Just a quick scroll through some of the most popular TV shows today makes one thing clear: we love watching shows about high schoolers. We’re all too familiar with the dramas of being a teen, when we feel everything so deeply, think a small embarrassment is the end of the world, and have so much of our lives up in the air. The interesting combination of being so close to finally being an adult, yet still having so much kid in us, is one that our nostalgic hearts can’t get enough of.
And yet, we also know that our experience of high school is often entirely different from what we see onscreen. Teenage characters regularly wear incredibly expensive, fashion-forward outfits, have impressively full social lives, seem to never have any schoolwork, and magically get into Ivy-League colleges without working that hard. In short, high school onscreen and high school offscreen have very little in common.
High school onscreen and high school offscreen have very little in common.
Even worse and more harmful is the constant portrayal of supposed 16-year-olds, often being portrayed by actors in their mid-20s, as sexually active, boasting the sex life of a full-grown adult in a years-long relationship. Is this the message we should be sending to teens?
The Pressure Teens Feel
It’s no secret that teenagers are easily influenced. In a time when they’re searching for identity and desperately want to be cool, teens look to their favorite fictional characters and emulate their behavior. While some might copy Rory Gilmore’s work ethic and book obsession, others will see Aria from Pretty Little Liars secretly hooking up with her English teacher and glorify it – or the reversal of that situation in Riverdale, when Archie sleeps with his teacher Miss Grundy as a "forbidden romance," when in fact, it's statutory rape.
Maybe they’ll watch a few episodes of Euphoria, known for its portrayal of explicit teen hookups, and conclude that random hookups are cool. More than anything, teenagers crave validation from their peers and often regard fictional characters as their mentors.
It Doesn’t Coincide with Reality
We might assume from shows like Gossip Girl, Elite, 90210, or films like American Pie or any of the Friday the 13th movies that the grand majority of teenagers are sexually active – but that’s not the case. Over half of high schoolers aren’t sexually active at all, despite what Hollywood shows. This dangerous misconception about teens’ lives leads us to believe they’re far closer to adulthood than they actually are – and for high schoolers looking to fit in, this is exceptionally harmful.
Cassie's character in Euphoria is pressured into sending nudes and making sex tapes.
Shows like Euphoria never sit right with me – obviously, the actors portraying teenage characters usually are well into their 20s, but as an audience, we’re supposed to believe these kids are no older than 17, right? So why would we want to see them engaging in sexual activity? The constant portrayal of what we’re being asked to believe is a 16-year-old’s sexual encounters, especially those that explicitly depict the nudity of a fictional minor, is honestly downright creepy and predatory, and entirely unnecessary to tell a good story.
Plus, does anyone ever stop to realize that this content would be illegal to share if the actors were actually the age of the characters they're portraying?
Treating a minor as a sexually mature individual only plays into the idea that children and teens should grow up before their time and handle encounters with a maturity they don’t yet possess. If we’re actually against the over-sexualization of young girls and women, it’s time to stop portraying high schoolers as sexually active.