For someone past the age of 20, I sure watch a lot of TV shows and films centred around teenagers and their exploits. Mean Girls, Elite, even Riverdale – you name it, I’ve probably at least attempted to watch it. So, I am no stranger to the puzzling mismatch between an actor’s age and the age of the character they are portraying.
It’s not unusual or new, in Hollywood, for adults in their 20s and even 30s to portray teenagers. Think of Stockard Channing, dripping with scorn for “Sandra Dee” in Grease at the tender age of 33. It’s not a phenomenon that solely affects actresses either – Cory Monteith was 27 when filming the first season of Glee (his character, Finn, was 16). A lot of these shows and movies are projects that require long working hours, and it does make sense that studios would rather skip dealing with child labour restrictions to complete them. While the age gaps can have unintentionally humorous effects – Matthew Morrison, the choir director in Glee, was only 3 years older than Monteith despite their playing characters almost 20 years apart in age – casting adults as teenage characters can seem pretty innocuous.
Moreover, in the age of ever-more explicit film and television, there are scenes and storylines that it seems positively unethical to ask teenagers to film. The entire cast of Sex Education is currently over 21, and while the show is (unsurprisingly) centred around teenagers’ sex lives, it would arguably be pretty awful, to require that teenage actors film the more explicit scenes for a predominantly adult audience. With Netflix not having to deal with the same content restrictions as live television, it is unlikely that the trend of depicting the darker and more explicit side of adolescence will die down anytime soon. Surely, we cannot ask that teenage actors be required to perform these scenes, especially with adult co-workers.
However, leaving more explicit material aside, there is a strong argument for more accurate casting: the devastating effect it can have on teenagers’ self-image. Going through adolescence is hard enough – no one is entirely sure of themselves yet, everyone is chronically embarrassed, and your body and personality are likely to be going through changes you don’t fully understand yet.
Now imagine your main referent for what you should look like is a fully grown adult, usually one with an impossibly thin figure (if you’re a girl) or ridiculously defined muscles (if you’re a boy), perfect hair, and skin clearer than the air before the Industrial Revolution. Is it any wonder that teenagers struggle with body image and eating disorders when the shows and movies marketed to them often carry the message that, to have a story worth telling, you must fit, nay, surpass society’s standards of beauty?
I distinctly remember that, in my first year of university – no longer a teenager – I tried to get into Pretty Little Liars. I couldn’t – mostly due to character and storytelling reasons. But one thing that stuck with me, and which probably influenced my decision to stop watching, was simply how terrible the show made me feel about my body.
Every actress, save for Sasha Pieterse, was at least 20, despite the fact that they were portraying 16-year-olds, and if you told me that in between takes, they were walking the runway at a fashion show, I would probably believe you. The only reference to how unusually skinny everyone on the show took the form of a (rather poorly handled) subplot about one of the main characters struggling with bulimia. The universe of teenage films and television tends to be populated with people who look nothing like teenagers in real life.
Clearly, there is no simple solution to the issue of inaccurate age casting. There are cases in which it is completely infeasible, even impermissible, to cast an actual teenager. Perhaps the key lies in the portrayal, rather than the casting, of teenagers onscreen: the styling, the lack of body diversity, the reluctance to portray any kind of physical imperfection (to say nothing of the invisibility of disabled teenagers in productions aimed at teenagers). We would all benefit from the screen reflecting the messiness of teenage life on the outside as well as on the inside.
Image Credits: Showck Experience via Flickr