From shows like Riverdale and Euphoria to all the bestselling young adult novels, the media is overflowing with depictions of steamy teenage romance. Sixteen and seventeen-year-old characters are shown to be entirely absorbed with the drama of their love lives, while the rest of their time is spent taking down the mafia (Riverdale), inciting nationwide rebellions (The Hunger Games) and engaging in other farfetched action that presents them as the exact opposite of normal teenagers.
Pioneered by iconic works such as Twilight and The Princess Diaries, this particular shade of teenage entertainment has been popular since the early 2000’s and is widely consumed by its target audience today. However, these books and scripts are written by adults; the shows and movies feature adult actors. When young people—already eager to grow up—are told that the gorgeous superstars on-screen are supposedly teenagers just like them, they seek to reproduce the same illusion of glamor and maturity, whether through acts of rebellion or the passionate romantic entanglements they have been convinced is normal for kids their age.
The hit 2019 HBO series Euphoria features some characters whose growth and conflict revolve almost completely around romance. A rift forms between two best friends, Maddy and Cassie, when Cassie develops an infatuation with Maddy’s boyfriend; cheating, arguing, and manipulating ensues. Both characters’ internal strife centers around their mutual desire for male validation—and while it is valuable to depict the common struggles that teenage girls face, as well as to present these characters as real, flawed people, to reduce the entirety of their characters to boy problems and “cat fights” is not.
Through word of mouth alone, it’s common in high schools to hear about so-and-so’s breakup and her fight with so-and-so, while many other couples break up within weeks or months. Shows like Euphoria, which cast beautiful actors in their mid-twenties and thirties to play high schoolers, contribute to the urge among teenagers to grow up as fast as possible.
Among others, a common way that young people think they can achieve this is by getting involved romantically. There is nothing inherently wrong with romance, but kids who have not yet reached emotional maturity are often unable to pay proper attention to a partner. Teenagers may find themselves going through the same exaggerated struggles of the characters in their favorite shows—though unlike the actors, they will experience real harm.
Though much less of a rough ride than Euphoria, the New York Times best-selling series and Netflix movie franchise To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is just as inaccurate and misleading. Despite the initial emphasis on the protagonist’s mixed Korean and white heritage, Lara Jean’s racial identity is seriously glossed over. In the movies, it is essentially summarized in a brief hanbok montage (hanbok: a traditional Korean dress) with K-Pop playing in the background, and a few shots of her deceased—and apparently irrelevant—Korean mother. To top it all off, the actress cast as Lara Jean is not half-Korean at all, but is actually of Vietnamese descent.
Rather than devoting some time to flesh out Lara Jean as a character—and her identity as an Asian one—the series makes her sexy jock love interest the focal point of the story. The boy and Lara Jean make out in a hot tub; Lara Jean defeats his ex, the jealous popular girl. There is nothing wrong with To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before in its most basic form, which both at its heart and on the surface is cute entertainment for young girls. What makes it problematic is the bland, one-dimensional protagonist that Jenny Han has written to lead it, and while unintentionally, she is normalizing the lack of goals or personality in female characters beyond romantic love that is already a common feature of modern entertainment.
In reality, a romantic relationship is more than just two people’s interactions; both are already their own persons, with interests and beliefs that exist beyond the sphere of their partner. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is just one example of an unfortunate lack of such depictions in teen entertainment.
Chances of a development, however, are far from slim, and we can always hope to see changes as the world of entertainment evolves every day. Until then, teenagers should by all means continue to enjoy their favorite books and shows. But they should take care to differentiate reality from fiction.
Ming Wei Yeoh is a sophomore at Minnetonka High School in Minnesota. She edits and occasionally writes for the school paper. Her dream is a career in journalism and creative writing.
*This essay previously appeared in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager *