Sex and Teenagers: What TV Keeps Getting Wrong

Cuties, while portraying a plausible scenario, goes too far in it’s presentation. No actress here is older than 14.

If you happened to be part of that very large intersection of individuals that participated in the death scroll of YouTube and the endless consumption of Netflix during the early days of quarantine, then you’ve more than likely been exposed to Cuties, a French coming-of-age film that follows Amy, a young girl who joins a school dance troupe and slowly learns of her own developing sexuality. The movie attempts to critique the oversexualization of young girls and exposes the dangers of that paradigm, but ultimately received a ton of backlash due to its own hypersexualized approach to presenting the young actresses, complete with groin close-ups and dance moves more at home in a strip club than a school dance troupe. Cuties in an extreme case of the sexualization of minors (in this case, children instead on teens) in that the actresses featured are also underaged.

Cuties received backlash all over social media.

But Cuties is also just one piece of a rampant epidemic of media featuring teens in sexually mature situations. As bad as Cuties was in its presentation, just one look at some of the performances on Dance Moms tell us that the situation is at least plausible. There are too many shows that simply make money off the sexualization of teens (adults playing teens), that include sex for gratification rather than realism.

As long as it’s sexy, it’s fair game in Netflix’s Elite

Elite is a Spanish soap opera that focuses on a fancy high school for the rich. By the end of episode one, there’s already an explicit sex scene between two of the characters. Episode three features a threesome between some students. All this time, the characters are supposed to be 16. This is really only the tip of the iceberg. Elite actually has enough sex scenes between the teenage classmates that it’s got a top 15 list.

Riverdale, which is not as bad as Elite but has been shoved down my throat too many times, features supposed teens in extremely skimpy clothing (sometimes lingerie) and plainly unrealistic teen sexual relations. For instance, there’s a sexy romantic getaway when the cast is supposed to be 15-16. Did I mention the teacher-student relationship complete with steamy car sex? Well there’s that too. Do note that they did never acknowledge this scene for what it was: statutory rape by a teacher with a confirmed predilection for teenage boys.

Riverdale features a 16-17 year old Betty stripping down to lingerie and pole dancing in front of her mom (not a typo), boyfriend, and others

Euphoria similarly features sexual content whenever it gets the chance. There’s teen sex work that’s portrayed as empowering, 30 teenage penises on screen at once (although prosthetics were employed in the filming of that scene), and rather explicit masturbation.

Personally, I think media is allowed to acknowledge that minors have sexual lives; Sex Education purportedly does a good job at this (though I haven’t seen it). But there is a point when media crosses the territory of sexual reality into the land of teen sexualization. Kids and teens don’t need to be exposed to lust-filled teen get-aways, extremely deviant sex from a young age, adult actresses playing teenagers in revealing lingerie and moving provocatively. Shows like the above dress up these things like they’re the norm.

Teens have sex, but the shows that are being made for teens construct worlds that are built around sex. Sex becomes synonymous with high school relationships in a way that fails to reflect the reality that most teens live in. The way sex in shown in these shows isn’t just problematic in that it communicates a lie; it also communicates to older viewers that teens are sexually mature enough to be pursued, that teen girls especially desire nothing more than to be seduced and are ready to consent despite what the law (and hopefully their conscious) says. These shows also portray teen boys as if they are always down for sex. 

Teens are shown to be sexually confident and eager when that’s just not what I remember from high school, and it can’t be the majority’s experience considering less than 40% of high school aged kids have had intercourse. It’s communicates to teens that they should always be sexually available and that they aren’t living their teenage lives to the fullest if they aren’t having sex, which may encourage risky sexual behavior due to perceived social pressure.


6 thoughts on “Sex and Teenagers: What TV Keeps Getting Wrong

  1. I love this blog because I have always been a believer that tv dramas often convey a completely unrealistic image of what the sex lives of teenagers look like. I think that this problem goes hand-in-hand with the concept that high school characters are usually played by much older actors. Casting adults to play teenagers desensitizes the audience to the weirdness of the concept of such young characters engaging in such explicit and mature activities — if actual teenagers were playing the high school characters, I imagine more people would be able to pick up on the unrealistic nature of these scenes.

    I think that because the movie Cuties had actors that were correctly age matched, it was much easier for people to see how wrong the movie was. Teenagers are supposed to be weird and clumsy and awkward as they navigate their developing bodies, minds, and worlds. However, all of this is lost when you have a fully grown, tall, muscular, sexy 24 year old play an 18 year old kid (see: Jacob Elordi playing Nate Jacobs in Euphoria). It does not seem out of place for adults to be engaging in the activities that these shows portray, but if you were to cast an actual high schooler, explicit activities such as sex and drug use would seem very unnatural.

    A example of this can be seen when comparing the shows Euphoria and High School Musical The Musical The Series. While both hit tv shows are consumed by the same audience (myself being part of it), and both follow the lives of a group of high schoolers, the ways that these two shows portray these teenagers are polar opposites. When you compare the ages of the cast members, it might make sense that Zendaya, who plays the main character in Euphoria, is 25, whereas Olivia Rodrigo (the actress of the main character in HSMTMTS), is 18.


    1. I find it interesting that these shows are able to get teens to further relate by using characters who look less like themselves. I can’t help but think of some relations to last week’s post regarding wealth in TV shows such as Billions – in both of these types of shows, the portrayed characters are outlandishly different from the average viewer. An entire high school following the actions shown in Euphoria is arguably as disconnected from the average high schooler’s reality as the over-the-top finance lifestyles in Billions are from the actual hedge fund managers (many of whom are more introverted/analytical types).

      These examples show how the viewer wants to relate and live vicariously without going too far – that is, without being shown a mirror that reflects how dark reality would actually be if real life were similar to the events of the shows. Viewers love the deviance of Euphoria until it is no longer distanced from their own reality (which is masked by older-looking actors), and are turned away when the show’s values are reflected in actual underaged examples (such as in Cuties). Returning to the Billions parallel, every viewer wants to be Bobby Axelrod until the helicopters and high-stakes Wall Street poker are met with the reality of losing the ability to trust anyone around you that comes with extreme wealth. Viewers only want to fantasize and imagine that they are living in their favorite show, but turn away when there are enough similarities to reality that they can actually see themselves living in the show, just as teens glorify Euphoria/Elite until Cuties reflects the disturbing reality the show’s themes would produce.


  2. I really enjoyed reading this blog post, I completely agree with your stance on how sex is portrayed in shows about teenagers. I have seen many of the shows you have referenced such as elite and euphoria, and more often than not, one of the main storylines of these characters is their sex lives. While watching these shows, I often forget that these characters are in high school, and it is bizarre to think that these 16/17-year-olds lead such lives. To start with, the actors who portray these teenagers, as you mentioned, are at times much older in real life. The way these characters are perceived is already warped since we see them in a more mature light than we would normally see high school students. The plotlines of these teenage characters oversell their maturity and seemingly forget that we are dealing with kids.
    The key audience for these television shows is mostly teenagers themselves. Theoretically, they are watching a show with characters who reflect their own age. However, the plots of these shows have little to no reflection on the real experiences of teenagers. This is especially impactful because kids in their teenage years are more easily impressionable by the media they consume. When a viewer is witnessing the lives of these characters their own age on tv, they may question why their experiences are so different, putting pressure on people to live up to these standards. The level of maturity needed for such relations portrayed on teen television is simply not attainable nor expected of a regular teenager. While watching these shows is entertaining, it is also disturbing to see how sex and drugs are highly glorified in the high school setting, showing a very misleading image as to how teenagers should be at their age.


  3. I love your take on this! I definitely remember when “Cuties” came out, along with many other people was appalled with how over-sexualized it was especially when concerning children. I’ve always felt like there has been a questionable amount of over-sexualization in many tv shows geared towards teenagers. I’ve done a podcast episode on how many coming-of-age movies and tv shows set the unrealistic expectation of sex or sexual actions, while the actors may be of age their characters are still based in high school mostly under 18 years old.

    I think not only is over-sexualization dangerous to the younger generation, but it also sets a very unrealistic expectation on children on how they should be acting when it comes to their sexual experiences. It puts pressure on teenagers to perform or act a certain way when in reality they should not even have to be concerned about that especially at the younger ages. Many writers don’t take into consideration the influence that it has on younger girls and boys and just focus on the entertaining aspect. It would be socially responsible for them to take into consideration the influence that these shows have on younger audiences.


  4. I really appreciated the topic of this blog post. This has definitely been a phenomenon that I grew up alongside. Seeing mature sexual experiences portrayed on screen by supposed high schoolers shaped my impressionable perception of sexuality and that of my peers. Seeing what teens on ubiquitous tv shows were doing subconsciously told us that this is what we should be doing. Especially when sexuality is such a taboo topic, there was really no way to know this was not the norm. This created feelings of isolation if one felt they were missing out on these elicit activities, or thoughts that one was undesirable. It also reminds me of how increasingly violent or outrageous pornography desensitizes or normalizes violence or extreme fetishes, similarly to what can be seen in Oryx and Crake.

    I have actually never heard of Cuties, but the concept is quite appalling to me. I have many questions about how a film company was even allowed to exploit young minors on screen in this way. I wonder how this will impact them as they begin to grow into real sexual maturity and form their own opinions. Also when they have the agency to defend themselves will they try to erase this portrayal of themselves?


  5. I think your blog post highlights an important point about today’s mass media in general, which is that it creates pressure on people to conform to certain societal norms. TV shows like Euphoria and Riverdale especially are completely unrealistic in their portrayal of teenagers’ lives. As you said, this could lead to negative consequences of adolescent sex, including STIs, unwanted pregnancy, and emotional and mental damage. So much of social media today is emulating what people do elsewhere in order to fit in with trends (like Tiktok challenges where teens do harmful things just for clicks). It’s worrisome that the hypersexualization of teenagers could be an increasing part of American mass media.


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