Teen TV: Genre, Consumption and Identity

Glyn Davis & Kay Dickinson (eds),
Teen TV: Genre, Consumption and Identity.
London: British Film Institute, 2004.
ISBN: 0 85170 999 0
£14.99stg. (pb)
(Review copy supplied by BFI Publishing)

What, then, does it mean for a group of academics over the age of nineteen to begin to rummage around in teen culture? (5)

This is a pertinent question posed by the editors to which the obvious response might be, they produce a book like this: a collection of essays which worry about genre, consumption and identity in relation to the troublesome nexus of the teen and television, always haunted by the nagging anxiety that aging academics just might not get it any more.

Conspicuously absent from the collection are the voices of any “real” teenagers, although it should be acknowledged that such voices would only ever appear as a set of representations anyway. To be fair to the editors and assembled authors, their primary interest is the text and not necessarily its reception except in an ideal way:

The intention of this volume is to unravel [the] recurrent characteristics of teen dramas from the last decade or so, to scrutinise them and to speculate upon their implications and inspirations” (1).

And so they begin, quoting a long extract from the screenplay of the now defunct TV series Dawson’s Creek to illustrate the key characteristics of the contemporary teen TV series: the overly sophisticated language of the teen characters, the frequent intertextual references, the sense of a community based on generation, the use of emotion, aphoristic psychological reasoning and a prominent pop music soundtrack. Given that most of the series talked about here are no longer screening, from Dawson to RoswellBuffy the Vampire Slayer and even a few Australian small screen gems such as Heartbreak High, it was interesting to read this collection wondering how relevant it might be to thinking through more recent manifestations of the Teen TV (maybe) genre such as The O.C.
Tuesday nights in our house are a ritual. Sixteen year old son reminds me that the O.C. is on and reprimands me if I am late in joining him to watch. I’m both flattered and intrigued by his insistence that I be there, given that it is precisely the kind of show one might expect a teen to watch alone. Now well into the second series (in Australia), I have become acutely aware that as a middle-aged academic and as a teenager, we may be sitting on the same couch watching the same TV series, but our experience and the intensity of our relationship to the show are probably vastly different, even though at times we appear to be going through similar agonies of anxiety about the fate of the characters. Unlike my son, however, I do not have to momentarily leave the room or pace up and down when the going gets tough, muttering “the pressure, the pressure” in a parodic performance of self and engagement with the text. Nor do I “get” the music, with which he regularly sings along or air-guitars away. He may be an Australian watching an American show, but this is “his” culture, his landscape of feeling while I am as much an audience for him as I am for the show. Maybe that’s why he wants me there. As the editors note, teens watch TV in order to socialise, not to avoid it.

What this collection therefore provides are useful signposts to thinking through how such a commitment to the teen series is created, managed and (possibly) implicated in the construction of teen subcultures, although no teen subcultures are actually explored. Questions of affect and the kinds of emotional investment my son as a teenage male might have in the show are topics for a different kind of project than the one delineated here.

And so Miranda Banks explores the genre of the “teen male melodrama”, the origins of which she find in iconic films such as Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and teen TV series such as Beverley Hills 90210. The primary focus of her attention is, however, the more recent series Smallville and Roswell in which she notes that the too-sensitive “gender-enlightened heroes”, “beautiful in their innocence, tragic in their struggle for goodness in the world” are ideally “more human than human” despite their status as aliens (26-27). The metaphor of teen as alien is revisited by Neil Badmington in his engaging essay on “Roswell High, alien chic and the in/human” in which he argues that such shows offer a radical challenge to ways of thinking through categories of otherness in a post-humanist world. He has published a whole book on the topic with Routledge.

Perhaps the most useful essay on the subject of genre actually occurs in the section on consumption where Bill Ogersby traces the development of teen programming in relation to post-second world war market economies. His canvas is broad, taking in such examples as American sitcoms Gidget and The Patty Duke Show in the 60s, as well as British pop shows such as Six-Five Special and Ready Steady Go! , noting that all of these examples feature young women in key roles who operate via a kind of “consumerist hedonism”. Such hedonism then opening up a space in which young women might explore a form of “self-expression and personal pleasure … independent of parental (and often masculine) authority” (82). Ogersby’s conclusion is that Teen TV shows such as Buffy are therefore part of a “teen girl” TV tradition which has always gestured towards a type of independent and active femininity. This is a line also taken by Jenny Bavidge, who usefully explores Buffy in relation to the construction of girlhood within popular and literary culture.

Clare Burchall is much less sanguine about the consumerist implications of a teen series such as Dawson’s Creek which, she argues, operates via a form of nostalgia to produce a valorisation of the self over the social. It is her contention that in the process of endlessly analysing the interpersonal relations of the characters, any form of political engagement with a world beyond the interpersonal community is strategically avoided. The fact that the interpersonal community portrayed is so white bread and conservatively middle class is even more of a worry for her. This is a point pursued by Sharon Ross in her discussion of the black female character, Elena, in the TV series Felicity. According to Ross, Elena’s routine erasure and marginalisation in the text betrays the unwillingness of the show to take on the issue of race. On the other hand, in defence of the teen series and its politics of identity, Glyn Davis suggests that the portrayal of queer teens, whether negative or positive, may open up extra-diegetic avenues for spectatorial fantasy and dreaming. I’m with Davis on this one. It’s all very well to talk about what’s there or not there, but what the text enables for its viewers may inevitably be up to them and what they bring to the viewing experience.

Which may well be, according to Kay Dickinson, their knowledge of and investment in the kinds of pop music which turn up in these shows. The fact that this music is frequently chosen by baby-boomer adults highlights the niggling anxiety which many of the authors seem to share, that Teen TV is only Teen TV insofar as its intended audience are teenagers. The reality of the situation may well be, as Dickinson suggests, that “there is no teen expression which is not mediated by an adult force of some description” (110). That such an adult force may either be exploitative or manipulative is a frequent, though depressing theme. It’s therefore something of a relief to turn to Matt Hills’ essay in which he suggests that through its portrayal of teen agency and teen articulacy, what a series like Dawson’s Creek actually achieves is a revaluation of the discourses of “the teenager” through its reflexive treatment of relationships and its claim to “quality” status (54-55). Such a claim, Hills argues, threatens to disrupt “established cultural power relations that associate all things teen with negative stereotypes” (65).

Despite Hills’ tack, what many of the essays in this collection reveal is a deep unease about Teen TV, probably as a result of what the editors correctly identify as an “awkward relationship” between the adult academics and their object of study: “these shows scream for our attention, then completely alienate us” (12). I have to confess that such alienation is rarely a part of my own experience, a confession which, it might be argued, simply proves either that these shows may not be made for teens at all, or that I have managed never to grow up and distance myself from them. Questions of my own suspect pleasure aside, what I still want to know is how and why a teen audience might actually engage with such texts, the nature of the aesthetic experience and the kinds of affect produced. To its credit, this collection provides a useful set of questions with which to begin such an investigation.

Sue Turnbull
La Trobe University, Australia.
Created on: Wednesday, 20 July 2005 | Last Updated: 20-Jul-05