OPINION: Popular teen shows weren’t made for everyone

A close up of a blonde woman with sunglasses, with three identical clones behind her.
(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

Our childhoods’ most popular teen shows weren’t written for me. 

Don’t get me wrong, I watch them. Enjoy them, even. But they were written from a distinctly privileged perspective and for a particular audience. Newsflash: characters who come from privilege and are “making their way up” are not exactly representative of all viewers. I do not mean to discourage you from watching these shows, but rather to encourage you to recognize what they lack.

Some of my favorite shows happen to be revered 2000s classics, like “One Tree Hill” and “The O.C.” Other well-known shows from this time are “90210,” “Gossip Girl” and “Gilmore Girls.” All entertaining, but not at all realistic in the ways that matter. 

Take “One Tree Hill,” a show centered around a majority white cast with the exception of characters like Skills and Fergie, who are given nowhere near the amount of screen time as the main characters. Or “The O.C.,” which follows lovable — but rich and white — teens from sheltered backgrounds. And “Gilmore Girls,” while a famously comforting show, suffers from a lack of diversity from nearly all directions. Watch a “Gossip Girl” trailer and the pattern is self-explanatory: much of the television we know and love tells white stories from white perspectives. 

It is not that none of these shows had characters from underprivileged backgrounds, but what representation these shows did have was rarely accurate. In “The O.C.”, the only representation consisted of stereotypical portrayals of people of color from working-class communities. Though there is representation present, it’s not much better than the original “Gossip Girl”, where the cast contains only white, upper-class teenagers. Both instances go to show, heteronormative and homogenous characterizations of our generation need to go.

As a woman of color, it’s hard to reconcile our generation’s favorite shows with their almost exclusive focus on white stories. It is especially difficult to hear people say that these shows have had a cultural impact while not being representative of their viewers. The representativeness — or lack thereof — of the most popular shows indicates to audiences that the stories worth telling are ones from primarily white perspectives. It signifies a preference for privilege and uniformity in a world that contains a myriad of perspectives and intersectional identities.

Teen shows today are making changes. These more recent shows include “Never Have I Ever,” “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” and a personal favorite, “Sex Education.” It’s promising to see that I see people who look like me from my sources of entertainment. On the other hand, though we see diverse casts in shows like “Euphoria”, the show still suffers from unfinished storylines for its marginalized characters, negative stereotyping and cliches. Every character, whether the side or main role, deserves a thorough, representative and non-exploitative narrative that speaks to watchers who see themselves in these TV personalities. 

The best characters are the most realistic ones. And the best shows are those with a cast reflective of the people we encounter in our day-to-day lives and the individual experiences we’ve had. Teen shows need to stop associating characters with their racial stereotypes. They need to stop demonizing the most diverse characters, or killing them off to evoke the white savior complex. Consult the people who are playing the characters you’ve created, and consult their communities. Television should stop manipulating real stories into what are supposedly more entertaining ones. It is a disservice to underrepresented communities and the stories they wish to tell.

I ask all of you to watch the shows you watch with a critical eye. We should not feel guilt for enjoying the shows we enjoy. Instead, we should ask ourselves if the show in question demonstrates diverse, accurate and non-stereotypical representation and narratives. Respect your stories by keeping your favorite creators accountable.

Shay Suresh CM ’24 is from San Jose, California. She loves literary fiction, indie music and making Pinterest boards.

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