It hasn’t escaped the notice of viewers that on-screen sex scenes are becoming more and more frequent. As we move ever further from the Hays Code-era censorship, chaste kisses and prudish cutaways have become a thing of the past, a relic of the twentieth century. But it’s in films and television shows centred around underage characters where this development in on-screen sex is considered a moral grey area.
Imagine a real-life 16-year-old. Maybe you have a sibling or a cousin around that age. They’re children, right? It’s downright uncomfortable to think of them in a sexual context. Yet when these 16-year-olds are portrayed by gorgeous Hollywood twenty-somethings, a high-school setting is not enough to deter showrunners and audiences from viewing fictional children in a sexual light.
From Gilmore Girls (2000-07) to Pretty Little Liars (2010-17) to Riverdale (2017—), we can see how teenagers have gradually become more sexualised in television in the last twenty years. The teenage characters in Gilmore Girls are rarely, if ever, sexualised – not in the way they dress, or the way they talk about sex, or even the way they interact romantically. In Pretty Little Liars, characters do have sex, and these scenes can often be described as ‘steamy’. But whilst one high-school-aged character notoriously has a sexual relationship with her teacher, this show seems tame in comparison to Riverdale, which not only has a teacher-student sex scene, but also teens dressing and dancing provocatively and developing highly sexualised ‘dark’ (read: kinky) personalities. In fact, some of the scenes in Riverdale boarder on straight-up pornographic.
Or course, teenagers are having sex, and have been for millennia – censoring this fact does more harm than good. Depicting high-school students as sexually active is not unrealistic, creepy, or wrong in any way. Yet what teen shows from the 90s and early 2000s, like Gilmore Girls, Dawson’s Creek, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, do right is not reduce their characters to hyper-sexualised, lingerie-clad teenagers who are, for all intents and purposes, sexy.
The way that TV shows often get around the issue of sexualising teenagers is by casting actors who are not only much older than their characters (18 or over, and often well into their twenties), but also look it. Cue Ginny & Georgia (2021), a show about a young mother and her teenage daughter which clearly aims for the Gilmore Girls comparison but with a Riverdale edge: murder, motorbikes, and (of course) sex have made this a show that critics described as ‘perfect trash’. Whether it’s makeup, costuming, or just clever casting, Ginny, who is 15-years-old for the majority of the show, looks realistically like a high-schooler, along with most of the teenage cast, despite nearly all the actors being in their early twenties. While the sex scenes aren’t quite as frequent or steamy as in Riverdale, the teenage characters looking like real teenagers makes any attempts to sexualise them feel distinctly uncomfortable.
What, then, allows showrunners to sexualise children without networks batting an eyelid? Perhaps we are desensitised. Pornographic content is more normalised and readily available than ever before, and pretty much any teenager with a smartphone has access to it. Social media has given kids a degree of freedom that they’ve never previously had, and children now face pressure to be perceived as attractive and ‘sexy’ online. There are, of course, exceptions to the increased depiction of teens as ‘sexy’. The music video to Britney Spears’ ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ sexualised schoolgirls before Riverdale was even pitched, and Mindy Kaling’s recent Netflix show Never Have I Ever follows a teenage girls attempts to get a boyfriend and lose her virginity in a charmingly awkward portrayal of adolescent sexuality. Yet the general trend is that teenagers in television are more and more frequently being sexualised, and honestly? It’s starting to get weird.