Is This Why Teen Shows Have Been Changing So Much?

Photo: Dean Buscher/The CW
I have a deep, undying love for shows about young people, and I make zero apologies for it. Even as I inch my way into my mid 20s — and farther away from the age of the teens I often watch on TV — I can't help but be fascinated by the ins and outs of fictional high school and college life. (Oh what a tangled web the squad on Pretty Little Liars weaves.) While I would never shun a teen drama for being salacious (I did watch six seasons of Gossip Girl, after all) lately young adult fare has seemed, well, more mature than ever before. The latest crop of teen shows don't merely rely on love triangles, rivalries, and the occasional teacher/student tryst. (I've already forgiven you, Riverdale.) Lately, the best parts of young adult TV has been the way it tackles real-world issues actual young people face — in ways that TV for "grownups" can't quite grasp.
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Take MTV's Sweet/Vicious. The series, about two college students who team up to dish out vigilante justice on their campus, is a candy-colored vision of university life, complete with ultra-bubbly sorority girls and a green-haired slacker who sells weed from the local record store. Yet, despite its social media savvy (Snapchat and Instagram make appearances in key plot points) Sweet/Vicious and its bubblegum-colored vomit is hardly the easily digestible series associated with teen fare. Instead, the show plays out like a punch to the gut — one that keeps coming. That's because Jules (Eliza Bennett) and Ophelia's (Taylor Dearden) objective isn't merely to wreak havoc on their campus, but to obtain justice for the many survivors of sexual assault — ones that their university would rather ignore. Armed with real-world statistics, and an intimate, terrifying look at Jules' own sexual assault, Sweet/Vicious is dissent wrapped up in pretty packaging.
But a show doesn't need to be about vigilantes fighting rapists to deliver a powerful, pro-woman message. On Riverdale — a show that, yes, has employed scandalous storylines like Archie (K.J. Apa) hooking up with his music teacher — a group of female students stand up to a culture of slut-shaming at their high school. When Veronica (Camila Mendes) finds that a boy she went on a date with has posted about their hookup on social media, she goes "full dark, no stars" and uncovers a web of misogyny that includes a "burn book" that ranks girls and mocks their sexual history — real or completely made up. While Betty (Lili Reinhart) nearly boiling Chuck (Jordan Calloway) in a hot tub probably was perhaps a little bit petty, the overall message — that shaming women for their sexuality is never okay — feels refreshing for a genre that has been guilty of scolding its own characters for behaving like, well, teenagers.
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And then there's Degrassi Next Class. Though the franchise has been pushing boundaries for teen dramas since Degrassi Junior High in 1987, the latest iteration, which currently streams on Netflix, earns extra accolades for its portrayal of abortion. When Lola (Amanda Arcuri) learns she's pregnant, she does the research, then makes a smart, informed decision about her pregnancy. She chooses to have an abortion, and the show does more than leave Lola at the steps of a clinic — it takes the audience inside the procedure room. The message is clear: abortion is safe, legal, and, if you're comfortable with your decision, "no big deal."
So when did teen shows get so grown up? Maybe the when is not as important as why. We live in a world where human rights are now met with a question mark; where sexual assault on college campus is often dismissed with a shrug from administration and shaming from fellow students; where the rise of revenge porn and other forms of online harassment allow bullies to virtually follow one home. These issues can affect anyone, but they particularly affect young women — the main target audience for these dramas.
Perhaps teen dramas have had to grow up. They can't stay silent without seeming terribly out of touch to an audience with real-world concerns. In speaking up for young people, "fluffy" teen dramas have become something more: unapologetic television rebels. How fitting.
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