Teen Vision: Television Gives New Voice to Teenagers

Television gets less respect and more attention than just about anything in today's society: "The boob tube represents the downfall of society." "Our future lies within the unsure grasp of our television sets." "You'll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American television viewing public."You've heard such comments many times before -- but not just regarding TV.Adjust your dial a little, and you may recall the same declarations being made about the American teenager.Teens and television are easy targets; both are in continual states of flux -- evolving along with social mores -- and both hold immense power within our current culture. While the influence of television has long been a subject of debate, teens are just starting to be recognized as a societal force, particularly when it comes to spending.Teens as consumers first made the news in 1993, when Madison Avenue realized that young people spend billions of dollars every year -- not just filling their own closets, but doing much of the shopping for their households. Suddenly advertisers had a new focus group to tempt with products and services -- an appealing demographic with disposable income and few responsibilities. In 1996, American teens controlled $103 billion in consumer spending, according to a Teenage Research Unlimited study.The end of that learning curve has finally settled, appropriately enough, in the television wasteland, with an ever-growing number of programs that center on teenagers.Although teen-oriented programs aren't exactly new -- for example, Dobie Gillis, Head of the Class and more recently, 1994's My So-Called Life -- they've now taken on a new attitude. Rather than lecturing about this age group, programs such as the now-defunct MSCL -- and more recently Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Moesha -- are speaking to it."Most current television shows that feature teenagers show us young people who are highly responsible, independent and hard-working and who sometimes wish they could have a little more fun, wrote Thomas Hine in the Oct. 26 edition of the New York Times.Hine's article, titled "TV's Teen-agers: An Insecure, World-Weary Lot," further speculates: "With their status as loyal viewers and consumers, young people are probably granted more status and respect on television than in any other arena in American life."In the best of current teen TV programs, however, characters go beyond world-weary or insecure; part of the shows' successes are in their multidimensionality and reflected view of reality.It's a little ironic that the two programs that capture the most substantive teen world view do so through the surreal. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB, Mondays, 9 p.m.) and Sabrina the Teenage Witch (ABC, Friday, 8 p.m.) both use the supernatural as a device to get at everyday teen problems: alienation, lack of control, feeling like a freak. In the process, both shows produce vibrant entertainment with a pop-culture sensibility their young viewers respond to as much as the moral messages.Buffy the Vampire Slayer has found a fervent audience among viewers in all age groups, achieving a cult status manifested more in the 320 Web sites devoted to the show and series star Sarah Michelle Gellar than in high ratings. Buffy's world is a dark one that stars demons who try to maim, kill or steal her soul. High school doesn't always equate to the golden years, but even less so when it sits on the Hellmouth. Using psychos, vampires and creatures of myth as metaphors for violence and danger, Buffy recognizes today's teenagers have important concerns beyond hair, makeup or dating rituals.One of the best episodes from Buffy's first season told the story of an unpopular girl who literally turned invisible because no one ever paid attention to her. She then roamed the high school hurting the peers who had ignored or insulted her.One poignant scene in which Buffy and her friends were looking at the invisible girl's yearbook illustrated the situation in a way every teen (or former teen) could relate to. All the signatures in the book said, "Have a nice summer." "It's what you write when you have nothing to say," one of Buffy's friends explained. "It's the kiss of death."It seems a small thing, but it is within these details that Buffy's impact lies. Buffy's life is centered around her slaying; she must sacrifice both school work, her social life and sometimes herself to her job. She and her mother live alone -- no father in sight -- and the trust issues that come up between them (particularly as Buffy's mom doesn't know about her daughter's role as town savior) are familiar territory for teens. Buffy doesn't have too many problems with the bad guys -- she just kickboxes them or sticks stakes through their hearts -- but her formulation of self is the real story. And it is this battle that draws in audiences young and old.Sabrina the Teenage Witch covers similar territory, but for a much younger audience. The show stars Melissa Joan Hart as an ordinary teen who discovers she's a witch on her 16th birthday; this season Sabrina learns she needs a license to practice her craft and must go through training. The show has consistently ranked as ABC's highest rated T.G.I.F. comedy and is No. 1 for that time slot among kids and teenagers. Hart has quickly jumped on the list of teen role models; the show's message folder on America Online is filled with queries from young female viewers regarding everything from periods and boys to how to be cool. Although the show is geared toward a pre-teen audience, Sabrina has also established a fan base among older audiences, particularly parents who appreciate its wholesome messages.Sabrina doesn't have Buffy's edge or sharp wit, but both shows feature teenage girls exercising real power -- an idea long overdue, according to a 1995 study by the advocacy group Girls Inc. The group's survey of 2000 young people found respondents asking for more TV programs in which girls have adventures. Two years later, a majority of teen-oriented shows focus on young women.UPN's Moesha is an outstanding example of this trend. The sitcom (8 p.m., Tuesdays) stars pop singer Brandy as the title character. Moesha comes from a middle-class African-American family that, at the show's 1996 debut, saw the introduction of a new stepmother. Moesha was used to taking care of her father and younger brother, and her adjustment to the changed family dynamic made for plot conflict. Other episodes have dealt with sex, jobs, interracial dating and sexism. In Moesha, as with the other shows, the power of these subjects lies in the subtlety with which they are discussed. A recent episode touched on body image -- Moesha's friend Kim overheard Moesha discussing Kim's weight. Although Kim took offense at her friends' comments, she was more hurt by their backstabbing than by the insult. "I'm happy with the way I am," she told Moesha.Clueless, which moved to Tuesday nights on UPN this season after it was canceled by ABC, tries for a similar balance of message and method with less success. The takeoff on the hit film starring Alicia Silverstone has potential, but loses itself in a morass of stereotypes and stupidity. Several episodes have spouted rhetoric about degradation of women, yet opened with a caressing camera panning the bodies of the two female leads. Other examples of shows that still miss the point include Sweet Valley High and Breaker High (both on UPN) and Saved By the Bell: The New Class (syndication).Like teens themselves, these shows are still trying to find themselves and their own, individual personalities.There's a long history of patronization and unoriginality in television programming blocking the way, but reality is finally starting to creep into the hallowed halls of televised high schools. For TV and teens, it's about time.


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