America has always been a country that aims to protect its youth -especially when it comes to film and television.
There’sbarely anyone today under the age of 25 that can remember a world without content ratings at the upper-left corner of every show or the rigid enforcement of the MPAA film rating system. If there’s anything the least bit objectionable in any form of entertainment that a child may stumble upon, there has to be some kind of a warning or alteration in the form of censorship.
Much like an overbearing parent, it seems that modern American society is trying to shield its young from the real world. Nearly every form of popular entertainment aimed at youth has a high level of fantasy mixed into it.
Whether it’s the sparkly Teen Vogue vampires of “Twilight” and “The Vampire Diaries,” or the trust fund brats of “Gossip Girl” and “90210,” the general experience of the under-18 crowd isn’t quite reflected.
On the other end of the spectrum, reality shows like “Teen Mom” attempt to portray a grittier form of teenage life, but even that tends to be sensationalized into a new form of sadly gratifying “well, at least my life isn’t that bad” entertainment.
Where’s the middle ground? Where’s the iGeneration’s John Hughes?
Hughes’ films, which include classics like “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles,” are well loved by teenagers and adults alike despite their clearly adolescent point of view. No matter the age group or social economic status of the audience, Hughes’ films always resonate.
Hughes always firmly planted the teenagers that populated his films in reality and brought the audience directly into their world, finding humor and heartbreak in the most mundane of teenage experiences. He never felt the need to sensationalize any aspect or throw in a torrid supernatural love affair to keep things interesting.
All of the situations in his movies are universal in one way or another, allowing anyone to connect in some way. Unlike the halls of an Upper East Side prep school or in the cold arms of a slightly possessive vampire-lover, everyone has a place in a John Hughes movie.
It’s strange to see how Hughes, whose films are steeped in Americana, is currently showing his influence most across the Atlantic. There’s a renaissance of youth programming happening in U.K. television that started with the massively popular “Skins”and continues with shows like “The Inbetweeners”and “Misfits.”
“Skins” plays out like the slightly misbehaved cousin of “The Breakfast Club,” focusing on a group of middle-class teenagers during their final two years of high school. It is known for its frank, though sometimes exaggerated, depiction of adolescent sex and drug use.
The show makes it a point never to speak down to or patronize its audience, despite addressing some heavy issues. Topics like anorexia, teenage pregnancy and living with Asperger’s syndrome are explored but never in the preachy, after-school-special manner most American teenagers are all too familiar with.
“Skins” is a deeply empathetic show. It allows its audience to come to an intimate understanding with its characters and find parallels with their own lives, leaving it up to them to take responsibility for their actions – much in the spirit of Hughes.
Why do the parents of American teens today try to guard their children from the harsh, and sometimes politically incorrect, realities of teen life?
Disney’s recent release “Prom,” which is available this week on DVD and Blu-ray, is the perfect example of a sterile portrait of adolescent life: dreamed up by deeply concerned parents looking to create a benchmark of goodness for their impressionable children. The teenagers in the movie don’t act like teenagers, but marionettes with parents and lazy cultural stereotypes pulling the strings.
The recent MTV adaptation of “Skins” went in the exact opposite direction of “Prom,” managing to be just as alienating to its target audience by overemphasizing its characters’ bad behavior. By overshadowing the U.K. original’s Hughes-flavored heart and understanding with empty controversy from parents groups without delivering any sort of redeeming creative content, the show was cancelled after one season.
The world of the teenager has changed rapidly over the past few years, to the point where adults are looking at their children and seeing nothing that resembles their own time in that purgatory between childhood and adulthood.
The truth is that at its core, the teenage experience is the same now as it’s always been. It’s full of both the sweet and the bitter, and glossing over these universal truths or shrouding them in fantasy only makes that time all the worse.