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Yes, teens do talk like that

Responding to a common TV and movie criticism that irritates me

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Emily VanDerWerff

Jun 07 2021

10 min read

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I was a teen in the glorious days when Dawson's Creek debuted and the television critics of America discovered that teens talked about sex a lot. (Seriously, much of the early criticism of the show involved how smutty it was, which is hilarious looking at it now.) All I need to tell you to let you know that I was a confused trans girl is to tell you that I forced myself to make Dawson my favorite character, because he was the protagonist and because Joey was in love with him, and if Joey could fall in love with him, maybe she would allow me to also be a charming girl next door type. I wasn't clear on the math.

Anyway.

One criticism of the show I never understood was critics insisting that teens didn't really talk like they did on Dawson's Creek in real life. And they weren't talking about, say, Dawson and his pals having movie references perhaps more appropriate for writers in their 20s and 30s. No, they were talking about how articulate the kids on the show were, out there with their hearts on their sleeves, expressing themselves with all their emotional vulnerability.

But my friends and I were that articulate. And I didn't think we were super smart or anything. Yes, I was a writer, and yes, I got a great score in the vocabulary portion of the SATs. But that wasn't true of all of my friends, and we could have pretty extensive conversations about every little thing we could imagine. When I met my wife, Libby, we were both 18, and the conversations we had would last for hours on end, never quite reaching a satisfactory end point. (You might argue that's all our marriage is — a conversation we just keep having.) I just assumed these critics didn't know any actual teens. I wasn't a huge Dawson's fan, but it definitely captured the basic cadence of how my friends and I talked, if not the particulars.

Now, 20-some years after Dawson's debuted, the idea that "teens don't talk like that" is one of those criticisms that seems to pop up every single time there's a film or TV show where teens talk in a way that's at all stylized or nuanced. And it continues to be a criticism I just don't understand. The teenagers I know are smart, passionate, thoughtful, and incredibly wordy. They might not always know what to say, but that makes them talk in ways they think are more clever, not less. They just keep talking until they blunder their way toward something like the right thing to say.

So why does this criticism recur, then?

I think to some degree, we are talking about the fact that teens in movies and TV shows often know what to say in many given moments. And, yes, that's probably not realistic, since teens are often awkward and weird. But the truth is that it's not realistic for any of us. Movies and TV shows have long reveled in characters who know just what to say at a crucial moment, because we'd all love if we had that power, but we're not backed by screenwriters. But we rarely see this criticism leveled at adults who are in super witty films with urbane dialogue or who have exactly the right rejoinder or who know how to calm a tricky situation in a word or two. We just assume that we, too, might be able to do that if the right words popped into our heads. (Trust me when I say that as someone paid to have words pop into my head, this happens less often than I'd like.)

So I suspect something deeper is going on here. The older we get, the more acutely we feel a disconnect from our own youth, and that process only accelerates. I remember how keenly I felt the loss of my youth as a freshman in college, because I was no longer a high school student. Now multiply that by about 500, reflecting the exponential rate of loss of being "with it." This is to say: Sometimes we think that teenagers are inarticulate because we are shut out of their worlds. That goes doubly so for parents of teens, who are naturally going to find themselves shut out of their kids' deepest thought processes. And because we tend to most remember moments of intense sorrow, intense shame, or intense joy — moments that are rarely hyper-verbal regardless of age — that's what sticks with us from adolescence. Therefore, teens don't "really" talk that way because we've forgotten that we used to.

But I think we also just forget that teens and even kids have a deep and abiding knowledge of their own emotional worlds. We forget that because it's easier to shut that side of ourselves down than it is to acknowledge that every single young person we meet is someone aching to be understood and experiencing everything for the first time. We bring our jadedness to that and mistake the complex rush of emotions that result in feeling a First for the immaturity we believe we (as adults) no longer possess.

I've been listening to a fair amount of Olivia Rodrigo lately, because it's the year 2021 and I am human, and I'm struck, over and over again, by her cleverness and her emotional savviness. Take for instance, my favorite song by her, "Jealousy, Jealousy."

Look: I am not going to claim this is the world's greatest song, but in the verses, especially, there's a pretty deep understanding of the intertwining of self-loathing and envy and how impossible it is to escape that cycle, even when you're aware you're in the cycle. The lyric "I'm so sick of myself" in the chorus is the peak of the musical hook, because that's at the core of jealousy. Rodrigo wrote this song. She's 18. She knows the contents of her own brain to a degree that she can write a song most people can identify with at least a little bit.

And it's not like she's some preternatural teen wunderkind. Kids who write amazing songs are kind of a thing in pop music. Rodrigo's hero, for instance, is Taylor Swift, who was cranking out songs that spoke to teens and adults from about 14 onward. (Also: One of her most famous songs that she wrote as a teenager prominently features Romeo and Juliet, two teens whose emotional lives were pretty complexly realized. Do you think Shakespeare's peers complained that teenagers don't talk that way? Probably not, because adolescence wasn't really recognized as a life stage in Elizabethan England.)

My point here is not to shut down this criticism, which we will probably never be rid of. (There was a recent spate of it tied to the Mare of Easttown finale's major revelations.) My point is, instead, to make you look back at your teenage self, or your childhood self, and remember just how much you actually understood. The world that kids and teens face is big and dramatic and sometimes scary, and I think we pre-emptively scoff at their self-knowledge because we don't want to think about the responsibilities we bear in making it a little less scary. Teens do talk like that. They do understand their emotional lives. And that's why it behooves us to let them grow up and figure their shit out without us projecting our own bullshit onto them.


Talk back to me: What do you think of my thesis? And what's your favorite Olivia Rodrigo song? Tell me in comments!


What I've been up to: I've been working on a really major feature at Vox, which should debut in a couple of weeks. I finally got the copy filed, which meant I could turn my attention back to other stuff. As such, I wrote about Cruella (I kinda liked it!) and the latest season of Grey's Anatomy, which was weird but honestly just a little moving.

The two-hour premiere of season 17 — listed as two separate episodes on Hulu — drops us into a Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital (the series renamed its central setting from Seattle Grace Mercy West in season nine, in case you haven’t watched since the show’s heyday in the mid-2000s) where everybody is overworked and everything is falling apart. The premiere is exhausting in a way that makes you viscerally feel the numb horror of watching the casualty count climb higher and higher and higher and higher.
Every character is masked and wearing multiple layers of PPE. Meredith Grey’s voiceover sounds more worn down than ever before. Dr. Richard Webber, previously pseudo-retired but active in the hospital in a primarily administrative capacity, returns to help coordinate its Covid-19 response and grimly announces that more and more places in Grey Sloan (including, eventually, the cafeteria) will be used to house Covid patients. It’s rough!


Read me: I'm not one to get super sucked in by YA stuff, but I'm deeply entranced by Holly Black's The Cruel Prince, the first book in a trilogy about a human girl fighting her way through political thickets to try to survive in Faerie. I'm impressed by how the book blends the political intrigues of Game of Thrones with the "I HATE HIM SO MUCH I CAN'T WAIT TO KISS HIM" tropes of YA fiction. And then I'm even more impressed with how Black utilizes the underlying creepiness of how faeries can basically make humans do whatever they want to explore what it means to grow up as a woman in rape culture. It's fantastic, and I can't wait to read the next two books.


Watch me: I spent a lot of this video on the Matrix sequels' quality quietly pumping my fist. I don't agree with every point made in it, but I'm so glad Curio and Sarah Zedig made it!


And another thing... Are you an aspiring writer? Would you like to write for a popular audio fiction podcast's third season? Would you like to work with me? Even if the answer to that last one is, "I'm not sure...?" you should think about applying to work in the third season writers room for Arden. You can check out the details here! (You don't have to live in LA to apply. You do have to be eligible to work in the U.S. And yes, we will pay you.)


Opening credits sequence of the week: I have no idea why, but sometimes, I get the theme song to American Dreams, a show I never watched with any real consistency, stuck in my head.


A thing I had to look up: This is actually something I never found! I had a dim memory of a Charles Schulz quote in which he explained that people who thought the characters in Peanuts were unrealistically gloomy had forgotten what childhood was like, but I couldn't find it. If this rings a bell, please drop me a line! I'd love to add it in.


This week's reading music: "Levitating" by Dua Lipa, feat. Da Baby


Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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