Teen movies are often dismissed as trivial and unimportant due to their target audience; something to be obsessed over in the turmoil of youth, never to be thought of again. However, teen movies and the messages they send about our place in society, our identities, and the relationships we form have a bigger impact than we think.
According to Erikson’s Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development, the target audience of teenage movies, those aged 12-18, are going through a critical stage of development: something he called “Identify Vs. Role Confusion.” During this time, we’re developing a sense of self and our place in society that stays with us forever. It also involves navigating acceptance of the self and others.
However, the sense of identity we establish during this time also impacts our next stage, “Intimacy vs Isolation”. This is the time when we form our understanding of how to navigate non-familial relationships of all kinds with increased depth and commitment; and a time when many of us still consume a great deal of teens and young adult films (or at least I do).
In many popular teen movies, the central characters are presented as though they are going through the same struggles of identity and relationships as their audience. However, this doesn’t actually have the positive impact we might hope. The majority of teen movies centralise the experience of just one kind of person: cis, straight, white, Allo (someone who experiences sexual and/or romantic attraction, i.e. someone who isn’t Asexual or Aromantic), monogamous, and those whose ethnic background and family customs fit a very narrow western idea.
Characters and narratives that fall outside this “ideal” are often sidelined or frequently don’t appear at all. For a genre that claims to make relatable stories, this leaves a lot of teenagers without on-screen representation of their identity and relationship struggles. In the words of theatre director Marianne Elliot: “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it”. And although this is certainly an exaggeration as queer people, those practising polyamory, or people of colour exist regardless of whether or not they see themselves represented on-screen, there is some truth to this.
Never seeing characters like us leading happy, fulfilling lives teaches us that we cannot be happy by being ourselves and that to achieve this happiness, we must fit into an “ideal” and be like the characters we see. This is a dangerous notion to absorb at any stage in life, but can be particularly destructive at such a crucial time of identity and relationship formation as the teen years. It often leads to us rejecting key parts of our identities due to the belief (often not consciously recognised) that being who we really are will never allow us to be happy because we have never seen or have limited examples of that being the case.
This effect is possibly most extreme for A-spec people, as almost all coming-of-age movies, even teen fantasy and action movies, focus on at least one romantic and/or sexual relationship. It is often perceived as an integral part of being human, to give meaning to life (and, from the screenwriters’ point of view, the plot).
In fact, A-spec (on the asexual and/or aromantic spectrum) representation in western film is so rare that it's even hard to find films that contain narratives parallel with the a-spec experience, regardless of the orientation of the characters.
The friends-to-lovers trope is especially prevalent in teen movies because it is often portrayed as the natural progression of a relationship to follow as the characters mature. As sweet as this is, it alienates people of all orientations, implying that platonic relationships are somehow lesser than ones that are romantic or sexual in nature.
Me And Earl And The Dying Girl subverts the romance genre by applying the format to platonic relationships.
When a film makes you want two characters to be “more than friends” (a problematic phrase in itself), you’re really absorbing the film’s subliminal messages of relationship hierarchy. These messages teach us that romantic and sexual relationships must be prioritised above all others, and our platonic relationships are less committed, shallower, and less important than romantic and sexual ones.
The Maze Runner Series celebrates commited friendships, but like other teen fantasy films, priories the character development of white characters.
Representation of cultures and ethnicities beyond that of white and western is only slightly better. Although there is some representation, it is often portrayed that if you aren’t white and western, your family and cultural background must somehow hold you back. Other times where there is multiethnic representation in teen movies, there is often a complete absence of cultural identity beyond the culture they share with all the other (often white western) characters.
The Sun Is Also A Star: a love letter to multiculturalism that epitomises Allocentric storytelling.
Whilst, in recent years, there has been a definite increase in Queer representation in film, there is still a distinct lack of Queer and Polyamorous narratives in films marketed at teens. Films like Love, Simon are the exception rather than the rule: most teen films, especially those of the fantasy genre, show only straight relationships between cis, monogamous characters, not just sidelining queer and poly stories but not even showing them at all. Films with queer representation often make the characters' orientation and gender a central part of the plot, rather than just one facet of their identity, as it is treated with cis and straight people.
Most teen romcoms, however, fall into the same category as The Fault in our Stars and Everything, Everything, where there isn’t a single queer or polyamorous person in sight.
Whether we like it or not, teen movies play a key role in discovering who we are and what our relationships can look like. The teen movies of the last couple of decades, as much as I love them, have let down everyone who isn’t the represented “norm”. This doesn’t mean there isn’t hope: there have been efforts to diversify who we see on screen in recent years. Hopefully, the recent rise in representation in teen TV and Netflix shows will soon also be seen in the movie theatre.