Why We Need To Stop Romanticizing Our Teenage Years
It's time we take off the rose-coloured lenses.
I was a very mild teenager. I didn’t drink, smoke, go to parties, or do anything wild, really. And for the most part, I was pretty happy with my life.
But according to all the teen-centered media that tells us that those are the things that teenagers are supposed to do, I should’ve been downright miserable. After all, your teenage years are supposed to be the best years of your life, right? Full of wild nights, passionate romances and long-lasting friendships, of course. Books, TV shows, movies, magazines, every form of media catered to teens have been promoting this illusion for eons – hell, I could name a million books and movies that continue to do this today, off the top of my head. Riverdale, Outer Banks, The 100, Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars….you get the picture.
Most teenagers don't live like the teens we see in the media. On TV, the majority of teenage characters are portrayed by glamourous actors in their twenties, who are fully grown and out of the awkward adolescent stage that their characters are supposed to be in. In books and movies, teenagers go on wild adventures, have life-changing experiences and have burdens and responsibilities well beyond their years. Sure, these narratives may be relatable to some, but in large part, they tend to be grandiose, harmful dramaticizations of what teenagers are actually like.
But is there anything actually wrong about these narratives? After all, there are plenty of teens who live glamourous, exciting lives like those characters (see influencers like Charli D'Amelio, Addison Rae, Emma Chamberlain, etc.), and as for other teenagers, isn't it good that they have these characters to look up to?
Not necessarily. In fact, these inaccurate portrayals of teenagers often have the opposite effect - they can greatly damage real teenagers' self-image.
It's a well-known fact that influencers don't live like real people do. We might be the same age as them, but our lives couldn't be more different - they have hordes of money and fame, while we have school, work, and real-world problems.
When it comes to fictional teen characters, the issue becomes more complex. Because not only are these characters the same ages as real teens - they are vivid, interesting, complex, and fictional; which means that we get to see every aspect of their lives unfurl in the story. Fictional characters are great for projecting our own hopes and desires onto in a way that we can't do with influencers.
I remember when I was fifteen and I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the 1st time. Buffy was incredible - she was smart, brave, witty and sixteen, practically the same age as I was. She had a huge responsibility to save the world from vampires, but she also had yet to complete high school. She was empowering and a great role model - yet unattainable. We were supposed to be the same age, but my life was utterly, devastatingly boring compared to hers. Can you guess how I felt after watching the show?
There are so many teenagers who have felt the same way as I did when I watched Buffy. And Gossip Girl. The Vampire Diaries. Teen Wolf. The 100. My point isn't that teenage characters shouldn't go on big adventures or have to deal with huge problems. That's totally fine.
But we need to critically examine why we continuously romanticize our teenage years; why we create media where teenage characters have huge, world-saving responsibilities, or have boatloads of money and scandalous private lives, or are unrealistically mature, supernatural, and simply not real.
I think we know why: Nostalgia. We want to relive simpler times in our lives.
And that’s okay! It’s fine to want to fondly look back on your own experiences and relive the simplicity of youth. But it’s important that we draw the line between wanting to experience nostalgia for teenage years and fully romanticizing them, which can be incredibly harmful. I’ll talk about why below.
Romanticization glosses over the less-than glamorous parts of being a teenager.
Being a teenager can really suck sometimes. Especially in today’s world. Social media has increased mental illnesses in youth at an exponential rate, plus there are other pressures and stress factors – like the pressure to fit in, which is especially hard for teens who are LGBTQ+, neurodivergent, disabled, and racialized, or a minority in any way.
Plus, there's a million other awkward growing pains that teenagers go through that are rarely talked about (although, this is starting to change). Starting high school. Getting acne. Going through puberty. Drama in friendships and relationships. Family issues. Wondering what you want to do after high school with the rest of your life. The list goes on and on.
It makes it seem like everything goes downhill once you become an adult.
Often in forms of media where teenagers are the main characters, their parents and the other adult characters are nowhere to be found, leaving it up to the teenagers to a) go wild, like in Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars, or b) save the world, like in Buffy and The 100. Either way, the message is hammered home: teenagers are young and independent enough to look after themselves, while adults are boring and contribute nothing to the story.
Well, it would definitely be great if the real teenagers in our world could fix all of our problems! That way, we adults could just take a step back and relax. Oh, wait, that's kind of already happening - I've written about my take on this here.
My point is, narratives that perpetuate this seem to think that adults are useless and boring. We're not! We just...have other priorities. We've got responsibilities, jobs, families, things that require our attention. We don't really have time to save the world...but we're trying our best to help.
Another thing that I don't like about this narrative is that it presents teenagers as being isolated and forced to be self-reliant. They can't rely on adults for help, so they have to deal with everything on their own. In real life, it's important that teenage kids should be able to rely on the adults in their lives for help and support. No teenager should feel alone like how some of the teenage characters in these narratives do.
It perpetuates the notion that getting older is scary, and that we should hold onto our youth for as long as we can.
Another thing I've noticed is that in many of these narratives, adults are often cast as villains (again, see Buffy, The 100, Riverdale, etc). They can be stubborn, domineering, and downright abusive. It's as though the message is that with age, adults become cynical, cold, and cruel. That's a pretty rude thing to insinuate, in my opinion.
While it's true that with age, many of us become jaded and set in our ways; to paint us all with a broad brush simply causes division. After all, the problem isn't with adulthood itself; the issue lies with adults who do bad things. It's important to note that distinction.
But the fact still remains: both in fiction and in real life, aging is seen as a scary thing. It's not! As we age, we learn more about ourselves, the world, and our place in it. It's a pretty cool journey. Nothing to be afraid of!
Overall, I do think that things are changing. Teenagers aren't as romanticized as they used to be, and we're getting more fiction that delves into the messier and un-glamourous aspects of those years: some of my favourite shows and movies that do this are Eighth Grade, Big Mouth, I Am Not Okay With This, On My Block, Sex Education, and Everything Sucks. More and more, the world is acknowledging that teenage life isn't as glamourous as we make it out to be. And I think that's a great thing.
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