After scrolling through Netflix to no avail one afternoon, my best friend and I settled on Wattpad fanfiction phenomenon to movie, After (2019). We really weren’t expecting much; maybe it’d be slightly problematic but nothing worth creating a discourse about. However, I was taken aback when the protagonist, Tessa, was vilified by her boyfriend for going to a college party. It got me thinking about how many unhealthy relationships and plots make it to the screens of young, impressionable viewers. Are these narratives harmless or could teenagers be projecting them onto each other and themselves?
Teen romance dramas have existed in film for decades but the market for them isn’t as saturated as those of sci-fi and adult rom-coms, for instance. Therefore, the films that are made for the teenage demographic should surely be sending the right messages and/or educational. “The right message” is pretty vague but I’d personally classify it broadly as not glorifying harmful behaviour and instead promoting healthy behaviour. Hollywood seems to shy away from producing teen films while independent cinema is still working its way to the surface but what we do have for our teen flick fix is Netflix. Netflix Originals are popping up every month and while that’s not inherently a bad thing, it’s not necessarily good either. I hate to be one of those “ugh, the digital age…” people but it’s clear that more on-demand films than ever are being produced and distributed within a matter of months which leads me to question the integrity and purpose of these films, especially when they’re directed at teenagers.
Sierra Burgess is a Loser, The Kissing Booth, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before were all released last year from May through September. Sierra Burgess is a Loser details the life of a witty but unconfident high school senior, Sierra. She’s frequently bullied by popular cheerleader, Veronica. Tropes can help a story feel familiar but I think this particular one could have done without them. The thin, conventionally attractive girl tormenting the bigger girl with no self esteem is not just demeaning to fat girls but it’s also a very tired concept. This bullying sets up the rest of the story as Veronica gives Sierra’s number (under the pretence that it’s her number) to the male protagonist, and football player, Jamey, in an attempt to embarrass her. Sierra goes along with it when Jamey texts her.
We’re lead to be so caught up in Sierra and Jamey’s budding online romance that it’s easy to forget the grounds on which it started: catfishing. Thankfully, Sierra is given a brain by the writer(s) so it’s not as if she’s unrealistically unaware of what she’s doing. Wait, scrap that; she pretends to be deaf so Jamey doesn’t recognise her voice which is incredibly ableist and unnecessary. Fault comes in properly and undeniably when Jamey and Veronica go on a date. It ends with Jamey going in for a kiss and Veronica swaps with Sierra. Looking passively at the scene, it looks cheesy but kind of sweet. But when you actively watch it, the flaws are glaring. Sierra kisses Jamey without his consent. In a time when consent is becoming essential, and rightfully so, you wouldn’t expect something like that to be used as a plot device. It sends the message that uninvited romantic advances are acceptable if they’re concealed within quirky situations.
Films aren’t just guilty of doing this as it happens in TV shows too. In Netflix’s “The Society” there’s a scene wherein a straight character “tests” a gay character’s sexuality despite him stating that’s he not interested. But the persistence of the straight character isn’t shown in a negative light, it’s made to seem like a “friend for the end of the world” thing. It’s the lack of addressment that feeds into toxicity; presenting unhealthy behaviour without a counteracting reaction does nothing but reinforce said behaviour. That’s what I worry about, uncomfortable situations being used to entertain or shock audiences as opposed to educate and inform them.
The Kissing Booth is another film that completely misses the mark. Why someone thought it was a good idea to adapt a narrative about the taming of a teenage boy with violent tendencies at the hands of a teenage girl…I don’t know. At its core, it’s not completely awful; a spanner is thrown into the works of a lifelong friendship when one friend pursues the other’s sibling. Not problematic. However, when the sibling in question throws hands at any opportunity and controls his significant other, everything starts to go lopsided. It’s not cute or cool to police your partner under the guise of protection so I’d love to know why it’s so prevalent in this film. As I mentioned earlier, the target demographic is impressionable so they might internalise such behaviour and believe that it’s okay. The easygoing colour-grading and a handful of funny scenes make the film easier to stomach but it ultimately leaves a bad taste.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is on the right track compared to the other two films and it’s everything a teen romance drama should be: light-hearted, a bit far-fetched and cliché. I was going to sing nothing but praises about it when I realised that there’s an non-consented kiss about 20 minutes in which ought to have been addressed but you guessed it – it wasn’t. Is this an actual requirement of teen romance dramas now? It’s frustrating how some writers can’t see anything wrong with the material they choose to include and it’ll be the death of the genre. The feel-good element is swiftly making an exit because there’s too much to unpack in every narrative. In the same breath, presenting relationships as flawless to young people isn’t helpful nor educational as that’s not reflective of real life. However, more conversation is needed around unhealthy relationships on-screen otherwise I don’t see the point in showing them.
A lot of media made for teens these days have condescending undertones and preconceptions of what we’re like. Not to mention that POC and LGBT characters only pop up every now and again like that’s a true representation of society. If Netflix and the writers associated with it would actually talk to teenagers, I think everyone involved would get a well-rounded view of what we want to see instead of assuming. Assumptions produce movies like The Kissing Booth and we do not want any more Wattpad fanfictions adapted to screenplays.