Feminist History of the Teen Drama

In September 2017, just days after President Donald Trump announced his intended repeal of DACA, the cable channel Freeform (formerly ABC family) aired an episode of The Fosters that focused on immigration, protest, and the importance of DACA to many young immigrants to the United States. This might seem like surprisingly political stuff for a teen show, but The Fosters is a show about a bi-racial lesbian couple, their mixed race adoptive family, and the birth parents, ex-husbands, and others who came along with that. This season alone, a main character Callie got into a serious relationship with a transgender man, another character got an abortion, and the rest of the family dealt with more run of the mill teen drama (relationships, college applications, and sex ed).

The Fosters is groundbreaking, and to some, surprising. The material can sometimes seem to be part of an endless cycle of drama, but generally treats both its characters and sensitive storylines with respect. As a life-long lover of the teen drama, it’s clear to me that The Fosters is only building on the legacy of shows aimed at teenage girls, delegitimized because of audience, that brought seemingly radical issues to the forefront.

I’m not the first to note that the dominant narrative of “the golden age of television” focuses on shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and Breaking Bad — which is to say, shows that render male characters central and masculinist notions of violence “important.” What would it mean to insert teen dramas into this narrative? The New York Times recently argued that teen TV is the perfect break from “peak TV” and many have noted the radical themes of these shows. But it’s important to draw out the gendered elements of this phenomenon. From LGBT relationships to homelessness to incarceration, teen dramas have handled it all. Because of the vast dismissal of teenage girls (even though they are a very powerful audience/demographic) teen dramas are particularly ignored by critical audiences. When critics ignore these shows, they miss out on good television, progressive depictions of social issues, and the media directly influencing young women.

The teen drama as a genre does not have many clear-cut boundaries-though it generally dates from the premiere of Beverly Hills, 90210, produced by Aaron Spelling. Although Beverly Hills, 90210 got a lot of criticism and was uneven in the ratings, it was largely credited with creating new teen dramas. Like the shows that came after, Beverly Hills, 90210 focused on issues like homophobia, rape, drug use, domestic violence, racism, and other controversial issues.

In this essay, I will consider teen dramas to be primarily hour long programs with teenagers as central characters (even if those characters, like those in the O.C, Gossip Girl, and Gilmore Girls, eventually go to college). They are often on networks like the CW (formerly the WB) and Freeform (formerly ABC Family). In the early days of the teen dramas, parents and adult figures were little more than accessories, but thanks to shows like The O.C. (and Sandy Cohen’s eyebrows, swoon), the parents of the teen stars have their own storylines as well. This makes the line between teen drama and family drama fuzzy, but I will consider shows like 7th Heaven and Gilmore Girls teen dramas. Others, like Vulture, have defined the teen drama as “high school.” Sometimes there is crossover between the teen drama and prestige TV (think Buffy and Friday Night Lights), but it is fairly uncommon.

This working definition is imperfect, leaves out many shows, and emphasizes the problematic boundaries of the genre. Even while addressing a litany of issues faced by teenagers, the teen drama has defined itself primarily around a mythical, unified, white high school experience. The teen experience of people of color was more often depicted in half hour sitcoms like Moesha, A Different World, and Sister Sister. This is a problem that needs to be addressed and Issa Rae, for one, wants to create a drama focusing on teens of color. The stories of teen girls, including teen girls of color-and the often violent, political, and contentious issues they face-deserve to be told.

My love of the teen drama started early, when every Monday night in second grade, I would sit on the couch and watch 7th Heaven with my stepfather. We agreed on little, entertainment wise: he wouldn’t watch my Nickelodeon shows and almost every movie he watched terrified me (Night of the Twister, anyone?). But we watched 7th Heaven together, a WB drama produced by Aaron Spelling that ran from 1996-2007. That only lasted a little while, before it was just me, wrestling with the rabbit ears and climbing into my top bunk to watch. I watched Reverend and Annie Camden’s seven children grow from young teenagers to married parents. I imbibed so much Protestant morality from the show that I sometimes jokingly claim to have been raised in the Church of 7th Heaven.

As you may know, 7th Heaven centered on Reverend and Annie Camden, their children, and Glen Oak Community Church. Eric and Annie had seven children, many of whom we saw develop through their teen years, plus tons of kids who moved in, dated their children, or were just kind of there. These teens were central to the arc of the show, moving it forward. And yes, sometimes the drama revolved around who Lucy was dating or Matt’s crazy search for a wife. But, taking the lead from Aaron Spelling’s other teen show, Beverly Hills, 90210, the show also dealt with racial violence and STD scares, school shootings and alcoholism, teen pregnancy and drug abuse in ways that humanized the kids involved. Even with its often heavy-handed discussions of abstinence, the teenagers were portrayed as kids who have sex, do drugs, go to college, and make their own choices, good and bad. Sometimes it felt like an after school special. Whether it be Mary trashing the school gym, the sister of one their friends joining a gang, or Lucy’s constant make up and break ups with all of the boys in Glen Oak, the arc revolved around teenagers and their feelings and aspirations and lives. The show took itself way too seriously, but in a world that still refuses to take teenage girls seriously, that isn’t always a bad thing. You can draw straight lines from the Protestant white morality of 7th Heaven to shows like the Fosters, deftly handling (with a lot of drama) issues about foster care and child abuse, rape and trans* issues, interracial relationships and non-traditional families. But 7th Heaven showed that *adult* issues impacted kids too. And I know that, for many of the teenage girls who grew up watching it, it was important.

This isn’t to say that 7th Heaven isn’t problematic. There are allegations of sexual assault against Stephen Collins. There were very few characters of color. And really, it talked a lot about the evils of pre-marital sex. But even still, in the 1990s, the show was beloved, and ardently followed, by teenage girls. And that makes it important (even if, in retrospect, we wish it wasn’t).

The mid 1990s may have lacked an abundance of teen television, but those years didn’t lack critically-acclaimed television. To give just one example, Seinfeld ran during much of the time 7th Heaven was on the air. I realize comparing Seinfeld (one of my favorite shows) to 7th Heaven is asking for criticism, but hear me out. Seinfeld was sharp and very funny. But Seinfeld (like Friends, Gilmore Girls, and a whole host of other shows) had issues with homophobia, racism, and sexism. There was little or no attempt to represent people of color, differently abled people, or the LGBT community in any way other than to mock them. Beyond the general treatment of women, the deportation episode, George’s super gross ogling of a teenager, and the Puerto Rican day episode (which was pulled in re-runs), Seinfeld attempted to “discuss” racism without any characters of color. Seinfeld seemingly hadn’t even caught up to second wave feminism by the mid 1990s. And even now, some 20 years later, Jerry Seinfeld is still defending problematic jokes and criticizing college students for demanding trigger warnings. At the same time, 7th Heaven (while corny, often poorly written, and emphatically not funny) focused on racial violence, sexual consent, and gave a main character, Matt, a deaf love interest. It might seem, then, that in terms of representation and social issues, a very conservative and obviously religious show was doing better than it’s comedic “prestige” contemporaries.

Premiering two years after 7th Heaven, Dawson’s Creek, which ran from 1998-2003, featured the first “passionate” gay male kiss on TV (in the year 2000), openly discussed teen sex in its first scene, and scared many a conservative parent group. It is so corny and earnest (in a lovely late nineties way), but is also responsible for starting the awful student-teacher relationship trope (that continues with Ezra and Aria on Pretty Little Liars and Archie on Riverdale). The show wasn’t perfect, and Dawson was at best a whiny “nice guy.” But it was transformative. Teen characters openly talked about sex and relationships for all to see. Watching it now, nearly twenty years after its premiere, it is often cringeworthy. But at the time, it was incredibly transgressive. It centered teenage emotions in a way that anything rarely does. It made them important. And it didn’t talk down to teenagers. On the contrary, the dialogue is often criticized for being unrealistically complex. It’s impossible to discuss the origins or intellectual contributions of the teen dramas that followed without acknowledging the groundwork laid by Dawson’s Creek. While Dawson started out as the insufferable lead, it was very clear by the third season that Joey was the star of the show. I wasn’t nearly as attached to Dawson’s Creek as I was to many other shows, but I know that it hooked many of my age group on the drama.

Gilmore Girls premiered on the WB (may it rest in peace) in 2000 and aired until 2007. It would be a few years before I watched it, when in 2005 ABC Family started showing reruns in the five o’clock time slot. They advertised it so often that I started with the pilot until I caught up with the fifth season. I got the first and second seasons on DVD that year (this was pre-streaming) and watched those seasons ad nauseum. I would faithfully record each new episode on a VHS while I was at dance lessons. I would watch repeats over and over through high school, as the show got me through depressive episodes, boyfriends, and college applications. A love of Gilmore Girls is emphatically unsurprising now, after the cultural renaissance Netflix created.

After Gilmore Girls: A Year in a Life, more and more people have critiqued Gilmore Girls for its unabashed whiteness, homophobia, and failed acknowledgement of privilege. And they should. But let’s take a moment to remember that it premiered on the WB in 2000. So Gilmore Girls, with its single mother, charming small town, and ambition was fairly progressive compared to other TV offerings. Everyone from Angela on My So Called Life to most of the cast on Dawson’s Creek had pretty traditional families or importantly, desperately sought them. Even when Dawson’s Creek introduced complicated family dynamics, the two parent suburban family was held up as the ideal. So a show about a single mother and her teen daughter, raised almost collectively by a town of eccentrics, (and with a kind of dead-beat dad) was shocking. Radical, even. While I love the men of Gilmore Girls (#teamjess, RIP Edward Herrmann, and all of that), it’s no secret that Emily, Lorelai, and Rory are the stars of the show. Strong, very flawed women, and their complicated relationships could create a whole world on TV.

So Gilmore Girls, for all its homophobic humor and virulently white cast, centered a single mother in a television landscape filled with two parent households, changed TV. While it lasted for seven seasons, surviving the UPN/WB merger, it was tragically undersold at the time (though there was definitely a very vocal fan base). It was hard to sell a show with alliterative title featuring “girls” in it to “serious audiences.” But as we all know, Netflix elevated Gilmore Girls from a small but devoted fandom to a craze. It had a second coming. And maybe it shouldn’t have. The humor and relationships aren’t nearly as progressive or transgressive as they were 17 years ago.

Premiering the same year as Gilmore Girls was The Wire, one of the pillars of prestige TV. The Wire is an outstanding show. The writing, the actors, and the storylines are all sharp, and in so many ways, ahead of their time. In particular, The Wire was rightly lauded for its diverse cast. But even still, the show was written by a white man, David Simon, and that is evident in its representation of women. Much of the story arch focuses on cops, detectives, drug dealers, and dock workers-all masculinized professions. Very few women are fully developed characters in the show and like much of peak TV (I am looking at you, Game of Thrones) masculinized violence and the sexualization of women is common. When compared to Gilmore Girls, The Wire is certainly more diverse and racially sensitive (though most things are more diverse than Gilmore Girls). But it is also not coincidental that a show with almost all female leads, a large high school presence, and a focus on family dynamics would make Gilmore Girls a lot less critically recognized than its contemporaries (for example, Gilmore Girls was never awarded a Golden Globe, etc).

Friday Night Lights, which ran from 2006-2011, is the only teen drama I am writing about often considered “prestige television.” It is also one of only shows on this list that I haven’t been shamed for loving. And I can’t help but think that it’s because, although certainly a high school drama with tons of strong female characters, it’s a show that so often captures issues of football and masculinity and features gritty episodes that would not be out of place on premium cable shows (The ferrets. Prison. Basically everything involving Tim Riggins). How many teen and family drama’s take place in some small town? (Dawson’s Creek, Everwood, Pretty Little Liars, Riverdale, etc). But not many of them have inspired the ardor that Dillon has. I certainly paid more for my Dillon Panthers shirt than I did for any T-shirt I have from my own high school (#sorrynotsorry Red Lion).

Somehow, Friday Night Lights captured (in one small town in Texas) love and football, trailer parks and small town royalty, disability and incarceration. Serious issues were being discussed through the lives of teenagers. These aren’t the suburban teenagers of Gilmore Girls, 7th Heaven, and My So Called Life. One of the lead characters, Tyra, is afraid of ending up a stripper like her sister. Tim Riggins ends up serving jail time so his brother can take care of his family. Jason Street, the town’s golden boy, ends up paralyzed after a football game in the show’s first episode. And even the beautiful and privileged cheerleader daughter of a town businessman, Lila Garrity, suffers through her parent’s divorce and her father’s loss of her college money. After struggling alongside Coach and Mrs. Coach, and all of the teenagers, over five seasons I felt pride. And ordered a T-Shirt. #texasforever.

Was Friday Night Lights a teen show? Does it belong in this essay? I spent a lot of time thinking about those questions before realizing that the questions themselves betrayed Friday Night Lights’ significance. Friday Night Lights is a teen drama, just like Dawson’s and Gossip Girl are teen dramas, but because the main characters are men, it’s often cast in a different light.

In 2007, only a year after Friday Night Lights began depicting working class Texas life, Gossip Girl ran a purposely, gleefully, inappropriate ad campaign. It was “bad for you,” although the first two seasons were nothing short of perfection. I never quite understood the adulation of Serena, and Dan Humphrey is a mansplainer (who, like Rory Gilmore, would never have actually been published in The New Yorker). But I owe so much to Blair Waldorf. Her hand bands, her ambition, her desire for perfection. She was a mean girl, but a mean girl you could love. She just wanted it all and knew she deserved it. The backdrop of Gossip Girl was pre-2008 Manhattan and watching it now feels like a time capsule to a New York that never really existed. These kids had unlimited access to alcohol, AmEx Black Cards, cars with drivers, and Ivy League colleges. The outsiders, Dan and Jenny, were two hip white kids who grew up in a Brooklyn loft with a musician dad and an artist mother. (I am so sad for them). It’s absurd. But Gossip Girl never tried to be anything but absurd. It took the lessons learned on the O.C. and magnified them. It didn’t cave to parental ridicule; it mocked it on advertisements. These people weren’t like us. They were glitzy and ridiculous, beautiful and immoral. And the show went crazy, like so many teen dramas before it, around the second season.

And sure, Gossip Girl is the quintessential guilty pleasure. But it’s designed to be. And it did more than it was given credit for. In the first episode, Chuck attempts to sexually assault both Jenny and Serena. Dan punches him as a result, something that would rarely happen in real life or most television. Blair’s dad leaves her mother and marries a man. Serena’s brother tries to kill himself and later comes out as gay. Drug and alcohol abuse are rampant. And Blair’s eating disorder is shown as a direct result of the pressure from her mother to be perfect (like Serena). Nate’s dad, not unlike Marissa’s in the O.C, does some casual embezzling and winds up in prison.

Gossip Girl, like the O.C before it, centered pop culture. I first discovered Passion Pit in a 2009 episode. It was largely recognized as significant in the fashion world. And websites like Vulture followed the show religiously. In New York’s recap of the very first episode, they wrote: “Last night’s giddily awaited premiere of Gossip Girl did not disappoint. This is partly because ever since the day Models Inc was cruelly pulled off the air, we have grown to not expect much from television. But it’s also because in many ways, Gossip Girl was the show we’ve been waiting for our entire lives: Dynasty meets Harriet the Spy meets Beverly Hills 90210 meets Melrose Place. Of course the show it most resembles is Sex and the City (although, since this show is about teenagers, does that make it Statutory Rape in the City?).”  I think that about says it all. By not even trying to stay on the same planet as realistic, Gossip Girl gave us real, serious *stuff* painted across a background of glitter, sex, and Fergie’s Glamorous.

Pretty Little Liars, which premiered in 2010, ushered in a new genre for ABC Family (now Freeform). They had found previous (kind of) success with the Secret Life of the American Teenager, but I can’t even deal with that here. Pretty Little Liars, did a lot wrong: like all the teen drama before it, it became an apologist for statutory rape. There are entire characters and plot points that nobody remembers and mysteries with unresolved or confusing endings. The introduction of a transgender villain was widely and rightly panned. But, as Constance Grady argued in Vox, it is one of the only shows that has given insight into what it is like to be relentlessly stalked and threatened: in other words, what it is like to be a teenage girl in the 21st century. Though some storylines are contentious, Pretty Little Liars featured LGBT characters, in a way that has helped normalize their presence in the teen television landscape. Pretty Little Liars has been a lot of things: confusing, campy, bat-shit crazy-but it has never been afraid to “go-there.” More practically, the success of Pretty Little Liars paved the way for ABC family to take more risks. To debut shows like The Fosters, the under recognized Huge, and Switched at Birth.

Switched at Birth, which ran from 2011-2016, had a whimper of a final season but was one of few television shows to center deaf characters (7th Heaven is the only other teen drama to do this, way back in in the 1990s). This wasn’t one character, but large numbers of the cast, as one of the protagonists, Daphne, attended a school for the deaf. The show (often heavy handedly) dealt with racial issues, adoption, and class dynamics all while centering (but rarely objectifying) its deaf characters.

One of the most recent teen dramas to garner recognition is Riverdale, a 2017 mid-season premiere riffing off the Archie comics. Like in the Archie comics, Archie is a standard (read: boring) white guy with the luck to surround himself with interesting women and Jughead Jones in the idyllic (and apparently drug filled) town of Riverdale. Riverdale is kind of like if Everwood, Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl had a baby. It’s often very silly. And it’s dealt with its “serious” issues like class and violence decently enough (but I will say it again for those in the back: statutory rape by teachers IS NOT OKAY). But so far, besides being the best teen drama this side of Gossip Girl, its main contribution is it’s take on rape, sexual violence, and consent. I’ve written before about Betty’s fantastical (and creepy) revenge against a football player who pretends to hook up with girls. But when Veronica’s ex, who took a time machine from Gossip Girl’s New York, attempts to rape Cheryl, the girls attack him with stilettos and Cheryl promises revenge. This isn’t the pissed off punches of Gossip Girl: these girls are calling it what it is (rape) and promising to follow up with the law. It’s refreshing.

This isn’t to say that teen television doesn’t have its problems-for one thing, as a genre, it has defined itself as white. Though some shows have made real efforts to be inclusive of the LGBT community, many of the storylines are problematic at best (Pretty Little Liars for one). The love of statuary rape in teen centered story lines is still going strong. The genre certainly has a white feminist vibe. But, much of teen television has attempted to destabilize a vast dismissal of the very political issues faced by teenage girls and for that, it has value.

All of this is to say that, the show runners of one of the most revered shows of recent years developed a pilot about the Confederacy. The Fosters, a low budget show on a network still forced to air The 700 Club daily, is explicitly protesting the Trump administration’s policies regarding immigration. Though this might be surprising to many, it shouldn’t be, as it is continuing the work teen drama has been doing for decades. Teen dramas have shown the ways in which so many teenagers find themselves inculcated in drama which is actually life or death (abusive parents, stalkers, drug addiction, sex trafficking). Teenage girls are constantly at risk and the world doesn’t see them as capable of making their own choices. And “nobody” cares, because teenage girls are the ones watching these. But the rest of us should be watching.

Holly Genovese tweets at @HollyEvanMarie.