Teenagers on telly: the settings change, but the stories are still worth telling

Is there a dearth of good British teenagers on television?

In Year 11 history class, under the tutelage of Ms Osborne, I learned about the screaming bobby-soxers of the 1940s. They were the ones who paved the way for the invention of a 50s phenomenon called "The Teenager": a new generation of youngsters who were neither children nor proper adults. Prior to the advent of teenagers, I read, people of that age group were considered to be "mini adults" – they dressed like their parents, went where they parents went and watched what their parents watched, passing the years much as their parents before them had while awaiting the sweet embrace of death. Thank God then, my textbook communicated, for the 1950s!

In the 90s, a good forty years after I had been invented, I myself was a finally a teenager. I caught the tail end of Britpop, and the resurgence of black music as "popular" music. I wore Kickers shoes and turned the band of my regulation uniform skirt over to make it as short as possible. With friends, I rode on the top decks of London buses for hours after school, being obnoxiously and unnecessarily loud. I also watched a ridiculous amount of telly, not least one of the most influential TV teenage icons of my – and indeed any – generation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "High school as a horror movie" is apparently how its creator Joss Whedon pitched the show to the network – and a TV legend was born.

I was thinking about Buffy this week, after catching some more of BBC Three’s new comedy, Some Girls, in which four – the magic group number for TV – teens stumble their way through life on their inner city council estate: playing football at school, dealing with possessive boyfriends and even feminism: “What is it?” “It’s from the olden days, something to do with Ginger Spice” (by my reckoning the Spice Girls formed two years before these girls were even born). At about a decade and a half older than the protagonists, I am well aware I am not the target demographic here. But it’s oddly enjoyable, if only to compare and contrast teenage life as it is rendered nowadays with what it was for me. These girls are just as silly as me and my mates were, our problems just as amplified in our minds, our issues just as real.

A quick trawl of my @-replies column on Twitter revealed my followers’ ages as surely as looking at their birth certificates. Many of their teenage telly icons were very much of a certain period and not often homegrown: the usual suspects (Buffy’s Scooby gang) came up, but there were also some other forgotten classics. The wounded Drazic (and his deeply attractive eyebrow piercing) from Heartbreak High loomed large, as did city wildchild Jen and broken-but-beautiful Pacey from Dawson’s Creek (incidentally, I can find no one who will admit to fancying Dawson these days, but surely some of us did?). Feminist, smart and daddy issues-laden Rory Gilmore (Gilmore Girls) came up a fair bit, as did Veronica Mars and the cast of Judd Apatow’s much loved and missed Freaks and Geeks. A couple of people invoked the power of ‘"he way he leans"; Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano of My So-Called Life. A younger fringe of followers emerged, offering shows and teen stars I was aware of, but often only fleetingly invested in: Suburgatory (repeats on E4 and Channel 4), The Vampire Diaries (ITV2, currently less strong than its opening two seasons), Gossip Girl, The Inbetweeners, Modern Family, Misfits, Skins et al. 

The settings change, but the stories of teenagers never really alter. They are at a difficult transitory point in their lives, dealing with grown-up issues with almost child-sized brains, putting out feelers for adulthood. The differences between my era’s teen icons and the current crop are remarkable and often subtle, from the way they speak to how they dress, but I think the most important development is the ubiquitous presence of the internet. Information is everywhere and available all the time. When I was in Year 11, mobile phones were just gaining purchase in the lives of teenagers, not the focal points of social activity that they are today. I look at these smartphones and (not so) fondly remember my brick Motorola, on the now defunct One2One network. 

Is there a dearth of good British teenagers on television? Maybe. Almost all the teenagers I enjoy watching at the moment are American, and not on teen-centred shows: Haddie and Drew on the very, very good Parenthood (from the people who brought you Friday Night Lights), and Zach and Grace on The Good Wife (I cannot understand why this excellent show is not bigger). Best of all, I am loving Dana Brody on Homeland. Actress Morgan Saylor (born 1994) is superb, twisting her hands and face to convey perfectly what her character requires. She also nails the ridiculous leaps of teenage temper: happy and giggling one minute, tough, snarling and spitting the next. (Not to tar all teens with the same brush, but Dana’s excellent punctuation in a recent text does point to a more mature writing team.)

Some Girls’ first episode drew in an audience of 451,000, and this week’s third episode built on that to reach 530,000. I hope it finds a steady home and audience on BBC3, not least because the channel needs more good comedies in its stable. British teenage life as seen on television is distinctive and often inventive and very funny. That is worth portraying.

Morgan Saylor as Dana Brody in Homeland.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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