Pop culture is having something of a reckoning with the way it has treated adolescent girls. Framing Britney Spears, now streaming on Hulu, has made many re-consider how much Spears was openly mocked and ridiculed while she went through a very public mental health crisis. Spears, sexualized at such a young age, was treated as a commodity instead of a human being. After the backlash the documentary caused, Justin Timberlake, whose song “Cry Me a River” was a direct hit on Spears, offered a public apology—albeit many years too late.
The YouTube series Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil also examines the price of fame paid by Lovato, who has been in the public eye since she was a ten-year-old on Barney & Friends. Then there’s Lindsay Lohan. Paris Hilton. Brandy. I could go on and on. Pop-culture, in general, tends to not treat public figures as real people, but rather entertainment products to be chewed up and spit out. And we are unrecognizably cruel in particular to teenage celebrities. They grow up under the glare of an unrelenting spotlight and are not allowed the the space to make mistakes.
What’s really weird is we do the same thing to fictional characters, too—especially teenage girls on so-called prestige dramas. Let’s start with 24. When you think about the series, which ran on Fox for nine seasons, what’s one of the first things that comes to your mind? Is it the innovative format which had each episode play out in real time? Perhaps. Is it the way Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) could travel across LA in minutes never encountering traffic or having to use the bathroom? Maybe. But you know what most people remember? The way Jack’s daughter Kimberly (Elisha Cuthbert) was trapped by a cougar (and trapped in a cougar trap) in the eleventh episode of the show’s second season. The show’s go-to move was to put Kimberly in constant danger. I lost count of how many times she was kidnapped during the show’s first season, and the cougar move was just a bridge too far for so many viewers.
Entertainment Weekly named Kimberly one of the 21 most annoying TV Characters in 2016. Television Without Pity, which was at its peak during the show’s run, simply referred to her as the Spawn. The cougar scene has loomed large in infamy. I would have thought it lasted multiple episodes of the show’s second season. Did anything besides the cougar happen that year? In reality but the show’s twelfth episode Kim was rescued by a hunter, which lead to a whole other crisis and the Kimberly-in-danger motif continued. But this was more about writers who didn’t know what to do with the teenage character they had created. They had killed off her mom in Season 1, but what to do with Kimberly now? She didn’t quite fit into Jack’s Counter Terrorist Unit world and was still too young to become an agent herself as she did in later years. The show should have sent Kimberly off to boarding school. Did you know that Cuthbert, who was only 20 at the time of filming, had her hand bitten by the cougar before filming began and had to go to the ER?
Not many years later a similar thing happened with another one of executive producer Howard Gordan’s shows. Homeland, which premiered on Showtime in October 2011 was another taut thriller—this time about POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) who returns home and is suspected by CIA Agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) of being a sleeper agent. Like Jack Bauer, Brody also had a daughter, Dana (Morgan Saylor) who had a knack for picking the wrong boyfriends, making questionable decisions, and constantly getting herself into trouble. Saturday Night Live made fun of her in an October 2013 sketch. “How does she just walk into a CIA facility?” Kenan Thompson’s David Harewood wonders. “She just shows up places,” Bill Hader’s Saul Berenson replied as Dana (played by a frantic Nasim Pedrad) wrings her hands and keep saying “Dad are you here? Dad? Dad?” The Daily Beast ran an interview with Saylor in 2013 entitled “TV’s Most Hated Character Talks Back.” But the fault was never with Saylor of course, it was in the fact that there just isn’t a lot of room for a teenager on a show about a manic-depressive CIA agent and the spy who loved her. And thus Dana was vilified for acting like a teenager.
The examples of female teenage characters inciting ire among viewers are many. Meadow Soprano (Jamie Lynn Sigler) is pretty much universally the most despised character on The Sopranos, and this is a series where characters routinely murdered people in increasingly violent ways. Meadow didn’t murder anyone (we think) yet fans found her behavior untenable. NBC’s Friday Night Lights is pretty much universally adored except Coach Taylor’s daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden), who viewers seemed to hate even more than the storyline we don’t talk about. Vulture ranked Julie second on their list of “The Brattiest Teens in TV History, Ranked.” Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) on Game of Thrones was vilified in the first seasons for liking lemon cakes and wanting to marry a prince, and was only redeemed to some toxic viewers as a “worthy” character after she was tortured and sexually abused.
Of course, a few teen girls have escaped viewers wrath. Many adored the wise-beyond-her-years Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) as she grew up on AMC’s Mad Men—perhaps because she was stuck with two of the worst parents TV had ever seen. FX’s The Americans also figured out how to turn Paige (Holly Taylor) from suspicious teen to a savvy junior KGB agent to the heartbreaking soul of the series finale. And yet, they are by no means anyone’s favorite.
So much of what irked viewers about these characters though was teenagers being teenagers. They are full of angst. Often uncomfortable in their own skin. They often don’t make the best decisions. They aren’t the best drivers. They are sullen and talk back to their parents who just don’t understand. Part of being a teen is being given the space to make mistakes and learn from them. These characters, played by real teens themselves, were never afforded that kind of space from viewers. And while these characters were fictional, the often vitriolic response to them is indicative of a larger problem. Dana and Kimberly and Meadow and Julie and Sansa will be fine. They’ll live on in streaming platforms forever immortalized as teenagers as their real-life counterparts grow up. But the real-life teens in the public eye don’t have that same ability to escape behind their fictional character and to distance themselves from what pop-culture has made of them. Let the reckoning continue.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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