“Gossip Girl,” “Pretty Little Liars,” “Glee” and “Riverdale” are all TV shows that share two large similarities: They are incredibly popular and the main cast of teenagers is played by adults, sometimes 15 years older.
There are many technical reasons producers choose to hire actors much older than the character they play. For one, most teenagers and minors under 18 can only work under a highly restricted number of hours due to labor laws. Their time on set has to revolve around their schooling, rest and meals. Actors under 16 also need to have a guardian on set as they work. But despite these technicalities, it is hard to justify shows like “Riverdale,” where the average age gap disparity between actors and the roles they play is a solid 8.25.
It’s not the number of years that seems to be a problem, but more so the time frame selected. If a 58-year-old actor plays a 50-year-old character, the harm that reaches the audience is significantly less than if a 28-year-old adult plays a 16-year-old student, which also happens to be the age difference between Stacey Dash and her character Dionne Davenport in the renowned classic “Clueless.” This is because 10 years is a huge time difference when you’re younger. Most of us likely don’t change as much, physically or emotionally, when we go from 50 to 60, but when we go from 10 to 20, we may be practically a new person. Between the ages 10 and 20, we change physically and mature emotionally. Most of us start this time frame at the beginning of middle school and end it in our college years. Think about how much we changed in this period. A lot of us have the majority of our “firsts” during this time — first job, first year of college, first time living independently and so on. When a 15-year-old looks at the screen, at what they are “supposed” to look like according to the media’s latest beauty standards, they are comparing themselves to people, in some cases, nearly a decade older than they are. They are forced into reevaluating themselves because perhaps the small student in high school with a face full of hormonal acne feels they are supposed to look like a 30-year-old professional model. It perpetuates unrealistic standards, dragging a bag full of insecurities along with it. Being a teenager is hard enough as it is; we don’t need an increase in unachievable beauty standards.
It’s not all just unachievable physical standards. Quite often, shows that revolve around high school life have a large added element of romance or sexual relationships. It’s not completely accurate to say high school is devoid of all romantic associations, but for most of us, it’s nothing as over-sexualized as Riverdale. Often, older actors are hired because of how unethical it is to have minors play out sexually explicit content. But there seems to be a much bigger, overlying problem: If you can’t get actual teenagers to play out a teenage character, chances are that your character isn’t doing what normal teenagers do. Watching this kind of explicit content forces teens who have only just started to figure themselves out to mature at a rate that may be too fast for them, a process that deprives them of reflecting on who they really are and who they want to be in the future.
Shows like “Saved By The Bell” made an effort to only hire actors that fit the age range of their characters. Other shows need to do the same thing, to start taking age and age-appropriate content into account. We also need to make an effort to remind the younger ones in our lives that realistic behavior is almost never the same as what is portrayed on television. We need to make sure we play our part in making teens feel comfortable in their own skins, giving them the time they need to grow and discover who they are, what they like and what they don’t like — without the influence of unrealistic characters that set standards for real teens. It is hard enough for teens to grow up in a world where more ridiculous beauty standards are being shoved down their throats; helping them realize that they are the normal ones for their age and not the two-decades-older man on TV will alleviate the unachievable standards the media has set for them in such formative years.
MiC Columnist Syeda Rizvi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.