Updated: Oct 19, 2021
It has always been common practice in Hollywood for adults to play teenage roles. There are matters of labor restrictions for minors, insurance, schooling, and having guardians on set that can be avoided by casting adults instead of young actors. Casting older actors also allows production companies to have more efficient workdays and spend less money. Although some may argue that an adult may not be able to capture the innocence and mindset of a teenager, the bigger issue arises when teen characters are sexualized on screen.
This is not to say that teenagers do not engage in sexual activity. A 2017 CDC report claimed that 55% of teenagers have had sexual intercourse by the time they were 18 years old; however, teenagers today do not engage in sexual activity any more than their predecessors. Despite this, more and more shows depicting teenagers in an explicitly sexual manner have arisen from broadcasting and streaming networks.
Riverdale is one of the most prominent examples of this notion. It features fairly moderate sexual content, like the sexual relationship between Archie Andrews and his music teacher, Ms. Grundy, as well as the striptease performed by Betty Cooper in front of a room filled with adult men. In the show, both Andrews and Cooper during the first two seasons (which is when these and all consequently mentioned scenes occurred) were pictured as sophomores in high school, roughly 15-16 years old, yet KJ Apa and Lili Reinhart, the actors portraying them, were 19 and 20 at the time of filming, respectively. This puts a three to five year age gap between the actors and their characters.
Other sexual scenes in Riverdale include makeout sessions between all four main characters, suggestive dancing, shower sex between Andrews and his girlfriend Veronica Lodge (immediately following the shooting of Archie’s father), and Betty role-playing as a dominatrix on two separate occasions, one of which was for her boyfriend, Jughead Jones. Camila Mendes and Cole Sprouse, who play Lodge and Jones respectively, were both 24 when these scenes were filmed.
The presence of sexualized teenagers exists in other content as well, including Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Sex Education, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, Mean Girls, and The Breakfast Club. While sexual intercourse may be a key component of the storyline, as in Sex Education or Mean Girls, it still remains that adults are essentially creating content of underage minors acting overtly sexual. In every single aforementioned piece of media, the main characters are all in high school or have just recently graduated, and most of them are juniors. With the exception of a few actresses, nearly all of them were in their twenties while filming, the eldest being Ncuti Gatwa and Tanya Reynolds (both 26) from Sex Education.
According to clinical psychologist Barbara Greenberg, casting adult actors to play teenagers can be harmful; it can “give the message that [teenagers] are supposed to look good all the time,” which may lead to “all kinds of body-image and social comparison issues.” There is also a major difference in maturity between these actors and the teenage characters they portray; while cognitive capacity measures tend not to improve after age sixteen, psychosocial maturity—which covers judgment-making, resistance to peer pressure, risk perception, and impulse control—increases dramatically from the age of 16 to the age of 22. While this factor may not be visible in an actor’s appearance, it still accounts for the idea that actors may be predisposed to understand the consequences of their character’s actions, whereas a true-to-age actor may possess mannerisms that are more natural in regards to their role.
Not every show portraying teenagers in sexual activity does so for the sake of doing so. Sex Education has, in its depiction of the sexual climate surrounding teenagers, addressed and explained topics like asexuality, safe sex, and sexual assault, and while untraditional, it has been shown that comprehensive sex education keeps teenagers safe. But does this excuse its creators from the overtly sexual representation of its underage characters? Some may believe that Sex Education has been beneficial in explaining aspects of sex to its viewers, but the fact remains that the show still uses adult actors—which has the aforementioned detriments—and even if it did not, would it be acceptable to use actual minors in the show?
Including the concept of teenage sex is not inherently dangerous, and this is not to say that shows about teenagers should absolve from any mention or portrayal of the subject at all; if the goal is to be accurate, then that would prove to be disingenuous. At some point, however, one must ask themselves when it has gone too far, and whether there may be some voyeuristic pedophilic circumstances at play.
Through Teen Lenses: In mainstream entertainment, adults often portray teenagers. What do you think are the effects of this, especially in regards to sexually explicit content?
“I do think having adults portray teenagers has an overall negative effect on teenagers especially because it creates this narrative of how teenagers look and act (especially sexually) that is unrealistic and pushes teens into sexual maturity much earlier. If teen were played by teens, it would limit those portrayals because it’s illegal and would normalize teenagers choosing not to participate in sex.” Marisa Silverman, 18, Rising Freshman at University of Maryland, College Park, Potomac, Maryland
“The portrayal of teenagers in sexual or explicit manners by adults is uncomfortable at best and promotes pedophilia at its worst. Adults lack the youth and innocence exhibited by many actual teenagers, and having them in roles that make teenagers vulnerable to the gaze of a large audience means that teenagers are sexualized in a way that only adults typically are. They promote the idea that teenagers are physically similar to adults (and mentally as well) and thus are more attractive to a larger number of people who then think that it is ok for grown people to be attracted to them.” Kelly Ji, 15, Rising Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland
“Although the portrayal of teenagers in mainstream entertainment can be quite positive in many ways, expressing them in sexually explicit content can have negative effects [sic]. This is because it is possible for teenagers to be underage in this type of content, and there can be a growing number of pedophiles looking at this type of entertainment material.” Michelle Kien, 16, Rising Senior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, Maryland