Hannah Montana to Jughead Jones: The Evolution of Teen TV

It’s no surprise that teenagers have been a target audience of many shows. From family-friendly sitcoms like “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” on Disney+ to dramas like “Riverdale” (The CW) or “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” (Netflix), the teenage persona has evolved and changed.

Let’s take a trip back to the early 2000s- Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and Netflix on DVDs ruled our young lives. We looked up to both Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus. We watched Zack and Cody play pranks on Mr. Moseby. We thought our teenage lives were going to be hues of oranges, pinks, and lime green bedrooms. We wanted to have the “best of both worlds” and become famous tween stars.

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As we entered our tween years, we matured (or for some of us, immatured) and so did our TV show topics. “Girl Meets World” showed us that having autism was not something to be ashamed of. “Andi Mack” dealt with teen pregnancy, sexuality, and more. Of course, not all of us can relate to those things and enjoy lighthearted topics and wild adventures. Sitcoms like “Bizaardvark” on Disney+ created some alternate universe where our tween YouTube channels made us famous (we all had one or at least thought of having one at some point). 

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TV writers want to appeal to their audience- who doesn’t? However, lately it seems like things have gone a bit overboard with these dramas. Characters are beginning to lose that aspect of relatability. Teenage girls on many dramas are sexualized as acne-free and thigh gap goddesses- highly unrealistic for many of us and cause us to make us feel less than others. Furthering the dramatization of uncomfortable topics, “Gossip Girl” and its upper-East side characters introduced the idea of an “anonymous stalker”, and many fans watched Penn Badgley’s character Dan Humphrey aka Gossip Girl evolve into what many now know Badgley as the intensely creepy stalker Joe Goldberg (Will in season 2). While topics such as suicide and murder should be addressed, intertwining with incest and drugs is not the way to go. Yes, those things happen in real life. But the more that these topics are portrayed in the media, the more normalized these topics will seem. “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” on Netflix is no better. Almost a whole episode is dedicated to how Sabrina has to “give herself up” also known as lose her virginity to the Dark Lord. Current teen dramas place a heavy emphasis on the “sexy” aspect of a relationship rather than any actual development because that’s what writers think teenagers want. And this aspect is what gets teenagers watching. The more teenagers watch a show, the more popularity a show gains, and this cycle of normalizing sex for teens continues.

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However, not all teen shows are overly sexy dramas with the occasional musical episode for no reason. “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” on Disney+ is one of my favorite teen shows. The show is filmed mockumentary style, with confessions from each character after a controversial line or so is delivered. I, like many others, was first introduced to this style of TV when watching ‘The Office’. (And yes, there was a classic Jim Halpert look to the camera in the Disney+ series). It includes the relatability of always being the second choice to learning how to be the great #2. It talks about divorce in a real way (and it’s not just the mockumentary style in this case). Even though the show is scripted, the mockumentary style removes the stiffness of scriptwriting, revives the iconic love of ‘The Office’ for a newer generation and a touch of humanity into what would otherwise be a typical TV show.

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There’s a lot more than just dramas and sitcoms to teen TV. The future of teens in TV will be up to the writers of our generation. The future of TV is at our fingertips.

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