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Teen Dramas Misrepresent High School Experience

November 8, 2021

What is the typical American teenager? We look toward Archie Andrews from “Riverdale,” Serena Van Der Woodsen from “Gossip Girl,” and Sarah Cameron from “Outer Banks.” Actors in their 20s parade around school campuses playing high school-aged characters, rarely attending any classes and portray over-dramatic, hypersexualized storylines. 

How exactly is this characterization an accurate representation of American teenage life? Well, it’s not, and the real, living teens face the consequences of this poor representation. Teens learn by example, and television falsely portrays what constitutes an “ideal” teenager. Female characters are constantly oversexualized and depicted in seemingly unhealthy relationships, normalizing this behavior for teens.

On one hand, depicting sexual relationships in teenage characters teaches real-life teenagers that relationships and sexual interactions are normal and should be discussed. As teens grow up, it is crucial for them to learn how to have healthy conversations about sex and learn how to participate in safe sex. However, sexual characterizations on TV are constantly overexaggerated, dramatized, and quite unrealistic. For instance, Aria Montgomery, a protagonist in the show “Pretty Little Liars” dates her English teacher at age 16. While it’s an entertaining story, how exactly does it teach girls what constitutes a safe, acceptable relationship? It doesn’t, and television shows idealize sexuality and sexual interactions, forcing teens to misconstrue what is healthy relationship culture and set high, unachievable sexual standards. 

Camila Mendes starred as the 16-year-old high school sophomore Veronica Lodge in “Riverdale” when she was 22 years old. Chase Stokes played 17-year-old John B. Rutledge in “Outer Banks” when he was 28. These actors are setting high and completely unreal standards for teens, teaching them that the “ideal” teenager looks like an individual in their mid-20s. 

Teenage girls, in particular, are targeted by the media’s hypersexualization of their gender and age group. Tim Winter, the President of the Parents Television Council (PTC) stated that “the results from this report [“TV’s New Target: Teen Sexual Exploitation”] show [directors’] eagerness to not only objectify and fetishize young girls, but to sexualize them in such a way that real teens are led to believe their sole value comes from their sexuality.” TV shows falsely teach teenage girls that their intrinsic value is sexually-based: girls learn that their objectification is not only socially acceptable but it is “ideal.”

While there are series like “Sex Education” that depict teen sexuality and sexual interactions in a much more realistic way, many more people watch the dramatic teenage “soap operas” because they are entertaining. Obviously, TV shows are created for entertainment, allowing individuals to escape from the real world. Television series are created to entertain an audience and retain the most viewers; however, TV broadcast companies must be more careful about what they broadcast and how they rate their shows. All too often, teens conflate what they see on TV to what happens in real life, a dangerous practice especially for today’s popular shows. Without a fully developed prefrontal cortex, teens have a much more malleable brain, impacting their ability to reason and separate what is seen on the screen from real life. 

We need to think critically about what we broadcast to the greater population and how it is negatively impacting teenage populations. Teens are known to mirror what they see, so how can our teenage population be expected to have safe sex, realistic expectations, and healthy relationships if television shows constantly show them otherwise?

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