Written by Kara Hildebrand (she/her)
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran (she/her)
Flipping on an episode of Riverdale (totally ironically, of course), presents the unsuspecting audience member with a cast in their mid-to-late twenties lamenting about relatable teenager problems. The school dance got canceled, the boy next door doesn’t like me back, and parents are so controlling. Perhaps this slips past them, but occasionally the glaring disparity isn’t overlooked as it was before. There’s a point when we all become aware that age functions differently in our fiction than our reality.
We seem stuck perceiving the world through a lens of Hollywood logic: where men are the heroes, there’s only one person of color in a group of friends, and minors look like they’re thirty. We know that the real world isn’t like this, but we’re willing to suspend disbelief. Hollywood takes advantage of our acceptance to expand its reach and, subsequently, its profits. Teenagers make up one of the most lucrative markets for content, so it makes sense that a lot of shows and movies would center around teenagers and their stories. A problem arises when you acknowledge Hollywood’s insistence on flaunting sex appeal as well. Two out of three shows on television contain sexual content1. This percentage is increasing with time, making it clear that entertainment creators consider sex to be integral to the stories they want to tell. This begs the question: where does sex appeal come from in a piece of media about minors? Apparently, the answer is the minors themselves, since teenage characters contribute to 9% of that aforementioned sexual content.
You could name virtually any show or movie about teenagers, and all the lead actors will be years, even decades, older than the characters they portray. Occasionally a movie will come out like Netflix’s Enola Holmes, that reminds us how incredibly jarring it is to see a romantic subplot play out between actors that are actually sixteen. The difference between how these stories are crafted is telling: there’s innocence, lack of sensuality, and an absence of any physicality on screen. Only when faced with such disparities do we as an audience reconcile the Hollywood perspective on maturity with our own.
Age inappropriate casting allows Hollywood to “ethically” sexualize minors. Real teenagers spend their days watching content that paints others their age as sexy through the lens of people much older. Audiences are encouraged to insert themselves into sexual relationships between minors, which they’re only willing to do because they don’t look like minors. Meanwhile, real teenagers are being taught that it’s appropriate for their sex lives to be flaunted for public consumption and dissection.
Using older actors to play high school students is especially problematic when they’re used to romanticize predatory relationships. Riverdale, Pretty Little Liars, One Tree Hill, and countless other high school shows have done their variation of the teacher/student trope. These depictions are not only presented as sexy, but also as sympathetic and misunderstood. Audiences are tricked into thinking that age gaps like this aren’t so bad because the actors don’t look very different in age, which is, of course, because they’re not. If it’s forbidden love they’re looking for, then there are countless other ways to achieve the same effect. This trend in media also creates an association between teenagers and sexual maturity, taking for granted that teenagers are, and should be, sexually active, when of course that’s not always the case. Their expected maturity is inflated for a more interesting plot, but at the cost of their own self-perception.
By now, Hollywood should have surpassed the need for age-inappropriate casting as a shortcut or loophole to maximize profit. There are more creative ways of tackling teenage stories that don’t require mature content, just like most of these stories could be aged up to be set in college without significant change to the structure. As for us as individuals, we can certainly still appreciate these shows and movies for what they are, but it’s important to acknowledge exactly what they are: fictional worlds operating under fictional logic that cannot and should not be extended into the real world. We need to hold the entertainment industry accountable for the ideas they perpetuate, push for a change, and make sure teenagers and adults alike aren’t being harmed by the content they consume.
1 Teen Futures Media Network, University of Washington (https://depts.washington.edu/thmedia/view.cgi?section=medialiteracy&page=fastfacts)
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