Is Teen Joy Obsolete?

Were your teen years good to you?

For many, the answer to that question may be confounding. My experience as a teenager was, in short, a mixed bag.

The answer to that question for characters in Netflix’s new teen drama series Grand Army, on the other hand, would be a hard “no.”

The series, which premiered at the start of this month, is billed to address sexuality, racism, violence, and even the kind of domestic terrorism that American high schools have been forced to face over the last two decades. Each review I have read of the series flows between trigger warnings and damning assertions that the show is “trauma porn” for today’s youth. I also read critiques that the series is the streaming platform’s pining attempt at a Euphoria (2019) branded for Netflix. The popular HBO series was also the subject of similar reviews for its tackling of drugs, sex and teen transgression on screen last year.

Photo: Netflix

As these new depictions of high school life gain frequency, it has become clear the teen genre at its heart is being phased out. Film and television about teens seems to be hyper-focused on the ability to go viral by way of singular moments– or just moods and vibes. To its credit, Euphoria achieved that goal under this model, consistently piecing together 60-minute episodes packed with double tap-worthy makeup looks, fashion, music and overall aesthetics for an entire season.

The series’ real, raw and gritty storylines operate to the same effect. Shocking or traumatic character development was sure to generate a clickable headline the day following a new episode. With series like Grand Army following suit, social and political anguish become an expectation in entertainment media marketed for teens. Today, the sticker price of teen drama automatically bears the burden of social commentary, whether the material is able to hold up that weight or not.

Photo: HBO

Grand Army is inspired by series creator Katie Cappiello’s original 2013 stage play Slut. Both works address very directly the constructs of rape culture and slut shaming. Where text heavy in commentary differs from the stage or literature to the screen is the glaring aspect of consumption. Whereas Cappiello’s stage piece may thrive in mostly academic, adult circles, anyone born after the year 2000 with an active Netflix account has access to such depictions of sexual violence. The acting agents for addressing such intricate topics are, of course, teens. The optics of this on screen run the risk of perpetuating subject matter the series aggressively tries to critique.

This is not to say that sex should be written out of the teen entertainment sphere entirely. Exploring sexuality in adolescence is healthy and, despite what it may feel like at the time, totally normal. What’s missing from today’s depiction of teen sex, I’ve found, are the ingredients of innocence, awkwardness and vulnerability that we all grow from. When intimacy among teen characters is over-glamorized, oversexualized and crammed with violence, media further takes away from teens the opportunity to look up to normalcy. It would serve younger audiences well to showcase early sexual experiences that don’t share a common denominator of intense pain, physical or emotional.

The same can be said for other navigations of teen life on screen. As a “Zillennial” only growing in age, I frequently reflect on my younger self and her capacity to understand the complexities of adulthood. Certainly what I thought I knew then about mental health, substance use and sex were wholly different than my real experiences. Be they sometimes painful, sure, but each blow was softened by that resilient ignorance that comes with being young.

It seems that shows like Grand Army and Euphoria come to be when we look backwards on the youth experience and impose a perspective that is already hardened by the pains of growing up. Which, to their credit, would be fine in a vacuum. Provocative film and television are not always inherently made for shock value. But such entertainment is pushed out into the media diet of teens, who now more than ever could benefit from some onscreen joy.

Should we impose our adult commentary on what kids consume today? It’s worth considering a new perspective in the future market. Not because such seemingly simple films of the genre are nostalgic and dear to my heart, but rather I believe that teens and adolescents today deserve the escapism we all wish we had more of.