If you look at some of the more popular shows on television right now, you will notice many of them (in their fictional settings) feature teenagers, often in hyper-sexualised contexts, performing content that is meant to be more suitable for adults (and even then, for arbitrary cultural reasons, perhaps still unsuitable).
While the hyper-sexualisation of teens in mainstream media has always been a problem, Gen Z appears to be seeing it a lot more. There appears to be an obsession with the sex lives of underage teens. It is evident in incredibly popular shows like ‘Euphoria’ and ‘Why Are You Like This,’ both of which are focused on sex, drugs, and alcohol where the sex lives of teenagers and young adults are glamourised and amplified, framing young school children in a sexual light. There’s also the dark high school genre as seen in ‘Riverdale’ and ‘The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ which are also known for inappropriately sexualising teenagers.
Teenage girls in particular are victims of this targeted hyper-sexualisation of their gender and age group. A report titled ‘TV’s New Target: Teen Sexual Exploitation’ issued by the American media advocacy group Parents Television Council (PTC) discussed that there was an eagerness in show business to not only objectify and fetishise young girls but to sexualise them in such a way that real teens were led to believe their sole value comes from their sexuality.
“TV shows falsely teach teenage girls that their intrinsic value is sexually-based: girls learn that their objectification is not only socially acceptable but it is ideal,” the report said.
There appears to be two sides to the discussion – one being that adults are cast as teenagers and are broadly sexualised and made to perform tasks that are expected of adults but under the pretence of being a teenager, and the second is that teenagers and young adults are thrust into the limelight, subjected to the critical gaze of the masses and have to adopt a more ‘adult’ image or persona to further their popularity and career.
Examples of the latter can be seen in artists who gain their celebrity status at a young age; a more recent example being Millie Bobby Brown, the star of the wildly popular Netflix series ‘Stranger Things’. The actress has been in the limelight since she was an adolescent and as she began to approach her 18th birthday, there was a countdown clock set up leading to her legally ageing into an adult, an event that was a spectacle to the world.
Several online forums were waiting impatiently for her to legally become an adult – on Reddit there exists threads entirely dedicated to the coming of age of Millie Bobby Brown, complete with an NSFW (Not Suitable for Work) tag, indicating that they have very real intentions of saying and posting crude, sexual things about the young actress.
Sexualising young actresses
Brunch spoke to Yureni Noshika, a Sri Lankan cinema and television actress as well as a singer and media personality, who started her career at a very young age. She shared her thoughts on younger actors, specifically younger women choosing to take on more risqué roles in cinema and television and how acting and performing was a form of art which should be given its due respect, noting how artists should be pushing boundaries.
Yureni noted that she firmly believed that cinema, being an art form, should not have any limits and that the performer and creators should have the freedom to express themselves to best convey their message. However, she noted that while she was a supporter of freedom of artistic expression, as a realist it was necessary to understand one’s environment and the sensibilities of one’s audience.
“I think it is necessary that younger women are fearless in their expression, especially when it comes to more risqué content like sexual material or nudity. It should be understood that it is all art and is a matter of expression and is in no way a reflection of that actor’s character.”
However, Yureni did note that while she hoped that future generations continued to push the boundaries on what could and could not be done on screen, she indeed understood that one’s audience mattered. On such occasions, it came down to the director or the purveyor of the art form to convey their message in more creative ways to overcome their limitations or restrictions.
“I think what matters is the message, and we should not compromise on discussing the realities of life in our art in realistic ways. There is no need to compromise – if it is uncomfortable then we can find ways around it, but we should not avoid talking about uncomfortable topics just to insist on a fantasy when the world is headed towards cinema that’s more realistic and is an accurate reflection of our reality,” she said.
She also shared that as long as the medium was handled by a sensitive and respectful practitioner there would be less to worry about.
The Sri Lankan context
Veteran media personality Thanuja Jayawardana also shared her thoughts on featuring young adults, particularly young women in mainstream platforms like cinema and television and the potential pitfalls in subjecting such young individuals to this kind of broad exposure.
Addressing bringing young girls onto the mainstream, Jayawardana said: “I think it should be entirely based on their talents, because often at present there are numerous ulterior motives in bringing young women to these platforms. On occasion, I have heard and witnessed for myself the damaging consequences of young girls being subjected to this type of exposure for the wrong reasons.”
She noted that it must be done in a responsible manner: “When it comes to those who are underage, the responsibility falls greatly on the parents, and they must look out for the wellbeing of their child. Ethical media must conduct themselves in a respectful way and abide by their contractual agreements to their child stars as well.”
Jayawardana noted however that if the parent’s objective was to make their child a superstar, consequences be damned, in such cases she absolutely could not condone the questionable choices that parents may make on behalf of their children. “I absolutely do not condone parents choosing to make compromises on their child’s dignity and safety.”
“If your child is truly talented then I firmly believe that their time will come. There is no need to find unethical means, sexual briberies, and other forms of questionable means to get ahead,” she said.
Jayawardana also added that things were changing for the better now because often stakeholders could be held accountable thanks to social media and the progression of regulations and policies.
“If there is misbehaviour or mishandling then the children in question will take to large platforms and audiences and criticise the way they were treated. While this should not be the incentive for media institutes to do better, we cannot deny that this type of checks and balances helps keep everyone in check. It would be greatly detrimental for a media institution to have mismanaged their artists and be exposed for deplorable behaviour,” she said.
She also noted that due to the competitive nature of the industry, she herself had seen the lengths to which even parents might push their child. “Even when it comes to selecting songs that your child may be performing to, by selecting content that is not suitable for children, there have been occasions where such instances have been sensationalised and this continues to happen.
“Sometimes I have wondered why they don’t have stricter regulations for matters like this and I think that is one thing that is needed – legal means and guidelines that protect these children from being exploited in any way, even if it may seem harmless at the moment.”
Jayawardana said that all stakeholders, performers, directors, producers, and others must take care to have the best interests of the child in mind. Otherwise, the mishandling of the child performer may cause great detriment to that child and their development. “These children are looking to the adults in their life to guide them and it would be a great disservice to this child if we mismanage their best interests in favour of our own.”
“I think it is a good thing to give talented children platforms but we must keep in mind our limits. I believe the media must be a step ahead of their audience and be an admirable role model and practise what I would call good journalism. In doing so, it would be a natural thing to always keep the development and best interests of children in mind as we help them develop their careers and express their talents to the world,” Jayawardana concluded.