Sex, Drugs, and Adolescence

Gather some attractive teens/young adults and give them vivid back-stories, throw them in a glamorous city, or even just a small town, there’s bound to be some story there. Growing up is a tale that quite frankly, doesn’t get old and this is the reason that teen television has been flourishing since it became a recognized genre in the 1980s (Ross and Stein 12). How do I know what defines teen television? This is a question I asked myself time and time again. What’s the difference between a cast of teens in the fast paced city of New York, and a small town in Bristol, London? I realized not through research but through being a fan of shows like Gossip Girl and Skins, that being a teen is a universal transition. It is the bridge from childhood to adulthood, when lines become blurred, bodies’ change, and one’s curiosity is at its peak.

However it was through my research that I have realized the vast differences between shows that originated in the United States as opposed to show’s like Skins that were created in the United Kingdom. There are obvious differences like the style of clothing and the slang used, but more significantly the ideologies and the cultures are extremely different and have a great effect on the show. Although at first glance it wasn’t clear, I see now that the genre of teen television seems to bend in accordance to the country.

In television today we categorize our programs according to a list of generalities for example we have drama, situation comedies, news shows, and reality shows. About three decades ago another genre was added to the list, and teen television has become a notable part of television history. However as times change genres begin to mold with the conventions of the new lifestyles and these broad classifications begin to blur making it difficult to note what shows belong to what genre. This is where genre theory is introduced (O’Donnell 96).

For television, genre theory is important to understand as a viewer but even more so as a critic or member of the industry. The genre not only deciphers the types of shows that are created, but also where they will be placed on the schedule and the typical demographic of the show. As society becomes more reliant on the media and technology, genres will also allow the critic to see how the medium affects and reflects the audience.

In Genre Theory as a Tool for Analyzing Network-Mediated Interaction it says, “They suggest that what is important in understanding a genre is identifying the underlying social and technical forces which produce the regularities which characterize a genre” (Erickson). Basically saying, that genre theory is more than just separating shows into categories, but reading between the lines and understanding why certain shows are popular.  Viewers only watch what they are familiar with and so it is up to the industry to “blend and bend genres.” Even as conventions and social norms change on a regular basis, the audience must be able to identify key characters or formulaic structures and storylines in order to relate and accept shows. The biggest concern theorists face is whether or not these categories are limited to just one specific culture or if they are worldwide (“Introduction to Genre Theory”).

From the perspective of pop culture historians, teen television was not a recognized genre until the 1980s. It was in this decade that American networks began to cater to the appeals of adolescents. It’s important to understand that this genre was not just born over night, but that there were many influences and other staple shows, some in different genres, that inspired what is considered to be one of the most marketable niches. In the introduction of “Teen Television,” Ross and Stein give an example of how classic American shows would be categorized today as teen TV. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (ABC 1952-66) was a show that told the story of the rising teen star, Ricky Nelson. “The program regularly aired videos after each episode, featuring Ricky singing his newest hit.” Ross and Stein both agree that this could quite possibly be one of the first teen television shows (12-13).

While its true that teen television often intertwines pop culture, fashion, and music into their story lines, what makes the show “teen” is the showcasing of the “coming of age” story. Ross describes it best when she says that adolescence is a period during which bodies begin to develop adult characteristics, including sexual development, “and yet when one has little social power”. This period of time is about finding one self, finding a community to fit into, and dealing with the emotional and physical changes that one undergoes (Ross and Stein 7).

Today the genre has become a global phenomenon and there are entire networks exclusively devoted to teen audiences. I believe that the classifications of genres are a worldwide concept allowing two different countries to make two very different shows targeted towards the same audience and sending the same messages. This is because at some point or another the cultures of the host country bend the classifications of what it means to be a teen television show, allowing their ideologies to shine through.

It’s no secret that the United States is torn between whether abstinence or safe sex education should be taught in schools, and this proves true in the reflection of our society through hit teen television shows like Gossip Girl. Writers use their best efforts to keep all parties happy, but still there are many parents who find the show, and many shows like them, not fit for teens. From the beginning creators, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage received harsh reviews from parents. Sites such as Parentstv.org continue to bash the content saying that the “provocative kissing, erotic situations, and skimpy clothing” are sending the wrong message (Gildemeister). However when it comes to Irin Carmon, a writer on a blog site, Jezebel.com, she begs to differ. She says, “For all of the casual sex on Gossip Girl, if you’re a good girl, [it means] you want to save it for something special” (Carmon).

Like many other American shows, Gossip Girl continues to stress the importance of teens losing their virginity. Because in the United States that is exactly what is preached, sex is monumental, and even more so, sex is a private matter. In addition to this writers are constantly writing diverse characters with different moral codes, this in itself remolds the cookie cutter shape that fits the genre of teen television.  Take for example the character of Blair Waldorf, the beautiful queen bee, from Gossip Girl. She is popular not only in this fictional world but also to viewers.

In the first season Blair is a virgin waiting patiently for her prom night so that she can consummate her relationship with her boyfriend, Nate. This aspect of the story caters to viewers who aren’t completely abstinent, but believe that the right thing to do is to wait. The last thing that Blair wants to do is tarnish her reputation because in the world of the Upper East Side, image is extremely important. However at the end of episode 7 in season 1, Nate breaks up with Blair and explains that he no longer has feelings for her. This sends Blair off the deep end and straight into the arms of Nate’s best friend, the pompous Chuck Bass. After a night at a burlesque club, heart broken and bitter, Blair decides to lose her virginity to Chuck (Schwartz, Wharmby “Victor/Victrola”).

For many viewers this was more than a turn off, many teens related to the character of Blair and could not believe that she was lost to the seduction and glamour of “losing it,” and worse that she lost it to the malicious and arrogant Chuck Bass. But the writers of Gossip Girl were aware of what message they had just sent and so in future episodes they justify this reckless act. Blair ends up falling in love with Chuck and Nate loses his “good guy” image by becoming a player. The writers manipulate fans, allowing them to understand, and even sympathize with Blair, no matter what their beliefs are or stance on sex. With Blair on his side, Chuck becomes more and more appealing to the audience allowing Blair to keep her good girl reputation.

One Tree Hill is also a great example where writers struggle to keep all viewers happy.  One character Haley is a proud virgin and waiting until marriage, another character Brooke is reckless and overtly promiscuous. And in the middle ground we have Peyton, the 16-year-old who is not a virgin, but still views sex as a big deal. It is the perfect compromise producers purposely planted in order to satisfy not only American teens, but also American parents. We have Haley for abstinence, Peyton for safe sex, and Brooke the character both sides make an example of, screaming: this is what not to do (Schwahn, “Every Night Is Another Story”).

Across the pond we have E4’s hit teen drama Skins. The UK channel is known for pushing the limits, but with a “mostly teen cast that swears with the propensity of the characters found in HBO’s Deadwood and The Sopranos,” I, along with many others, am surprised it is allowed to air on network television.  The show revolves around Tony, the good looking but manipulative heartthrob, and his group of friends. As an American I was immediately surprised to see that there is no stress on the characters’ sexual tendencies. In fact the show has been praised by viewers for showing it like it is, and being one of the first in it’s time to depict teens as sexual beings with out disapproval or judgment (Tsjeng).

For example in season 1, episode 6 Tony and the gang head off to Russia on a school trip. Tony is roomed with Maxxie, a close friend and an openly gay character. Throughout the episode Tony and his girlfriend, Michelle, are seen having sex and fooling around in the boys’ hotel room. In the last segment of the episode, Maxxie arrives back to the hotel room and finds Michelle asleep in Tony’s bed. Tony enters from the bathroom and attempts to seduce Maxxie, explaining that he wants to try something different. They start to make out, and eventually Tony ends up “going down” on Maxxie. Halfway through Michelle wakes up and witnesses her boyfriend cheating on her with a close friend (Schiffer,Clough, “Maxxie and Anwar”).

“What is admirable about the show is that no sexual, or social issue is off limits,” one TV reviewer says.  He writes about how in America the idea of oral sex is taboo, embarrassing even. This idea relates back to the ideology that sex is private and personal. In shows like Gossip Girl, The O.C., and One Tree Hill, teen characters go from “first to last base,” conveniently leaving out any indication that there are any other steps in between (Film-book.com). But on Skins, there are all types of sex, “drunk sex, lesbian sex, casual sex, unprotected sex,” and the list really does go on (Tsjeng).

Interestingly enough this upcoming January, MTV is remaking Skins and many critics are wondering how true to the stories they will be. “The British-made version that airs on BBC America is censored for language and nudity. It will be interesting to see how sanitized the MTV version might be (Zurawik).” The series will take place in Baltimore, and although the original writers are still on board, even they admit that there are changes being made so that the stories can fit the American audience. One major change that has caused arise among original fans of the UK series is that producers felt that the homosexual character of Maxxie would be better suited in America as a girl (Autostraddle.com).

With today’s access to sites like Netflix and Hulu, TV shows have become easily accessible to audiences all over the world. For American teens, this means that they get the chance to see what life is like for their peers over in the UK. However, it also allows parents to check out what going on, and just like every teen show that airs in America, the Parents Television Council also have put in their two cents about E4’s hit. In one article PTV council member, Christopher Gildemeister, addresses the relationship between the teens and authoritative figures. He references one episode in which socially awkward and late bloomer, Sid, learns that he is in danger of failing an important class. His teacher gives him the opportunity to write a paper in order to save his grade. However instead of listening to his teacher and his father, Sid sneaks out to a party. Instead of disciplining his son and sitting him down for a one on one talk, like they do in America, Sid and his father get into it. They throw the “F” word around along with many other curses with out hesitation and although on BBC America these words would be bleeped out, in the UK they are not (Gildemeister).

For Gildemeister this is just the top of the list of things he doesn’t like about Skins. He touches on authoritative figures again when he talks about the relationship between characters Chris, a student and his teacher Angie.  “After repulsing a fellow adult teacher’s advances, schoolteacher Angie grabs teenage student Chris, kisses him and proceeds to have vigorous sex with him,” (Gildemeister). This relationship went on for about two seasons, and in the end there were no severe consequences. Angie simply decided that she wanted to move on when an ex-lover, that was actually her age, came back into her life (Shiffer, Clough,“Maxxie and Anwar”).

It’s understandable that this would raise red flags for parents, but in a subsequent post Gildemeister met again with the topic when a young British Teen wrote a letter expressing her feelings on the show. She fought back claiming that Skins did not promote bad behavior or foul language, it just portrayed what life as a teen these days is really like. “You don’t understand it: We do. It was made in Britain, for British teenagers. It uses our slang, our culture: it incorporates our fears and our hopes. What seems farfetched and unrealistic to you is real and true-to-life for us. We all know a Sid or a Tony; this makes the programme work,” (qtd. on parentstv.org). Although Gildemeister can’t and won’t agree with the Skins’ fan, I can’t say that her statement isn’t true.  After all, I was not a teenager in Britain.

Even so, I can use my knowledge of what it was like to be an American teenager, and here in America parents and teachers have the last say. Skins may have gotten praised for its raw depiction of teen sexuality but American shows like The O.C. have also contributed new ideas to the genre. The O.C., which was also created by Josh Schwartz the creator of Gossip Girl, was one of the first shows to make adult characters a prominent part of the story in a teen drama. “Sandy Cohen does not just disappear after he brings Ryan home to Newport Beach. He is an integral part of the storylines, a laid-back father who plays video games with his kids and surfs to clear his head,” (notablebiographies.com).

This also allows insight as to what role a parent plays in an American teen’s life. In The O.C., Sandy and Kirsten were very present in their kid’s life.  Therefore their son, Seth, was very well behaved and excelled in school. Where as Ryan’s mom picked up and left, abandoning him. However the fact that the orphaned and troubled Ryan was able to make something of his life regardless, demonstrates the idea that hard work always pays off. Not to mention that Ryan, luckily had two responsible role models to look after him (Schwartz, Liman, “Pilot”).

So far I have touched on many of the differences in culture between the United States and the United Kingdom. But there is also one major difference that I have not included, and this is the law of each country. In the United States the legal drinking age is twenty-one, a person must be nineteen to purchase cigarettes, and the age of consent varies between 16-18 years. The use of illegal drugs such as marijuana and cocaine is not tolerated along with the abuse of prescription drugs (justice.gov).  For the United Kingdom the legal age to purchase alcohol is eighteen, to have a glass of wine or beer with a meal in public a person must be sixteen and to drink in the privacy of your own home you must be over the age of five. One must be over the age of eighteen to smoke cigarettes, and the age of consent is sixteen. Like the United States, the use of illegal drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and the abuse of prescription drugs, are not tolerated (legislation.gov.uk).

These variations make a huge difference for the stories that revolve around teenagers. In Skins, the teens are often seen at pubs and bars. The show is also infamous for their lavish parties in which they wreck homes and drink themselves to a stupor. Characters buy and deal drugs, and in one season even get into major trouble with a local drug lord (Brittain and Elsley, “Tony”). To the American viewer this may seem extreme and out of the ordinary because even though programs, such as Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill, show teens consuming alcohol, because they are not of age yet it is not shown to this extent. If writers wish to include a relaxed party scene they imply that the characters are drunk without showing beer bottles or liquor. This is one of the reasons why foreigners often point out the infamous “red cup” that American teens hold in party scenes.  In One Tree Hill the character of Peyton tries cocaine and her friends nearly disown her, and beg her to get help (Schwahn, Dickson, “Truth, Bitter Truth”). And although the characters of Gossip Girl are seen smoking marijuana, it is an extremely touchy subject (Schwartz, Wharmby, “In the Realm of Basses”).

Like the subject of sex, American producers feel they must justify why characters act out, making examples of them, or using dramatic back-stories to make it acceptable. For instance in Gossip Girl, episode 12 of season 1, Serena and Blair decide to throw a party at the school pool.  They intended it to be just their closest girlfriends, but word gets out and soon nearly half the school is present. The party gets out of hand quickly; students are drinking alcohol, taking drugs, and running about the pool recklessly. When a student gets seriously injured the party comes to a halt and Dan Humphrey steps up, calling the ambulance and taking the blame for the party. Later in the episode viewers discover that the injured student nearly died, with the schools reputation at risk Dan is in danger of being expelled (Schwartz, Wharmby, “School Lies”).

On the other side of the spectrum, Skins makes Gossip Girl look like an after school special. On urban dictionary, a site for defining the slang and terms of young adults, the term “skins party” has already been coined. It is, “A party inspired by the British E4 Drama, Skins.  These parties usually involve large amounts of drugs, alcohol, sex and loud music. After the skins party, the guests usually wake up in somebody else’s house completely disorientated,” (Urbandictionary.com).  For the Skins’ kids parties like these are a common occurrence, and usually happen at least once an episode.

Obviously the party scenes are much more racy in the United Kingdom as opposed to the United States, however what I wish to point out is not so much the parties, but the aftermath. Because parents aren’t a prominent role in the UK show, it is very rare that there are repercussions to the destruction caused by the parties. If the kids of Skins had thrown a party at the school pool like in Gossip Girl, I doubt that they would get caught or even in trouble, and if they did it would most likely be used as comic relief.

It is also important to understand the differences of education in each of these two countries. In the United States a child must go to school completing grades K through twelve. This is the minimum amount of schooling a child must undergo, typically they are five years old when they begin, and seventeen to eighteen when they finish (ed.gov). In the UK, children attend school from the age of five to sixteen. Once they complete those years they have the option of continuing for another two years, this is called sixth form. If they complete sixth form then they can choose to continue on to what we would consider a College or University (educationuk.org).

Like I noted earlier this idea of the American Dream, hard work will pay off, is extremely important to the culture. Even with the recession and economic issues it is encouraged that students continue with their studies after high school. In shows like Gossip Girl and The O.C., where the characters grew up in fast paced and glamorous cities, they feel the pressure to attend Ivy League schools and either follow in their parents footsteps or surpass them. While in Skins, the stories are based less on the weekdays and time spent in school, and more on the nightlife and weekends. Although we see them in school, the teachers and class work is often portrayed as a joke.

In season three creators, Bryan Elsley and Jamie Brittain, made the decision to replace the whole cast with a new generation of faces. In the premiere of season three the new students arrive at their new school and immediately are brought into the gymnasium. There an assembly is held, where the head mistress discusses the rules of the school. Although at first the adults seem in control and intimidating, the student body quickly breaks out into a riot when the character of James makes a scene by pulling down his pants. He’s obviously punished, but in comparison to what kind of trouble he would be in, in America, what he receives is equivalent to a slap on the hand (Elsley, “Everyone”).

Yet again, using Gossip Girl as an example, this kind of acting out would most definitely result in a suspension or quite possibly expulsion and news such as this would be catastrophic not only for their parents but for the teen characters as well. Being that I am familiar with the characters of Skins, I feel that being expelled would only result in more extravagant parties and careless acts. Although it may not seem realistic, I find that that’s the charm in the writing of the show.  “In a world where the grown-ups are ridiculous caricatures of adult authority or entirely absent, it’s the teenagers who are left to sort out the resulting mess themselves,” (Tsjeng).

I often hear people criticize teen television saying things like, “Well when would a kid be allowed to do that,” or “Where are their parents right now?” My question to these people is exactly the same, when was the last time a plane crashed on an island with almost forty survivors, or what about the group of friends from downtown New York who spend all their time in a coffee shop, when exactly do they go to work?  No matter what genres a television show falls under, the whole point of the stories is to entertain. A viewer is supposed to suspend their belief to a certain extent, and if a show is written well the unrealistic aspects will tie together so nicely with the cultural ideologies that a viewer will start to believe that these stories could happen or would happen.

In the end I realize that there are many more differences than the three that I have researched. I could even find differences between two shows created in the US but set in different states. However all these variations do not make separate sub genres, because despite it all, the similarities all send the same message. Take away the accents; plot devices, the extravagant party scenes, and controversial sex scenes. What remains is a group of adolescence trying to find their place in life. It’s about that feeling of falling in love for the first time and making mistakes that for once bear consequences to heavy to carry. At the end of the day it’s about being a teenager.

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One thought on “Sex, Drugs, and Adolescence

  1. I think what makes teen TV so intriguing is that everyone remembers what it was like to grow up, and its such a universal experience that its relateable across continents. I personally prefer Skins to more “American” teen shows, but I think that the basic story lines are all the same and that’s what makes teen TV compelling.

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