Editor’s note: We run occasional pieces by young people in the Puget Sound area, giving their perspectives. This essay is by Disha Cattamanchi, a 15-year-old 10th grader at Juanita High School in Kirkland.
Nowadays, television audiences for teen shows and movies are conditioned to expect a cast of beautiful adults cosplaying as teenagers who commit perfect crimes like it’s a Tuesday night. This is drastically different from real life, with its plain, wide-eyed teenagers who are in a constant stage of overstressing and messing up. Shows such as “Gossip Girl,” “Pretty Little Liars,” “Never Have I Ever” and “Riverdale” portray the navigation of teenage life with some suspension of disbelief. The standard teenage depiction in TV shows and movies often do not portray the complexities and variance in teenage identity. In their attempt to be meaningful, productions sometimes end up reinforcing harmful stereotypes that come off as cringeworthy.
Many of today’s teen shows generally depict the liminal stage of navigating high school life and searching for identity. But most characters are often portrayed as one dimensional, defined by redundant high school roles. These stereotypes are being used to box teenagers in without offering depth: the jock that has feelings, the bad boy with a painful childhood, the goody-two-shoes virgin, the airhead cheerleader. These roles take away the complexity of a teenager, making their high school role their defining trait.
These tropes can also reinforce harmful gender stereotypes. Teens in “Riverdale” or “The Kissing Booth” exude only ultramasculine or ultrafeminine identities with nothing in between. This leaves out a whole population of teenagers who are exploring their identity. Nonbinary depictions also need to be normalized. More thoughtful teen shows like “Euphoria” and “I Am Not Okay with This” challenge these gender roles by expanding on how such limitations affect their characters in a meaningful way. In “Euphoria,” Nate Jacobs (Jacob Elordi) explores the consequences of toxic masculinity, while Jules (Hunter Schaffer) challenges the barriers of sexuality by breaking gender stereotypes. While some elements of “Euphoria” are not entirely realistic, it does produce meaningful, relatable characters that break out of their high school “roles.”
TV shows also heavily oversexualize teens and glorify sexual experience for the sake of entertainment. It’s perfectly normal for teens to explore their sexuality, but glorifying harmful experiences is not OK. It’s incredibly prevalent — from a 16-year-old Betty Cooper stripping in a biker club (“Riverdale”), to an underage Aria in a sexual relationship with her teacher (“Pretty Little Liars”), to Chuck’s many rapist tendencies with his casual relationships (“Gossip Girl”). None of this behavior is even “in” with the kids these days.
It also doesn’t help that showrunners cast adults for these teenage roles and use this to justify oversexualizing characters. These casting decisions are mainly due to labor laws, making it easier to cast adults who can work longer. By using adult bodies, creators can deceive themselves and their audiences into forgetting that they are watching minor characters.
Mental illness is also oftentimes heavily romanticized in teenage TV shows. Shows like “13 Reasons Why” have utterly failed to explore teenage identity through mental illness. Played by Katherine Langford, Hannah Baker’s suicide seemed more like a revenge arc than a thoughtful story on mental illness, as the show offered no depth to her other than being the girl who committed suicide. Shows like “Gossip Girl” that unhealthily glorify party culture for teenagers display no depth in any of their characters’ drug abuse (outside of the first season). This doesn’t mean that gritty subject matter shouldn’t be shown for teens — it should, but without glorifying it in the process. We need shows to display to teens that it’s OK to have mental illnesses, and that those illnesses don’t have to define them. One example of this portrayal is “Euphoria,” which showcases the effects of addiction through the character Rue (Zendaya). Rue’s drug use affects the people around her with its dangerous consequences, yet her addiction never defines her. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is another good example — it accurately shows the symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in teens and sheds a light on psychiatric hospitals.
Teen audiences are recognizing the need for new voices that explore different experiences in their stories: movies like “The Half of It,” a modern retelling of “Cyrano de Bergerac” with an introverted Asian American teen and a football player, or “The Hate U Give,” which showcases balancing two worlds for a Black teenager. Creators need to make something because they have a unique story to tell, not because they want a quick cash grab by rebooting a subpar “She’s All That.” Thankfully, some productions like “Euphoria,” “The End of the F***ing World,” “Lady Bird” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” seem to be coming back to a more grounded and innovative understanding of teenage experiences. Hopefully, TV shows and movies continue to move in this direction.