The distorted reflection of teens in television


Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Franklin

Distorted images of teen TV shows “Pretty Little Liars,” “Riverdale” and “Euphoria,” all of which feature adult actors and mature themes. Both “Euphoria” and “Pretty Little Liars” made it onto Teen Vogue’s “10 Best Teen TV Shows of the 2010s” list. Meanwhile, according to Mediaweek and Deadline, “Riverdale” was one of Netflix’s most popular shows across a global scale.

I will be the first to admit that I love trashy shows. Reality TV, vulgar comedies, stupid Hallmark movies — I will watch all of it. But in my latest binge of TV series, my focus has been on media that caters to my generation’s age range.

There’s something not quite right with some of the recent TV shows I’ve been seeing. These shows are telling stories about teenagers, except many of them are . . . not. These stories are about high school . . . but they’re not. These stories are about adolescents . . . but they’re not.

It’s like staring into a mirror, but instead of seeing yourself, you see a grotesque figure that hardly resembles your likeness; an image that is sure to leave you scratching your head in confusion. 

These teen TV shows that “display” our generation just fall short of correctly representing teens. One of the strangest things about these shows is that these teenagers don’t act like teenagers. They’re either hilariously dumb or weirdly adult-like, which isn’t surprising since most of the teenagers on TV shows are played by adults who look like adults.

Take “Riverdale,” for example. This six-season CW-produced and Netflix-distributed series revolves around Archie (KJ Apa) and his friends in a small town that is chock-full of mysteries. The show is notorious for having laughably atrocious dialogue and mind-boggling plot twists, but one of the most abysmal aspects of “Riverdale” is the fact that the main characters are basically mini-adults for most of the time that they’re supposed to be teenagers. Veronica (Camila Mendes) owns a nightclub, Jughead (Cole Sprouse) is the leader of a gang and Archie . . . well, who knows what he does? Besides being a complete mess of a show, it is also a complete mess of teenagerhood. The whole point of being a teenager is that we’re not yet adults. By heavily adultifying their teenage characters, “Riverdale” is discrediting the teenage experience and creating a false representation of adolescence.

Furthermore, “Euphoria” is a critically-acclaimed Home Box Office (HBO) series primarily about Rue (Zendaya), a teenager who struggles with addiction. That’s definitely an acceptable plot point — around 700,000 teenagers in the US struggle with some form of opioid abuse. But within the same show, we see a rather explicit scene that reveals a lot more than what the audience would expect from a show that’s supposed to be about minors. It would be different if these programs were making a point about the exploitation of teenagers or the abuse of power and the effect they have on victims, but they’re not. These scenes are for someone’s — certainly not mine — enjoyment, which, again, is strange because these television series are supposed to be about minors.

This isn’t the first time that these types of media have been criticized, and it certainly won’t be the last. However, showrunners could be a lot more mindful of what they choose to produce and how it affects the overall audience of the show. Research attests that the media plays a strong role in how teenagers view sex and relationships, so it’s important to illustrate true representation on the screen. 

And it’s not that any of these shows are bad, per se — except for “Riverdale;” that show is horrendous and I will die on that hill — but is it too much to ask for a little realism here? They don’t feel like shows about teens; they feel as if they are masquerading as teen shows, but are really for adults.

This is emphasized through the excessive sexuality that is exhibited in both shows, which is completely bizarre. It’s not that teenagers don’t have sex or drink alcohol, because many do, but the over-sexualization and light glorification of it all makes it weird, especially when you think about the fact that they’re underage minors. 

Not to mention that the awkward, inconvenient details of adolescence are left out of these shows. Explain to me how I’m supposed to have flawless skin and perfect teeth when everything stresses me out, please. Tell me how I’m supposed to juggle being the most unpopular kid in school while simultaneously being class president, choosing between three people to date and running from a serial killer. Last June, I think I guzzled down a Red Bull before my AP Exam since I was up until 2 a.m. the previous night studying, and then I still did awful on the test. Someone should create a show about that instead.

To be fair, my life is pretty boring, and I’m not sure anyone would want to watch a show about me. But there are ways to make a show exploring unrealistic premises without hypersexualization, creating nonrepresentational beauty standards or adultified characters who are supposed to be teenagers.

Some teen shows that have been more faithful to teen representation and fun to watch are “Never Have I Ever,” “On My Block” and “Young Royals.” Focusing on the most unpopular girl in school being fought over by two guys, teens getting caught up in a drug ring and a prince at a boarding school, respectively, these three TV shows are still based on fairly unrealistic premises. However, they all feature authentic aspects of teenagerhood that reflect our current population.

Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) from “Never Have I Ever” is one of my favorite characters. Sure, she can make dumb, emotionally-driven decisions and be a bit shallow, but so has every teenager at one point in their life. The lessons that she learns along her journey are ones that teenagers can resonate with; lessons and problems dealing with family, relationships and self-worth seem all too familiar to typical and atypical teens alike. 

“On My Block” imparts a friendship that waxes and wanes throughout high school while providing a look at the lives of teenagers who live in an inner-city neighborhood ravaged by gang wars. Although its premise can be illogical and silly at times, the characters all seem very realistic: they fight, laugh, grow apart and reunite.  

Finally, “Young Royals” features actors with acne instead of caking their faces in makeup; the teenagers in that show look like teenagers ripped from my school halls. The characters from this show also interact like students at my school do, not phone-obsessed zombies that seem to permeate stereotypes about today’s teenagers.  

While not perfect, these television programs are taking steps in the right direction to exhibit real teen culture during the late 2010s-early 2020s. Not all television catering to teens has to oversexualize its teen characters or fly off the rails to be considered good television, and these shows display that fact. I’m quite pleased to see more teen movies and TV series that embody the teenage spirit of Gen Z instead of the cringe-worthy or adultifying TV media that have shamefully defined our generation for the past decade. 

There’s nothing wrong with trashy television, but TV programs must not rely on the over-sexualization and adultification of their teenage characters to make a story shocking or good. We need teen shows to continue making more easily relatable figures so we can build that image in the mirror into something we’re proud of — together.