TV culture is obsessed with the idea of adolescent fornication, but not really in a “sex is sexy!” kind of way. More like in a fearful, moralizing, “sex is dangerous!” kind of way. The Secret Life of the American Teen, for example, follows an ensemble of teenagers (the most prominent of whom is a pregnant 15-year-old) as they sleep with each other, suffer the negative consequences, and then exchange incredibly dull, explanatory dialog about what they’ve learned.
Even racier teen dramas tend to focus on the dire emotional consequences that inevitably follow virginity loss. It almost always ends in shame, regret, and/or a break-up. Viewers are getting an eyeful of cautionary tales telling them sex is bad…and the vast majority of them are teenage girls.
I get that teen dramas need drama, and there’s nothing like a pregnancy scare or virginity freak-out to move a plot. But real teen couples (like adult couples) are capable of sleeping together and remaining in love, un-pregnant, and disease-free. Do we see that on TV? Well, sometimes. Here’s a little report card grading how well teen dramas have handled teen sex on screen.
In retrospect, Beverly Hills, 90210’s scandalous rep belies a rather chaste TV culture. It was a really big deal when Brenda Walsh and Dylan McKay, both juniors in high school, decided to lose their virginity together at the Spring Dance. The show’s willingness to tackle a taboo even led critics to call it hard-hitting and controversial, descriptions that will draw looks askance from most modern-day viewers. For all the bravado of their first time, Brenda and Dylan didn’t maintain a healthy sexual relationship. Just one episode later, Brenda regrets going all the way (for unexplained reasons), then has a pregnancy scare, then breaks up with mega-fox Dylan. Three cautionary tales in one!
Still, Bev-H0 gets points for doing it first.
For all its intelligence and soulful characters, Dawson’s Creek didn’t exactly revolutionize teen sex on TV. It was sex that sparked the demise of both major loves stories (at least in the high school years), if in very different ways. After Dawson Leery spent half a season pining for Jen Lindley, they finally they started dating. [Correction by Allison:] “They broke up after Dawson declared that Jen was ‘too promiscous’ for his liking. However, the writers took great pains to point out in subsequent episodes what a clueless move that was. Dawson realized his idiocy and begs Jen to take him back, but Jen shows surprising backbone and refuses his advances.”
As for Joey Potter and Pacey Witter (the show’s fan-favorite couple) their relationship problems ensued the morning after they had sex, and culminated in a tragic prom break-up that would go unredeemed for the remaining 3 seasons. Sex: It’s complicated.
Sex doesn’t get much more tragic than your partner losing his soul and trying to murder all your friends, which is exactly what happened to Buffy Summers when she bedded her BF, Angel on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. But Joss Whedon’s over-the-top treatment of a break-up gave us a surprisingly relatable look at the emotional risks of intimacy, rather than the usual scary story about social consequences. You might even say Buffy satirized the way teen sex was normally portrayed on teen television.
Extra credit for top-notch dialog!
Marissa and Ryan only did it once or twice in their seasons-long relationship on The O.C. because they were too busy having misunderstandings, breaking up, getting back together, and having misunderstandings. The question of whether they would have sex became more important than the sex itself. In a way it was the ultimate teen drama relationship: All attraction and no pleasure.
Minus points for going on way too long.
To The O.C.’s credit, Summer Roberts and Seth Cohen were one of the first teen couples to have sex and a functioning relationship. Sure, their first time was a little awkward due to misunderstandings about who was a virgin, but they managed to work through it over the course of one episode. Seth and Summer maintained an ultimately loving relationship throughout the series (despite a few requisite separations along the way), without sex functioning as a the be-all and (more importantly) end-all.
Plus 10% for being two of my favorite characters ever!
One Tree Hill is easily the most sensationalistic show of its kind, but it has a damn healthy outlook on sex. Take Lucas and Brooke, the series’ pre-dominant (unmarried) couple, at least in the high school years. They had their share of break-ups and make-ups, two of which involved pregnancy scares. But when they were together they enjoyed a fun, loving sex…and plenty of it. Make-up credit for Brooke being super confident and assertive.
Veronica Mars portrayed its fair share of sexual violence, teen pregnancy, and emotional trauma, but it dealt with those issues in a very feminist way. Bad stuff didn’t happen as the result of sex, it happened as the result of a fucked up society. Even as the title character tracked down her rapist she was able to engage in healthy sexual relationships, the most prominent (and hottest) of which was with Logan Echols. Minor point penalty for Logan and Veronica breaking up too many times.
The O.C. writers returned to bless us with Gossip Girl, a gorgeous show that makes up in style what it lacks in plot development. Serena Van der Woodsen and Dan Humphrey are they new Ryan and Marissa, complete with copious break-ups and limited sex.
And then there’s Blair Waldorf and Chuck Bass, the excessively complicated couple who can never decide whether to ef each other over or just ef. It would be easy to lump them in with all the other teen couples for whom drama is the epitome of love, except that Blair and Chuck’s romance is so much more sensual than the usual teen fair. Gossip Girl has taken the will-they-or-won’t-they teen sex trope to they-already-have-and-now-it’s-a-question-of-who-will-win-the-epic-power-struggle-surrounding-sex. (Either-way-it’s-going-to-be-hot.) It may not be the healthiest portrayal of sex on TV, but Gossip Girl gets points for making sex look sexy. And the fact that the girls want it just as much as the guys? Exceeds Expectations.
So there we have it. If you’d like to dispute a grade or offer up other shows for evaluation, comments will be taken under consideration.
[Now published at www.loveinthelivingroom.com]
21 Comments Have Been Posted
Jiz Lee replied on
This is great and all, but are there any considerations for queer sex ed?
That was one of my biggest issues with sex ed -- both in school and the 'birds and the bees' bit my folks taught me. Not once was gender and sexual orientation brought up. Or masturbation for that matter. More sources, please!
Juliana Tringali replied on
<p>There are a few examples of gay relationships in these shows (that I can think of). <i>Buffy's </i>portrayal of Willow and Tara's lesbian relationship was groundbreaking, but didn't happen until the college years. A fleeting lesbian character had a crush on Kelly Taylor in <i>Beverly Hills, 90210</i> that was not returned, though Kelly did question her sexuality for a few minutes. Marissa had a brief girl-girl relationship on <i>The O.C.</i> that was so contrived and male-gaze oriented that I hesitate to call it lesbian. Eric, Serena's younger brother, is openly gay on <i>Gossip Girl</i>, but his boyfriend has appeared on the show all of two times and it's not clear whether they're having sex.</p><p>It's true that teen dramas tend to ignore gay sex even when they feature gay characters. Marco del Rossi on <i>Degrassi: The Next Generation </i>is probably the best example of a gay teen who has a confirmed sex life (even though there was no "very special first time" episode).</p><p>As for masturbation, on <i>One Tree Hill</i> Brooke Davis was known for "brooking herself" when Lucas wasn't around, and on <i>Gossip Girl...</i> http://bitchmagazine.org/post/i-know-its-election-day-but-blair-masturba.... </p><p> </p>
Okay, clearly I need to put
Carla Girlpants replied on
Okay, clearly I need to put Gossip Girl under my magnifying lens.
Why can't teenagers just have boring sex? Like many married people do? Which happens without condoms breaking or parents busting in and then they break up, or don't acknowledge each other or maybe it's awkward and then it's on to the next thing?
I hate how teenage dramas make the characters into mini-married people - if panic-mongering shows like Dateline are to be believed, our young people are hooking up furiously in between video game sessions and not thinking twice about it.
Allison Mccarthy replied on
I have to dispute the grade for "Dawson's Creek" -- the facts posted here about Dawson and Jen are mostly off-base. In Season 1, they start dating and yes, they do break up after Dawson declares that Jen was "too promiscous" for his liking. However, the writers took great pains to point out in subsequent episodes what a clueless move that was -- Dawson realizes his idiocy and begs Jen to take him back, but Jen shows surprising backbone and refuses his advances.
Jen and Dawson didn't sleep together until Season 5 in the episode "Hotel New Hampshire." This is also the episode where Dawson loses his virginity at college-age (he's either 19 or 20 by this point), which well past the mark for most traditional ideas of American heterosexual masculinity. In the show's first five seasons, the characters of Dawson (James Van Der Beek) and Pacey (Joshua Jackson) are contrasted for their relationships with women -- Pacey beds several women, while Dawson remains a virgin. Although this comparison was occasionally used for humor, the show often thoughtfully examined what it might feel like to be an All-American male virgin throughout high school and much of college. And in the episode "Hotel New Hampshire," Dawson shows nothing but gratitude and affection toward Jen, the previously-accused "slut," for sharing his first sexual experience.
Juliana Tringali replied on
<p>I admit that <i>Dawson's Creek</i> is the only one of these shows I haven't watched, and unfortunately I had to rely on secondary sources (like my boyfriend who watched it nearly 10 years ago) for summaries. I'm so glad you cleared this up. I'm raising the grade based on new information.</p><p>And I'm borrowing <i>Dawson's Creek </i>from a friend so nothing like this ever happens again! </p>
Re: The OC, you mention that
xta replied on
Re: The OC, you mention that "The question of whether they would have sex became more important than the sex itself." I think this is a totally accurate portrayal of teen sex, partially b/c of shows like this and largely because women aren't really encouraged to figure out what they want out of a sexual relationship until much later than dudes typically do.
And besides, how could a relationship with someone as drama-filled and vapid as Marissa Cooper be based on anything but sex? (Haha, I just said "but sex.")
Also, your analysis of GG is spot on: a show "that makes up in style what it lacks in plot development." Well put.
One more thing
Xta replied on
What about the NEW 90210? Are we just ignoring that because it's mostly bereft of positivity?
Ms. Echols replied on
Loved your list. What are your thoughts on Veronica Mars?
<I>"You want to know how I lost my virginity? So do I."</i>
Juliana Tringali replied on
Thanks for the reminder.
Lisa replied on
Great pics, but Veronica Mars should definitely be added!
What about Veronica Mars?
Antelope replied on
Not only did Veronica Mars manage to totally pass over the "losing her virginity" plot point that every show about a young girl has to have (because she was raped before the show ever began), the sex between the major characters was never dramatic or relationship-ending.
Dare I say Buffy was trumped?
C.A.B. Fredericks replied on
As interesting and layered as the depictions of sex were in <i>BtVS</i>, Buffy's actual sex life was pretty consistently awful (even the good times with Riley were prone to unleash ruthless Freudian metaphors). While team Mutant Enemy approached the issues with more grace and nuance than their predecessors, fact of the matter is, it never really got around to portraying it as a natural part of a healthy relationship (the paucity of healthy relationships didn't help, either).
So to complete my nitpick, <i>Veronica Mars</i> probably deserves <i>Buffy</i>'s grade, and vice versa.
Also, <i>Party of Five</i>? Anyone? Anyone?
"Gossip Girl" deserves some extra credit points
Jessica Glennon... replied on
Earlier in the current season, "Gossip Girl" opened with Blair Waldorf having a sex dream in which Chuck Bass goes down on her in a limo. This is a rare occurrence (or, really, an implication, since it's network television, after all).
Additionally, when she is awoken by Dorota, her maid, who tells her she's going to be late for school, Blair responds "I just have to ... finish something", making it pretty clear she's taking things into her own hands.
I was impressed : a total focus on female pleasure, self-induced, within the first two minutes of an episode.
It certainly doesn't make up for the fact that Blair's friend Serena is treated like a slut for sleeping with a few guys, while Chuck gets away with bedding half of Manhattan, subsequently emphasizing the nightmarish whore-versus-playboy double standard, however, as far as primetime teen dramas are concerned, I think it's a start.
Anonymous replied on
I would like to add/recommend the British teen drama "Skins" to the mix, for showing accurate portrayals of teenage sex, as something that happens, and doesn't always have terrible consequences. Certainly some things are exaggerated or emphasized for the sake of plot (there was that whole teacher-student sex thing), but seriously. There was an accurate depiction of a teen pregnancy in the second season that was so refreshing. You should check it out if you haven't already.
You had me at "British"
Juliana Tringali replied on
<i>Skins</i> is in the queue!
Yes, Skins is fabulous. Sid
Carla Girlpants replied on
Yes, <i>Skins</i> is fabulous. Sid is my favorite character so far. And the treatment of teenaged debauchery in a oh-well-ho-hum manner is so refreshing. One morning the kids all wake up from passing out and the house is completely trashed and someone's mother is on her way in. And that's just a small detail.
On an American show, there'd be at least three earnest PSAs explaining, <i>Drinking's Bad, M'Kay</i> at the end.
another for skins
Al Fair replied on
not only does sex not necessarily ruin them, drugs and alcohol don't either.
What about giving props to
Bekka replied on
What about giving props to The O.C. for showing a married couple (Sandy and Kirstin Cohen) that still loved each other after years of marriage and were still hot for each other?
Marissa's dalliance with Alex wasn't lesbian, it wasn't even bi-curiosity. It was "how can I piss my mom off?"
Ryan and Marissa were such a messed up couple, they didn't need the drama of sex. She was an alcoholic, had problems with her parents, tried to kill herself in Mexico...yeah, she didn't need a pregnancy scare, which would have inevitably happened. That's why we had Theresa and Ryan. During a break-up with Marissa, Ryan went back to his ex, she became pregnant, he left home to support her during the pregnancy. So...there was a consequence.
Honestly, as a HUGE fan of The O.C., I never really cared whether or not Ryan and Marissa were having sex. Thinking back (and watching my dvd box set) I'm glad they did it as little as possible. I'm also glad they didn't find a developing fetus in Marissa when they did her autopsy. That would have been too predictable and too awful.
Also, there was that storyline with Julie Cooper (Marissa's mom) sleeping with her daughter's ex-boyfriend.
I think The O.C. showed the complexity of relationships of all kinds and the effects sex has on those relationships.
All around, I'd give it a B, with Seth and Summer getting an A+.
Friday Night Lights
Heather S. replied on
What about Friday Night Lights? I think there are lot of interesting takes on teen sex portrayed on FNL, and certainly a number of teenage couples who manage to have sex and remain in a normal, functioning, loving relationship. (Granted, one of those couples' relationship began while they were cheating on their crippled best friend/boyfriend, but still!)
But, with FNL, I do appreciate the general attitude toward teen sex, and the fact that they don't shy away from actually talking about it, and mostly (mostly!) don't sensationalize it.
Great post! And I wish to
Agata replied on
Great post! And I wish to continue the list of the movies that are sexually uninstructive and even threatening as abstinence only education.
Do you remember that story of a risky night and unprotected sex that leads two young people to unsuccessful parenting? Just look at their confused faces! If I were a teen I would probably never like to have sex at all!
chelsea replied on
It's not a "teen show," but I think Roseanne deserves an honorable mention for its treatment of Darlene and David's sex life. They do have a kind of "first time" episode, but it's all about how the sex is her decision, on her terms. And, with the exception of one small *almost break-up,* their relationship continues and only gets stronger after they sleep together.
Not to mention episodes about periods, masturbation and birth control, all of which were handled wonderfully, IMO. Plus gay characters who had developed personalities and relationships. This show had a much greater effect on me than 90210 or any self-described "teen show."
Add new comment