In Hollywood, actual high school teens don’t exist. Unless, of course, you’re somehow including all of the 35-year-old men who were held back fifteen years.
As a kid, I grew up watching teen shows on Disney, Nickelodeon and ABC Family, anxiously waiting for the day I would take my first few steps into high school. After all, high school consisted of football players with flawless skin and perfectly muscular chests who took fashion-model cheerleaders as their dates to elaborately decorated homecoming dances, where students would randomly break out into musical numbers--right?
Wrong. High school is simply the slightly better version of the hell that was middle school, only with AP classes and eccentric after-school activities that look good on college resumes. Far from the television version, the boys are in a constant battle with acne and khaki shorts that should have been retired after their last growth spurt. The ambiance at school dances consists of three colored lights hung above the stinky, sweat-infused gym door. Anyone who tries to perform a one-man version of High School Musical is more likely to go viral on YouTube than to be insulted by a clique of mean girls.
As any real teenager will tell you, Hollywood does not provide an incredibly accurate portrayal of high school kids and their lives. When there are no real teenagers working behind and in front of the camera, the result is just a bizarre vision of what an adult director assumes high school is like nowadays. As an actual high schooler, here is what I would change if I were directing the next teen drama blockbuster.
I’ve spent a few years working at a local acting studio, and I can tell you right now that teenage actors are desperate for auditions. However, almost every single teen role is reserved for actors over the age of eighteen. I get it. Child labor laws can be incredibly restrictive, especially due to the nature of the entertainment industry. But sometimes working around that red tape is the only way to create a truly honest film. Teens want to see the faces of real high schoolers. We want to see somebody with less than perfect skin as the main character in a film. When we see a real teen actor struggle with a character’s teen issues, it helps us connect much more to the film as a whole and allows us to feel a bit less alone in the universe. Take the British show Skins, for instance. I watched this show in the prime of my early high-school years and immediately fell in love with it. The actors, all of whom were real teens, were cast through a completely open audition process. Skins was so realistic because the directors allowed the actors to each add a bit of their own individuality and reality to the characters. And then it became one of the most popular teen shows of all time!
In complete contrast to Skins, the actors in Thirteen Reason Why not only look above the age of sixteen but are also covered in body tattoos. Now, I attend a school where tattoos are pretty common, but even the most tatted-up, nose-pierced, combat-boots-wearing senior doesn’t look nearly as old as some of the characters in Thirteen Reasons Why. Every character on the show seems to have some sort of major body art, completely destroying the illusion that the actors are actually high schoolers. Putting a real teen behind the camera would certainly result in part of the budget going towards tattoo-obscuring makeup--and, I assure you, that expense would have gone a long way.
2. Social Media
In the beginning of Thirteen Reasons Why, a few teenage girls gather together to take a selfie in front of the locker of a girl who committed suicide. The picture is posted on Instagram a few moments later. Watching that scene truly made me cringe. No teenager in real life would do something like that! Even if one dumbass did, they would be immediately shunned for their immoral actions. But Thirteen Reasons Why isn’t wholly to blame: this show is merely the latest entry in a long tradition of hackneyed pop-culture references to tweeting, snapping, ‘gramming, and so forth.
Why is it that adult writers consistently feel the urge to poorly incorporate social media into storylines? Adults chastise teens for being clueless about the technology of the past, and teens consistently make fun of adults for not understanding the technology of the present; wouldn’t it make sense to have a real teenager control how social media is presented in a movie or television show? I can guarantee that many more teenagers would be willing to watch “teen shows” if we didn’t feel like laughing every time a character overexaggerates their use of social media.
3. The Story Itself
Let’s say you’ve done everything right so far. You’ve gathered a group of sixteen-year old actors. A teenager is present in the writer’s room, making sure that Instagram isn’t mentioned more than twice in one sentence. Now, here comes the most essential part of the movement: allowing teenagers to have a leadership role in the creative force. Teens know exactly what issues affect current teens because we are teens. There’s nothing complicated about it. No adult has to worry about writing relatable content when they can easily hire a high-school-aged kid who can provide them with a raw, honest story to tell.
Just like adults, we watch shows because we want to see ourselves in the characters. We want to feel the character’s pain and share their emotions. Allowing teenagers to create and write these characters will guarantee relatability and a genuine connection between real teens and the characters that they’re watching. Teens are more prone to cry, laugh, and tweet about a show that they actually find relatable, rather than suffering through scenes that feel fake.
Now, I’m a realist. I know that Hollywood’s illusion of high school will never completely change, and that’s okay. Sometimes it’s nice to drift into fictional worlds full of male models disguised as high school juniors. But the first step towards using film to create genuine, positive change is by creating characters that truly connect with viewers, and hiring teens to create teen characters will begin a revolution in the entertainment industry. Rather than hoping a show will cajole or guilt viewers into feeling less isolated, why not hire someone to write, direct and portray a character that actually shows them they’re not alone?
Just food for thought.