Millenials, the generation of young people being portrayed in the increasingly popular genre of teen television, have, in recent years, been accused of being narcissistic and overly pampered. A result of a movement in parenting that sought to cultivate self-esteem in youth, critics argue that this current cohort of young adults is self-centered and lazy.
It would seem all too easy to blame today’s teenagers for not living up to our expectations—for didn’t we all work harder when we were their age? I, however, would like to complicate that stance by looking at the way in which the theme of individualism has prominently manifested in teen television over the past decades. Representative of an upper-middle class white sensibility, current teenage characters often exist in environments where parents or other significant adult figures are background figures, ineffectual, or altogether absent. One might correctly argue that part of this phenomenon may stem from an industry assumption that teenagers want to see themselves onscreen, but I would also suggest that this strain of individualism needs to be situated in a context that features the growing independence of upper-middle class/white/suburban teenagers since the 1980s in scripted film and television (see also the rising trend in Young Adult fiction) that is marketed toward a younger demographic. I would argue that a secondary effect of this type of representation is that teenagers begin to learn to focus on themselves not because they are inherently narcissistic but because televised media is reinforcing their perception that adults cannot be counted on for understanding or effective solutions.
Thus, instead of judging Millenials for not conforming to our standards of performance and behavior, we might look to teen television in order to understand how young people might be receiving information about how to position themselves in the world. All of this should not be seen as an attempt to excuse or dismiss concerns over the behavior of teenagers but rather as a call to investigate how television—produced by adults, no less!—may work to normalize the appearance of individualism for today’s youth.