Adolescents relate to exaggerated shows
Romantic relationships, dramatic scenes, surprising twists, teenage trouble and intense endings, all a part of high school—or in television’s version at least. But one thing is certain; connecting to a certain character or falling in love with one on screen, becoming influenced by an actor’s choices or trying to make life more similar to a show: it all influences reality.
Television has construed and manipulated the truth or reality of various topics and events for decades, but the portrayal of high school has fluctuated and often arguably reshaped the environment surrounding it.
One example of how high school is currently represented in the media is the television series “Euphoria.” The HBO Max teen drama follows the lives of high school students and their encounters with identity, trauma, relationships, drugs and love. The show is an American adaptation of the Israeli show of the same name, but writer Sam Levinson added new ideas and combined flashing saturated lights, constantly moving cameras and captivating music to create something entirely new. Levison further explains the premise of the show in an interview with Vulture.
“We established early on that each scene ought to be an interpretation of reality or a representation of an emotional reality,” Levinson said. “[The show] isn’t real… but at the same time, there [are] people constantly saying how real the show feels, which creates an interesting paradox.”
Whether the show exaggerates aspects of high school or not, two young women, interviewed by the New York Times on June 24, 2019, relate to the show. Identified by their initials N. and M. to protect anonymity, the two women recounted their addiction to drugs and alcohol in high school. They also said that their experiences were sometimes even worse than those that the main character Rue, played by actress Zendaya Coleman, goes through in the show.
“When I was using literally every move I made was to get high,” N. said during the NYT interview. “In some parts it shows that [Euphoria] is a TV show [because] realistically [some scenes] would’ve ended [more] badly [than they did].”
M. went on to say that the show does exhibit the consequences of addiction and the harsh reality of it, but still finds herself trying to shield it from the younger people she cares about.
“Maybe having just gone through a lot of that stuff, I don’t want other people to,” M. said in the interview. “It’s a delicate balance.”
Many parents argue the show glorifies the use of drugs or highlights them in a way that teenagers should not be exposed to yet, but others watch it as a way to feel less alone in their struggles or to better understand the harmful effects of drugs.
Junior Justin McCray, who watches the show, emphasized that even though the show demonstrates the use of drugs, it in return shows the danger of addiction.
“In my opinion the show is overrated, but I do not think it glorifies drugs in any way,” McCray said. “If anything it shows the bad effects of drugs and how bad they are for you.”
But upper school counselor Merredith Stuelpe said that even if parts of the show are exaggerated or depicted to be more engaging, because of the disparity and uniqueness of each school, some students can relate to specific facets of the show.
“Some students can identify with what is being portrayed in [television and social media] and others can’t,” Stuelpe said. “For example, some students can relate to certain aspects of ‘Euphoria’ and [are] glad it is being portrayed, and others are very surprised by the show and can’t relate to it. It just depends on the school.”
Another way television shows often exaggerate high school is through the depiction of private versus public school. Sophomore Libby Cuccia, who previously attended Woodrow Wilson High School, said that although she has not seen “Euphoria,” she believes other shows often portray an unrealistic contrast between public and private schools.
“I think the difference between private schools is definitely way different from public schools in shows,” Cuccia said. “In the show I am watching, ‘Gilmore Girls,’ the private school is very strict and disciplined whereas public schools are portrayed as having no rules. My experience at Woodrow was obviously different from ESD, but… it was still about school and getting work done.”
Cuccia also said that private and public schools do have contrasting differences, but education is just a mere factor of the environment a school provides. U.S. News & World Report published an article on Sept. 15 2021 that compared the differences of private and public schools: the article concluded that factors taken into consideration for all schools, besides educational outcomes for parental school decisions, include class size, teacher training, affordability, diversity and availability of programs.
“The people and circumstances are different at every school,” Cuccia said. “Where the schools are located and the things going on are very different. There was fighting at Woodrow in the middle of the school day across the street in between students, and you don’t see that at ESD. I just think where the school is, the people that go there and whether the school is private or public can change a lot.”
McCray, who previously attended Allen High School, also believed every school is different and that each one has a unique community.
“At Allen there are tons more people, and a lot more personalities to come across,” McCray said. “[Whereas] at ESD there is a more intimate feeling when it comes to friend groups because everybody knows everyone. [So, I think] the school you’re at definitely affects your experience overall.”
Television also portrays high school in a different light with the actors they choose to cast. Many popular shows such as previously mentioned “Euphoria” and “Gilmore Girls” and others including “Pretty Little Liars,” “Glee” and “Riverdale” cast actors in their mid-‘20s and ‘30s for main character roles. Directors and media workers attribute it to the legal limitations surrounding having a minor on set. Interviewed by VICE, casting director Todd Thaler said that it is all about labor laws.
“The number of hours that children are allowed to work are highly restricted, which limits the amount of time that producers can actually have adolescents on set,” Thaler said to VICE. “Within those limited hours that children can work, part of that time [must include] education, rest and meals.”
Yet, these castings create unrealistic expectations and standards for teens viewing these shows.
Featured in an article by Teen Vogue on June 7, 2017, clinical psychologist Barbara Greenberg Ph.D. said that these castings often cause complications for teens.
“It can give the message that [teenagers] are supposed to look good all the time,” Greenburg said. “Some days they’re thinner, they’re a little heavier, they have pimples, their hair is frizzy. It’s all okay. [But when the media portrays these high school characters as perfect it] leads to all kinds of body-image and social-comparison issues.”
Television can also be a strong influence on teen’s sexuality. In shows, the characters in relationships always seem to be aesthetically pleasing or beautiful, which tends to reinforce the importance of physical attractiveness. Along with this, viewers who often relate to an on screen character will often compare their characteristics with the people around them. In a content analysis of relationships and intimacy in teen dramas on television published by Brigham Young University on July, 1 2018, author and student of communications Sara Valoise Lamb said that the media exaggerates the depiction of relationships.
“Most media, especially in the United States, teaches through their television programs and films that an acceptable person to date must be physically attractive,” Lamb wrote in her BYU content analysis. “…When the consumer empathizes and identifies with a character, their perception of themselves blend in with that character. …[Viewers] begin to compare their character counterpart to people in real life, and they look for similar traits and physical attractiveness of a particular actor.”
Stuelpe added that when teens associate themselves with adults acting as teenagers on TV, they struggle to relate to the characters.
“I think that in the media an adult acting like a teenager comes across completely differently than a teenager would,” Stuelpe said. “So when [a teenager is] watching a show, [they] think ‘why don’t I sound like that when I talk, or why don’t I like that at this age or why am I awkward and they aren’t.’ I think it can make it a little confusing for teenagers and lead them to doubt themselves and doubt where they need to be at this stage.”
Television portrays high school in an array of lights that never fit into every category a school has to offer. Some students relate while others don’t, certain schools correlate to shows and others are extremely different, and students often don’t look like their on-screen doubles, but it can never be constantly accurate either way.
“I think that every school has a unique personality and a unique group of students,” Stuelpe said. Based on what your interests are and how the school can accommodate those interests your high school life will be different… certain schools can identify with a certain part that the media is portraying and others can’t. It will never fit perfectly for every school.”