Bo Burnham’s definition of anxiety is frighteningly accurate

Burnham, writer and director of “Eighth Grade,” and Elsie Fisher, its star.
Burnham, writer and director of “Eighth Grade,” and Elsie Fisher, its star.
Image: Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP
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Bo Burnham created a movie called Eighth Grade, and in one fell swoop, America fell in love. Not only with Elsie Fisher, the delightfully awkward star who plays the film’s 13-year old protagonist, but also with the gut-wrenching anxiety coloring her every breath.

Burnham, a 27-year old comedian from Boston, rose to fame by embodying eccentricity. His standup—he’s released three Netflix specials, the first when he was just 22—vacillates between an on-stage panic attack, and musical manifestation of our culture’s most-repressed truths. Burnham is brilliant for sure, but to many, Eighth Grade was a surprise, coming from him. For most adults, understanding the psychology of an unpopular middle-school girl in 2018—or any middle-school girl, for that matter—is nearly impossible. Depicting that experience on screen, with nuance so light and realism so cutting it’s hard to believe the film was scripted at all.

And yet, Burnham did it. Elsie Fisher brought it to life. And the result, in, and beyond, the box office, is glorious. If you haven’t seen Eighth Grade, go see it.

Beyond the plot (tweenage Kayla Day’s last week in middle school), Burnham’s film resonates across ages and demographics because it refuses to moralize and over-knead on anxiety—the mental illness that over 40 million Americans experience—or on the influence of social media on mental health. Such delicacy can only be demonstrated by someone who personally understands the pain, fear, and occasional beauty of living with anxiety, which Burnham undoubtedly does.

Locating the angst of the truly shy

Speaking with Teen Vogue journalist Lauren Duca at the 92nd Street Y in New York City on July 22, Burnham explained his creative process, the inspirations for Eighth Grade, and how he defines anxiety.

When Duca asked Burnham why he cast Fisher, he said that despite seeing hundreds of kids, the movie was “truly meaningless” until Fisher, who started filming the day after she graduated eighth grade, read Kayla’s part. (Fun fact: Fisher, now an early Oscars bet, was rejected in casting for her middle school’s play.)

“[The script] is about a shy girl who’s voted ‘most quiet’ in her class—a superlative I really had in my high school, which is so cruel,” said Burnham. “And people don’t realize that shy people do not self-identify as shy, truly. What Elsie understood, which none of the other young actors did, is that shyness isn’t cowering in the corner and not wanting to speak. Shyness is wanting to speak in every moment, and not being able to. That’s what anxiety is, too.” (The young actor’s success in the role draws up her experience with anxiety, as she explains in this beautiful Teen Vogue op-ed.)

What’s more, Burnham says he related to Fisher far more than anyone would expect. Eighth Grade exists, he says, because girls like Fisher saw themselves in his comedy.

“I was struggling trying to be honest on stage—which for me, being honest on stage couldn’t be like ‘Nan, my laundry.’ No, honesty for me is like, ‘I’m struggling with being on stage in front of all these people staring at me, it’s super weird and it makes me feel super anxious’—so I would talk about it,” Burnham explained.

He thought this would make performing awful, because no one would get his comedy unless they were also an anxious, “24-year-old white, male D-list celebrity.”

“Then I would do the show, and 14-year-old girls would come up to me and say, ‘I feel exactly like you do.’ And I was so surprised, I couldn’t understand it,” said Burnham. “And this ties back to the movie because if there was a bridge I had to walk to write the script, it was built by them to me first. I felt understood personally by people like Kayla before I presumed to understand Kayla.”

Living out loud can be surreal

The truth, Burnham realized, is that anyone who’s online—famous or not—is now their own publicist and biographer, responsible for curating their personal “brand.”

“It’s horrifying,” he said, “but learning this was two sides of the same coin for me: One obliterated what was my deepest fear, that I was alone in my anxiety, and one saved my life, that I am not unique. I was worried that what I was feeling was so deep, that I was so smart…I told myself I’m just anxious because I’m living the coolest life. I’m just so in my head, and I’m just fucking Ernest Hemingway or something. And no, it’s not true. My stresses are very very common, and shared by everybody. And that led to this movie, because if I’m being honest with you, my experience in totality is equal to or less than that of a regular, 13-year-old girl. I believe that.”

To this, a teenage girl raised her hand and shared that she, too, struggles with anxiety. And that in high school—she had just graduated—she received the superlative “most likely to own a ton of cats.”

“Which is basically the die-alone superlative,” she said.

“That is awful,” Burnham said. “That’s sexist, too. What’s really bad is that people think that superlative is funny. That laughter is actually what’s being used against you.”

The girl released an audible sigh. She looked like she felt seen.

“I’ve tried to talk to people about my anxiety, but they just don’t understand,” she replied. “They’ll try to be supportive, but they’ll be like, ‘Oh, calm down,’ or, ‘It’s just in your head.’ And sure, that doesn’t help me one bit. I wish I could calm down, that would be great. So how have you, in your experience with anxiety, bridged the gap between people who care about you, and want to help, but just don’t understand what you’re going through?”

Burnham was impressed. First, he explained, it’s ridiculous dismiss a feeling as “just in your head,” because “nothing is significant as an experience if it doesn’t register in your head.” Then he went deeper:

“You know, I didn’t speak it out loud until I was 23 or 24,” he said, referring to his anxiety. “I didn’t say the word to myself, and this movie was more me admitting it to myself than anything else. I was afraid. I thought if I said it out loud, I would make it real, and it turned out to be the exact opposite,” he explained, noting that in his early twenties he had frequent panic attacks onstage, in front of thousands of people. “So you’re way ahead of me. Being where you are at your age, and even admitting it to yourself, admitting it out loud that you have anxiety, that’s progress.”

The reality confounding those who don’t live with anxiety, Burnham explained, is that regardless of what a situation objectively looks like—whether you’re performing in front of a massive audience, or simply raising your hand in class—anxiety makes every situation feel surreal.

“But how do you get people to really understand what ‘surreal’ feels like,” Duca pressed.

Burnham replied with the most accurate, vivid description of anxiety I’ve ever heard. (Take that as you will, me being a deeply anxious person who spends much of her time reading and writing about mental health.):

The problem with anxiety, and I think it can bleed into other mental problems as well, it disproportionately tends to select people that want to be a little closed off and singular. And the feeling of anxiety itself, I describe it as, it’s like riding a bull, and the bull is your nervous system. And you’re just trying to hold on, and being in the world is so hard because everyone else is an equestrian to you, and you’re the only one who has to struggle with this thing.

And that just isn’t true. I think the part some anxious people, myself included, don’t want to admit is that you don’t actually want to believe that your experience is shared. You actually want to be alone in this experience of anxiety, because it means you’re special. But you have to let that go. Because that is dark, it’s really dark.

And that is just it. That duality—between riding the bull of your nervous system, while wishing everyone wasn’t so  damn put together, and feeling, deep down, that your anxiety gives you an edge, and that without it, you might not be so special—is the inexplicable conflict of living with mental illness.

It’s why Kayla, in Eighth Grade, does everything in her power to scrub off her oddities, and appear “normal.” It’s also why Kayla liberates herself by making YouTube videos in which she attempts to explain what it feels like to be anxious, and that it’s OK to be self-conscious. Understanding these struggles makes her unique, and without that inside knowledge, she rids herself of her own power.

That lonely place between thought and action

The duality Burnham describes is also why many artists fear treatment, concerned that without their anxiety or depression, they’ll lose their genius. And why people like me secretly view the mainstream wellness movement as both a blessing and a curse—afraid that if everyone else is anxious too, I’ll lose the justification for my sensitivity, occasional paralysis, and my personality at large.

The simultaneous ubiquity and singularity of anxiety is what makes the condition so confusing, and so ceaselessly ripe for raw, artistic representation. Burnham understands this truth, and translates it deftly. Many others do too, and his film can encourage them to speak up, create, and share.

“Part of the experience of being young—being alive, being anybody—is the gulf between the idea of the thing you have in your head, and the way it comes out of your face,” Burnham concluded. “That can be really hard. It was really hard for me, too. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.”