I’m afraid I have no idea what a teenager looks like. I know I’ve seen them swarming my favorite coffee shop at lunch time, and I know I have some relatives who are definitely teens. But other than when I was actually a teenager, my main exposure to the demographic has always been through television and movies. It’s only now I’m realizing just how much they’ve distorted my perception.
I never thought about my lack of familiarity with teens much until two recent Netflix productions brought the subject squarely into my focus. On My Block is a dramedy about a group of four friends starting high school in south central Los Angeles. Dude is a recently-released stoner dramedy about a group of four friends preparing to leave high school, in an upper class Southern California town. Both explore issues of teenage sexuality, and both feature actors old enough to buy a drink at any bar.
I have to admit outright, I always have trouble knowing how old anyone is. When I watched the first episode of On My Block, the question of the actors’ ages didn’t cross my mind at all. Sure, those are teens, I complacently thought. This fell apart once one of the main teen characters, Cesar, a supposed freshmen in high school, flashes his abs, narratively exposing himself as a sexual threat to his fellow teenage friend. It was supposed to be a light-hearted moment, but it caught me off guard. Wait, I actually thought, was this show just suggesting I check out this teen boy’s abs so I know he’s ‘hot’?
I had the same feeling of confusion watching Dumb on Netflix. From the start, I knew that the four main characters meant to be seniors in high school were probably closer to their late 20s than their late teens. Still, in the interest of enjoying the movie, I suspended my disbelief, which was difficult throughout but fell away completely during a sex scene between 28-year-old actor Lucy Hale and 20-year-old actor Alex Wolff, in which we see Hale partially naked. (I don’t want a movie eroticizing a high schooler, sorry.) Meanwhile, I almost didn’t notice the creepiness behind a running story line that 18-year-old Rebecca, played by 29-year-old Awkwafina, is in love with her 24-year-old teacher, played by 34-year-old actor Satya Bhabha — simply because on screen it doesn’t look so odd for them to be together.
The movie sent me down a long path of the teen-centered TV shows and movies I watched when I was younger, to see how many of them had been lying to me. Turns out, it was a lot. When I was 8 years old, the eponymous character of Sabrina the Teenage Witch turned 17 on the show. Meanwhile, Melissa Joan Hart who portrayed Sabrina, was 22. When I was 12 wondering what high school would be like, I saw Tobey Maguire play high schooler Peter Parker when Maguire was 27 years old. When I was in high school at 13, crushing on fellow high schooler Jordan Catalano of My So-Called Life, it was actually 23-year-old Jared Leto I had my eyes on. And when Mean Girls came out a year later, I was ostensibly supposed to be only a year or two younger than Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams’ characters in Mean Girls, though the actors were 18 and 26 respectively when the movie came out in 2004.
Meanwhile, in my present day real life, I mistook an actual teen for a lost middle schooler when they came to my door to fundraise for their high school orchestra. I gave him money and went inside to wonder if I had been scammed by a savvy child, a baby-faced full-grown man, or if this had actually been a teenager pounding the pavement for a good cause. I really don’t know anymore.
Of course, not all my teen-centered media was deceptive. For example, Drake and the rest of the main high school actors on Degrassi: The Next Generation cast were actual teenagers when they started on the show. But looking at “teenagers” on screen as a decrepit 27-year-old, from the early 20-year-old “teen” leads in the film Blockers to the glistening ab shots of 20-year-old actor K.J. Apa playing high school sophomore Archie on Riverdale, I can’t help but believe that the teenage-blindness I’m experiencing isn’t something I’m suffering alone. It hasn’t impacted my life so far, but who knows? Maybe the fundraiser at my door really was a scammer.