The TV screen flashes a scene of an attractive young woman in a slinky slip of a nightie beguiling a young man into bed. In the next scene, the young man and his friend talk moodily over a joint, and later still, friends drown their sorrows in the concoctions of a hotel bar.
This may sound like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy or Sex and the City, but those shows are for grown-ups. This is Gossip Girl, and the characters are mere kids, none older than about 17.
As a college student, I find parallels between Gossip Girl, a new primetime soap revolving around New York’s ultra-privileged teen set, and my own life. This is the real world. People do have sex. They do experiment with marijuana and other drugs, and they do get drunk, even before the magical age of 21.
This show isn’t really for me, though; it’s for my little sister – who still hasn’t gone on her first date yet. This show is telling 14-year-olds what they have to look forward to in just a few more years: regret- and consequence-free promiscuity, substance abuse, and open bars.
Can we really blame the networks, though? After all, they’re only filling a market niche. It would seem, then, it’s not the shows that convince the preteen set this behavior is acceptable, but rather a culprit much closer to home.
Parents often complain that their children are being fed a constant media diet of smut, and then they watch movies that make anything on primetime look like Sesame Street. That’s fine, as long as the parents recognize the mixed message they’re sending to the impressionable younger generation. Kids will always be chomping at the bit to grow up, and they’ll do anything to prove their maturity.
The problem is not in defining acceptable viewing habits for children, but in defining those acceptable for adults. If meaningless sex and addictions are treated merely as “adult” subjects, nothing will appeal more to kids and teens than those same behaviors. They seem intriguing, exciting, and most importantly, a badge of worldly wisdom.
It all comes down to one decision. Will adults continue to drape media content in the mysterious veil of “maturity,” or will they set the example and simply treat such content as a universal taboo?
Granted, it is fun to get caught up in scandalous plotlines and follow the lives of characters who scoff at the rules we’re too afraid to break, but entertainment comes at a cost. Fictional characters can engage in whatever behaviors they like, but if kids’ real role models don’t endorse those behaviors, TV plots will remain just that – storylines not to be replicated in real life.
Gossip Girl is flashy, but the allure isn’t inherent in the show itself. The draw comes from what young audiences perceive as an inside look into a life they only dream of leading. How else can teen soap-watching kids learn to grow up into the adult-content watching grown-ups of tomorrow? They need someone to show them how, and if parents and other role models don’t step up and take responsibility, TV networks will be more than happy to pick up the slack – and make a buck doing it.