We Don't Need Another Hero: Individualism and Self-Reliance in Teen Television

Curator's Note

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.



Hi Chris, thanks for a really informative post! The discourse surrounding these shows that you refer to reminded me of a lot of the flurry of reactionary articles about so-called 'mumblecore' cinema 5-10 years ago - particularly this charge of narcissism. While I certainly don't want to overstate the comparison, given that mumblecore focuses on young adults/graduates, and that there was a completely different relationship between the subject depicted, the producers of the texts, and their audience, and of course medium and scale of distribution, it nevertheless got me wondering whether this reactionary response was something that you found to be a recurring trope in the reception of teen-oriented drama generally? Also, I was struck by something else -do these shows, with their focus on heightened individualism, periphery parents, etc, only intensify for teen audiences the effects of watching adolescence performed by adult bodies (often actors approaching or well into their thirties)?

I hate to be all, "my generation was better," but I am struck by the difference between Buffy and "The Vampire Diaries." While the former showed Buffy struggling after her mother died, having to deal with house payments and other bills, TVD has tenuously held on to some sort of "parenting" for Elena and Jeremy until this season. In the past seasons, their aunt and their pseudo-guardian/teacher moved into the house to care for them (and one presumes, pay the bills), but now there is no one inhabiting this space or fulfilling this function. I ask about this because you are describing a particular kind of independence that does seem rooted in whiteness--it is one that does not involve any sort of financial burden or practical limits on agency. To what extent is this millennial independence dependent upon an unstated but essential privilege?

Chris, thank you for your inspiring post. Actually, I think there are also several connections between your post and mine - maybe we can discuss that tomorrow. For now, I am mainly interested in one thing. Without wanting to question any of your claims, I am wondering about the instances of teen tv where adult characters DO matter despite highly individual/self-reliant teenage characters. If we consider characters like Sandy Cohen (The O.C.), Rupert Humphrey (Gossip Girl), or Keith Mars (Veronica Mars), we have rather strong and highly influential parent figures (both for the respective child as well as the audience, I'd claim). What strikes me is that all of them are male and fulfil completely different functions compared to these shows' respective mother figures, who are either absent (Gossip Girl), alcoholics (The O.C.) or both (Veronica Mars). Therefore, to pick up where Karen (with whose comment I totally agree) has left off: to what extent is the possibility of parental support of millennial independence dependent on male/masculine gender roles?

I'm concerned here about the assumption that these teen characters are representative of adolescents instead of the adults who create them. Perhaps the absence of parents (the magical disappearing parent?) is actually a function of adult writers and audiences who are unable to imagine themselves as parents. The Vampire Diaries is perhaps the perfect example of a show in which "teen" characters are only teens in the sense that they don't have jobs and other responsibilities. Their school appears entirely optional. (Even True Blood's Sookie lives in a fabulous house, abandoned by her parental figures and she is supposedly more adult than Elena and company.)

I too would be curious to hear more about what you think, following both Karen and Florian, about intersections of race, gender, and class in terms of your formulation of the presence/absence of parents on teen television. I think too, though, as Adryan says above, that there is something interesting and odd in that these teens only resemble teens in their supposed age given that they rarely work and pretty much never go to school (although ABC's Pretty Little Liars read the Great Gatsby in Junior English for at least a year). That lack of things that might define many a teen experience--including school, after-school jobs, parents and rules--are all but absent, which to me comes back to Karen's point that these shows perhaps display a middle class and perhaps adult fantasy of the teenage years as fun-filled adventures without parents (though with other dangers like vampires and werewolves or teen bullies on PLL). Seemingly, in Vampire Diaries working in addition to school is only something that Matt does and it signals his class status in juxtaposition to Caroline or Elena or Bonnie. It seems almost like the fantasy is about growing up early, becoming an adult, but without all the trappings of adult responsibility and consequences. On the flip side, on a show like Vampire Diaries, the adults are often childish and the divide between kid and adult or even teacher and student is blurry at best: Alaric drinks with high school kids, vampires are simultaneously adults (given their very old age) and youthful (in their appearance). So not only can adults not be counted on, it seems like they are just taller kids. Anyway, thanks for a really thought-provoking post, Chris!

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