Turkey’s 'avokado tost' millennials on TV

Turkey too has its fantasy of millennial avocado-eaters. It’s not often that a TV series in Turkey addresses the particular economic and social challenges that millennials face, but Bonkis is here to change that. Available on the streaming platform BluTV, it follows a cast of hipster millennials and narrates their everyday struggles.

In recent times, everyone has been talking about Generation Z, and rightly so! People who are in their teens and twenties today are transforming the country: from the students at Boğaziçi University and elsewhere fighting for academic freedom to the millions of young people who will reach voting age by the general elections of 2023. 
 
Not so long ago, however, it was millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) who were seen as both the promised generation of social change and, for conservatives, the destroyer of all things holy. The hysteria around millennials began in the United States in 2011, around the time of Occupy Wall Street. Research by think tanks had just reported that millennials in the US were on the path to be the first generation economically worse off than their parents’ generation. Faced with the bankruptcy of the American dream, many blamed millennials themselves. In op-eds for prestigious media outlets, wealthy commentators argued that young people were lazy, entitled, and just not interested in contributing to society. 
 
In one particularly notorious article, a commentator argued that the reason millennials could no longer afford to buy homes was that they spent all their money on avocado toast. (The culprit could certainly not be economic crisis, stagnant wages, or a generalized decrease in the standard of living, no, but rather hipster eating habits.) 
 
Turkey too has its fantasy of millennial avocado-eaters. Though it is not the fatty, green fruit that is blamed for the bad economic prospects of people in their late twenties and thirties. Instead, popular complaints about “kids these days” are based on the idea that they “don’t like the jobs” (iş beğenmiyor). If young people would just get over their inflated sense of self and be willing to waste years on higher education only to labor days, nights, and weekends at an exploitative firm for barely more than minimum wage—why then, youth unemployment would evaporate overnight! 
 
It’s not often that a TV series in Turkey addresses the particular economic and social challenges that millennials face, but Bonkis is here to change that. Available on the streaming platform BluTV, it follows a cast of hipster millennials and narrates their everyday struggles. In the series, Deniz (a 35-year-old woman acted by the show’s screenwriter Deniz Tezuysal) runs a cafe called Bonkis. The made-up name, she explains, means “someone who eats avocados for breakfast.” 
 
When the series begins, Bonkis is in serious trouble. No customers are coming to Deniz’s cafe and she is quickly running out of money. During an emergency meeting with her trusty group of co-workers/best-friends (including popular soap opera actor Burak Sevinç as a cook), they float the idea that the cafe should start selling more popular breakfast foods. How about menemen (a traditional tomatoey egg dish) instead of avocado toast? Deniz is utterly opposed to the idea. Her dream was to open a stylish and original breakfast place, not a restaurant that serves what everybody expects. 
 
So begins the show’s central problem: Deniz and her friends’ plot to save the cafe. The series is a comedy with each tight-paced episode clocking in at no longer than 20 minutes. Writer and main actor Tezuysal was inspired by classic American comedies like Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. As a lovable screw-up, Deniz is always getting into absurd situations in her quest to keep her cafe afloat. In the show’s first scene, we see her practicing a speech to her parents in the mirror. Though it hurts her pride, she is finally breaking down and asking for a loan. When Deniz finally asks her mom (played by Lale Mansur) in person, she is treated to an all-too-familiar interrogation about why she isn’t married yet, and what all her more successful friends are doing, and why she left her good architectural career to open this money-pit of a cafe. 
 
At another point in the show, Deniz’s friend Ilgın (Vildan Atasever of İki Genç Kız-fame) finds a rich benefactor who wants to transform the cafe into a “feminist pavyon” (a pavyon is a kind of gritty nightclub where heavily made-up hostesses and singers encourage men to spend exorbitant sums of money). When they start serving alcohol at Bonkis as part of the plan, Deniz and her friends begin a cat-and-mouse game with the municipal police tasked with enforcing liquor license regulations. Hilarity ensues. 
 
Meanwhile, Deniz’s romantic life is as much in shambles as her professional life. She ends up sleeping with the brother of her ex-boyfriend’s new fiancé, who she meets when she accidentally ends up at that ex-boyfriend’s engagement party. The interaction only pushes her to realize that she is still in love with her ex, but he won’t have anything to do with him after she has sex with a bartender while they were on an ambiguous “break” in their relationship (note the Friends reference). 
 
It is significant that Deniz, this symbol of the millennial screw-up, is a woman. In Turkey, the kind of slacker figure associated with such shows as Broad City, Fleabag, or Russian Doll is rarely represented on TV. Women are pressured not only to have successful careers and attain conventional beauty standards but also be chaste, marry well, and become mothers. On Turkey’s soap operas, it is only as a villain or bad character that you will see a woman in her mid-30s that dates around as she pleases, has wide interests but maybe not an established career, and who dresses however she wants. It is on streaming platforms that these representational stereotypes are being broken. 
 
Other BluTV series have shown the range of millennial experience. For example, Bartu Ben portrayed the hipster milieu of Kadıköy and the realistic struggles of a washed-up young actor heading slowly toward financial ruin. The main character of this severely under-rated series is Bartu Küçükçağlayan, an award-winning actor and singer of the popular indie rock band Büyük Ev Ablukada. In fact, this is the exact milieu from which Bonkis writer and star Tezuysal comes. Her husband is a guitarist in Büyük Ev Ablukada and her idea for the series comes from her experience opening a cafe in the swanky Istanbul neighborhood of Moda with her childhood friend Öykü Karayel (the acclaimed actress from the Netflix series Ethos). 
 
In fact, the similarities between Bartu Ben and Bonkis show one of the limitations of this style of series. On the one hand, these shows are path-breaking in their representation of the everyday realities of a generation. On the other hand, what makes both stories possible is that the protagonists are rich, or at least proximate enough to money. Bartu wastes his money as an actor on an overly expensive penthouse apartment and then has to crash on a friend’s couch. What he experiences is not poverty but charming frivolity. Deniz may not like the idea of asking for a loan, but she always has the option of having her parents bail her out or else returning to her profession as an architect. After all, even if these characters do not always have financial capital close to hand, their cultural capital affords them all sorts of possibilities that their less fortunate millennial peers do not have. 
 
This is not to say that the stories of artistic, hipster millennials should not be told. Bonkis is a refreshing show with a brisk sense of humor that does much for challenging conventional representations of women. Let’s hope that shows like this continue to open the path for showing a variety of generational experiences.

February 14, 2021 Take me to the moon!