What do these hit TV series have in common: Normal People, Cheer, Riverdale and Stranger Things? Teenage protagonists. Shona Hendley asks Professor James Arvanitakis to explain why we’re all so obsessed with watching our teen years on screen.
As I sat watching two high school characters having sex on-screen in the Sally Rooney novel turned TV show, Normal People (while also secretly lusting after the character of Connell) my husband turned to me and asked:
“Isn’t this a bit weird? We are watching two people who are meant to be in high school, having sex?”
And truth be told, I had never thought of it like that. But yes, that is exactly what we were doing, and they were doing ‘it’ a lot.
I looked back at the screen to see the two teen characters, who are closer in age to my own children than myself, and I began to contemplate the ethics of what I was doing. While yes, it may be fiction but is it still ‘weird’ to watch this as an adult? Perhaps even a bit perverted? I pondered.
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Many people are drawn to teen tv-series
As my mind was questioning my television viewing behaviour I also realised that it wasn’t just Normal People that we had been watching lately which fell within this teen genre; instead, it was just one of many.
From Sex Education, Derry Girls, Never Have I Ever, Cheer, Riverdale and Dare Me, these high school-based shows have taken up a large chunk of the ‘recently watched’ section of my streaming services and (perhaps just with a tad sense of relief), they have been dominating television screens the world over.
In fact, the ten most-watched Netflix shows worldwide during isolation included: Elite, Stranger Things, Sex Education and I Am Not Okay With This which all revolve around high school characters.
(And with Connell’s chain necklace having its own Instagram account – with over 17k followers – clearly I am not the only one on this bandwagon).
So, why are we obsessed with teen shows?
But despite this, my husband’s question was in the back of my mind. Why is it that so many of us enjoy watching teen genre television shows? And does it make us a bit…weird?
Well, the good news is, sociologist, Professor James Arvanitakis from Western Sydney University told body+soul that no, it is not weird (phew). Instead, it is perfectly normal to be a fan of teen genre television, even as an adult.
“We all have our guilty pleasure television, it is a healthy thing to have. Teen shows are also extremely high quality now, which means they are providing intriguing storylines, characters and dramas that are entertaining for a wide range of people,” he says.
And the reason why we are so drawn to teen shows, in particular, is pretty simple and natural – they link back to our own experiences of this time in our lives.
“As adults, we have a desire for nostalgia. Watching these shows allows us to reflect on our own time as a teenager and our own experiences,” Professor Arvanitakis says.
From extreme emotions like the feelings of loneliness and that you don’t belong, the frailty of friendships and more difficult issues of sexuality; they are all concepts explored in teen shows like Dare Me and Sex Education which the adult audience can too relate to.
In identifying with these, Professor Arvanitakis says that “sometimes they can help us confront things that we never dealt with, from the distance of adulthood.”
Yep, watching Normal People, makes you normal
Alternatively, sometimes it is even the more minor, yet uncomfortable events, like Otis’s mum, in Sex Education providing regular, yet often unsolicited sex advice to her teenage son that the audience can relate to. (Yes, mum I am not the only one who found this awkward).
Another benefit of the teen genre is that that they offer a method of time travel, taking the audience back to an era where they had limited responsibilities, memories of first kisses, first loves or crushes and of spending time with friends.
“The audience is taken back to a simpler time, where bigger issues of adulthood aren’t present, instead there is simplicity and the nostalgia and delight that comes from this time,” Professor Arvanitakis says.
He also suggests that looking at the context of now, with the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts, that there is a desire to seek comfort through entertainment which is also a possible reason for the genre’s popularity during recent months.
“Watching teen shows offers the audience comfort, it makes the world feel nicer and they fulfil a desire for a simpler time, they provide a relief, they are easy and are provide escapism,” he says.
So, tonight as I switch my TV to watch my ever-favourite teen show, Dawson’s Creek, for 45 minutes as I listen to the ridiculously deep and ever questioning spiels of each character contemplating their relationships, I will not only be enthralled but also taken to a time in my life where all I had to worry about was which Impulse fragrance I would purchase with my pocket money to look ‘cool’ in the P.E change room.
Shona Hendley is a freelance writer and ex-secondary school teacher. Shona is an animal welfare advocate with a strong interest in mental health and education. You can follow her on Instagram: @shonamarion.