As I was looking for inspiration to write this blog post I stumbled upon an article written by Sean Coughlan for BBC News titled ‘Modern Childhood Ends at Age 12’. The title alone instantly struck a chord with me as I began to think about a conversation I had in class about television shows and the effect they had on girls growing up. Both the article and the conversation had me thinking, why did we all want to grow up so fast?
When speaking with classmates, our discussion was centered primarily around the TV show ‘Pretty Little Liars’ which aired on Freeform from 2010 to 2017. For those who don’t know, the series follows a group of teenage girls as they start high school and the drama that surrounds them and their friend who went missing. Some things that are important to note about this show are it’s problematic themes and the portrayal of high schoolers as adults. For starters the show closely follows a relationship that one of the main characters, 16-year-old Aria, has with her [of legal age] English teacher. And not to mention her parents were totally okay with it. While this is the most prominent inappropriate relationship portrayed in the show, there are several other occasions in which the young girls experience flirty or sexual encounters with men who are much older than them. These relationships or situations are depicted as lustful and romantic in a “forbidden love” type of way, and by glorifying such inappropriate relationships, the show sends a message to those watching that such relationships are okay and normal when in reality they are borderline creepy and very illegal.
In addition, the girls are typically dressed very mature for their age, seen most of the time wearing heels, dresses, low cut tops, and large amounts of makeup to school. While I am not in the position to shame anyone for their personal dressing habits [yes, I know we are just talking about a TV show], by showing these girls constantly dressed to the 9’s and wearing clothes people in real life usually didn’t wear to school, it set an unrealistic standard for what girls thought they were supposed to look and dress like. I remember vividly watching the show one time in middle school and my dad sitting down on the couch to watch it with me. After about 10 minutes he got sick of it’s teen-drama nature but it will never forget what he said to me. He looked at me very seriously and said “You know that girls don’t actually dress like that in high school… and you don’t have to”. While part of me was annoyed with my dad telling me what to do, or even commenting on my clothing or makeup choices, now I understand what he meant. Looking back on both my own young adult life watching the show, I was mesmerized by how put-together and cool they looked and genuinely thought that that was how I was supposed to look and dress, when in reality I already dressed and looked the way I was supposed to as a 13-year-old girl.
That’s what bothers me most about these shows aimed towards middle and high school aged girls. They glorify these characters who dress and act like adults so much to the point where the young girls watching these shows want to skip right past adolescence and grow up.
Speaking from personal experience while watching this show, and other shows for that matter, I thought it was so cool how adult the main characters acted. The ways they handled intense situations on their own, the ways they were having sexual encounters, the ways they dressed, were constantly out late and at parties, etc. I was so fascinated with what my life could be like when I was older that I often got lost in the presence of my adolescence. I was eager to experience life the way that they were- aside from having a stalker, instead of being eager to experience my own life experiences like participating in sports, having my first awkward kiss, making cringey fashion choices, or having friends my own age.
Shows such as Pretty Little Liars, and even others such as Gossip Girl- which is a whole different story with the glorification of underage drinking and drug use-, have the power to influence the people watching them, especially when those people are still at an impressionable age. By depicting and glorifying high school life and high school students as much more mature than they are, having experiences that do not align with that of a “normal” teenager it pressures adolescents into growing up too fast. And looking back reflecting on the influence that I have seen these shows had on me, maybe I still would have worn crop tops to middle school, but maybe I wouldn’t have rushed to have my first kiss or sexual experience because I felt like I “had to”.