Portrayal of teens on television fuels conflict and confusion

The Secret Life of the American Teenager isn’t shy about issues kids face as they grow up. In this scene, George, played by Mark Derwin, has taken his daughter Ashley, played by India Eisley, to a doctor to discuss birth control.

ABC Family

The Secret Life of the American Teenager isn’t shy about issues kids face as they grow up. In this scene, George, played by Mark Derwin, has taken his daughter Ashley, played by India Eisley, to a doctor to discuss birth control.

Before you read anything else, know this: MTV's new series The Hard Times of R.J. Berger is one of the best high school dramedys I've seen in a long time, mixing the pathos of a 15-year-old geek's struggle to succeed in school with the hopeful spirit of a smart kid who never stops trying.

It is also one of the raunchiest sex comedies I've ever seen on basic cable television.

And that could be a problem.

Critics already are calling the show Hung Jr., a play on the title of HBO's raunchy sex comedy, to describe Berger's core concept: The young computer nerd is rather well-endowed. This is something the entire school learns when his shorts and jockstrap drop off unexpectedly during a basketball game.

And that's one of the tamer moments we see onscreen, filmed from behind star Paul Iacono, who resembles an Americanized Harry Potter, with big owlish eyeglasses and a fondness for buxom female comic book characters.

There's also a scene where Berger's mom walks into his room while he's masturbating. There's the stalker-ish geeky girl Lily Miran who wants to sleep with Berger so badly she masturbates in the school library while looking at his yearbook photo.

There's the Japanese girl who tried a certain sex act with Berger, only to find herself nearly choked to death. (The scene, rendered as an anime cartoon, is inventive, funny, sexy and horrifying all at once.)

And there are lines like the insult Berger's best friend Miles Jenner (Jareb Dauplaise, doing a fine Jack Black impression) delivers to Lily after one of her many, explicit come-ons to his pal: "If he wanted to (bleep) a dog, he'd just go to Amsterdam."

(Yes, curse words such as the f-word and s-word are bleeped out in Berger; others are not.)

Creators and executive producers David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith declined to comment, but it feels a bit like American Pie: The TV Edition. It is an explicit show about high schoolers ultimately intended for an older audience.

This comes as no surprise to Michael Rich, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston. "They're just trying to combine two genres: take American Pie and add the coming-of-age adolescent liberation story you've seen 100 times," said Rich, who calls himself a "mediatrician," writing a blog to answer parents' questions about the impact of media on youth. "The way to make these stories feel fresh is by pushing against cultural limits."

It makes commercial sense that MTV would create an explicit sex comedy featuring 15-year-olds, Rich said. "Let's face it, that's who is watching these movies and TV shows, anyway," he said with a laugh. But he also noted that such programs are likely to draw younger viewers hoping to emulate older, seemingly cooler kids.

The danger? Such comedies are built around their own set of values about sex and relationships that could be at serious odds with what parents hope their kids will emulate.

"The research shows us kids learn from media . . . not imitating what they see, (but) setting cultural norms and setting expectations of what they should be," said Rich, referring to studies that show kids who consume media with high amounts of sexual content initiate sexual activity two years earlier than their peers with more pedestrian media habits.

Youth at adolescence become walking collections of testosterone and estrogen, without fully developed brain centers to control impulsive notions, Rich said. "That's why these kids are sexting each other; they can't think beyond 20 minutes from now (because) the brain development isn't there. We are expecting them to behave like adults when they're not.

"Producers push against these (content) boundaries because it gets their attention, but we can't expect them to behave responsibly, any more than we can expect a 6-month-old to walk."

That's an idea at the heart of ABC Family's The Secret Life of the American Teenager, another series about teen sex that returns for its third season June 7, one day after Berger's debut.

"Teen sex is very complicated; it's like minors operating heavy equipment," said Brenda Hampton, creator and executive producer of the series, which centers on a teen girl who gets pregnant after her first sexual encounter and decides to keep the baby. "It can happen to anyone. And no one wants it to happen."

This season Secret Life will explore whether another teen character who enjoys sex is pregnant, and if so, whether she'll keep the baby, along with a story line centered on gay issues. Given that the series airs on ABC Family, Hampton knows she couldn't be as explicit as a show like Berger, but she said she didn't change the tone of her pilot episode from a version she first tried to sell to the Fox network and Lifetime cable channel.

"I love the notes we get from (ABC Family executives): 'Thank you for letting teenagers know Internet prostitution is dangerous,' " said Hampton, laughing while acknowledging, as mother to three adopted kids, that she has seen her own children parrot inappropriate things they've learned from TV. "But I think we do have a young audience and we try to keep that in mind. We might find stories on the edgier side by having every single character have sex, but we know half the teenagers aren't doing it."

Nathan Eklund, senior education consultant for the Minneapolis-based education think tank Search Institute, said series such as MTV's Berger reflect a central hypocrisy about American media.

On one hand, pop culture is filled with sexualized, violent images of young people, from kiddie idols like Miley Cyrus reaching for older audiences to the murderous tween superhero wanna-be Hit Girl from the movie Kick-Ass.

But adults also pressure youth to reject the behavior that might be encouraged by such imagery, warning against the dangers of early sexual activity, bullying, violence and sex without emotional connection.

"We as adults and creators of media don't hold ourselves to the same standards we hold the people we're marketing to," said Eklund, a former high school English teacher. "How can we expect a certain reaction from our young people that's so disjointed from the kind of content and fodder we surround them with?"

Beyond affecting how kids see themselves, such products also affect how adults see children. From a teenage Alicia Silverstone on the cover of Entertainment Weekly years ago to a scantily-clad Cyrus posing with her father in Vanity Fair, modern media images also can encourage grownups to see children in ways counter to social expectations.

"It's almost like the depiction of forbidden fruit," said Tessa Jolls, president of the Center for Media Literacy in California. "Conflict between the norms of acceptable behavior and what's being shown gets your attention. But knowing that media also inspires, the real question is, what do you want people to aspire to?"

Some of this talk might sound like the modern equivalent of '50s-era parents who fretted about Elvis Presley shaking his hips too much on The Ed Sullivan Show, an overprotective prissiness which history will show was an overreaction. Even respected film critic Roger Ebert drowned in criticism himself after objecting to the Hit Girl character in Kick-Ass; banning such content in the age of Internet porn and explicit cable channels such as HBO also seems unrealistic.

And anyone who has spent time with unguarded teenagers knows many of them already talk exactly the way MTV's Berger depicts them.

But Rich suggests youth and parents detach such debates from moral issues and think in health terms.

Just as we enjoy an occasional hot fudge sundae but work to keep our food diet balanced, we need to balance our media image intake, realizing that some of the values wrapped up in an irreverent show such as Berger could impact kids like a steady diet of Snickers bars if left unchecked or not discussed.

"Because we have allowed this debate to be about values — a culture war — it has allowed being edgy to overcome our self-awareness and ability to protect ourselves," said Rich, who favors parents discussing such issues with children over trying to ban content from the airwaves. "What we feed our children's minds is just as important as what we feed their bodies."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

TV Watch

The teenage life

The Hard Times of R.J. Berger debuts at 11 p.m. June 6 after the MTV Movie Awards, and airs at 10 p.m. Mondays after June 14. The Secret Life of the American Teenager returns for its third season at 8 p.m. June 7 on ABC Family.

Portrayal of teens on television fuels conflict and confusion 05/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 28, 2010 6:26pm]

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