As most of you know, my love of YA is not limited to the page. I am a huge fan of teen-centric dramas and WB-esque shows as long as they are clever, honest, well-written, or just plain awesome (hello, Vampire Diaries!) However, there is a common thread in these series – even in the cases of my most beloved shows, which I’ll get to later – that I think needs addressing. The issue I’m referring to is “Graduation.” Or, more accurately, not showing what realistically happens to your main characters upon graduating from high school. Some grievances:
Let’s Get Married: Before I state my case, I would like to acknowledge all of the happily married high school sweethearts out there. I know you exist. My parents are perfect examples of this actually. Now, that said – please stop making your love interests get married! Sadly, the only literary reference to this unfortunate plotline that I can think of right now are Bella and Edward from Twilight. Their inevitable marriage is depressing for many reasons, but what I’m focusing on here is their age (well, her age in this case). Much like our reigning literary couple, Corey & Topanga (Boy Meets World), Zack & Kelly (SBTB), and Liz & Max (Roswell) are only a few examples of TV teens who decided that getting a marriage license before getting a college degree was the logical next step in their lives. This is so dangerous for teenagers. It’s saying “you will never meet anyone better and you will always have the same standards as you had in high school.” Or, it breeds the thinking that “there is nothing else after high school worth exploring on your own anyway, so why not just get married?” It’s incredibly sad that series like these – with seemingly driven, intelligent characters – have perpetuated this ideology. I realize “marriage” doesn’t have to mean the ball-and-chain institution that its associated with, but marriage is not something that should be idealized as purely romantic either. No one is more impulsive than a teenager and no one falls in love more often than a teenager. These are not people who should have things like mortgages and babies and joint checking accounts.
Parents As Enablers: Contrary to what Will Smith told us, it seems that in teen dramas where the teenagers are acting completely irrationally, emotionally, and, well, like teenagers, the parents completely understand. They will say things like “I know it will be hard to be away from [boyfriend or girlfriend], but this is your decision.” In real life, college-bound teens do usually opt for college, but in teen dramas, they will always choose the love interest if given the option. Writers, assuming your YA parents are alive and well, let them be parents. They don’t always understand what the teen is going through because they’ve already grown out of such behavior. Want to get married at 18? Want to throw away your full ride to Oxford so you can go to the local community college with your best friend? Most parents, if they have their child’s best interest at heart, would not say “it’s your decision.” They would say “you get your ass on that plane.” Parents don’t have to be a villain, nor should they be portrayed that way, but they should be logical when the teen is not.
There’s No Place Like Home: Destined-for-greatness, Veronica Mars, and teenage genius, Willow Rosenberg from Buffy, can go anywhere and do anything. Straight-A students with acceptance letters from the Ivy League to universities abroad to super amazing internships. With so many options, why not choose to stay in your hometown? Er… right? OK, so Willow preferred to battle evil on the Hellmouth, but I mean… there’s another one in Cleveland! Live outside your box for a while, Willow. The literary character I thought this might happen to was Hermione Granger. I didn’t want Ron holding her back, which I fear is what ultimately happened. Seriously, YA & teen drama writers, what is so bad about getting out of dodge, at least for college, if not forever? Again, with few exceptions, leaving your hometown is a necessary experience and teenagers, who no doubt get enough pressure from their parents to stay close to home, shouldn’t need to see their favorite teen characters make decisions that are usually not in their best interest.
Love Ya Like a Sis, Don’t Ever Change: This was written in my yearbook just like I’m sure it was written in yours (if you’re a girl who graduated in the late ’90s/early ’00s anyway). I’ll forgive the “LYLAS” part, but “don’t ever change?” Sorry, but I prefer to grow up and not continue to think and act the same way I did when I was a teenager. My beloved Buffy and Veronica fell victim to the trend of going to college in a group, which is how I know that no writer, no matter how good, is safe from doing this. Other teen shows have notoriously high-school heavy freshman years too (more recently done by Gossip Girl). I understand that building an audience for a TV show takes time and it’s very risky to throw away characters audiences have come to love when moving the main character to college. There’s a reason why 90210 and Saved By the Bell – much like the popular cliques their characters represented – peaked in high school. But when something is well-written, smart, and easily able to take the next step into “crossover” territory, I don’t see any reason why writers shouldn’t offer a realistic look at what happens to most people after high school – complete departure with occasional Facebook stalkage (or, in my case, AIM). I can count on one hand the number of friends from high school who I still consider actual friends, and my life is hardly lacking because of it. People grow and change, and more often than not, the people who were your entire world suddenly don’t fit into yours anymore. Portraying this as something negative rather than liberating not only holds teens back, but it stunts your characters’ growth as well.
Life only begins at 18, yet so many teen dramas keep their characters in the dark about adulthood. Graduation may be the end of life as they know it, but it’s not the end of their lives. As writers, you should write for your intended audience. Just remember not to create a Neverland for them. Chances are, they will break up with the person they are so in love with and the best friend who they can’t imagine living without will be just as fine without them as they are without him or her. These things are downers to a YA audience; I get that. But just like one’s initial fear of the unfamiliar, the anxiety and sadness passes and gives way to realizing how much is still ahead. Unless you are writing a tragedy, don’t let your characters peak in high school. Even if you don’t write them into adulthood, keep them open, ready, and excited for their next step.
(PS: The number of things Buffy did get right (in both the high school years and beyond) is enough for an entirely different blog post, which I may or may not write in the future.)