The Case of the 30-Year-Old Teenager: Teen Representation in Media & Unattainable Standards

| Friday, March 22, 2013

Today's Tune: José

The other day I saw a few people on Twitter discuss the recent casting choice of Four in the Divergent film adaptation. The selected actor is 28 years old and will supposedly be playing 18-year-old Four. It's unclear whether they'll be aging him up or leaving his age ambiguous, but as Tris is supposed to be 16, it's an interesting (and a little confusing) choice.

This is far from the first time significantly older actors have played teenage characters. In the television show Glee, several of the characters were in their mid-to-late 20's while playing sophomores in high school. Some of the actors were younger -- actor Chris Colfer is widely regarded as one of the babies of the group, having started filming at around 19 years old -- but most of the actors were comfortably in their 20's. Even Dawson's Creek, one of the forerunning teen dramas, had actors ranging from 17-23 playing 15-year-olds.

There is a sensible reason for this, of course. Actors who are over 18 aren't subject to the multitude of laws surrounding child actors, which include limited filming times and required schooling stipulations. Even so, it seems odd to skew as old as a nearly 30-year-old actor playing a high schooler, particularly one who doesn't look especially young (Bianca Lawson notwithstanding because that woman does not age). But clearly there's a precedent.

It always catches my eye. I understand why under-18s aren't generally cast for major teen roles (see limited filming hours again), but even so, it has to be kind of a trip for teenagers to watch representations of "themselves" on screen who are not only Hollywood polished, but past the most awkward stages of teenagerhood. Crystal-clear skin, flawless makeup, impeccable fashion sense and unlimited wardrobe (even when the character is supposedly dirt poor), perfect smile with no braces (only creepy nerd characters have those), wry humor without a trace of awkwardness... that's got to be disconcerting for your typical teen. How do you live up to that standard?

This is why I used to love watching Dawson's Creek as a teen. Sure, the actors were all gorgeous in their own way, but they weren't so highly polished and on-the-ball. They were flawed, and awkward, and confused. They were pretty, but not unattainably pretty. Every once in a while, there was a zit that didn't quite get covered with makeup.Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its super-cool heroine and incredible adventures, still maintained that sense of being young and occasionally having no idea what you were doing.

I know I'm teetering dangerously close to nostalgia for my beloved turn-of-the-century shows, but today's teen shows aren't all bad. Glee tried to capture that feeling. It tries to be inclusive of many different types of teenagers, but unfortunately it doesn't hit the mark for me. It feels like one of those shows that had good intentions, but went horribly awry in the execution. The positive messages get muddled in twee and contradictory storylines that undo months of character development.

There are a variety of people who come through the show, but I have a very tenuous relationship with the way they're treated. They're still very highly polished, and although the show includes many different kinds of people, it also tends to favor the societal "norm." Skinny, pretty, white, able-bodied, and straight. Characters who deviate often find themselves the butt of oppressive jokes, which I like to think of as "hipsterisms." You know what I mean... "I can joke about your fatness/Blackness/queerness/disability because I don't REALLY mean it, duh! We're friends sometimes! I told you that you were pretty once!"

I've actually grown to love Teen Wolf because it incorporates a lot of that teenage awkwardness back into the show. Again, the cast is VERY pretty and VERY polished, but they don't always know what to do. They stumble, they're awkward, they don't always have a barb at the tip of their tongue.

Sometimes I kind of yearn for another Freaks and Geeks, not gonna lie.

I think it's desperately important for young people to see themselves in their media. The super-polished, fantasy versions are okay, and sometimes you need that escape from reality. But it's even more important, in my opinion, to see a reflection of who you really are, warts and all. This of course also extends to the constant lack of diversity in both teen television and YA literature, which is something that's being slowly chipped away at and I hope continues to improve.

When you see someone who's supposed to be your age, but they're really ten years older, well past puberty, and polished to a high shine, how does that make you feel about yourself? Like you can't measure up? Like something must be wrong with you because you don't look and sound like THAT? It's definite food for thought.

What do you think, dudes? What sort of representations do you like to see in youth media? What do you hope to see?


{ JeffO } at: March 22, 2013 at 5:31 AM said...

Very interesting posts, as always.

I don't watch TeenV; those days are long behind me. I guess the question, though, is do we get perfectly polished, ridiculously mature 'teens' in our shows and movies because we WANT them, or because the decision-makers in Hollywood THINK we want them? I don't know the answer. There's something to be said for not wanting to see a gangly boy squeezing his zits in front of the mirror, or a girl engineering her bra to make her boobs look bigger. We've been through it, or are going through it, so who wants to see TV kids going through it?

Then again, there's also something to be said about not throwing up the unattainable-to-most ideals that we get hammered with all the time. Maybe I should talk to my kids and see what they think, though they don't watch much TeenV, either.

{ mooderino } at: March 22, 2013 at 6:16 AM said...

Beverly Hills 90210 back in the day was the classic middle-aged actors playing high school kids. A long and ignoble tradition.

Moody Writing

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: March 22, 2013 at 8:31 AM said...

yeah. in the age of wikipedia, i've finally realized how MUCH this happens. i'm not a fan, personally. and i only see it as getting worse for the trend of middle-aged women becoming unhealthily obsessed with the teenage male characters in a lustful kind of way. casting older actors can salve the feelings of innapropriateness that should arise, but... even though that's a wallet-carrying constituency of the audience consuming the product, the ethical decision would be to cast otherwise. like you with labor laws i see no trouble up to the early twenties... but when i googled glee and found out that two of the actors playing main characters were my age and as a mother of three, one of whom is nearing jr.high, that seemed unacceptable.

{ Kristan Hoffman } at: March 22, 2013 at 1:02 PM said...

"The positive messages get muddled in twee and contradictory storylines that undo months of character development."

Yuuuuup. That's why I gave up Glee mid-season 2. Just couldn't stand all the progress disappearing from week to week, seemingly at whim.

But anyhoot. Yes, I do think there are some repercussions, for both teens and adults. (Ex: I find it difficult to guess anyone's age.) And I do enjoy/prefer when the actors are close to the age they're playing (like on Dawson's Creek or even Twilight).

But as you said, there are reasons for it.

I guess if we really want to see real teens playing teens, there's always Disney channel. :P

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: March 22, 2013 at 1:05 PM said...

Very good food for thought...

In an ideal world, yes, it would probably be nice if everyone were played by someone more or less their age. But we wonder... in a way, isn't it like the dialogue in John Green books? (Or the dialogue in Dawson's Creek -- which we love too, btw!) Maybe it's not entirely realistic, but it's how teens perceive themselves. It *evokes* the teen experience, even if it isn't 100% accurate in the details.

{ Miss Cole } at: March 22, 2013 at 2:13 PM said...

When I was a teenager watching US TV shows, I didn't realise I wasn't watching actual teenagers until someone told me or I read about it. I remember being so shocked about the actress who played Cordelia because one of my Buffy guides told me they celebrated her 30th birthday. I was like WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT?!

Other than Buffy and a brief interest in Smallville, I wasn't big on "Teen" TV and mostly watched stuff like Star Trek, The X-Files and a looooooooong line of BBC TV shows (oooh, how I miss you, Life on Mars!). As for now, yeah, a little less polish and a lot more super awkward reality.

{ Courtney Barr - The Southern Princess } at: March 22, 2013 at 9:23 PM said...

I find this to be a very interesting post. It is true that shows are not the best representation of teenage crazy/drama/flaws/awkwardness - sometimes I appreciate that as posted above we often "think" we are as cool as these characters when we "were" the age represented on the screen. However as someone who loves TeenV and writes/reads YA it i often that these characters have wardrobes and witty banter that I at 15,16,18, All of my 20's and even now at 31 yearn for. When I write I try to be engaging, trendy but not cheesy, smart but not so intellectual that you get bogged in factual conversations, funny but not cruel unless character driven necessity, and I try to find a balance where tragic and flawed can find a home without my character becoming a cliche. The line is thin and being able to walk it is something I tread carefully even with my teen years behind me & time under my belt...I like to think that is why they utilize the seasoned actor. They hope to give an aesthetically charming character who is portrayed by someone seasoned enough to understand the precarious balance between teen & adulthood but who also has the ability to tap into the mindset of the teen without losing their charisma.

{ Lynn M } at: April 6, 2013 at 11:58 AM said...

While I agree that it seems silly to cast adults in teen roles, as long as the writing and story are in-line with teen sensibilities I really don't have a problem with it. Anyone who looks to Hollywood for any sense of realism is already searching for that Coupe De Ville in the bottom of the Cracker Jacks box. The adults on adults shows don't look very much like 99.9% of the real adults walking around out there. Too, with the pervasive of media, I think today's teens are savvy enough to know that what they are watching is fiction and should be taken with a healthy dose of disbelief.

{ } at: April 7, 2013 at 11:18 AM said...

Thanks for writing this! I also have a problem with this, because I think it's why young professionals who are not actors have trouble being taken seriously - I absolutely look my age, 24, but people think I look 16 because they mistake my actual age for 30-year-olds playing high schoolers on TV. It's also very funny that Hollywood does this and then also casts actors who are way too young to have high school-aged kids as parents, like when Amy Poehler and Rachel McAdams played mother and daughter and were all of about four years apart from each other.

I also agree with vic; this is something we have been talking about in my YA realism class. What does it say to present teen characters as lust worthy in a show meant to appeal to adults? Like, "Hi, please desire this person who would technically cause you to be charged with molestation if you acted upon it." We code these characters as titillating and approachable but also off-limits, and it's very off-putting. I think casting directors can do fine to take actors just out of high school and only a couple of years off, assuming they continue to age the characters up and that the actors don't already look older than they are.

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