Screen

Come of Age: The Depiction of Young People on Our Screens

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For as long as I can remember, my favourite characters on TV and in films have been adults. At around eight years old, I left children’s content behind me (still haven’t seen Finding Nemo) and moved into the world of the grownups. I wanted to watch adults, to see them act and interact, and to experience them being mature and dramatic and real. While most of my friends would go home to watch their favourite CBBC shows, I was already well versed in the language of Friends quotes before my tenth birthday. Maybe this was just because I was curious; looking back, however, it strikes me as significant that I never wanted to watch teenagers – especially now, when I find myself increasingly irritated by the depiction of young adults on our screens.

‘Come-of-age’ is a phrase often placed before the names of genres, in order to create whole new subcategories – as a quick search on Netflix confirms. But is this apparently very easily-defined period in anyone’s life so clean cut? Shows and movies that fall under this label often depict the clichéd collection of sex, drugs, alcohol and rebellion, but for some people, this just isn’t accurate (as someone who never missed a homework deadline and hadn’t been drunk until Freshers’ Week, I definitely fell into this group). As a whole, the show Skins deserves praise for a lot of things, but some would argue that the abundance of sex and substance abuse not only doesn’t represent a lot of young people in the UK, but also actively gives them a bad reputation. For many, The Inbetweeners did a better job of summing up what teenage life was like. Additionally, in real-world terms, what is meant by the phrase ‘come-of-age’? Does it refer to the moment when you first truly feel like an adult? Because if it does, despite having left my teens behind, I’m still waiting for that moment…

As a young adult, seeing people your own age speaking in an unrealistic manner only leads you to feel frustrated and misunderstood.

Across the pond, however, things are very different. The trend for pretty, shiny kids in high school dramas seems to hold a permanent place in American television, with shows such as The OC, Gossip Girl and 90210 being hailed by many as modern classics. More recently, this sub-genre has lived on in hits like Pretty Little Liars, The Vampire Diaries and Riverdale. Sparkly and overflowing with cheese, these kinds of shows revel in the fact that they are a “guilty pleasure”, playing on stereotypes and fake drama to keep the viewer hooked. I may not have visited the United States, but the fact that I have never in my life met anyone even remotely akin to the characters in these shows leads me to think that the kinds of figures that they are depicting do not quite represent the average teen. It isn’t just television that plays with the attractive teen drama genre; countless noughties rom-coms do it too. What makes films different to their TV equivalents, however, is the fact that they are shorter overall, and therefore not relying on you believing in the authenticity of the characters for as long a period. Not only that, but they are also more self aware in their cheesiness – when watching Mean Girls, there is no doubt that Regina George is intended as more of a fetch plot device than a real human being. Teen movies are able to exploit their brevity and exaggerate these teenage clichés for comedic effect, without the risk of seeming fake for a prolonged length of time.

One thing that does seem particularly fake when it comes to young people on screens is their dialogue. A simple Google search will show you that many adults seem convinced that teenagers communicate in what they call “teen speak”, a language used and understood only by people under a certain age. I’m sure most young adults would agree that this supposed secret language is entirely mythical – but it is a myth that brings with it some issues. The people writing teenage characters in TV shows and films are, generally, going to be older, and therefore more likely to be influenced by this belief. I will proudly admit to having been a huge fan of the film Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, but I am still yet to meet anyone who actually uses the word “boylingual” in conversation (if you’re out there, get in touch – you sound like a hoot). The idea of “teen speak” seems, in its essence, to be entirely illogical; while each generation will inevitably have a few of its own words and phrases, surely the language used by teens at any one time is going to be a fusion of that of the generation before and the one that follows it.  What’s more, young people don’t want to be treated like they’re young. Just as they don’t want adults speaking down to them, they also don’t want to see people their own age sounding different or being treated like children. As a young adult, seeing people your own age speaking in an unrealistic manner only leads you to feel frustrated and misunderstood.

Feeling well represented is important. Seeing a character on a screen who reminds you of yourself is an experience that, for many, is a fairly frequent occurrence, but that for others is something far more special. Often, this feeling of representation comes more naturally from a character of the same gender/ethnic background/sexuality/life story as you, than it does from someone who happens to be your age. I have found from experience that I’d much prefer to watch a show with relatable, well-formed, older characters than poorly-written people of my own age – which perhaps explains my childhood love of adult television. Some shows realise this, exploiting the writers’ maturity and not pretending to be able to write young adults. Arguably, The Walking Dead is an example of this, with almost every character either falling into the category of ‘child’ or ‘adult’, avoiding the tricky middle ground. Even the youngest adults, such as Beth, are painted as mature and independent, with little to no attention being given to the idea of them ‘coming of age’, which is arguably one of the show’s greatest strengths – apart from, you know, the zombies and stuff.

There are, however, some movies and shows that do very good things for the representation of teens and young adults. Orange is the New Black features characters who haven’t yet reached the age of twenty, but who have ended up in prison. Instead of being singled out and made to exist as an amalgamation of clichés, they are placed on the same level as their peers, distinguished only by authentic moments of innocence or fear. At the opposite end of the age spectrum, Stranger Things is successful in its creation of characters who are just on the verge of becoming teenagers. Their explorations of love, friendship and fear are delightfully awkward and uncomfortable, serving as a much-needed antidote to the slick polish offered by many other programmes. It could be argued, though, that the root of these shows’ success in this area lies in the fact that these people’s ages are not used as key plot points, and are instead considered only as secondary details. It’s not just television that offers some strong depictions of young people, either; if I were to use the ‘come-of-age’ label, then Richard Ayoade’s Submarine would undoubtedly be called a great coming-of-age film, as would The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Both steer clear of being cheesy, opting instead to be messier and more claustrophobic. Japanese movie powerhouse Studio Ghibli also has a lot to offer in this regard, with the teenage leads in classics such as Princess Mononoke and Kiki’s Delivery Service being impressively well written and relatable young people.  

It’s not all negative, then. That being said, there is a problem with the way in which young adults are depicted in film and television, which arguably comes from the instinct of many writers to put teenagers in a box. They are given their own look, their own mannerisms and even a specific way of speaking, none of which correspond to the real life experiences of most young people. For this issue to be solved, writers need to look beyond these stereotypes and start writing people, not clichés.

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