CW: Graphic Content
Scrolling through the Trending Now section on Netflix, it’s hard not to notice that a majority of the shows focus on the lives of high school students. Interesting enough, the demographic of these shows hits those of all ages and sexes. The question is, what is it about high school that seems so compelling to writers and audiences?
At first, nostalgia came to mind. High school is the last common experience that people around the world share. Maybe high school shows are popular among an older audience because viewers long to reminisce about a time in their lives where the complicated responsibilities of adulthood had not yet existed—when life was more simple, more fun. Let’s face it, people would rather watch a thrilling show about parties and relationships, than taxes and work.
David Bianculli, a professor of television studies at Rowan University and frequent contributor on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, confirmed this theory. When asked why show runners choose to place shows with explicit content in a high school setting rather than in a college or adult setting, he explained that, “High school is the more universal experience, because when you go to college, do you go to an Ivy League college? Do you go to a community college? Do you go to a state college? Do you go to a historically African-American college?” There are so many factors that come into play when college is involved that can alienate certain audiences who would not be able to relate to that type of experience. That is why placing shows in a high school setting draws in larger audiences, making it more appealing to show writers as well.
That still leaves the question of: what exactly is there to relate to? Most popular shows exaggerate high school life, rarely depicting activities that are, in fact, central to high school– doing homework or going to class. In fact, they are quite unrealistic and only tangentially relate to the actual high school experience of most high school students. The high school characters in these shows are often drinking, smoking, having sex. When do they have time for homework?
Take Euphoria for example, one of the most popular shows at the moment. Euphoria follows a group of high school students who are navigating through life, love, and friendships while surrounded by drugs, drama, and sex. The explicit narrative content centers the main character Rue’s drug addiction and the various characters’ sex lives. While the show portrays addiction in a realistic way, sparking conversations about a variety of mental health issues, it does not succeed in realistically depicting the high school experience.
This narrative problem—a supposedly realistic show about high school that is rather unrealistic—can be attributed to the fact that over time, as audiences transition from network television to cable to streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu, the content of shows has evolved to become more explicit.
Beyond the obvious issues with increasingly explicit television content, to some extent, to teenage audiences, comes an even more disturbing corollary. With all of their explicit content, contemporary tv shows that aspire to “realistically” portray the contemporary high school experience are anything but “realistic.” Through their exaggerations and graphic depictions, these shows cloud the real issues behind sensationalized and romanticized stories. Euphoria’s name itself perpetuates the idea that using drugs is “euphoric.” This insinuation is dangerous, as viewers are highly impressionable. While tv writers do not set out to glamorize addiction, selectively focusing on the positive experiences of drug use can easily do just that.
Representation of real high school issues is important. With these apparent issues, it is the responsibility of showrunners to acknowledge and address the implications of portraying high school in an unrealistic way. Although it is understandable that topics such as drugs and sex evidently entertain and draw viewers in, writers and producers must cover these topics in a sensitive manner to avoid over-romanticizing struggles that people really face.
Picture Source: Seventeen Magazine
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