In the summer after seventh grade, I watched all 91 hours of “Gossip Girl” in just three weeks. My 13-year-old self ate up the overblown, over-sexed drama; I even started online shopping for prom dresses so I would have options when prom finally rolled around five years later. (Ironically, I never had prom due to COVID-19, a situation TV did not prepare me for.) Despite knowing on some level that “Gossip Girl” was not intended to be a realistic representation of the adolescent experience, my disappointment only grew as I watched more teen television shows and my high school experience became increasingly different from the one these television shows promised me.
Teen television almost always contains the same basic ingredients: upper or middle-class (sub)urban families, teenage characters who never do homework and lots and lots of sex. Depictions of high school on television focus on the social aspects — the parties, the dances, the dating and the gossip — and avoid the more mundane daily life of studying, doing extracurriculars and begging one’s parents for a ride because one lacks both a license and a car. As someone who watched teen television before even becoming a teenager myself, these shows set me up for a rude awakening in high school. I thought I would spend every afternoon at the mall or at some cafe that was mysteriously the only restaurant in town. And I really thought that I might have a boyfriend the day I stepped onto campus my freshman year. Instead, life continued as usual, only the work was harder, and there was more of it. Of course, these shows don’t purport to be anything more than entertainment, but there is clearly a gap between the representation of adolescence “as seen on TV” and the reality of the teenage experience — especially as it relates to romance and sex.
On the issue of dating in particular, some shows depict high stakes romantic situations in which issues of sex and virginity (Who has it? Who doesn’t?) are paramount. A 2010 article from “The Journal for Sex Research” assessed teen television programs that ran seasons from 2003-2004 and 2004-2005. Researchers found that out of 44 teenage characters, only two had undefined statuses of virginity and only one-third of the characters were not sexually active. Most of these characters were engaged in one way or another with sex or the discussion of sex.
The issue is not that teen shows are depicting adolescent sexual relationships; the problem arises when teen series stray into a grey area of portraying sex as the end all, be all of high school. In the first season of Friday Night Lights, an entire episode is devoted to whether two of the main characters, Julie Taylor and Matt Saracen, will have sex. Intense family drama ensues, and, long story short, they don’t end up sleeping together. In the third season, the topic is once again revisited. This time, the two have grown, matured and actually have sex. The morning after, Julie stares at herself dramatically in the mirror, and there is some suggestion that she has become a different person. Her journey from the first season to the third is complete; she has “grown up.” Once again, her parents don’t exactly see eye to eye with her, and there is another discussion about their concerns with Julie’s being sexually active. This time, the conversation is much more two-sided, and Julie’s mother accepts that she has to let Julie take responsibility for her own choices. In many ways, this storyline does justice to the decision to have sex for the first time, but the extension of the narrative across multiple seasons and multiple family dramas somewhat narrows Julie’s story to the time before she has sex to the time after. The show plays into the virgin vs. non-virgin dichotomy which TV shows love to emphasize, even though the issue is much less relevant to everyday teenage life.
The way “Friday Night Lights” handles sex also trickles into how dating is depicted. The show is rife with troubling examples of men treating women horribly and succeeding romantically for that behavior. One of the repeated subplots on the show is that “rally girls” are assigned to each of the players on the football team. These girls basically offer themselves up to the players, and these teenage boys are given license to do whatever they want to the girls. The girls do the players’ homework, bake for them, and basically follow them around in an effort to fulfill their every desire. The show did express some self-awareness about the problematic nature of the situation. Still, seeing this behavior espoused on screen was, frankly, gross. The depiction also felt dishonest: Among my own friends in high school, there were frequent discussions about romantic relationships, but we led busy, three-dimensional lives in which dating was just one of many components.
It’s hard to know if these shows are really driving teenagers towards behaviors they wouldn’t otherwise engage in. BJ Casey, a psychology professor at Yale who specializes in adolescence, explained that teenagers who are going to engage in “risky behaviors” were probably going to engage in those activities anyways, whether or not they had seen them represented on TV. “Teens are not stupid. They typically know what is real and what is fiction,” she said. “The extent to which television and these shows will impact them will depend on the extent to which they can really relate to the individuals.”
Regardless of what teens may or may not do, these shows can create certain expectations for these experiences. In 2009, a study of American teenagers published in “Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health” wrote that “two-thirds of sexually experienced teenagers in the United States say they wished they had waited longer to have intercourse for the first time.” They found that high percentages of teenagers regretted some aspect of their sexual initiation. Notably, more exposure to sex on television before having sex led to more regret after the fact for teenage boys. Jude Sack ’25 recalls the way he approached relationships during his early years of high school as a result of the “bad guy” trope often shown on teen TV. “Naturally, that becomes part of the culture,” he said. “The bad boys get the bad girls … When I’m younger, and I’m trying to figure out how to get girls, of course I’m going to have a phase where I’m an asshole.” Sack fell prey to what he described as “hypermasculinity,” especially in regards to romantic relationships, perhaps in part due to the example set by television.
As the expectations for television change with time and society demands a greater level of cultural awareness from the entertainment industry, it seems that the teen genre is grappling with how to represent adolescent sex and dating in a more authentic way. Out of this new awareness are born TV shows like “Sex Education.” The show depicts the good, the bad and the ugly of teen sex without shame. One of the most fascinating aspects of the show is the growth of the male protagonist, Otis. At the beginning of the show, Otis finds himself struggling with sexual repression and a fear of intimacy (due to walking in on his father cheating on his mother and the subsequent fallout of his parents’ marriage when he was younger). After developing a connection and sharing a kiss with the girl he likes, Ola, he ultimately works through his issues and is able to get involved in sexual and romantic relationships. Otis has many false starts and fumbles throughout the show. He is by no means absolved of the hypermasculine behaviors which often plague the teen TV show’s male protagonist and is sometimes dismissive and insensitive to the women he is romantically involved with. Still, in “Sex Education,” these behaviors are discussed, confronted, and overcome, as opposed to being promoted or ignored.
In high school, I was by no means the most confident or popular. The teen-oriented shows I watched planted some seeds of insecurity, and I sometimes wondered what I could change about myself to make myself more romanceable (as I imagine most teenagers do). Sometimes, it seemed like people were seeking hookups or relationships to fulfill what we were all told were the requirements of being a teenager. Everyone was trying to become the most sexual, most desirable, most dateable version of themself. High school almost felt like a fraud. After being promised so much excitement (AKA so much sex), people took drastic measures to make that “movie magic” high school experience into reality, a goal which would turn out to be a truly sisyphean task. I feel lucky in that I don’t think the example set by these shows ever drove me to do things I didn’t really want to; however, whether or not you were “immune” to these pressures, we were all, directly or indirectly, impacted by this confusion. At the end of the day, we don’t live out our teenage years on a stage in which our primary focus is to be beautiful and date our peers. We just have a lot more going on, and life isn’t that straightforward.
Teen shows constantly peddle expectations that would make even the most secure teenager doubt themself occasionally. On the issues of sex and dating, these shows can exacerbate worries that are already very much present in the teenage mind or create unachievable expectations. But even with the potential problems these shows present, they are also rife with visceral, intelligent, complex stories of adolescence. First loves, family hardships, bonds of friendship, and many, many mistakes are on the table in these TV shows. When these shows rise to the challenge, they can be true and beautiful. As professor Casey explains, “This is a time when, if for nothing else, the adolescent brain is so sensitive to social and emotional cues and contexts that I think they’re incredibly drawn by this entertainment because they’re trying to understand everybody’s responses to everyone’s behavior.”
In “Friday Night Lights,” for instance, the earnestness and richness of the show and its characters make it worth watching in spite of its flaws. In a journal entry from last year, I wrote:
“Friday Night Lights hurts my heart when I watch it because the characters are so good, and they care so much. Sometimes it makes me cry.”
The show allowed me to share in the triumphs and tragedies of characters who felt real to me. I didn’t always approve of their actions and the choices they made, but I wouldn’t say I always approve of the actions of people I know and cherish in real life either. The show made real for me the fact that being a teenager is often about making mistakes, and, in most cases, we all deserve understanding and forgiveness in our own processes of growing, maturing — or in other words, trying our very best to become ourselves. Is there any accurate way to represent adolescence when teenagers themselves are so malleable, ephemeral and full of contradictions? Maybe the issue isn’t accuracy at all, but rather honesty. If we seek and demand honesty in the teen television genre, there is a world of untapped potential to mine for the beauty that lies in the utter confusion of teenagehood.