Opinions in Dialogue: Should teens be sexualized on TV?

Students Brianna and Kyla discuss teenage sexuality in media

A teenage character played by an adult-aged actor in a strip club in Riverdale. Screenshot courtesy of Warner Bros. Television

by Madeleine Chan, Brianna Condilenios, Kyla Dowling

Countless teenage melodramas, like Riverdale, have littered our television networks and streaming services over the years, and their popularity doesn’t seem to be waning. However, this has only amplified existing concerns of how teenage sex and sexuality is portrayed on these shows. Students Brianna and Kyla discuss the complexities of this growing discourse.

Kyla: To start us off, I’m of the opinion that sexualizing teens is absolutely harmful. Some networks, such as the CW, attempt to skirt around this issue by having adult actors portray teen characters. But this casting doesn’t change anything because even if the actors don’t look like teenagers, the characters they play are teenagers. These are characters that teens are meant to relate to, despite the inaccurate casting. I suppose it’s good that these shows don’t cast teen actors so they aren’t sexualizing actual minors, but that’s about the only benefit of these castings. 

Brianna: I think inaccurate casting is largely for the purpose of avoiding media backlash —  and perhaps legal repercussions — than it is of genuine consideration for how the content impacts teenagers. Casting minors in roles where they have to engage in sexual contact with one another may violate laws around sexual activity, depending on where the content is being filmed.

But as you discussed, teenagers watching these characters can still be influenced by their actions. Teenagers who do not feel comfortable with the idea of sex yet, or have not had sex yet, may feel inferior and self-conscious from constantly seeing sexualized depictions of people their own age. I would also argue that frequent depictions in media of sexualized teens feed the toxic idea of it being a race to lose your virginity.  

Kyla: You’re absolutely right that TV impacts how teenagers feel about their own sexuality. I knew someone in high school who was adamant about losing his virginity before graduating, mainly because he saw that two teen characters on Riverdale had sex. However, as much as it puts pressure on teenagers who are not ready for sex, when done properly, it can also accurately depict teenage life. The fact of the matter is that teens are having sex. When it comes to teen-focused shows that don’t market themselves as sultry semi-soap operas, it’s important to have these discussions.

Degrassi, over the course of many years, has done an exceptional job of having teenage actors play teenage characters, and not ignoring the realities of teen life. The actors are never shown in a sexual manner and there’s discussion of sexuality, ranging from consent to frank conversation about whether couples are ready to have sex. There are both benefits and drawbacks to portraying teenage sexuality in the media, but the most important point is that it has to be done well. 

Brianna: However, it is important that the topic of sex is not labeled as completely taboo as this can lead to unsafe methods of sexual exploration, such as not wearing protection or meeting up in risky places to have sex in order to avoid parents. Media can help to open this topic up so teens do not have to feel embarrassed to learn safe sexual practices and engage in conversations with trusted adults. 

This makes it all the more important for entertainment media to avoid sending the message that sexualizing yourself is the way to gain popularity and respect among your peers. There is nothing wrong with sexualizing yourself to engage in sex for your own enjoyment, but that is entirely different than doing it for social status. I think the key word here is balance

Kyla: I agree that balance is important here. There’s a fine line between sexualizing teenagers and accurately depicting teenage sexuality. What you said about obtaining popularity through sexuality reminds me of the Beautiful All Along trope, where the nerdy girl gets a makeover at the climax of the movie and is revealed to be “hot” and “sexy” underneath her glasses and frizzy hair. This transformation often comes with more revealing clothing — such as when Cady Heron in Mean Girls went from wearing an oversized borrowed shirt to dangerously short miniskirts. 

Now, there’s nothing wrong with revealing clothing, but as a miniskirt aficionado in high school, I was dress-coded many times. Not only are crop tops and short skirts unrealistic in a high school setting, these transformations promote the wearing of “sexy” clothes in order to gain popularity and respect, like you said. When wearing non-revealing clothing is portrayed as “uncool” in media and “provocative” clothing is paraded as popular, it encourages teenagers to portray themselves in a way that they may not be comfortable with just for status. I think it’s clear that this issue stems beyond discussion and portrayal of teenage sexuality. 

Brianna: I’ve always found the Beautiful All Along trope incredibly problematic. Teenagers do not need elaborate makeup, hair styles, and a new wardrobe to be their real selves. There seems to be a conflation with materialism and true beauty. For example in Clueless, Cher feels entitled as the pretty, popular girl to give Tai, the rugged, skater girl, a makeover — thus feeding this ridiculous obsession with self-image. Again, if someone wants to dress up in plaid mini skirts and spend an hour on makeup every morning, they should go for it. But this endeavour should not be for social currency. 

Going back to the main question, teenagers in entertainment media can own and explore their sexuality but it has to be clear it is something they want to do — not something that is forced upon them through peer pressure. Engaging in several forms of intimacy can be a source of great excitement, growth, and self-confidence, but only if one is genuinely comfortable doing so. 

Kyla: I think that teenage characters, like actual teenagers, absolutely have the sexual agency to do as they choose. What matters is how the writers of the TV show handle this agency. In Degrassi, the characters made choices accurate to their personalities and actively decided whether or not the timing was right for them. However in Riverdale, sex is just a marketing scheme and part of the show’s brand. The only reason the teenage characters choose to engage in sex is because of the pervasive notion that teen shows need to be filled with sex and high-stakes drama. Riverdale recently announced their upcoming season will have a seven year time jump but, to be honest, half of these teen dramas would benefit from starting in a university setting so there’s no need for these drastic plot changes. Not to mention it would also get rid of the teenage sexualization issue entirely. 

Brianna: I hope teenagers are looking beyond entertainment media to things like educational resources when it comes to making choices that impact their sexual health. If proper information about this is known, teenagers can explore their sexualities in a way they are comfortable with, without any unnecessary pressures from media.