dominating capitalist vision. It happily commodifies the well-intentioned social activism of teenagers to advertise their films to other teens who are compelled to watch it themselves, seeing an opportunity to publicly perform their wokeness. But it is also art.