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Why adults playing teens is hugely problematic

By Monica Giuliani

I was talking to a friend of mine a few days ago just after finishing season 3 of ‘The Bold Type’ (if you don’t know, get to know), and we were discussing how old certain characters appeared to be, versus how old they actually were (for those familiar with the show, the characters were Richard and Sutton). My friend then made a point, one that I’ve been saying for years actually, of the fact that sometimes you will get a much older actor or actress playing a teenage character, and it can be hard to tell, especially when you’re younger and watching the show. Luckily, in the case of Richard and Sutton, their characters were supposed to be adults anyway, and they seem to be only a few years older than their character’s age, but this is not always the case.

(Mean Girls, 2004)

Picking adult actors and actresses to play teenagers is no new concept: Olivia Newton-John played the iconic Sandy in ‘Grease’ aged 29; Stacey Dash was 28 when she played Cher’s best friend, Dionne Davenport in the hit film, ‘Clueless’; and Rachel McAdams played both her character Allie in ‘The Notebook’ and teen queen Regina George in ‘Mean Girls’ aged 25. This continues quite frequently in today’s films and series: let’s take ‘Euphoria’ to start, with 18-year-old Maddy Perez played by 25-year-old Alexa Demie. The core ‘Riverdale’ cast is ridden with adults, for example with Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) being 22 years of age, and Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) being 24 years of age back when the show started in 2017. Perhaps a pretty well-known one, Bianca Lawson, also known as Emily’s love interest Maya St. Germain in Pretty Little Liars, was a whopping 31 years of age.

(Pretty Little Liars, 2010)

Why is this such a problem? I want you to think about 13-year-old you sitting on the sofa and watching these characters light up your screens. In the day and age where comparison is unfortunately at the forefront of teenager’s minds, seeing these unrealistic expectations of what you are supposed to look like in high school can be incredibly damaging. Especially in the not so recent years of TV and film, these characters would be clones in their body shape – slim, lean, and always the embodiment of what’s seen as ‘the perfect body’. Their skin? Unproblematic. No protruding spots, not a blemish in sight, no uneven or dry skin EVEN in the close-up shots. If there was any blemishes that day, the make-up crew done a phenomenal job to hide it (and if they could drop a makeup tutorial anytime soon, that would be great too). If the casting crew are going to go forward with hiring adults as teenagers, why can’t they just show even the tiniest blemish? That tiny bit of redness that may occur in the actors and actresses cheeks. The chin spot that may be there which can be covered with a bit of makeup so it’s only a bump.

My problem here is that actual teenagers experience these problems on a day-to-day basis a lot more than adults do. Yes, different teenagers have different levels of severity in which they experience fluctuating weight or acne, but as an adult, it’s much easier to control, and most importantly, they’re past puberty already! Puberty is where acne production and the change in weight and body shape is going to happen, so has to be represented in the same way within the media. One emotional change that occurs during puberty is low self-esteem. Now let’s pair the adult representation of teenagers along with low self-esteem – it’s only going to worsen any negative feelings that a teenager may already have about themselves, especially when they’re expected to look a certain way. Real teenagers will have a standardised idea in their mind about what’s expected of them, and punish themselves emotionally for not always meeting this expectation. Comparison truly is the thief of joy in this instance.

One Tree Hill (2003)

Logistically, yes, there are laws in place about how much you can work a minor each day, as well as scheduling in time for learning, as they are essentially still in school, all of which could lead to a heavier financial input. But would the increase in finances be worth it if it meant that the characters would be accurately represented? Not to mention, casting directors could be taking away opportunities from young actors and actresses that believe they fit the role perfectly. Could it be because they don’t have the ‘look’ they’re going for? Or it’s too much of a financial ask to hire them. It could simply be that they’re not right for the role in general, but it does make you think how many times this actually was the case.

It’s all well and good to say that some older actors and actresses ‘look young’, but this defeats the point that nevertheless, teenagers need to be represented accurately. Diversely. With the problems that they face day in and day out. Just imagine the impact that showing a real 16-year-old actress with even the slightest bit of acne on a hit TV show could have. Teenagers could actually relate and feel normal, because acne is normal.

Here’s just a few of the actors and actresses that were teenagers actually playing teenagers: Molly Ringwald was 16 years old in ‘The Breakfast Club’; Alicia Silverstone, also known as Cher from ‘Clueless’ was 18, unlike her on-screen best friend; and more recently, Olivia Rodrigo was 16 when ‘High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’ came out. It is great to see how there have been some films and TV series throughout the years that have hired younger stars, but as you have seen and will find out if you decide to look further into this topic, the majority of actors and actresses tend to not be teenagers, even if they are in the young twenties. This has to change, for the sake of teenagers to come.



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