From Mav: A friend of mine posted a meme recently that made fun of the way teenagers are depicted on television. It shows a stock photo of a typical looking adolescent boy labeled “Teenagers in real life” next to a stock photo of a rugged looking model labeled “Teenagers on Netflix.” My first inclination was to make a joke that I would have said “Teenagers on the CW” instead of Netflix. It’s probably more fair. But honestly, I expect part of it might be that Netflix is just where a lot people watch shows like Riverdale – the best show on television (Editor Hannah: No!) – and Gossip Girl and stuff like that. I’ve actually seen a few different variations of this meme. Some have the model guy replaced by Creed Bratton with the same slogan. Others use entirely different pictures for both. One version I saw uses Chris Evans as skinny Steve Rogers vs Chris Evans as buff Steve Rogers. But I think the model version is the best. It really gets into something that I started thinking about when I saw the post.
Casting adults as teens isn’t really a new thing. I often say that Tobey Maguire always looked really weird as a high school student in the Spider-man movies because he was clearly 47 years old at the time (he was actually about 27). Wayne has said the same thing about watching the Sweathogs on Welcome Back Kotter when he was growing up (they were also all in their mid-twenties). They were SUPPOSED to look the same age as he did at the time, but clearly didn’t. Aubrey Plaza plays a high school senior trying to lose her virginity in one of my favorite movies, The To Do List, and she was quite obviously 29 at the time. Casting adults as teens has always been something of a convenience. Real teenagers are limiting because of child work laws that production has to schedule around. This is certainly something you CAN work with… and in fact a lot of family sitcoms do. It’s just that when you stand the twentysomething “kids” on Welcome Back Kotter or Happy Days next to the actual teenagers on Full House, Facts of Life, or Saved by the Bell the former group looks like Steve Buscemi walking through hallways of a high school.
But there’s a little something more going on here. Because honestly the Sweathogs and the Happy Days gang weren’t really “sexy.” Even Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, despite getting buff in the scenes without his shirt, was still presented as nerdy looking during his day-to-day clothed life at school. He was just a kid with abs now…. well, a kid who looked 47 with abs, but you know. This is different than the kids on stuff like Riverdale – the
best (Editor Hannah) show on television, 90210, Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, or everything on the CW. Those are “teenagers” you’re supposed to look at and get horny. That’s the point. They’re shows about glamorous people having sex. I didn’t look like that in high school. You didn’t look like that in high school. No one looked like that in high school. And you certainly didn’t have a whole high school full of people who looked like that. And certainly not a whole network full of multiple shows with multiple high schools full of people who looked like that.
They’re sex machines. Every single one of them. I was watching a CW show once and my wife, Stephanie, came into the room and saw it and said “is every one on this show a ridiculously hot teenager?” and I told her “no, of course not… there are ollllld people in their 40s and 50s who play their parents” and Steph said “oh, so they’re not all ridiculously hot?” and I told her “oh, no… they totally are. I’d fuck every single one of them too. They’re just in their 40s and 50s is all. But they’re all sexy. I’d totally fuck literally anyone on this show.” Because that’s the point of shows like these. Take a show like The 100. It’s a post apocalyptic world, in shambles, people are dying left and right. And I’ve seen tons of think pieces by people who ask questions like “and yet, why does everyone have great hair? Why are all of these women still shaving their legs and arm pits? Why do the men have perfectly sculpted facial hair? Why is everyone wearing makeup?” and the answer is simple. Because even if there’s an apocalypse going on, it’s important to look your best at all times. Grooming matters! I mean, sure you’re going to be dirty, but that’s no excuse to let yourself go! You never know when you’re going to be running from some grave threat, hide in a cave, and the adrenaline is going to get to you and you’re going to have to boink! Seriously, I watch the show. It happens all the time.
And that’s probably why the hot teen thing happens. And in a lot of ways it’s kind of funny. The Netflix Twitter account even made fun of the phenomena a couple of years ago. That’s part of what makes meme so funny to me. They are aware of the trope and yet they do it anyway… though I feel like they’re a little less guilty of it. The kids in the Netflix Original film The Kissing Booth are roughly age appropriate (at least they were still in their teens when they filmed the first movie, and while they’ve aged for the sequels, what can you do?) but the “teen” stars of Sex Education are totally in their twenties and were when the show started, as was the cast of 13 Reasons Why. Granted, they looked a little more believably teen than the kids on most of the CW shows. But not much. At the same time, Netflix is also running Stranger Things and the kids on that show, being that they are ACTUALLY KIDS definitely look more underage than the kids on all of the other shows… even when they’re going out of their way to try to look grown up and sexy. They just look… like teens.
And that’s where I really think the weird discomfort is. I think there’s a certain intrigue in dramatizing teens. Certainly you can have soap opera drama for older people — everything from Dallas to Days of Our Lives focuses on adult relationships — but we look at college aged and above characters as adults. So having a soap about a 22yos and 42yos isn’t significantly different. But making it about teens… Dawson’s Creek, 90210, Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, Buffy, Riverdale – the best show on television (Editor Hannah: *sigh*), The 100, whatever… gives you the feeling of nostalgia to looking at your own youth as well as letting you enjoy the sexual intrigue of youth without dropping into pedophillic taboos.
That is to say, it’s fun to watch relationship drama unfold… and when the characters are 16, you can focus on that without worrying about “how do they have time for all of this hooking up and cheating and stuff? How the hell do they pay their rent?” But when you’re watching that kind of relationship drama, and you want to add a sexual component to it, you’re slipping into this thing where really, whether you want to acknowledge it or not, you’re applying a sexual gaze at “children” or at least the idea of children. You are fetishizing youth in a way that makes us uncomfortable. Gaze in media (typically male, but other gazes as well) are necessarily voyueristic. So when you’re watching fetishizing youth… deriving scopophillic enjoyment (yay college words) from sexy teens there’s something a little “naughty” about it… but less naughty than when we think about it with preteens… and even less so if we can say “but it’s ok if I’m turned on… those people are actually 24!”
That’s why we do stories about teenagers. We feel more comfortable having a sexy story about 16yos than 13yos. Men, Women and Children — another of those tiny indy coming of age movies that I liked a lot, but that no one else saw — is based on a book that also no one else read. The novel is about the dating and sexual lives of a bunch of middle school kids played against the dating and sexual lives of their middle aged parents. The film version moves all of kid roles from middle school to high school. Still underaged… but it “feels” less gross to have them hooking up. In some ways this is “better” and in fact, I most prefer the film to the novel. But it also makes some characters seem a little emotionally stunted as they talk about sex or even things like menstruation in ways that 16-17yos should really understand better than 12-13yos. And it meant being able to cast actors in their 20s to play teens having sex scenes, and I expect it was more comfortable for all involved… including what little audience the film had.
So that brings me back to Stranger Things. I am reminded to a controversy during the second season when the characters of Max (played by Sadie Sink) and Lucas (played by Caleb McLaughlin) kiss. There was some backlash from the fans for this because, Sink had mentioned that she was nervous about it, since that was her first kiss ever, and she didn’t know it was going to happen when she took the job, and she talked about people teasing her about it on set. So, the internet freaked out about it for a week or so about how horrible it was for them to force this child to kiss against her will. This was not Sink’s intention, and she later clarified that it wasn’t that she didn’t want to do the kiss. She was just nervous. Lots of actors get nervous in kissing scenes and love scenes. It’s a thing. Especially if it’s your first one and especially if you’re a kid. It’s why intimacy coordinators now exist.
Sink and McLaughlin did the scene and the people moved on and forgot the controversy, because that’s how the internet works. Honestly, part of this I think is probably racial bias on the part of the fans. Lucas is black and Max is white… and no one had any problem with Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and El (Millie Bobby Brown) kissing the season before. I don’t think either of them made much of a big deal about it… but they couldn’t have had all that much kissing experience because they were literally 12 and 11 when they filmed it. Sink and McLaughlin would have been 15ish when they filmed their kiss. But I don’t think the race was the BIG issue. I think it really was the idea of thinking of 15yo real life Sink and McLaughlin in a “sexual” sense in a way that didn’t register for 12yo fictional El and Mike… even though we watch pretend teen romance ALL THE TIME. It’s especially hard when people got the idea that Sink was “forced into it”. I think the older actors make it easier to swallow. If Sink had been a 22yo PLAYING a 14yo talking about being nervous for her first kissing scene no one would have cared. It was the fact that she was actually 15.
So I think it points to a weird cultural dichotomy. We’re both ephebophobic and ephebophilic. That is, we are afraid of teen sexuality but we also crave seeing it… so long as we can abstract it away in our heads because we are also deathly afraid it existing. I think we’re weirdly only able to address it if we can separate it out from being “real teens” even if we complain about the effect of doing so when we do it (the meme), that layer of “he’s too old to REALLY be in high school” protects our brains. And once we lose it, the ephebophilia starts become very much pedophilia in our heads and it becomes REALLY uncomfortable. Because I’m wondering: how many people are freaked out by the MJ/Zendaya and Peter/Tom Holland kiss in Spider-man: Far From Home? Did you root for it? Because when I saw it in the theater, people cheered. And they’re literally supposed to be exactly the same age as Lucas and Max in the Stranger Things scene (and Peter’s kiss with Liz in Homecoming, is actually a year younger).
But it feels different somehow, doesn’t it? Because no matter how young Holland looks as Spider-man (he’s way more believable as a high school student than Maguire ever was) the fact that we know he’s a grown man makes it less icky. Or does that not matter? What about in shows like 90210 or That ’70’s Show where some characters were of age and some weren’t? Because Ashton Kutcher was 20 when they started filming and Mila Kunis was 14 and they made out A LOT! And it is clearly implied that they’re having sex, though obviously that’s never shown on camera.
Anyway, that’s my theory. What about you? Can you think of more examples or counter examples? Do actors of the wrong age pull you out of (or into) the story? Does it matter what they’re doing? Do more “kid like” stories like Saved by the Bell warrant actual kids where a sexy story like Gossip Girl requires older actors? Do the actual teen actors look seriously out of place next to twentysomething-teens? Is it as obvious to everyone else as it is to me who is a real teen and who’s an adult in the image below (study it carefully, because dammit, I put a lot of work into it)? Is it weird to think about the fact that as an adult you are metaphorically “peeping in: on teenage makeout sessions in everything from Stranger Things to Spider-Man? And what happens when you have an actor you know is really 14 making out with a 16yo character that you know is played by a 20yo actor? Do you think that there’s more or less to it than what I’ve thought of here? Let us know.