by Rachel Feinberg
The teen drama has emerged as one of the most popular genres in TV and film over the years — and not just for teenagers. Classics like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars as well as current hits like Riverdale brought and continue to bring in high ratings from audiences aged 18–40. So despite the sometimes absurd and over-the-top nature of many of these shows, they still seem to appeal to those of us who have already been through the trials and tribulations of high school (and who know the real thing is nothing like what we see on our screens.)
Part of the reason shows set in high school may still be appealing to older viewers could be that the “students” they’re watching on TV are also a little too old to be stressing over the SATs or prom king and queen. Though The WB’s Dawson’s Creek may not have been the first show to do this, they were one of the biggest offenders, thus spawning the use of the term “Dawson Casting” to describe this phenomenon of casting mid to late 20 year olds in teenage roles.
But why has it become the norm that in a large group of on-screen high schoolers there’s usually only one actor still in their teens? The answer networks usually give is a logistical one: it’s just easier from a legal standpoint. Because of child labor laws restricting the number of hours that minors can work on set, productions instead opt to cast adults in these roles instead. Of course on shows like Stranger Things where the characters are even younger than high school this wouldn’t be plausible, so there’s clear proof that shows can still succeed by using actors true to their character’s ages.
Over the last several years there has been more focus on the conversation about adults playing teenagers and how that may be impacting young audiences. Possibly the most significant way this affects the actual teenagers watching these shows is by damaging their sense of self and promoting unrealistic images of what they should look like at their ages. It makes sense that shows would want their cast to be attractive, but when the characters they’re portraying would likely be covered in acne and braces much like the people watching them, it can be harmful to have those beauty standards reinforced over and over. As Slate puts it, “In a culture as shaped by media imagery as ours, the systemic misrepresentation of an entire age group has real consequences for how adults conceive of typical adolescence, and how teens measure themselves against it.” In that same article, a professor of developmental psychology explains how the constant exposure to adult bodies being framed as those of teens increases body dissatisfaction in young people.
Another problem that stems from this phenomenon is that of a moral dilemma. Many productions hire older actors to play teenagers on shows that feature explicit or sexual content so that they don’t run into any ethical issues in making minors participate in these scenes. However, not having those limitations with adults has actually led to the oversexualization of “teenagers”. According to the CDC, in 2015 just over 40% of teens reported that they had ever been sexually active, and only 11.5% of them had more than four sexual partners. But when you turn on a show like Riverdale or Elite, chances are you’ll see high schoolers getting intimate at least once in a given episode. Now, the actors filming these scenes may be of age (more than half of Riverdale’s main cast is currently 29), but is it really that much more ethical to depict characters who are meant to be 15–17 in these situations? Could these shows not just opt for a slightly corny “fade to black” after a passionate kiss? This kind of content also becomes even more morally ambiguous when you consider situations where only one of the actors in a romantic pairing is significantly older than the character they portray. Take Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, for example. Overall this is a pretty cute coming of age show that’s been praised for its diversity and inclusion as well as compelling storylines. But in the most recent season, lead actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (19) shares multiple steamy makeout scenes with co-star Darren Barnet, who is 30. Yes, she’s an “adult” now, but during the filming of the first season she was just 17 while he would’ve been 28. That’s weird.
So why not just make these characters older? There are reasons of course to set a show or movie in high school, like providing a (somewhat false) sense of relatability for younger audiences, but if that was truly the top priority for a showrunner they would deal with the drawbacks of working with appropriately aged actors. And yes, having characters under the age of 18 creates obstacles for the characters from a storytelling standpoint as they aren’t adults with completely free agency, but at the end of the day most of these stories would work just as well (if not better) set in college or young adulthood. If a show can’t come up with more creative obstacles that aren’t completely dependent on characters’ ages, it probably isn’t very good in the first place.