White Teenagers Behaving Badly While Multicultural America Watches

The original cast of 90210

The original cast of 90210

It is not a new phenomenon: the television show featuring teens and their drama, woes, and struggle through teendom.  We’ve had What’s Happening, The Facts of Life, Silver Spoons, Degrassi High and Growing Pains. In the 80’s and 90’s there was Saved by the Bell and 90210. Into the ’90s, the genre became saturated with shows like Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and My So-Called Life. The trend continued in the 2000’s, with shows like Smallville and the OC, to name a few. Now we have Gossip Girl and the revised and updated 90210. The popularity of teen dramas isn’t new – but the proliferation of such shows has seemed to reach new heights.

Morevoer, the recent iterations of these dramas feature teens, most if not all of them white, behaving, like teenagers with mini-me adult interests, proclivities, and bank accounts, while an increasingly multicultural (and multigenerational) audience watches. Of the recent group of teen dramas, the revised 90210 seems tame – tamer even than its forbear. Which raises the question: Can the new spin off of 90210 compete in a television market that’s saturated with dramas about teens? Can the show survive when audiences have since seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, Gossip Girl,  and The OC? Is 90210 still relevant? In an era where we’ve seen sophisticated teens on Gossip Girl: plotting, summering, trysting, and living, sans much adult supervision, can Annie from 90210 (who increasingly feels like Annie-not-old-or-bold-enough-to get-your-gun Oakley) compete?

The updated 90210, featuring the new cast

More than that, what need do these shows fulfill for us, the audience? What makes shows in this genre good (or so bad they’re good)? What does it mean that these shows feature so little diversity when 43% of Americans under the age of 20 are people of color. The purported demographic these shows chronicle, young people, is factually and statistically far more diverse than the casts of the shows. Moreover, it seems a departure from previous programming that strove in some way for diversity: Degrassi High, My So-Called Life, The Facts of Life – all featured some form of diversity. But these new shows are strangely blanketed in whiteness and wealth – even as multicultural America watches.

The easy answer might be to suggest that these shows are reflective of our youth-obsessed fantasy-based culture. We’ve moved from the “after school special,” teen drama to shows that give adult lives, urges, and motivations to young people, not because we think it’s appropriate for young people to live this way, but because we as a society, are fantasizing about living adult lives, without adult responsibilities, in young bodies, amidst access to seemingly unlimited wealth. It may seem an odd thing to say, but the integrity of shows like Buffy, Smallvile, and My So-Called Life, was that they were genuinely trying to speak to young people – to the troubles, unique sophisticated culture, and the drama of being a teen. These shows were respectful of young people – because there appeared to be some commitment to speaking to the experiences and challenges of youth. Additionally, in their own way, they all featured representative diversity: Ricky on MSCL gave teens a model of a beautiful, strong, gay Latino man who told Angela the truth when she needed it – and memorably saved her from an incident with handcuffs;  Buffy’s parents were divorced and she was part of a single-parent family; and Clark was adopted and in early seasons had a close friend of color, Pete. Ironically, it is Buffy and Smallville, both sci-fi/fantasy shows, shows designed to be outside of reality, that have been most successful in incorporating, and in many cases, providing thoughtful reflections and depictions of difference.

Degrassi High: The New Generation features a multicultural cast

It is the hyper-real  shows – shows that purport to shun the supernatural, that are about “regular” teens with non-fantastical powers or struggles that appear not only disinterested in, but utterly uncommited to, even attempting to feature authentically diverse casts or storylines. It is the shows that seem to be reflections of real life, that do the poorest job of incorporating real life diversity. The revised 90210, stands out because it features identifiable diverse representation in the cast: Annie’s brother, Dixon,  is an identifiable Black male, who has been adopted by a white family; and another cast member has been identified as being of Iranian-descent. Yet even with a somewhat diverse cast, 90210 is still boring – perhaps then it’s the writers who lack either diversity, appreciation of diversity, or creativity. They seem unable or unsure of how to effectively build story lines that authentically incorporate diversity. When the show is up against competition like the ever-delightful drama-filled Gossip Girl, its difficult to imagine 90210 thriving. Perhaps if the characters on 90210 were more interesting, engaged in living, and better actors then it would be more compelling.

The cast of Gossip Girl

Not only is the show not particularly well written or cast, but because the story lines – in an era post-Buffy and with Gossip Girl en vogue,  are simply boring and uninventive.  The show’s not even building on the tension and drama of its predecessor. 90210 could capitalize on its diversity – creating more innovative and interesting storylines, directly addressing issues that are prevalent for many Gen Xers and Millenials: the role that difference and culture play in individual’s lives (drama enough if you ask me). This combined with very well done storylines could create a more dynamic and meaningful show. 90210 could take a lesson from Degrassi High, the Canadian teen drama, that features (and always has) a diverse cast, directly engage with life’s challenges and each other – with real dialogue; another piece missing from 90210.

 And then, there’s Gossip Girl which has outdone them all. Without any real identifiable diversity in the primary cast, GG is creative, drama-filled, and for those at all familiar with the New York city prep-school scene, frighteningly accurate in some of its story lines. It”s not just GG that gives 90210 a run for its money – One Tree Hill offers up considerable competition. In short, its a better show. Although it has a  predominantly white cast, it has featured characters of color in meaningful (and in the case of Quinten, pivotal) roles. Moreover, issues of diversity (mental illness, addiction, teen parenting, single parents, abusive parents, violence) are a addressed.

onetreehill-cast-03s.jpg

The Cast of One Tree Hill

I wonder if these teen dramas are only showing what we know about society: that many people do not have close friends of other racial or ethnic identities – at least not in older generations. For Millenials, I don’t think that will hold. Millenials, I think, are living in a world where diversity is  present everday: class, race, language, religion it is embedded in people live.  Maybe if these shows were anything similar to the authentic shows that came before them, they’d be willing to be more reflective of the communities they radiate their shows to weekly. There are models: Degrassi High and of My So-Called Life that can teach about how to make a dynamic,  lucrative, entertaining show.

 Meanwhile, I’ll take  a little trip down memory lane – remember when Jordan realizes he loves Angela: 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Responses to “White Teenagers Behaving Badly While Multicultural America Watches”

  1. molecularshyness Says:

    thanks for that blast from the past – i’ll hafta dig out my MSCL dvds again…

  2. I LOVED MSCL.

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