So, I recently watched the premiere of Caprica, which I realize has been out and about for a while, but what can I say, sometimes it takes me a while to get with the program. I will say that I liked it, and I am interested to see where the show takes me. It is really neat to see the backstory of the events behind Battlestar Galactica, and I feel like I’m getting so much more context now which will probably change the way I view the show when I re-watch it.
But I don’t actually want to review Caprica today. What I’d like to talk about is something which struck me while watching the show, because it’s something which has been bothering me for a long time.
How come no one is allowed to be a teenager on television?
The character Zoe is clearly supposed to be in high school. The actress who plays her is 22. Take a gander through the cast list of any high school show and you’re going to find a bunch of people in their 20s, and sometimes in their 30s. Now, I hasten to note, many of these folks are fine actors and actresses and I have absolutely nothing against them. But I wish I could see them playing, you know, 20 and 30 year olds instead of teenagers, and that I could see teen actors and actresses portraying teenagers.
Like, remember at the beginning of the Harry Potter movies, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione were played by age-appropriate actors? It felt weird at first because they seemed so young, but then I got really into it, and I was sad when the production started going slower than the actors were aging, so now we have people in their 20s whom we are supposed to believe are 17. And it feels equally weird for me as a viewer.
I think that this intersects with feminism in a major way because it’s playing into a larger social issue, which is that people are expected to be “grown up” as early as possible. And I know that all sorts of people have railed about this from all sorts of angles, but it bothers me. Having actresses in their 20s play girls in high school troubles me because I think it sends some kind of uncomfortable messages about sexual maturity; I look at Zoe on Caprica, for example, and view her somewhat as a sex object (that’s clearly the intent), even though I would not be comfortable with sexualizing a 16 year old actress. Seeing people in their 20s play people even younger sends a message that people should be sexually available at, say, 14, and that idea does not sit well with me.
And it creates kind of artificial ideas about what being a teenager is supposed to be like. You have actors without acne, with fully developed bodies, playing high school kids, and I wonder how it feels to be a high school kid right now. Even my classmates who were widely hailed as “beautiful” when I was in high school had acne, were growing into their bodies, were maybe a little bit gawky. They had a slightly unfinished feel, and they sure as hell didn’t look 22. There were some folks who looked older developmentally who still didn’t look like they were in their 20s.
We talk about impossible beauty ideals in feminism a lot, like the widespread airbrushing of women in magazines and how harmful it is. And I feel like keeping teens out of teen roles on television sets up an impossible age ideal which is just as hard to live up to. And I’m talking here about bodies, not minds; this has everything to do with physical maturity and nothing to do with emotional maturity. In terms of emotional and intellectual development, I think that age isn’t nearly as important as some people think it is, but in terms of physical development? 12 year olds do not look like Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
There’s another problem which happens here. When you’re used to seeing people in their 20s playing people in their teens, actual teenagers look impossibly young to you. And I think that feeds into ageism in a very major way. If your frame of reference primarily comes from film and television, when you meet, say, a normal 15 year old girl, she’s going to look 10 to you, and you’re probably going to treat her like she’s 10, to some extent.
So the age ideal pressures from both sides. Teens are expected to look like people in their 20s, and adults who have lost the frame of reference they had when they were teens think that teenagers look like people in their 20s. Which means that people who actually look like teenagers aren’t read as teenagers. As if they didn’t have enough to deal with already.
I took a gander through some old photographs recently. I’ve long maintained that I’ve looked pretty much the same, physically, since I was 15. And, you know? Not so much. I mean, I’m obviously the same person; someone looking at a picture of me when I was 15 would clearly recognize that the person in the picture and me now are the same person. But there are differences. The body of that person is different. The carriage is different. The face is different. Adult me playing 15 year old me would look…odd.
I was struck, actually, by how very young I looked.