The Public Image of Adolescence: Skins and Glee
What do popular television shows like Glee and Skins tell us about adolescence, and how can we use this in class?
I have come to the realization that a significant portion of what I teach is directed towards addressing myths of adolescence. For the most part, my students are on board with this quest since they too recognize that most adolescents are not the drunken, oversexed, perfectly parented, and clear-skinned characters portrayed in movies and on television. Yet, many stereotypes of adolescents persist.
I don’t know if you have followed the controversy, but MTV has been showing a new television show, Skins, based on a British version of the show. The show has been vilified as portraying promiscuous, drug-using teens. The Family Research Council, a highly conservative, Christian public policy group, has likened the show to child pornography. So, one rainy Saturday, when I was seriously procrastinating from grading papers, I saw that Skins was available for free-on-demand from my cable provider.
I watched two episodes and actually thought that the portrayal of adolescent behavior was frank and explicit but not significantly more so than the sanitized versions of adolescence portrayed on network television. Skins revolves around a tight-knit, multicultural group of exceedingly sexually motivated (alone and with others) and drug-using teens in an urban setting who like to party and who don teen angst like their shabby chic clothing.
In contrast, the wildly popular Glee also treats adolescence as a wanton lust for relationships. An early storyline was of a member of the abstinence club who became pregnant by the local lothario bad boy. Said bad boy also had a pool cleaning business which brought him into much contact with his peers’ MILFS. Another episode had the teens taking over-the-counter medication to hype them up, and another episode centered on a drunken party. Perhaps, the great singing and dancing makes Glee garner less attention for its themes than Skins.
In terms of adolescence, both shows continue to reify stereotypes of adolescence. I think that the writers are brilliant to capitalize on what may appear in hindsight to be free and fun activities en route to discovering who one is. On both shows, the adolescents often reflect on their feelings of being outcasts. Parents are relatively sparse, and when they do appear, they reinforce the disconnection between parent and teen. When other adults try to support the teens, they come across as goofy, awkward, and farcical. Teasing and bullying are rampant. Schoolwork is apparently done off-screen. Emotionality runs high and peer friendship is central to well-being.
Has adulthood become so odious that we continue to fetishize adolescence?
Having these shows air (and create controversy) may be an opportunity to educate students and the public at large. I know that having good parents, resilient teens, and high achievement make for boring TV. However, I continue to wonder how much corrective instruction makes a difference for the stereotypes of adolescents. Recently, the US Supreme Court weighed a case (J.D.B. v. North Carolina) to determine whether or not police need to inform juveniles of their Miranda rights when being interrogated at school. In their questioning of the lawyers, several justices advocated that juveniles require specific treatment because of their immaturity and position relative to authority figures. I’d like to think that this far in the semester my students might come to similarconclusions.
In order to put their learning into action, I’m thinking of having my students engage in an Act-Like-A-Supreme Court Justice exercise so that they use what they have learned to discuss the issues in the same case. In this case, reality may be a better learning experience.
To see the full legal arguments: http://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/09-11121.pdf
To see a brief legal summary: http://www.oyez.org/cases/2010-2019/2010/2010_09_11121/argument
And a news story including some of the arguments: http://www.npr.org/2011/03/23/134800896/Supreme-Court-Weighs-Miranda-Rights-For-Juveniles
by Rob Weisskirch, MSW, Ph.D.
California State University, Monterey Bay