Just about every time a teenager is cast for a show or movie, the role of whatever teenager there is is given to an adult. While it can make things easier (not having to worry about an actual teenagers schoolwork or schedule), this can have drastic affects on actual teenage audiences, who only see teenagers portrayed a certain way. In order to analyze this, I will break this essay down into three parts: how teenagers are casted, how actual teenagers are, and the impact of the portrayals on teenagers. While the portrayal of teenagers has certainly altered in the last five years, it’s still important to understand their previous depictions in pop culture.
1. How Teenagers are Casted
As I mentioned above, teenagers are almost always portrayed by adults. Much more often now they are portrayed by young adults (18-early 20’s), but for a long period of time they were portrayed by adults in their mid-to-late 20’s (sometimes even early thirties). And these adults wouldn’t look all that much like teenagers, either. They looked like exactly what the actors were-full blown adults. Flawless skin, toned bodies, nice hair. They look like polished versions of teenagers. Even the actors now casted to the role of teenagers (who look much more like teenagers) still are polished, and very post-pubescent.
They also act in almost stereotypical ways, with a rebellious streak that is so insane that it’s practically unbelievable (at least, in terms of mine and my friends’ parents). I’m sure there are plenty of parents that don’t actually murder their children whenever they pull a stunt crazy enough to involved the police, but I’ve only seen them appear when I was already in college.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at two cases: Teen Wolf and 13 Reasons Why. Teen Wolf began airing in 2011, and 13 Reasons Why first aired in 2017. In the former show, the cast are supposed to be freshmen in high school, although the cast definitely look like they should be in college at least. The cast began the show in their early adulthood, however, were so finessed that they pass at all for young teenagers. The main group in the show consists of mostly hot young men with well-toned six-packs, which I had seen in many clips (I’ve never watched the show, leading to my surprise when I found out they were only supposed to be fourteen), and they are incredibly well-dressed.
As for the latter show, the actors look much more like teenagers. They dress more like modern teenagers, they’re supposed to be around 16 or 17, making them much more believable looking. These actors are only in their early twenties, and it shows. The athletes have typical strong figures, but everyone looks normal, and not like supermodels. There is a stark contrast in the way the characters are presented from previous shows, but the fact still remains-they are post-pubescent. They still have perfect skin and hair, still show no signs of changing. Not that they have to, but their presentation is very finessed and flawless.
2. How Actual Teenagers Are
If you’ve ever met a teenager in real life, you’d know that media portrayals of them are grossly misunderstanding. Real teenagers still practically look like children, especially as puberty seems to hit later and later nowadays. They don’t really start looking like adults until senior year, and even then it’s difficult to say they actually look like adults.
Real teenagers have acne. They are awkward, and still adjusting to their own growing bodies. Their fashion sense is still developing (if they have one at all). They get weird haircuts, they wear glasses, and they never have a six-pack. Real teenagers look almost nothing like their polished counterpart portrayed by the media. They act cringy (I’ve had my share of moments), and act in ways that they’ll grow to regret (don’t we all?). They certainly don’t go driving out to the middle of the forest to go monster hunting with their friends at two in the morning.
Most teenagers don’t actively rebel against their parents. There are some, who take advantage of parents who don’t quite know how to discipline their children, but for the most part, most adhere to their parents’ rules. At least, most of the ones I knew, anyhow. No one was able to just do whatever they wanted.
3. The Impact of the Media
During my time, some people tried their best to look nice, but for the most part, people just wore whatever they really wanted. But we were still affected by the way we were portrayed in the media. A distorted view of how we imagine teenagers evolved, with a subconscious pressure to look just like our favorite characters. We begin to try and style ourselves to certain categories, almost stereotyping ourselves into different groups (the “cool” kids, the nerds, the athletes, and everyone in-between). Although it was subtle in my high school, it still existed in other, smaller schools.
More recently, however, I see more and more teenagers trying to look like adults. This is both due in part to media portrayals, and also to the rise of Instagram models and other social media pressures. Teenagers want to stop looking like teenagers, and instead want to skip to adulthood. This was a problem during my times in high school, but I notice that it’s becoming more apparent, especially with the rapid change in appearance that teenagers put on their social media. They try to hide their teenage identity in any way they can, promoting an “older” appearance, and turning away from things that made being a teenager fun. Kids are trying to grow up too quickly, and media portrayals of teenagers only encourage this goal.