Teens on screens big and small are having some wild times. These depictions of out-of-control, risk-taking teens often fall into two categories: one type is almost aspirational, a glamorous dream of the sexy teenage life we wish we had. The other is a cautionary tale, often moralizing about how the younger generation have been corrupted and signal a world that’s falling apart. Is the risque teen trope an accurate depiction of what teenage life is like (now or ever)? Or is it an adult’s imagination of what kids today are up to?
Rue: “Do you have a lot of one-night stands?”
Jules: “Define ‘a lot.’”
- Euphoria 1x05
Hard-partying, drinking and drugs, betrayal and drama – teens on screens big and small are having some wild times. But is the risque teen trope an accurate depiction of what teenage life is like (now or ever)? Or is it an adult’s imagination of what kids today are up to?
These depictions of out-of-control, risk-taking teens often fall into two categories. One type is almost aspirational, a glamorous dream of the sexy teenage life we wish we had; the other is a cautionary tale, often moralizing about how the younger generation has been corrupted and signal a world that’s falling apart.
Across both, there are a few commonalities:
- Drinking and Drugs: These teens are reckless and all about experimenting with alcohol and mind-altering substances.
- Everyone’s Having Sex: They’re having a lot of sex, with a shifting array of partners, sometimes in ways that seem strange or perverse to adults.
- High Drama: Adolescence is a time when our emotions fluctuate wildly, and drama often feels dialed up to 11. And in the risque teen story, nonstop intensity is the norm.
- Mini-Adults: Overall, risque teens tend to act, look, and talk like mini-adults, with glamorous appearances and supreme confidence.
- With Extreme Independence: And the characters also seem to possess an adult-like level of independence and control over their time, with little interference from parents or authorities to put a damper on their risky behavior. This freedom might be because they’re very rich and feel like they own the world or because they’re very poor and their parents are too overwhelmed to be involved.
Here’s our take on the risque teen trope, and how it speaks to the way adults fear what shocking exploits the “youths” are really getting up to.
Risque Soap Operas
The teenage soap opera casts teens less as children, and more as mini-adults. Part of this feeling comes from the fact that, often, it’s adult actors who are playing the teenage characters – something that was historically the result of casting directors circumventing child labor laws. And it’s continued as the norm to this day for reasons ranging from avoiding the hassle of educating actors during filming to the extra physical appeal and professional reliability that 20-somethings offer.
On top of this, the writing of the risque teen story also sometimes feels like it’s aping the adult world, rather than attempting to accurately depict what it feels like to be a teenager. In Brick, this means a high school drama is re-molded into a hardboiled film noir detective story, complete with classic archetypes like the drug kingpin, the femme fatale, and the private investigator.
In Cruel Intentions, the scandal, blackmail, sex, and drugs from the movie’s source material, 18th-century French court drama, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, play out through hyper-confident Manhattan rich kids.
“Let’s try it again, only this time I’m going to stick my tongue in your mouth.” - Kathryn, Cruel Intentions
Mara Reinstein argues that Beverly Hills 90210 “was the first small-screen entity to ever capture the attention of Generation X because it examined teens from the perspective of teens” (The Ringer). But at the same time, its cast were clearly adults; its popularity stemmed largely from their glamorous, sexy storylines; and its drama was founded on this adulting of teen life, with plotlines revolving around everything from hostage negotiations to drunk-driving to countless romantic entanglements.
To this day, we’re still seeing plenty of glamorous “mini-adults” onscreen.
“I’m glad you came Daddy. If only so you could see how a legitimate business is run.” - Veronica, Riverdale, 3x03
Shows like Riverdale, Euphoria, and Sex Education still star almost all 20-somethings who are very sexually active and doing a lot of partying – in spite of the fact that teens today are reportedly drinking, doing drugs, and having sex far less than previous generations did.
On the other hand, Euphoria does feel more authentic to many young audiences because it seeks to get inside of a teenager’s emotional state and mindset. Rue’s intimate voiceovers and her struggles with mental health and substance addiction become vehicles for exploring today’s teenage mental health crisis – which is one of the most rapidly growing threats to teen safety today.
“And then over time, it’s all I wanted – those two seconds of nothingness.” - Rue, Euphoria, 1x01
Similarly, Sex Education explores teen sexual activity in a far more insightful and nuanced way than its predecessors – looking at the emotional relationships that determine a healthy sex life, as well as questions of consent and identity.
Adam: “I think I’m bisexual. I feel like everyone hates me.”
Eric: “It’s kinda hard to like someone who doesn’t like themselves.”
- Sex Education, 2x06
Examples like these still heighten the drama of teenage life – and may feel like an aspirational or exciting escape from a more boring reality. But there is an attempt to speak with more accuracy and relatability to what teens are feeling.
Tales of Moral Panic
Many teen stories have long been preoccupied with the fear that young people are prone to moral corruption. Nineteen-thirties propaganda films like Reefer Madness and Sex Madness were designed to warn teens of the dangers of risky behavior.
“Under the influence of the drug, he killed his entire family with an axe.” - Dr. Carroll, Reefer Madness
They weren’t taken particularly seriously, finding their audience on exploitation circuits, but that same fear of burgeoning independent youth can be seen in post-war films like Blackboard Jungle, The Delinquents, and Rebel Without A Cause.
Other teen stories through the years have intentionally gone for extreme shock value. While Larry Clark’s 1995 film Kids mostly presents its young characters’ disturbing behavior without comment, it does contain some “moralizing” of its own through a plot about a young boy who’s actively pursuing young virgins and infecting them with HIV.
Catherine Hardwicke’s 2003 film Thirteen, co-written by a 14-year-old Nikki Reed, also alarmed people with its story of a meek honors student who becomes a thrill-chasing, gas-huffing rebel after a popular girl makes fun of her outfit. The film was used as a teaching tool in the US and given an 18 rating in the UK to prevent its target audience from seeing it.
While the Overton window keeps shifting on what’s deemed acceptable, adults seem to believe that teen audiences are highly impressionable, and therefore all risky teen depictions are potentially instructive. This belief was behind the backlash to the first season of 13 Reasons Why, which drew criticism for its depiction of suicide.
“A rumor based on a kiss ruined a memory that I hoped would be special. In fact, it ruined just about everything.” - Hannah Baker, 13 Reasons Why, 1x01
Sometimes it feels like shows try to have their cake and eat it too, indulging in teen debauchery before bringing down the moralizing hammer. Cruel Intentions may enjoy the schemes of reckless step-siblings Kathryn and Sebastian, but Sebastian ends up dying and Kathryn is left humiliated in front of the school. In 90210, Brenda has sex for the first time with Dylan on prom night, but this seemingly happy occasion winds up in a pregnancy scare that was written to appease angry parents who’d complained to the network about the lack of “consequences” for Brenda’s behavior.
“I love Dylan, and I thought I knew what I was doing, but I’m beginning to think it wasn’t worth it.” - Brenda, 90210, 2x01
Even Euphoria arguably plays with this duality of depicting something shocking or potentially controversial – which is a big part of the draw for many viewers – and simultaneously offering a responsibility lesson.
“I’m not saying you’re a paragon of mental health, you’ve got your issues. Sobriety is your greatest weapon.” - Ali, Euphoria, 1x09
But where Euphoria marks a departure from more moralizing predecessors is that it’s ultimately not judging its characters or trying to “punish” every bad choice with a clear consequence, in the style of 80s and 90s afterschool specials.
Compare Euphoria to the classically moral 2000s teen show Friday Night Lights, which was always sympathetic to its teens’ perspective but made sure that every time a teen did the wrong thing, this eventually came to light and the teen had to learn a lesson. By contrast, Euphoria’s teens do many stupid things that aren’t followed up – and the show is more interested in understanding the emotional reality of why teens are drawn to risky, over-the-top behavior.
“Everything you feel and wish and want to forget, it all just sinks.” - Rue, Euphoria 1x01
The Real Lives of Teens
Risky behavior is undoubtedly a fact of the teen experience, but how can this be depicted in a more realistic and less judgmental or over-sensationalized way?
For one thing, you can cast actors who are actually teens – something we can see in examples like the show Heartstopper, some members of the reboots of Gossip Girl and 90210, and the film Eighth Grade, whose middle-school protagonist was played by Elsie Fisher in the summer after her own eight grade school year.
Actual teens can deliver some of the most memorable, compelling performances of what this period is like. Clueless, Twilight, and Bring It On all cast real teens as their female leads. Sixteen Candles starred an actually 16-year-old Molly Ringwald. In Mean Girls, Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Seyfried were teens (Rachel McAdams was in her 20s, but this adds to the way her character, Regina, appears impossibly glamorous to Lohan’s Cady).
More realistic teen portrayals also go further to undercut the uber-confident and glam risque teen trope in their writing and acting. They depict teens who are eager to find independence but also scared of actually doing it. In Eighth Grade, Kayla posts motivational videos to her YouTube channel where she pretends to be a confident, outgoing teenager, but when put in any real social situation, she freezes up. There’s similar awkwardness in Derry Girls or The Inbetweeners, where the fantasy of a risk-taking, exciting adolescence never quite materializes, and the reality is often embarrassing or excruciating.
The distinction between these more authentic portrayals and soapier offerings comes down to what makes us vulnerable. In more realistic shows, vulnerability comes from the fact that characters are figuring out who they are.
Luke: “If you looked up deadbeat Dad in the dictionary there’d be a picture of Leroy O’Neil.”
Kate: “You miss him?”
- Everything Sucks, 1x01
As teen mental health becomes a bigger focus in our increasingly online modern age, that also becomes an important kind of vulnerability to be explored.
Another aspect of realistic stories is challenging the assumption that adults are necessarily responsible, righteous, or even right. In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the risky behavior depicted isn’t the underage sex that leads to Autumn getting pregnant; instead, the risk stems from the many hurdles Autumn and her friend Skylar have to face to travel to New York so she can get an abortion.
Autumn: “Can’t you call and see if they’ll take me now?”
Receptionist: “By the time you get there, they’ll be closed.”
Autumn: “I really can’t wait until then.”
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Criticism of the risque teen trope may be grounded in ideas of child safety, but here, the feeling is that on a wider social scale level, adult structures aren’t always prioritizing these young people’s health or safety.
All these examples have a range of tones and techniques, but they work when they put us directly in the teenagers’ shoes, rather than using teen life as a backdrop to tell more adult stories.
The human brain doesn’t fully mature until around the age of 25; the teenage brain literally hasn’t developed to the point where it can reliably manage risk. So of course teens engage in risky behavior. But in reality, when we’re in the teenage point of view, everything feels risky – whether it’s trying drugs for the first time, asking someone out, or attending a pool party.
“So go out there and just be, like, confident. And if you don’t feel confident just do it anyway.” - Kayla, Eighth Grade
Even small choices feel monumental, defeats seem catastrophic, and every moment is epic because who we are is still to be determined. Meanwhile, a teen’s feeling of freedom – and tendency to not necessarily consider all the consequences or do the smart thing – is a big reason the risque teen story is so appealing. It sparks such strong fascination (and annoyance) because the adults looking on miss that time when they felt free to stumble forward, screw up, and still feel like the best is yet to come.
“Maybe people are nostalgic about high school because it’s the last time in their life they get to dream.” - Cassie, Euphoria, 1x08
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Reinstein, Mara. “The 90 Most Important Moments of ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’.” The Ringer, 7 Aug. 2019 https://www.theringer.com/tv/2019/8/7/20757684/90210-beverly-hills-best-moments
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Marche, Stephen. “Netflix and Suicide: The Disturbing Example of ‘13 Reasons Why’.” The New Yorker, 6 May 2019 https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/netflix-and-suicide-the-disturbing-example-of-13-reasons-why
Maslin, Janet. “FILM REVIEW: KIDS; Growing Up Troubled, In Terrifying Ways.” The New York Times, 21 Jul. 1995 https://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/21/movies/film-review-kids-growing-up-troubled-in-terrifying-ways.html