Written by Jade Serna
“Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl”: a now infamous quote from “The Virgin suicides”, it perfectly encapsulates the deep anguish felt throughout girlhood, and the dissonance between girls and adults who fail to understand the complexity of emotions felt by these children, despite their short lives.
Teenage adolescence is one of the hardest stages of life to go through. And it is even harder navigating this time as a young girl. This is not mere opinion based on my own experience of those gruelling years, but fact.
Psychological studies repeatedly find that teenage girls have amongst the lowest levels of self-esteem when contrasted with other social categories and tend to develop depression twice as often as their male counterparts. The reasons for this are complex, and certainly in part due to the hormone fluctuations caused by puberty. But if we take a step back and look at the media landscape that is created for teenage girls, and therefore heavily influential for them, the harmful impacts of teen drama series for girls becomes illuminated.
In our digital age, media consumption is instrumental in forming a young person’s understanding of the social world. There remains an abundance of TV series intentionally curated for a teenage audience; Netflix has its own category of ‘teen shows’ and there seems to be a surplus of drama series that are targeted specifically for teenage girls. The evidence that ‘we are what we watch’ is extensive; the social effects of TV have been studied and shown to impact our thought patterns and ultimately our behaviour. As such, it is clear to see how media may impact teen girls, an already vulnerable age group due to the heightened impressionability that comes with being underage.
As I look back on my own teenage years of madness, where I had (it seems) this overwhelming desire to rebel, I can’t help wondering how many of my (rather dangerous) decisions were influenced by a media landscape that is saturated with hypersexual teen characters, where reckless behaviour is so heavily romanticised.
As a teen, I was not alone in my obsession with popular media at the time, such as “Skins”, “Pretty little liars” or “Gossip Girl”. In these shows, the female leads are often characterised by their wild and sexually deviant behaviour. Serena Van der Woodsen, one of the protagonists of 2007’s “Gossip Girl”, is typified by her unhinged and sexually reckless exploits, shown to have had multiple sexual partners by the age of 17. Similarly, Effy Stonem (female lead of “Skins”) again embodies the trope of the reckless teen girl and is shown to relish in debauched sexual encounters from the first episode, where she seduces a fellow student to have sex with her in the nurse’s office at school. Her character was supposed to be 16 at the time…
These scenarios are not only ridiculously far-fetched but inaccurate, where developmental psychologists have shown that teen dramas hugely misrepresent the reality that many high school students are not sexually active. However, in modern depictions of teen characters it seems that not only are they sexually active, but they have multiple partners.
Picture from Skins generation 2
It begs a pressing question: when girls are bombarded by a media landscape filled with portrayals of young girls as sexually devious and reckless party animals, what else do we expect of them but to copy what they see? Teenage girls are often stereotyped by adults as being these raunchy, rowdy, and reckless individuals. Yet is it not adults who are creating the media that strives to portray girls in exactly this manner? It seems teenage girls are placed in an impossible situation, only living up the societal expectations that have been thrust upon them. And yet, this sad fact does not stop them from being shamed when acting out the unhealthy dynamics that they see on screen.
And it is not only the sexualisation of teenage characters that is the sole harmful aspect of these tv shows, but the vastly unrealistic beauty standards that they enforce. It is no secret that adult actors play teen characters. While the reasons for this are more pragmatic than insidious, usually concerning labour laws, the unfortunate effect is that the shows then promote unrealistic aesthetic standards, gradually changing the way teens are represented and in turn the expectations teens have of what they ‘should’ look like. It seems representations of ‘teenagers’ have suddenly become infiltrated by adults with fully grown bodies and perfect skin. In just one example of the huge age difference between the actors and the characters they embody, Alexa Demie, who plays a key character from the hit show “Euphoria”, was 28 when playing her 17-year-old character. However, teenage girls are often ignorant to these facts or otherwise dismissive of them, still feeling a pressure to look and dress the same as their TV idols.
It is hard to find teen TV shows that do not subscribe to the pervasive erasure of real teen bodies and fashion. The reality is that teenagers have acne, with studies showing how approximately 85% of teens have struggled with this issue. Moreover, teens do not dress in the raunchy, designer pieces that are seen in tv series. Euphoria’s Maddy Perez’s iconic purple I am Gia cut out carnival outfit is a prime example of media distortions of real teen fashion. It fails to reflect the truth that teens often dress in an awkward style, aligning with the coming-of-age passage in being experimental and unsure of what suits your rapidly changing body.
Though it is teens who enjoy watching these heightened versions of reality, with there being an argument for artistic freedom having its place in media, we must ask; at what cost are such dramatizations having for teens in real life? From the impressionable ages of 13-17, girls often look to the media for guidance. This has been shown to be even more pronounced amongst girls that come from broken homes. What does it do to a young girl’s sense of self-worth when they see their TV role models gain male validation only from their looks and the use of their bodies? It cements harmful ideas that a woman’s worth is based off her appearance, teaching that through sex with men they become worthy. These ideas stick with girls long after they have surpassed their fleeting teenage years, creating generations of women who are burdened by a landscape of internalised misogyny.
It may seem radical to make a call for media alterations, but I believe we must strive to change the way this category is represented, for teenagers’ engagement with media is only increasing.
Arguably, to do nothing is to be complicit in the rising levels of mental health issues and suicide rates found amongst of teenage girls. The idea of the hypersexual, reckless teen girl has only recently been ‘made’ through media representations: it can therefore be ‘unmade’. To change the current narrative that enforces the idea that a girl’s worthiness is predicated on her attractiveness, let us have more realistic on-screen scenarios played by actors with normal bodies dressed in normal clothing! To feel ‘seen’ in media goes a long way for young girl’s self-esteem, and to see sex scenes that may be awkward or involve a loving relationship would show girls that they don’t need to turn themselves into sex objects to be loved or valued.
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Read related articles: A Multiverse of ‘Madness’ – The Cultural Phenomenon of Being a Young Woman