It never fails. Every week I’m watching either Pretty Little Liars or MTV’s Finding Carter (yes, Mark, I’m aware I’m 30 years old and not a teenager, stop hating!) and there is always a part of an episode that sets me on edge. Underage Aria is about to hook up with Ezra again —the man who was her damn English teacher not so long ago— or Carter is about to get black-out drunk and make out again with the guy her fraternal twin sister likes. I’m shifting around on my couch, uncomfortably clutching at my neck —I don’t have pearls.
Granted, the situations the girls find themselves in are pretty dire: in Pretty Little Liars; Aria and her friends– Spencer, Hannah, Emily and the newly resuscitated (not really) Ali– have all been stalked by the pathological, nefarious “A,” a shadowy figure who has tormented Ali since she was 14 via threatening text messages, and caused her to fake her own death after her mother sort of buried her alive. After Ali’s death, “A” started tormenting our pretty liars in a series of texts and convoluted plot twists that I can’t keep up with anymore. Just know this: “A” is always at least 5 steps ahead of us, “A” can kill people and not get caught (the police department at Rosewood is a joke), and “A” can be anyone (I swear, it’s James Franco).
In Finding Carter, our heroine’s life was turned upside down when one night, she went out for a regular night of B&E with her friends to smoke some weed on a carousel and was caught by the cops. “Relax, guys, they’ll just call our parents and send us home,” said our self-assured, edgy protagonist, and she’s right. Only her mom —whom we’ve met and is more like Carter’s best friend than mother— doesn’t show up all night.
Finally, someone from Child Protective Services shows up to tell her that the woman she thought all her life was her mother is the woman who kidnapped her when she was three years old. Her name isn’t even Carter! Carter has a hard time adjusting to her “new” family; hence the constant hard partying. I’m talking every. single. episode.
None of these teens are experiencing the regular teen angst that you and I went through in high school. Or dressing like you and I did in high school (I mean, good grief! What are the girls in Pretty Little Liars wearing half the time?) Anyway, the point is that I realize that these are deep fantasies and the audience is aware that these shows aren’t real life (or I should hope so). Yet the teens have sex in every other episode, or get drunk without consequences, and I start feeling my stomach tighten and my brow furrow. Is it me? Is it a cultural thing? Am I just getting old?
My problem with “teen shows” started when I began watching Gossip Girl and saw these rich kids leading these ridiculous lives, going to bars, drinking, hooking up, and the question in my mind was, “Where the fuck are these kids’ parents?!” And it just kept getting worse.
PLL is aired on ABC Family, featuring a 15-year-old girl who seduces her future teacher, Ezra, at a bar, and their biggest worry is not getting caught. Because it’s not Ezra’s fault, since Aria lied to him? And her friends (except Spencer, the only one with common sense … well, when she’s not addicted to Adderall for an episode and a half) are all okay with this relationship, like Ezra is just another boy. The show does not address any wrongdoing on his part, nor the power dynamics in a teacher-student relationship, nope! Just the happy couple, Aria and Ezra!
WTF is this? There’s not as much drinking on this show, but when there is, the drinking itself isn’t treated with any caution at all. There’s a recent episode where Hannah is just hanging out at the park, with her ex, drinking a couple of beers. AT THE PARK. THEY ARE BOTH IN HIGH SCHOOL. Like it’s all good. What is this? Where are they getting this booze?
I mean, I watched My So-Called Life, and when you drank on that show, shit happened, okay? It didn’t have to get all “very special episode” on you; but it was an episode in which there were CONSEQUENCES. Rayanne slept with Jordan. Angela saw her dad with that lady. The time when Rayanne took a swig of someone’s flask and Angela and Ricky shared a look like “Oh, shit. Here we go.” It wasn’t preachy but it got the point across: there’s a reason why you didn’t do these things (at least all the time), and it’s because there would be repercussions.
In Finding Carter I found the partying more out of control. Our protagonist is portrayed as a girl who is supposed to have a good head on her shoulders, but is just a bit edgy; that’s why the whole breaking and entering and the weed. Fine, I’ll allow it, I guess, the times have changed. Since the pilot, every single kid in that show (except for the little brother, for now) has been drunk or high in every episode and got barely a stern talking to. At one point Carter’s dad commends her for handling the situation with her sister responsibly. Her sister, who had never even been to a party and was feeling jealous of all the attention Carter was getting, decided to drink all the jello shots and eat all the weed brownies, and Carter let her sleep it off in the back of a friend’s car. RESPONSIBLE!
The only time Carter got in trouble was when she OD’ed on Molly and was in a coma for two days. THAT, apparently, is where her parents draw the line. I’m sorry, maybe this is cultural, but what bullshit is this? After all that happens, she’s still allowed to hang with the same crowd she drinks and drugs with (one of them being a jack-of-all-trades bookie who is also a drug dealer … I guess he has ambition?) and whenever her mom tries to say things like, “You are not to see this boy again, do you understand?” Carter makes out with said boy in front of her mother and turns to her and says “Do you understand?”
Yes, I understand, Carter — in my house that’s called War.
I know, I sound like someone’s mother, but that’s because I am. Mine is two and a half right now, but there will be shows like this on TV when she’s 9-13 (the ages I watched telenovelas) and I worry that she will see this and think it’s all okay. So, I asked people online and at The Flounce (and Mark, whose direct quote is, “All that shit sucks, who cares?” He’s an integral part of my writing process) to crowdsource how other people felt about these shows, aimed at younger audiences, glamorizing underage drinking, teacher-student sex and rampant drug use without consequences.
The consensus seems to be that most of us grew up watching things that were probably inappropriate (hello, Colombian telenovelas!) but we turned out mostly okay. There were some of you who said that banning anything will backfire, and I completely agree, because it “will just make it like forbidden fruit.” Some suggested having only one TV in the household, one that we’d all watch as a family, and I secretly thought, “Oh, I didn’t know one of my friends was a time traveler from the 1950s?” Because, come on! That would never fly here!
My favorite opinion/advice was to watch these shows with my daughter (Mark, you’ll love this!) and use it as a teachable moment; tell her how unrealistic everything she’s seeing is, that it’s not like real life and no one behaves that way (or dresses that way, I mean, Hannah! Really!).
According to my friend Melissa, the unrealistic stereotypes in wholesome Disney shows are just as bad. She tells me usually “Dad is a bumbling idiot, mom is clueless and self-centered. No one is sleeping with their teacher, but I worry it would show my kids that at 14 they’ll be running around unsupervised … But a TV show where mom says ‘No’ and nothing happens would be short and boring.” I guess that’s definitely true, no one wants to see what being a kid is REALLY like (although I think Freaks and Geeks captured it best).
But are these really our only options?
Perhaps I’m reacting so strongly to this due to cultural and generational differences; but shows aimed at teenagers these days seem to rely on too much shock value and not enough interesting storytelling. I think back on shows when I was a teen like MSCL and Freaks and Geeks and I’m sad that they never got past a first season.
Sure, we all saw things we weren’t supposed to see when we were kids and turned out alright. I think the main reason we weren’t harmed is because the people we saw doing all the binge drinking, crazy drug use and scandalous sex onscreen were adults, and we knew the material wasn’t intended for us. It added a mystique of, “Ah, so adults do these things.”
I feel like now kids may feel like, “Ah, I can do these things, look how much fun that looks!” and then feel compelled or pressured to act out like this to “fit in.”
In any case, as of right now I’ll keep enjoying PLL (I must know who “A” is, okay?) while clutching my imaginary pearls and thanking the Internet Gods for Curious George and Caillou streaming on Netflix.