Since the break of dawn, Hollywood has focused on teenage shows and pop culture as a way of catering to its teenage market. But how accurately do these shows portray the lives and looks of real teenagers? If we take just two shows, Euphoria and Riverdale, both feature adult actors playing teenage characters. Cole Sprouse, who is now 30, plays Jughead Jones on Riverdale — a role meant for an 18-year-old. Using adult actors to play teenagers is hardly new (think Dawson’s Creek), but neither is it realistic. The real question we should be asking is what impact this has on young people who watch and admire these shows. Somehow, teenagers’ lives are consistently being shown to involve nothing but perpetual drama, ex-boyfriends, betrayal and rebellion — which is problematic if you consider the average teen’s life.

Hollywood’s Twisted Take on Teens

From James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause to The Breakfast Club, Hollywood has been fond of depicting teenagers as symbols of angst and rebellion. When it comes to showing older characters with a mutinous streak such as Suicide Squad‘s Harley Quinn, her pathological charm and anti-heroism are often celebrated despite the mindless violence, while her behaviour and dress sense mimic that of a teen. Given that many young audiences glorify and even identify with her character, this raises deeper questions about the impact such portrayals have on impressionable viewers.

Notably, traditionally feminine characters are frequently portrayed as uncool and annoying through the Hollywood lens. Kelly Kapoor from The Office is obsessed with pop culture and social media and has a tendency towards being dramatic and emotional; equalities that are given a negative spin by the Hollywood machine. There are several possible reasons for this, one being that modern (western) society tends to devalue traditionally feminine traits, such as emotional expressiveness, nurturing and sensitivity in favour of more masculine ones such as independence and assertiveness. Subsequently, a precedent has developed where female characters that imitate masculine traits are better received by audiences.

The glorification of rebellious behaviour has encouraged certain familiar tropes. The ‘I am not like other girls’ affirmation was widely popularised in ’90s films such as 10 Things I Hate About You where the female protagonist, Kat Stratford, disapproves of her sister Bianca’s lifestyle as a popular girl interested in fashion and boys. The ‘typical’ teenager never had a chance where Hollywood was concerned. Rather, going against the grain was what sold and still sells tickets.

Internalizing & Imitating

Have you ever watched a movie and started behaving like the main character for a few days? I certainly did. Sometimes we tend to imitate what we like. Even though it’s generally a harmless practice, it can also reflect deeper identity issues. When we watch movies or television shows, we naturally become emotionally invested in the characters and their stories. If we identify with a particular character, we may start to adopt their behaviours, attitudes, and even beliefs.

When we see characters portraying and glorifying negative behaviours, such as violence and rebellion, it can lead to real-life consequences. A teenager that internalizes the message that rebellion against authority is cool may begin to push back against their parents, teachers, or other authority figures, potentially leading to conflict and negative outcomes. Similarly, a viewer who idolizes a character like Harley Quinn — someone that commits acts of mindless violence and murder — may be more likely to tolerate or even justify violent behaviour in real life. If a video game can make a young adult more violent, why not a film or TV series?

Another area that needs frank discussion is Hollywood’s predictable portrayal of beauty standards. This is one other dark corner where internalisation can wreak havoc with a young person’s body image and self-esteem. Teen dramas like Riverdale or Gossip Girl feature predominantly thin, conventionally attractive teenage actors and actresses. The pressure to emulate a certain manufactured image can create unrealistic and even dangerous expectations of how teenagers should look. Becoming dissatisfied with one’s face or body can contribute to a range of problems from eating disorders to depression and anxiety. A study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that exposure to images of thin, conventionally attractive models and actresses was associated with increased body dissatisfaction and decreased self-esteem among young women.

Reality Check?

Too many Hollywood productions featuring or focusing on teenagers systematically lack realism and fail to portray the full range of teenage experiences. Consider Mean Girls and The Breakfast Club. Both films present high school as a place where social hierarchies and cliques reign supreme, with characters vying for popularity and attention. While these aspects of teenage life may be a reality for some, they are certainly not universal experiences. Likewise, the focus on adolescent drama and conflict may be more stimulating for viewers, yet it’s the more mundane aspects of everyday teenage life, like getting good math grades, that more properly colour the average teen’s experience.

In Twilight and The Fault in Our Stars, the focus is overwhelmingly on romance and relationships at the expense of academic goals, family dynamics, and mental health. While conflict and drama may make for good entertainment, a more accurate and nuanced portrayal of teenage life should involve exploring a wider range of experiences and emotions that young people face as they navigate their way through the turbulent years of adolescence. A far better exploration of teenage life can be seen in such films as Lady Bird, Moonlight, and Eighth Grade. We need more films and TV shows that are unafraid to deal with the mundane and the seemingly trivial.

Teenagers are an endangered group. By perpetuating harmful stereotypes and idealized versions of teenage life, Hollywood is doing young people and wider society a disservice. Movies and shows can be fun, exciting and comedic, but there must be enough room left to explore and demonstrate the full range of teenage experiences as they are — and not as adults would have you believe.

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