The Trials and Tribulations of Teens on TV

Today’s onscreen teenagers face tougher challenges than ever before—and have much more to teach us, say Tufts media experts

Rue, the 17-year-old main character of the HBO television show Euphoria, is addicted to fentanyl and morphine. She’s in an emotionally manipulative relationship with a transgender girl, her father died of cancer when she was 14, and her mother both pulls her closer and pushes her away in a way that Rue finds confusing. 

Euphoria doesn’t hold back from showing high school-age teenagers struggling with addiction, racism, violence, difficult relationships, and sexually compromising situations, and has been criticized for its boundary-pushing content. But this unflinching exploration of the gritty realities that many teens face opens the door to greater understanding for real teens, and often adults as well.

Tasha Oren, director of the Film and Media Studies Program, says contemporary representations of teens resonate because they feel reflective of teens’ actual experiences (if, at times, only emotionally or in overdramatized form). They also appeal to broader audiences, she notes, because they explore questions of identity and struggle in a context of growth and development.

Other popular teen shows, such as Sex Education and Never Have I Ever, have a lighter hand and a sense of humor but also feature teenagers in tough situations as they attempt to find themselves. In previous eras, these situations were much more the purview of TV adults.

“For the past 30 years or so, teen life has been the place where all Americans—not only teens—can talk about intense topics,” Oren points out. “In these stories, everything tends to be a little exaggerated. But because teens experience things so intensely, you can intensely examine questions everyone is interested in, questions of gender, identity, sexuality, community, ethics, and emotions.”

So much content now is focused on the struggles involved in forming gender and sexual identities, contending with difference, or forming a stable sense of self. The explorations are different from what they were in the past—more explicit, with more risk and boundary-crossing, and without simplistic judgement.”

Tasha Oren, director of the Film and Media Studies Program

New, More Intense Representations of Sex

Teenagers struggling to find themselves is nothing new. But portraying teens facing conflicts that were once reserved for adults, with a focus on characters who may not be likable but need help, is relatively new, Oren says.

Also relatively new is the on-screen acknowledgement that teens are having sex—often, as in Euphoria and Sex Education, in great quantities. In addition, these days, teen sex is sometimes portrayed as violent, threatening, or disturbing; happening outside of committed relationships; freely exploring sexual and gender identity; and carrying possible consequences. In Sex Education, one scene shows a teenager in a clinic having an abortion.

As Oren puts it, “Right now we have a number of big streaming services investing in serious drama about teens—and specifically about teen sexuality. So much content now is focused on the struggles involved in forming gender and sexual identities, contending with difference, or forming a stable sense of self. The explorations are different from what they were in the past—more explicit, with more risk and boundary-crossing, and without simplistic judgement.”

But even as teenagers see their own realities reflected in today’s dramas and representations, they also see images that inaccurately reflect how they look and carry themselves. 

Content creators tend to choose actors over the age of 18 to portray teenagers in order to avoid logistical and legal challenges, says Jennifer Burton, professor of practice in the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, who runs a film and television company called Five Sisters Productions.

“That creates a whole host of issues,” she explains. “When you’re over the age of 18, many of the physical issues that teens are still dealing with—changes in weight, facial hair, and the other things that happen as you grow—are already resolved. There’s much more of a consistent beauty standard that’s upheld, and that creates unattainable standards for real-life teens.”

Another common problem with teen representation—especially when it comes to gender and sexuality—is stereotyping, says Jennifer Burton’s sister Gabrielle Burton, a co-founder of Five Sisters Productions who has frequently mentored Tufts students working on film projects. “Even while so many shows and films these days are mindful of rethinking outdated notions about casting, there are still stereotypes—for example, of LGTBQ individuals, that flatten out reality for teens, tropes that ultimately can isolate individuals who feel they don’t fit the stereotypes,” she says. 

So Much Anxiety

In addition to gender and sexuality, many shows featuring teens focus on other complex topics.

Suicide takes center stage in the TV show 13 Reasons Why and the musical Dear Evan Hansen, and the death of a parent in Never Have I Ever, which also explores the stress of academic overachievers and the challenges of growing up in an immigrant family in the United States.

There’s also the gang violence in the drama series On My Block; eating disorders in the show Everything Now;  ethical transgressions, such as unbridled psychological manipulation of others, in the film Saltburn; and mental illness in the TV series Shameless (and also in Euphoria)—and the list goes on.

In general, anxiety plagues teen characters in today’s media representations—which reflects reality, Oren said. 

“There’s a kind of overwhelming anxiety about this moment in time for teens in general. We have looming ecological and political disasters, and, as a generation, today’s teens can’t expect the same economic stability that their parents have, or even a clear or predictable path to a career,” she says. “Teenagers now face questions about the economic, political, social, and cultural future, all within a media environment that they experience as unprecedented. I’m struck when I watch shows with teen protagonists by how intense this anxiety is.”

A Broader Representation of Perspectives

But it’s not just greater anxiety driving these onscreen portrayals of negative aspects of teen life. In part, Oren says, it stems from the greater diversity of perspectives at play in the film and television industries today. 

“Unlike in the past,” she explains, “these industries are giving us the voices of more than just straight white men. We’re seeing a broader set of voices contributing to the conversations. Tonally, in terms of the writers who are being hired, the stories that are being told, casting-wise, perspective-wise—there’s an opening. And the willingness to portray more diverse experiences has helped create a willingness to discuss more difficult experiences.”

This is especially true for content creators who make a point of reversing underrepresentation and telling stories that haven’t had enough airtime, like the Burton sisters. “We have the power to break down some stereotypes simply by presenting parts of a world naturally, without drama,” notes Jennifer. 

She admired a scene in Never Have I Ever in which the Indian family at the center of the show eats dinner at home with a non-Indian individual. As is the case in many Indian households, they eat with their hands. “The show’s creators could have made a big deal about that,” she says, “but they didn’t. They allowed the characters their complexity and the natural, unremarkable aspects of their identities.” 

Plenty of shows and other media productions use the intensity of their representations to make larger points about relationships and survival in a difficult world, Gabrielle adds. “There’s an intentionality behind them, and if that intentionality is there, then the content in these shows”—including the ones that portray teens in extreme situations—“can be very rich and very important.” Sex Education is on the surface about teen obsession over sex, but deeper down it’s about love and the centrality of relationships among people, she says.

Oren says that audiences, especially teens, can benefit from the intensity and extremity of today’s media representations in an additional significant way: “There’s a sense of community that develops around many of these shows,” she says. “Teens recognize themselves, and they talk to one another about what they recognize.”

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