This year, a generation of kids will be thrust into the long awaited but still unsettling age of puberty and turn to ABC Family for answers. I know this because that's what I did when, at 14, my mind turned from Adventures in Narnia to Adventures in Hormones and I became obsessed with watching shows geared towards my age group. It was as if I had discovered a secret guide to puberty, attractive adolescents dramatically foreshadowing the embarrassments, successes and adventures of my next four years in high school.
Now at 18, as hormones begin to fade from the forefront of my daily life, I am interested in the messages I received. These characters -- the players, the jocks, the good girls, and the 'bad' -- formed my expectations and attitude during this epochal time. Looking back, here is what I learned:
1. Girls who have sex don't have scruples or friends.
In almost every show, girls who were branded as "sluts" have sex with the boyfriends of the "good girls," like Adrian in The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Not only is this untrue, it alienates girls who have more sex from their sexually reserved counterparts. Morals are not dependent on breadth of sexual activity.
There is an unhealthy cycle of resentment between the "good" girls and the "bad" girls. Good girls disdain the bad girls, and the bad girls sleep with their boyfriends in return. The message that "bad girls" should be avoided is a notion that followed us all well beyond middle school. The expectation that sexually experienced girls are unscrupulous is pervasive not only in high school but in society. The dangerous core of this message: Sluts cannot be trusted.
2. Everyone in high school has sex unless they are unattractive or religious.
Chaste means sexually undesirable or religiously fundamentalist. The former are always dressed in drab clothes, sport a generally gloomy attitude, and in many cases are the punchline of their more attractive friends' jokes. The latter are naive about sexuality, bubbly and only attractive to men as a glittery, forbidden thing to be conquered and broken.
The facts are that less than half of high schoolers have had sex, and although some of these numbers reflect religious motives, many teens are waiting to have sex because they don't want to deal with the consequences, they just aren't ready, or a plethora of other reasons known only to teens and their confidants. The idea behind this portrayal of virgins: If you don't have sex, you'd better have a reason.
3. Girls who sleep around look like sluts.
A line from The Secret Life of the American Teenager that resonates with me underscores this message in a poignant way. A young girl of 13 is berated by her father at the dinner table for wearing provocative clothes to school that violate the dress code requirements. Her father, hoping to discourage her from wearing revealing outfits in the future, asks "Do you know what sexy means? It means you're ready to have sex" (season 1, episode 1).
It took me years to discover that fashion choices are not indicative of sexual activity and even more to realize that this line, subtly cloaked in a father's concern for his preadolescent daughter, is an extremely dangerous message: dressing provocatively is an invitation.
4. Boys like nice girls.
Translation: Boys won't stay with you if you put out too soon. For boys, sex is a prize to be won. For girls, sex is currency that will collect interest the longer it is saved. There are hints of this in the most innocuous social rules -- for instance, the three-date rule. The covert meaning behind this convention is that if the girl has sex with the guy on the first or second date, he will lose interest in her because he has not had the time to become invested in her as a person and will view her only as a sexual conquest.
This turns the man into a collector, and the girl into an object to be collected. The girl's main worth is in her ability to give sex, which not only strips her of her own sexual identity and desire, but intimates that she loses her value as a human being the moment sex is finished. After all, why would anyone be interested in her for more?
I did learn some important lessons from these shows:
1. Parents are a valuable resource.
Although parents are often portrayed as fumbling, naive and strict, many ABC family episodes break down the generational barrier and show confused teenagers coming to their parents for advice about friends, sex and school. With the pressure on middle school and high school kids to seem cool by avoiding confiding in their parents, the appearance of understanding parents and communicative kids gives permission to kids to talk to their parents about teenage issues.
2. It's OK to be gay.
LGBT characters are, almost without fail, seamlessly integrated into the social fabric of teenage life. Their romantic and sexual exploits are as consistently portrayed, if less graphically, as their heterosexual counterparts. In my high school, I encountered very little homophobia. In fact, people tended to be generally encouraging and supportive of gay classmates and peers, further emphasizing the power that media can have on inducing tolerance in an upcoming generation.
At the end of the week, while you enjoy your show, think about what that half hour is creating in our generation.