Way back in the day, teen movies still had an innocence to them.
Every Millennial is rejoicing over the fact that Gen Z loves and glorifies everything Y2K, from scrunchies and feathery bangs, to Britney Spears bops, to low rise pants. It’s clear to see that the early 2000s are having their comeback moment all over TikTok and the rest of social media.
Having just been a kid in the early 2000s, it’s exciting to see the trends I remember so faintly making their way back into the spotlight — hearing songs that had been locked away in a memory bank, seeing girls younger than me wearing the clothes my older sisters used to wear, and perhaps best of all, getting to revisit classic teen movies from back in the day.
On a recent binge of early 2000s teen flicks, it struck me: the movies made for teens back then aren’t anything like the ones being made today. Sure, Lindsay Lohan no longer plays every movie’s relatable girl next door, The All-American Rejects don’t play in the background anymore, and smartphones are everywhere, but it’s also more than that. The movies that cater to teens today miss a really important ingredient of the most popular 2000s classics: innocence.
What Movies Back in the Day Looked Like
The Princess Diaries depicted Mia discovering that she was a princess (definitely not a relatable experience), but we also saw her struggle with low self-esteem, as well as learning to own her new identity as royalty.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants took us on the journeys of four incredibly different young women, while offering us an image of female friendship.
Freaky Friday assured us we weren’t alone in feeling misunderstood by our parents (and also had us swooning over early 2000s heartthrob Chad Michael Murray).
A Walk to Remember, while relatively dramatic, dealt with bullying, the search for identity, and showed two teens actually getting to know each other instead of hooking up.
What a Girl Wants took us on an adventure as its protagonist finally gets the chance to meet her father for the first time, only to wonder if she can fit into his life (it also doesn’t hurt that she meets a cute British boy along the way).
Entertainment for Teens Today Takes a Different Approach
Somewhere along the way, entertainment for teens began regularly focusing on more mature topics: hooking up, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, or suicide. While these things do, of course, exist, it’s become commonplace for movies and TV shows aimed at teenagers to handle these heavier subjects, often without tact.
The Kissing Booth, while generally a cute, lighthearted movie, shows its young teen (read: minor) protagonist losing her virginity to a guy she’d kissed for the first time a couple scenes prior. The second installment of the franchise features an uncomfortably long, steamy sex scene with the same characters.
It's become commonplace for media aimed at teens to handle heavier subjects, often without tact.
Dude shows a group of adult actresses playing seniors in high school constantly doing drugs at parties, getting drunk, and even has a character that audiences are supposed to believe is a minor having oral sex performed on her while nude.
Euphoria (though not a movie, it’s still relevant) consistently portrays actors playing minors performing nude sex scenes and battling addictions, to the point where it seems like that’s normal for every teen.
Both Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars make light of sexual relationships between a teacher and a student, even romanticizing them, instead of portraying them as inherently abusive and inappropriate.
Teen Movies Back Then Were Closer to Reality
Our teenage years are odd. It’s a time when we’re smack dab in between childhood and adulthood, sticking our necks out to see what the real world is all about, but still mentally and emotionally immature and in need of guidance (even if that’s the last thing we want).
Obviously, for some teens, part of growing up does include doing “adult” things like sleeping around, doing drugs, or getting drunk at parties — at least, that’s what the majority of teen movies and TV shows seem to tell us. But in reality, less than 40% of high schoolers today are having sex. While some teens drink, less than 20% of them had engaged in binge drinking in the last month, according to one survey. Despite teen movies depicting rampant drug use, only 20% of teens reported having been offered drugs at school in the past year. These numbers indicate that sex, alcohol, and drugs aren’t what the majority of high schoolers deal with day to day.
Less than 40% of high schoolers are having sex, and only 20% report having been offered drugs at school.
It’s not necessary that art always represent reality perfectly, but the most effective entertainment will connect with its target audience by painting a picture they can relate to. The movies we kept coming back to all gave us characters we liked and identified with — because if there’s one thing teens need, it’s to feel understood.
Movies like The Princess Diaries and What a Girl Wants put their heroines in situations we’d never find ourselves in while illustrating the universal teenage battle of self-discovery, coming to like themselves, and crushing on a cute boy. Ultimately, these films were innocent in their portrayal of teens, true to much of what real teens experience day to day. Their stories centered on the very real struggles and experiences of young teens, rather than forcing mature subjects on immature audiences and illustrating them as normal issues to be dealing with.
Teens are a lot more innocent than we think — and it’s odd that we need such a reminder, since we were all teenagers at one point. They’re far more wrapped up in pinning down their identity, finding friends who feel like kindred spirits, battling their insecurities, and swooning over the cute guy in calculus. Early 2000s teen movies captured this innocence well, and it’s a shame that more teen-focused entertainment today doesn’t do the same.
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