The \u2018Rooftopping\u2019 on HBO Max’s Generation<\/em> Is Very Real and Wildly Dangerous
Genera+ion is the latest entry in a developing subgenre that has emerged on HBO and HBO Max in the last couple years: young people really going through it. That subgenre, of course, includes the Emmy-winner Euphoria, but also We Are Who We Are and Industry, all of which show how varying people of youth are growing up in different worlds, in different environments, and around different people. Genera+ion takes things a step further, with one big focus in its early going not necessarily being on a literal drug being used, but more of a natural, thrill-seeking drug: an experience called “rooftopping.”
The show’s first episode depicts Chester (Justice Smith) climbing to the top of a building, looking for views and experiences. “I’ve been wanting to do this one so bad,” he says to his climbing companion as they walk hustle up the stairs, eager to get to the top. Upon reaching their destination—a metal hotel sign atop a building’s roof—Chester takes a selfie, and sends it to Sam, the new guidance counselor he’s already developing a quasi-rush on. “This is what lonely looks like,” his caption says, referencing an earlier conversation as the background makes clear just how high off the ground he really is.
We see Chester’s smile and excitement when he first reaches the structure, coinciding with his adrenaline rise. Just like one of film’s most famous adrenaline rushes, in the end of 1969’s The Graduate, we then see the comedown; the straight-faced lack of emotion that follows a big rush and often comes with a feeling of “what now?”
When Chester arrives at a party not long after his rooftopping experienece, he gets a concerned call from Sam. “It’s called Rooftopping,” he explains. “It’s just a thing that people do. You can Google it.”
Chester is convinced it’s no big deal, while Sam thinks that action needs to be taken after such a message. And so the plot of Genera+ion and this bout of Gen Z teen drama goes on.
But what is Rooftopping actually?
Chester wasn’t lying—Rooftopping is very much a thing, and not particularly a new one, either. On Urban Dictionary, a definition for the term was published way back in April 2009. “Also known as Buildering,” it reads, “is an off shoot of urban exploring or urbex which involves climbing onto the roofs of buildings, preferably the higher the better. Done to take pictures or just for kicks.”
Which is to say: Rooftopping isn’t just a gag made up for this latest incarnation of a serial teen dramedy. In fact, in 2018 researchers from the US National Library of Medicine even made the recommendation that certain very dangerous spots should have marked ‘No Selfie Zones’ to minimize risk, coming on the heels of a study that said 259 people died between 2011 and 2017 on their journeys to find extreme selfies.
A Fast Company story in 2019 focused on the phenomenon and its roots, which trace back to a 2011 image by Tom Ryaboi called “I’ll Make You Famous,” and have only increased as time has progressed and people have become more and more eager and thirsty for social media likes and adoration.
The Fast Company story also makes it clear that the 259 deaths between 2011 and 2019 isn’t entirely accurate. “Many of those included in that figure weren’t habitual social media risk takers or rising social media stars, but regular people who happened to be killed while taking selfies during unusual circumstances,” the story says. In fact, we don’t know exactly how many people have died due to such a phenomenon, but the numbers are on the rise.
There are also a number of notable rooftoppers who’ve gained notoriety through the years. Milo Hale, a photographer with around 13,000 followers on Instagram, spoke to The Guardian in 2017 about his rooftopping, and said that certain brands wanted to work with him to create content, but he wanted to keep it independent.
“There’s a lot of companies I’m in talks with,” Hale said. “But for people like me and rooftoppers on Instagram, there’s this desire to want to keep your work authentic. Obviously, I want to work with brands and create content for them, and to be able to fund what I want to do, but at the same time I think there’s a sort of caution from creators and rooftoppers, particularly to not sell it off in the wrong light and not just sell out just because they can.”
He also seemed to recognize the inherent danger in the practice. “I get a lot of messages from people asking, ‘oh can you show me how to get up on that rooftop blah blah blah’, and I always say no because I don’t want to be responsible for someone going up somewhere they’re not comfortable with, and if that goes wrong, that’s on my conscience.”
But, as Genera+ion seems to be showing, just the influence can be enough to push young, impressionable people into doing something extraordinarily dangerous. The show has a fairly light tone, but when a character seemed to be depicted as erratic does something that the more stable, adult presence is concerned with, the show isn’t exactly endorsing that behavior. The show seems to understand the thrill-seeking aspect of it, but, more importantly, is having someone step in to express just how troubling the behavior can be in general.
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