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How the Teen Dramas Affect the Way We See Physical Appearances
Growing up, I had no idea what the average 16-year-old looked like. I still don’t. And the teen dramas are to blame.
When “Beverly Hills, 90210” premiered in 1990, Gabrielle Carteris was 29 years old but playing a teenager. The second episode introduced West Beverly High’s resident bad boy, played by 24-year-old Luke Perry. James Van Der Beek turned 21 shortly after “Dawson’s Creek” debuted with Dawson as a high school sophomore. Rachel Bilson was 22 when she first appeared as the teenaged Summer on “The O.C.” That same year, “One Tree Hill” starred Chad Michael Murray at the same age (fun fact: his and Bilson’s birthdays are actually one day apart). On “Gossip Girl,” 20-year-old Ed Westwick was a student at St. Jude’s School for Boys, and when Trevor Donovan joined “90210” as the new kid at West Bev, he was about to turn 29 in real life. What’s more is co-star / classmate Michael Steger was the same age.
To be fair, there were some youthful castings. Tori Spelling and Brian Austin Green were both 17 at the start of “Beverly Hills, 90210.” So was Michelle Williams at the launch of “Dawson’s Creek,” and Mischa Barton was also that age when “The O.C.” began. James Lafferty turned 18 a few months before “One Tree Hill” premiered, the same age as Shenae Grimes at the start of “90210.” And Taylor Momsen was only 14 when she started playing “Little J” on “Gossip Girl.” But for all intents and purposes, we were generally watching adults portray kids.
As a result, my perspective on what a teen should and shouldn’t look like was completely warped and remains so to this day. I started watching “Beverly Hills, 90210” before I was even double-digits and found myself shocked when I reached high school and everyone around me looked so young. True, my high school started with seventh grade, not ninth, but no one looked as I expected them to, especially when we graduated as seniors.
While in college in 2007, I wrote the author of Beverly Hills, 90210: Television, Gender and Identity and noted:
“Even now at 20-years-old, I still feel 14 at times. Looking at my high school yearbook, I don’t think any of us look like seniors. That’s because I always I thought when you got to senior year, the college age, etc. you would look older and adult-like. Where did that view come from? Shows like ‘90210,’ of course, where high school students were played by people in their 20s and 20 year olds played by those in their 30s. My idea of how a person my age should look still remains distorted. I don’t think I look like I’m in college, because I turn on the television and see twenty-something Jennie Garth and Jason Priestley walking around fictional CU. And that right there is the answer — it’s fictional. I look around my Northwestern campus and see that no one looks like the ‘students’ at CU. I’m definitely affected by TV but at some point you have to stop letting it affect your reality. It’s just not always easy or clear how to do that.”
Indeed, I still struggle with this. When I meet new people, I am horrible at assessing their ages. That’s because what’s been ingrained in my head as what, say, a “16-year-old” looks like isn’t actually a 16-year-old at all. People like to mock the teen dramas for casting 20-somethings as teens, but the consequences aren’t always a joke.
Most consequential, though, is not necessarily the age of teen drama stars and how that has colored how we view people around us, but the unrealistic beauty standards these shows implicitly and explicitly endorsed. Not only is my perspective on physical appearances messed up because of the mismatch between cast members’ ages and their characters’ ages, but because of the type of people cast on these shows. You know what I mean: actors who are tall and ripped with chiseled jaws, actresses who are trim (if not scary-skinny) and fit enough to show a bare midriff.
Let’s be real: Which version of me in the above split-photo would most likely be cast in a teen drama? Obviously the me on the left. Is it any wonder Hollywood standards have led me to be disgusted by the me on the right?
Most of the teen dramas have a “bombshell” character, a la Valerie (Tiffani Thiessen) on “Beverly Hills, 90210,” or at least a “gorgeous and she doesn’t know it” one, like Joey (Katie Holmes) on “Dawson’s Creek.” Frankly, it’s shocking to me that (SPOILER ALERT!) the recent Netflix series “Bridgerton” somewhat subverted convention by giving the power of the pen not to the show’s most traditionally beautiful female character but to its most curvy, the kind of character whose full-figured appearance is typically used on most TV shows for little more than comic relief and / or mockery.
As a case study, I’d like to highlight a few storylines on “One Tree Hill.” I recall being touched by the way the series tried to combat stereotypes and the consequences of judging a book by its cover in episode 4.13, “Pictures of You.” Among the plot points in the episode is Glenda’s unpopularity and overweight appearance and the way her mom insults her because of it. Over the course of the episode, Lucas tries to help her realize her worth. When I interviewed Amber Wallace, Glenda’s portrayer, in 2010, she shared:
“I think it helps that I have a different look from a lot of actresses today. That’s something that I really enjoy because I do tend to play characters that impart that message. It is an important message, not to judge people if they’re different and that people need to be happy with themselves if they are different.”
We also discussed the positive fan reaction she was receiving for being paired romantically with Steger on “90210.” As I pointed out then, “The show has gotten criticism in the past for having these lead female characters who are stick-figure thin and now people are refreshed to see this new body type on the show.” But the reality is, characters who looked like Wallace were few and far between throughout the genre, and they were rarely used in meaningful ways.
Now consider another part of the aforementioned “One Tree Hill” episode: Despite being popular and pretty, Brooke’s insecurities shine through as she confesses feeling not good enough, particularly since her parents are largely absent from her life. Reminder: Brooke is played by the stunning Sophia Bush. Still, apparently we were supposed to realize that even the the school’s resident hot chick has their issues. The lesson, as conveyed by Brooke’s love interest, Chase, was said to be, “People are gonna label you, it’s how you overcome those labels. That’s what matters.” True. But while even the most beautiful among us is entitled to be self-conscious, if Brooke freakin’ Davis didn’t think she was pretty or good enough, how were the rest of us normal-looking people supposed to feel?
Let’s not overlook effects on the male psyche, either, and depictions of certain male characters. Throughout nine seasons of “One Tree Hill,” it was repeatedly made clear that Mouth (Lee Norris) wasn’t one of the “hunks.” But the worst came in the show’s last year, when the decision was made to have the formerly always-thin Mouth gain weight, which was accomplished with a fat suit and prosthetics.
As seen in the clips above, however, the show’s idea of “fat” wasn’t anything all that objectionable at all. Still, everyone acted like Mouth was now morbidly obese. Not only did this allow for Mouth’s size to be used for comedy and mockery, but the message seemed to be that those who are overweight are problematic. Obviously, some people who are larger do face legitimate health issues, but nothing about this storyline was handled smartly, sensibly, or respectfully.
As TV viewers, we are willing participants. We choose what we consume. We can always change the channel if we don’t like something or are offended by a storyline. But sometimes the influence shows have on us is hard to detect. It’s almost like they affect us subconsciously. It makes me wonder what the effect may be of watching dozens and dozens of episodes of “Beverly Hills, 90210” or “Gossip Girl” with purported teens in provocative, barely-there clothing, or the consequences of watching Barton’s Marissa on “The O.C.” when her skinniness seemed to border on unhealthy at times, or the psychological impacts of seeing AnnaLynne McCord’s Naomi strip down not once, but twice, to seduce a guy on “90210.”
In the above scenes, McCord was in her early 20s, but we were supposed to think she was a teenager and apparently also supposed to think that’s what teenagers should look like (and do look like). (Not-so-fun fact: McCord and I are exactly one day apart in age and I have never looked like that.)
A few months ago, I was really struck by a Harvard Political Review piece titled “How Teen Shows Let Teenagers Down.” The article’s main focus is HBO’s “Euphoria” and how, in the author’s viewpoint, “the show ultimately fails to deliver a realistic portrayal of high school life.” Zooming out to look at the genre at large, both “One Tree Hill” and “Gossip Girl” are mentioned, with the writer (a Harvard student) then stating:
“All of these shows, whether meant to be realistic or glamorous, warp the perceptions of their teenage fans. Even shows that are meant to be completely fantastical, like ‘Teen Wolf,’ still cast 20-year-olds as high school sophomores, creating misleading expectations about appearances for actual teenagers that can have lasting consequences. While wish-fulfillment shows are more blatantly corrosive, shows like ‘Skins’ or ‘Euphoria’ almost overcorrect in trying to distinguish themselves from the rest, with characters living similarly unattainable lives.”
The author goes on to argue:
“With this inaccurate casting comes pressure for real-life teenagers to always strive to appear older. Many have identified the risks that social media poses to adolescents, particularly in regards to body image and mental health. Especially with the advent of social media, many feel that they should grow up quickly. Girls, in particular, feel the pressure of a constant emphasis on presentation and brand curation. While it is perhaps impossible to stop middle and high schoolers from wanting to be older, very few depictions of teenagers make immaturity seem like an acceptable option. These television shows essentially present an escapist fantasy as a possible reality tantalizingly close to being realized. They promise their young audience that they, too, can and should live the lives of their characters.”
The article later concludes:
“As we age out of the target audience for teen television, these shows now haunt us as a reminder of what we thought high school would be. Instead of being happy with our experiences, we can’t help but wish that somehow we had been different. This is at the core of what fuels the demand for shows like ‘Euphoria’; they are generation-defining, but only in the sense that they set impossible goals that each generation is left to emulate as best as it can.”
This hits the nail on the head for me while, of course, ignoring all of the legitimate positives that have come from the teen dramas and the good ways they have impacted viewers’ lives — mine included, clearly. But examining the genre for all its worth means also acknowledging the negatives, the problems, and the ways in which these shows fell short. And the way they affected how fans like myself view physical appearances, in terms of both age and beauty, is an example of the teen dramas missing the mark.
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