I’ve never watched Riverdale for a number of reasons I won’t get into, but a large part of my apprehension to give it a go is rooted in how un-teenage the cast are. These are clearly 20 somethings playing kids who are barely old enough to drive, let alone engage in sordid romantic and sexual affairs. This is nothing new - indeed, it seems to be the norm for Hollywood - but as pointed out by author Catherynne Valente in a Twitter post, the two leads of the show, playing 15 year olds, are 20 and 23, and they both look it. A show that’s marketed as steamy and sexy centres on people not old enough to be doing the deed, but it’s okay because we all know they’re actually adults. The cultural norm this creates is an insidious force that should be dealt with head-on. As Valente says, ‘These people look, and are, capable of consent. Their characters aren’t.’
KJ Apa & Camila Mendes (20 & 23) are playing characters too young for a driver’s license on Riverdale. This changes how we think a 15 year old looks, how they’re seen, and what they’re capable of. These people look, and are, capable of consent. Their characters aren’t. pic.twitter.com/6KgjLzFTLX— Catherynne Valente (@catvalente) November 13, 2017
Logistically, it’s easier for a studio or producer to cast adults as teens for their project because it bypasses those pesky child labour laws. If you’re under 18, you need to be accompanied on-set by a parent, you can only work a certain amount of hours a day, and tutors are often required to help fill in school time. If you’re working on a budget or strict schedule, this simply won’t do. Unless the character is an age too young for a 24 year old to realistically pass for it, such as the kids in Stranger Things, then why not just hire someone who can legally work the 16 hour day, with overtime if necessary?
From a practical standpoint, it makes sense, and everyone’s familiar with the most glaring examples of the practice: Rachel McAdams was 26 when she played the queen bee Regina George in Mean Girls; not one of the cast of the original version of The Inbetweeners was a day under 21 when the show premiered; the cast of Grease looked ready for their 15 year high school reunions (Stockard Channing was 33!) This can give certain shows or films a short shelf life. You can only keep up with the naivety of adolescence for so long when half the cast look like they’re supposed to be teaching the kids. There are some jokes you can’t pull off with adults either. As noted by Blake Harrison of The Inbetweeners, ‘The humour comes from their naivety and ignorance towards the world and as soon as you start placing that naivety and ignorance into people in their 20s and 30s, it becomes a bit more offensive and less funny.’
It’s not just that these actors don’t look like teenagers: The stories they often tell are crafted to be more adult in content. The trope of the sexy teen scandal can be entertaining, but it’s also a hell of a lot more palatable when the people playing the parts are 25, and look it. There was never any risk of Blake Lively’s work in Gossip Girl being seen as crossing the line because she was so obviously a 20-something who had been prepped and primped to the nines. Teens on TV and film seldom look as casual or slobby as actual teens. They’re also perfectly made it, dressed impeccably, hair straight and flowing in the well-aimed breeze with not an iota of acne in sight. They don’t get spotty or greasy, their voices don’t waver between high and low-pitched, they’re always skinny women and buff men, and few of those women will go without drag-show levels of make-up.
Representation is of the utmost importance, especially when you’re growing up and you yearn for figures whose struggles resemble your own. You want to see teen girls who are as baffled by adolescence as you are, and who don’t spend all day obsessing over their looks because that feels like the only thing young women are given permission to do aside from be surly and drool over boys. So many of these teen stories seem singularly focused on sex. That wouldn’t be so bad if the focus was on exploring the complexities of coming of age as a sexual being, but we’re more likely to be left with soap opera shenanigans where everyone is not only sexually active but skilled to the level of femme fatale.
It’s a tricky area because, frankly, who would want to let their 13 year old kid become an actor? Our culture treats child actors like disposable commodities and glories in forcing them to live in the impossible liminal space between perpetual infancy and forced adulthood. When creeps and tabloid newspapers make countdown clocks waiting for child actresses like Emma Watson and the Olsen twins to turn 16, giving them the legal safety to turn them into sex objects, it’s not hard to understand why those sensible few in the industry would elect to let kids sit this one out.
I’m not sure we know what actual teenagers look like anymore. We’ve been made dizzy by decades of TV where 20 somethings play the parts of everyone aged from 15 to 45. The media we consume wields an enormous power over how we perceive the world, and if every adolescent we see on film or TV is played by a 22 year old, how can that not impact the way we discuss kids? Look at every disheartening news story where underage boys and girls are deemed somehow partly responsible for the abuses and assaults they suffer because the accused told authorities they looked of age, or the ways that young black men and women are systematically denied the rights of childhood by white supremacy when they become the victims of police violence. Age is one of the biggest definers of power in our society, and a lot of terrible things have been dismissed with nary a thought by claiming that kid should have known what was happening since they totally don’t look 14.
There’s something to be said for telling adolescent stories with a true understanding of what it means to be a teenager, and doing so with appropriately cast actors. Giving kids some real grit and authenticity on screen has its benefits for both storytelling and the culture at large. It’s the adults who shy away from such concerns and turn to older actors to ease that discomfort created by seeing actual 16 year olds talk about sex, relationships and the accompanying storm of emotions. Perhaps it’s time we consider why it is that we want to tell the stories about teenagers that we do. Who are they really for?