Last updated on September 28, 2022
In middle school, TV shows like “Pretty Little Liars” and “Gossip Girl,” dictated my view of how high schoolers acted and looked. Now, as a high schooler, I know that these actors do not look like pimple-faced 15 and 16-year-olds. They look like they’re 26 – and that’s because most of them are.
So, why do adults play teen characters?
Surprisingly, the actual reason is not sinister or twisted at all. As put by casting director Todd Thaler, “It’s all because of labor laws. The number of hours that children are allowed to work are highly restricted, which limits the amount of time that producers can actually be on set with adolescents.” While labor laws do make it more practical to cast adult actors for teen roles, they can change the viewing experience. There are countless tragic stories of child actors getting abused or groomed in the industry – casting more children would inevitably expose them to more opportunities for exploitation. Despite the logical and seemingly harmless use of adults for teen characters, the consequences are ubiquitous.
An example of the consequences of an altered viewing experience is the dreaded portrayal of the student-teacher relationship. It’s a familiar trope, seen in well-known shows such as “Dawson’s Creek,” “One Tree Hill,” and “Gossip Girl.” Often, the shows romanticize the uncomfortable power dynamic and age gap between the characters. If the intended audience of these shows is mostly tweens and teens, the trope is incredibly irresponsible and immoral, as it feeds a misconception that having a relationship with your teacher is safe, without consequence, and even something to aspire to. If the intended audience is adults, then that is equally, if not more concerning, as it lends itself to being extremely inappropriate; heavily sexualizing teens and feeding into twisted fantasies. Writers have a moral obligation to remember that the characters are usually teenagers, therefore they can not consent, especially not to someone in a position of power. Some say this is important in shows like “Euphoria” or “Skins,” because it is not unrealistic for students to have age-inappropriate relationships, therefore those experiences should not be censored. While I do see the logic behind that argument, both TV shows also display rampant drug usage, frequent abuse, as well as hypersexual activities between characters. Although it might be edgy or intriguing, the argument that it’s “relatable” to the teenage audience doesn’t suffice. Furthermore, even if it was relatable to a minority of teenagers, the shows still erroneously glamorize mental health issues, dangerous antics, and abusive relationships. While “Euphoria” adorns the issues with purple glitter tears, and Effy’s mental illness in “Skins” makes her more desirable to men, both shows fail to understand how the youth digests popular media. By glamourizing those issues, they trivialize the experiences of audience members who are going through similar circumstances.
Another downside of having adults play teenage characters is that they have adult bodies. This can create a negative complex for teenage viewers who will inevitably compare themselves to people who are fully past the age of puberty. The Hollywood Machine adds fuel to the fire by ensuring that the characters are always played by conventionally attractive people. Therefore, not only are you an adolescent comparing yourself to an adult, you’re comparing yourself to a very good-looking adult. As put by Barbara Greenbug, a clinical child development psychologist, “it can send the message that teens are supposed to look good all the time when in reality some days they’re a little heavier or thinner, they have pimples, their hair is frizzy, and it’s all okay.” Fellow Poly students agreed, pointing out that “flawless faces” or “a chiseled 8 pack” aren’t realistic, and in contrast to teens in popular media, we are “still developing.”
Shows like “Riverdale” and “Gossip Girl” emphasize the character’s maturity; they go home and have a glass of whisky then go shopping on 5th Avenue. The actors don’t dress like teenagers; they dress like adults. It is essential that the costume directors stay true to the plot; if the character is a teenager, they should look like a teenager. An example of authentic and realistic costuming was found in the movie “Lady Bird”, directed by Greta Gerwig. Saoirse Ronan was 23, way over the age of a high school senior, but was dressed in the very young look of a pinafore over a t-shirt. Her clothes are also perpetually disheveled, conveying to the audience that she is careless in a way that is authentic to teens. When adult actors playing teen characters still look and act like adults, it sends the message to real teenagers that they should be looking and acting like adults. This lack of representation can lead to the symbolic annihilation of real teenagers, resulting in them feeling like they are unworthy of representation. In short, the lack of accurate representation of what teenagers look like in the media can make a lot of teens feel unworthy or abnormal.
Lastly, sex in teen media is often too graphic, too voyeuristic, and too glamorized. In an anonymous Instagram poll, I asked some teenagers what they thought. They noted that it was “uncomfortable to think grownups might be watching this kind of content.” Whether we realize it or not, there has been a strong shift in the last 5-10 years towards more risque content in teen shows. Beth Daniels, a developmental psychology professor, explained that “if you think back to the first run of 90210, the majority of the characters, while they were in high school, did not have sex. Yet today, we see shows where the characters are not only sexually active, but having multiple partners, and that’s pretty uncommon for teenagers.” Upon reading this quote, I thought of “Gossip Girl.” While I’m not contesting that the original show was raunchy, there was still a sense of teen awkwardness in that Blair was waiting to lose her virginity, and the producers chose to omit more explicit content. When comparing that to the recent “Gossip Girl” reboot where characters have graphic sex on the screen within the first episode, it is evident that the way teen characters are being portrayed has shifted from just racy to extremely explicit. Surprisingly, the percentage of teens who’ve had intercourse has dropped from 54% to 38%% in the last 20 years. Conversely, in teenage-centered media, there has been a spike toward more graphic depictions of teenage behavior.
When it comes to portraying teenage life and experience in the media, there needs to be a balance of narratives. Censorship and shame towards sex can lead to misunderstandings and it continually puts teens in dangerous situations. That being said, do we really need to see it on TV? Often, it fails to serve the plot or be educational to its viewers. A fellow teenage student told me that they feel like there is a “fetish for teenagers from people who hated being one.” TV writers continue to ignorantly disregard things that teens need to be educated on. Teenage issues like consent, contraception, lack of STI information, anxiety, dysfunction, and trauma rarely get portrayed in the media.
Teen dramas glamorize unsafe practices and trauma far too often for their impressionable adolescent audience. Those that are made for adults are still watched by teens, and most importantly, they are exploitative and unrealistic depictions of a teenager’s life. Teens deserve responsible storytelling and authentic depictions of their life, not some lip-glossed flawless version. Networks and screenwriters have a moral obligation to shift towards prioritizing authentic teenage experiences for their audiences.