Being a teenager in this day and age has proven time and time again to be more stressful and overbearing on our self-esteem than ever before. We are surrounded by media that attempts to relate to our struggles and sell a depiction of what our generation is like. Unfortunately, as we can see, especially on television, our media depicts teenagers so inaccurately that we can quite literally see the decline in teens' confidence.
In the trendy teen-drama series, Riverdale, we see our leading cast act as troubled teens trying to deal with a widely varying series of situations. The audience is able to watch them tackle dangerous secrets while trying to deal with their character's complicated relationships. Riverdale follows four leads, who all play sophomores in high school. But it’s pretty obvious that the producers want to make the viewers envision them as at least four years older than their characters actually are. Putting teenagers in mature situations could be executed in an impressive way, one that makes the viewers feel comfortable and recognized while also being entertained by a brooding plot.
But to get away with putting their teen characters into extreme and over-sexualized situations they cast young adults in the place of teenagers, and it can be seen throughout the history of film and television.
Sissy Spacek in Carrie (1976) was 27, Rachel McAdams was 25 when she played a 17-year-old in Mean Girls (Amy Poehler, who played her mother, was just 7 years older). Even the 34-year-old Stockard Channing played a high schooler in Grease. This kind of age difference in actors and their characters can cause needless anxiety for teenagers and has been for ages.
Teenagers go through a lot of physical changes in their adolescence, to cast an adult as a teenager is not only an inaccurate depiction of what a teen should look like, but it can also cause harm to real teens' own self-esteem. We are constantly taking in what we see on screen and applying it to ourselves. So, when an undeveloped 14-year-old girl watches a completely matured woman acting as if she just entered freshman year, it can build up insecurities and cause comparisons.
The same can be said about the actions of these teen characters. When you watch what these writers make their characters do, you can understand why they’d want to exclusively cast adults for these roles, although the circumstances are also inherently problematic.
In the teen-drama Pretty Little Liars, we can see one of the four main leads get into an uncomfortable relationship with her teacher. It gets even more unsettling when, spoiler, they get married in the end. But the audience is meant to forget that this character is a high school sophomore and that the situation isn’t romantic (instead in reality it’s called statutory rape and grooming) by casting the 21-year-old Lucy Hale as the character in question.
Television shows do this more often than not as a way to over-sexualize teens. Revisiting Riverdale, leading actress– 21-year-old Lili Reinhart– who played Betty, the sophomore who eventually ended up pole dancing in an episode in one of their later seasons.
This over-sexualization can force impressionable teenagers to make expectations for themselves. It gives them examples of beautiful, sensual figures and that they may come to admire and want to be like. But obviously, the maturity levels of these characters suit the age of the actors and are not realistic reflection on how we should act.
Of course, this is all fiction and done for dramatic effect and shock value, but it's barely as shocking as it is gross. Imagining an adult screen-writer writing glorified, uncomfortably mature scenes involving teenagers give major red flags about who’s writing the content we consume.
To combat that kind of exploitation, casting actual teenagers has only minor drawbacks compared to the harmful trend of casting adults in their place. Teenagers have to go to school and have more restrictive schedules than adults. It’s a drawback that has simple solutions and will give the show more benefits than downfalls. It gives teenagers a chance to see realistic depictions of those in their age groups and can give opportunities to more young actors.
Representation is important across the board, it’s a privilege to see people who look like you on television, whether it’s racial, gender, sexuality, or age and appearance, it helps normalize insecurities and make everyone's identity feel recognized.