Call For Comments: Teenage Wasteland: the adolescent sex narrative

I love the show Riverdale. I didn’t think I would. By all rights it should be absolutely horrible. I imagine that the pitch for the show went something like this… there where was a meeting where a 90 year old executive called in a producer and said:

CW Exec: So all these comic book properties are doing great with the kids. What else do ya’ got?

Showrunner: Hmm… well, we could do a thing with Challengers of the Unknown. I have a great idea for a high concept speculative science fiction thing where…

CW Exec: SNOOZEFEST! I don’t want high concept. Give me something more grounded. Something with real human drama… Something meaty. Something like Archie!

Showrunner: Uh… well, there’s The Question. He’s a vigilante with no face and protects the city while he questions the meaning of morality and existence and…

CW Exec: No! Too thinky! I want something with an ensemble. Something fun. Something sexy. Something that is hip for the kids. You know… something like Archie!

Showrunner: Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth?

CW Exec: Never heard of him. How is that going to work. I want something popular. Like Archie!

Showrunner: Umm… Do you want us to do Archie?

CW Exec: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. Now you’re talking! I’m intrigued! Tell me more!

Showrunner: Uh… it’s Archie.

CW Exec: But what else? How do we make it sexy?

Showrunner: Uh… he has abs?

CW Exec: Great! I like what I’m hearing… Now as I recall, Archie had these two broads he hung out with. Betsy and Monica? Something like that. So here’s the key question… in this new Archie, does he fuck?

Showrunner: … uh… sure…

CW Exec: PERFECT! You’re greenlit! You’re on Wednesday nights.

I’m sure there was also an exchange in there somewhere with the exec team trying to make the writers add vampires. But the show runner resisted because he has integrity.

It should be awful. And yet somehow it may be the best show on television!

Somehow they’ve taken this ridiculous concept and really delved into the essence of what made Archie work and updated it and made it current for today’s audience. An audience largely driven by YA fiction… even for adults.

YA content on TV isn’t new. In a way, Riverdale, like Gossip Girl before it, owes a lot of its genesis to the Aaron Spelling 90210 formula. Honestly, the CW has essentially built it’s entire business plan around this… as has Freeform.  Take a bunch of impossibly good looking twenty-somethings pretending to be angsty teenagers, with thousand hair cuts and million dollar wardrobes and put them in supermelodramtic circumstances where their angst can really shine through, give the girls a couple chances to walk around in bikinis or lingerie, make the boys take their shirts off and flex their freshly oiled up abs. Toss in a current pop song or two and make up contrived situations for everyone on the show to bang everyone else on the show in quick PG-13 sex scenes designed to drag the 12-14 year old girls watching at home through puberty as quickly as possible. See also 13 Reasons WhyPretty Little Liars, My So Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek, and — if you’re from Canada — Degrassi

(Oh, and one of my personal favorites, South of Nowhere, which I know no one reading this has heard of, except my friend Brigid who I forced to watch it…  but it was an amazing show… which I loved… because… umm… I guess at heart I’m a 16 year old bisexual girl struggling with finding her sexual identity outside of the bounds of traditionally mandated patriarchal monogamy? Or something… I dunno… the show was good dammit… and, yes this is a tangent… and I don’t know that it makes sense for our show, but I’m mentioning it because I kinda want to challenge the guys over at the Protagonist Podcast to do an episode on it someday and have me back on… and if I can get even one other person to watch it, it’s worth it).

But this isn’t really a new thing. I’m actually a huge fan of teensploitation films (as you might have gathered from the list I just plowed through). I actually did an extended paper tracing the evolution of the virginity quest film, which goes back to the advent of American cinema with films like Love Finds Andy Hardy all the way back in 1938. If you’ve never seen the movie, it’s all about a 12 year old girl named Betsy (Judy Garland) who has the hots for her 16 year old neighbor Andy (Mickey Rooney) and since she’s too young for him, she manipulates him in to taking her out on a date where he can lust after her being “a lot more grown up than he thought” in an evening gown, then manipulates things so that he has his pick of two other teenaged girls to slum it with until she’s much more respectably hookupable in a sequel (Andy Hardy Meets Debutante) two years later and he can decide that at 14 she’s totally the love of his life. I’m not making this up. Basically, no matter what we might like to say about “back in the old days,” Hollywood has always been preoccupied with the idea of teenagers “doing it.” The Andy Hardy movies were made during Code Era Hollywood, so they never explicitly “have sex” but Andy makes it pretty clear that he’s buying a car just to have something to take the girls parking in. (And yeah… now you’re thinking about Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland doing it… and you can’t stop… that’s in your head now… for good… you’re welcome)

Similarly, most people probably remember Gidget as a goofy TV show with Sally Field that is completely and totally family friendly. But the original Gidget movie starring Sandra Dee from 1959 is ninety-five straight minutes of a 17-year-old girl trying to fuck surf bums. I’m not exaggerating. That’s what the movie is about. Quite explicitly. And it’s not surprising. People are fascinated with sex. Sex sells! And adolescence is a fascinating time for a couple of reasons. It represents a sexual awakening and exploration for the teenager. There are new feelings and anxieties to explore and this allows us to deconstruct the anxieties of our own sexuality. And for older adults, we can both look back at our own anxieties of the past (or continuing times) AND for parents, try to confront the growing reality of the anxieties surrounding the emerging sexuality of your children. There’s both an enticing magic and a taboo terror to watching the adolescent sex narrative.

We’ve talked in the past about the modern incarnation of television being highly invested in long form storytelling. While so many of the shows are at their hearts explorations of sexuality, they almost always crossover into some other issue. What Riverdale seems to be doing is taking the 90210 formula and mixing it with both the idea of the preexisting IP franchise and a heavy dose of genre fiction (in this case, film noir) to explore the class differences inherent in small town life, gang violence, the gun debate, the middle class opioid crisis, homelessness, sexual assault, mental illness, queer sexuality, and identity politics. There’s some precedent to this, one of my favorite comic theory books, Twelve Cent Archie, makes the argument that Archie comics have always done this (albeit surreptitiously). Similarly, The Magicians takes the adolescent sex narrative into a Harry Potteresque world to look at drug abuse, rape, peer pressure, college anxiety, suicide, depression, and unwanted pregnancy. On the other hand, another of my favorite shows, The 100 mixes the adolescent sex narrative with a dystopian future genre to explore issues of overpopulation, nation building, natural resource consumption, arms proliferation, globalization and overpopulation. It seems to me that what the CWstyle YA shows are doing is taking the exploration of teenage sexuality as a base that it is assumed that everyone can relate to in some way or another and then  applying it to other speculative fiction genres so that we can be drawn into  a conversation about deeper issues through the touchstone we can all agree with… wanting to fuck nubile twenty somethings pretending to be teens with big boobs or nice abs. Also, they really have nice clothes.

So what I’m interested in for this episode is the question of why? There seems to be something special about the TEEN sex show. They’re all soap operas, yes. But they’re not JUST soap operas. Days of Our Lives and General Hospital seem to fit in a different place from Riverdale or Pretty Little Liars. Shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy seem to steadily lose something as the characters get older and older. Even shows that theoretically feature technical “adults” rather than teens, like the Magicians, Melrose Placeor all the CW DC Arrowverse shows seem to have a definite “teen bend” to them in a way that other soap operas don’t.

So what are your thoughts? What makes these shows work? What do you want us to talk about on this episode and who wants to join us?

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