Intrigue and drama are central to some of the most successful teen movies and series, but another thing they have in common is that their casts are usually made up of adults.
We all, even if we hate to admit it, enjoy movies and series made for teens. They are full of unlikely stories in which characters find themselves in entertaining situations full of scandals, emotional dilemmas, love triangles, and more. This formula has been used over and over again on the big and small screen, and the resulting content is always a hit with young people, who are growing, learning values, and figuring out their personalities and how they interact with their peers. Of course, a movie or TV series is an unreal reflection of society, but unlike adults, teenagers’ minds and self-worth are not yet fully developed and can be influenced by this content.
That’s why one of the problems with this type of entertainment is the fact that, oftentimes, the actors and actresses that play leading roles are far older than their characters. For example, popular “17-year-old” high-school bad-girl, Regina George, was played by actress Rachel McAdams who was 10 years older than her character at the time. Cher Horowitz’s best friend was played by 28-year-old Stacey Dash, even though the character, Dionne, was a high-schooler. This happens with men, too. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, who were 27 and 28 respectively at the time, both played the adolescent spider superhero Peter Parker. And this is not something new; adult actors and actresses have played teenagers in movies since Grease (1978) and Carrie (1976). John Travolta was 24 years old and Olivia Newton-John 29, and Sissy Spacek was 27. We see this in television, as well. Just take Cole Sprouse, who stars as 16-year-old Jughead Jones in Riverdale. And, Beverly Hills 90210 and its spin-off 90210, twenty-something actors were playing high-school teens. Finally, the average age gap between the cast members of Gossip Girl and the characters they play is 3.7 years.
There are many more examples, and it’s very common for directors, producers, and studios to look for older actors to play teens. One reason is that teens are not yet of legal age, so labor regulations are different from those of an adult. Teens’ working hours are restricted; they must have breaks; and their schedules have to work around schooling. Plus, they can only film 5 days in a row. In addition, the cost of occupational accident insurance for children or adolescents is higher than that for an adult. Another factor is the fact that teenagers are constantly changing physically: their voices and appearances can change practically overnight. What’s more, a cast of teenagers only draws the attention of a younger demographic, and this can backfire at the box office or on the small screen. Finally, scripts would have to be less explicit, which could affect the drama and development of the story.
But it is important, although these choices allow us to have entertaining series, to acknowledge the dark side. This can really affect younger audiences. Having a man or woman in their twenties act like a 16 to 18-year-old creates an impossible image in one’s head of what adolescence should be like. Actors and actresses who become icons and role models for young people are adults whose bodies have already developed. They have physical features like musculature and breasts, that teens are still developing. Their skin and hair always look perfect and are constantly being retouched by a team of expert makeup artists and stylists. All this affects the self-esteem of younger viewers, because they compare themselves, and this creates a feeling of dissatisfaction with their own bodies. This is something that can unfortunately cause deeper psychological problems in the long run. Also, the series feature situations like romantic and sexual relationships, experimentation with drugs, heavy partying, and living without limits. Just take the popular Spanish series Elite or the highly acclaimed Euphoria. These series make teens think that this is how their lives should be, which can cause dissatisfaction and confusion.
We need to start normalizing imperfections and get rid of the unrealistic beauty standards that exist in our society. Adolescence is already a very difficult stage in one’s life, and seeing these standards only complicates it further. So how do we normalize what’s actual normal? Well, we could demand that studios stop producing stories in which the cast is far older than the characters they play. And, we’ve seen steps in the right direction such as with Saved by the Bell (1989), where the ages of the cast members ranged from 13 to 14 years old, and Sex Education (2019) and Young Royals (2021), in which, even though the series do feature older actors, they look a bit more like actual teens.
It’s important for parents to sit down with their teens and emphasize that what they see on-screen is a perfectly curated world. Establish a parent-child relationship excellent communication, and create a safe space that makes your teen feel comfortable expressing themself. Then, we can all binge our favorite series knowing that the younger members of our family will still be able to enjoy their adolescence and comfortable in their own skin.