4 min read

WTF, Netflix? Teenage sex and entertainment

Child Pornography for the Masses

At the time of writing, the Number 1 movie on NZ Netflix is Do Revenge. The plot centres on a victim of 'revenge porn'. This victim is a 17 year old girl, which means that despite being played by a 28 year old actress (yes, you read that correctly, 28) makes the 'leaked sex tape' (taken directly from the Netflix description) child pornography distribution.

At no time in the movie is it described as such, nor do any adults intervene to hold the 'leakers' to account.

This is our favourite movie of the week.

The number 2 TV show in NZ today is Heartbreak High, a 2022 remake of a popular 90s series that screened on Australian TV. The description reads thus: “In this provocative teen drama, a sex map exposes Hartley High students’ hook-up history.” The main cast are aged between 24 and 28.

HBO teen drama series Euphoria, the most tweeted television show of the decade, (written in it’s entirety by a 37 year old man) features adult actors engaging in nudity scenes, close-up genitalia shots, and drug-fuelled sex. The actors, all aged between 23 and 31, are playing teenagers who are supposed to be barely the minimum age of legal consent. 

Adults as Children

We hire adults to play children (because there are legal requirements for working with child actors and it’s illegal to have children play at sex on camera) and then feed the content back to a wide audience, who gobble it up with glee. These TV shows and movies aren't just popular with teens, but with adults - who wrote, directed, produced, shot and marketed the content, and are also its favourite consumers.

We should be deeply uncomfortable with this. It’s time we asked some questions about why this is so appealing and marketable. 

There are many reasons why a cultural obsession with teenage sex is problematic. Two central concerns are:

  1. We’re creating an expectation for teenagers about their maturity, looks and sexual capabilities which are wildly inaccurate and unachievable. Hiring actors in their 20s and 30s to pose as children has always been a strange thing to do – but having them act at losing their virginity and leading sophisticated, complex sexual lives, is tantamount to 'barely legal' pornography as a genre.
  2. We're normalising watching and focusing on teenager’s romantic and sexual relationships, turning children into sexual beings for entertainment. Objectifying and fetishising children – especially young girls – sends powerful cultural messages about the importance of sexuality and sexual value as the building blocks of their identity. 

This would be gross enough on its own. The gender and power dynamics on display are enough to make your eyes water - Netflix hit show Never Have I Ever, which puts the sexual experiences of a 16 year old virgin (played by 20 year old Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) centre stage, pairs the protagonist with "teenage" heartthrob Darren Barnet - who was 31 at the time of filming his role as a 17 year old boy. THIRTY ONE.

The actors engage in steamy scenes, where a grown man puts his hands all over a woman barely out of her teen years. This is then marketed to teenagers, to "connect" with their experiences in high school, and to adults. 

This normalisation - of a much older man and younger woman - along with the suggestion that sex is a central concern in the lives of teens is predatory, barely lawful... and also incorrect.

The legal minimum age of consensual sex in most developed countries is 16, and the average age of virginity loss between 17 and 18 years old - when most teens are finishing, or have finished high school. Yet the obsession continues.

Children As Adults

Casting adults as teenagers and having them perform or simulate sexual acts, as adults, under the pretence of being a teenager is bad enough. But it's not the worst of it. We also have teenagers and young adults, under the watchful eyes of a predatory media, adopting - or being cast and forced into - hyper-sexualised, adult roles before they can legally able consent to sex.

In the last few weeks, former Nickelodeon child star Jennette McCurdy released her memoir, I’m Glad My Mom Died, featuring explosive accusations against Nickolodeon – and in particular, network producer Dan Schneider. McCurdy starred as Sam Puckett in iCarly between 2007 and 2012, joining the show at 15, before joining a spinoff combining stars iCarly and another popular Nickolodeon show, Victorious.

McCurdy has exposed Schneider for sexualization and inappropriate behaviour toward child actors including herself, Ariana Grande and Jamie-Lynn Spears, as well as tales of underage drinking, uncomfortable sexual scenes and requesting massages from child stars on set.

A chorus of former child stars from the network have added to the accusations, including Victorious actress Daniella Monet, who has gone public with her discomfort playing sexualised scenes written, shot and directed by Schneider.

A recently published Business Insider report "'Revealing' teen costumes, on-set massages, and a gender-discrimination complaint: Inside Dan Schneider's 'disgusting' Nickelodeon empire" goes deep into the controversy. The report references a scene where 13 year old Jamie Lynn Spears, appearing in Zoey 101 (which Schneider created, executive produced, co-wrote, and had a guest appearance on) has goo ‘roughly the consistency of an egg white’ shot onto her face repeatedly.

Her costar Alexa Nikolas recalled one of her male costars referring to the scene as ‘like a c** shot’. ‘We’re talking about a minor,’ she said. ‘I think Jamie was 13, and they’re squirting stuff on her face.’

This YouTube clip, viewed over 11 million times, compiles 2 minutes of clips from Victorious, a popular kids show starring a 16 year old Ariana Grande. These excerpts, which were written, shot and directed by Dan Schneider, feature a collection of staggeringly obvious and disturbing sexualisation, performed by an innocent 'baby-voiced' young girl as the character.

Content warning: this is upsetting.


Cultural Co-Signing

Jim Jeffries is a popular 45 year old male comedian, who’s latest tour included punch-down comedy favourites such as rape fantasies about child activist Greta Thunburg. Jeffries received raucous cheers from the audience in Wellington recently, when he talked about finally being “allowed” to lust after Harry Potter actress Emma Watson once she became of age.

He is not alone. When the movie version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released in 2005 (Watson was 15), fans across the internet created countdowns to her 18th birthday.

Seventeen years later, nothing has changed. Reddit hit the news in February 2022 when it was revealed a NSFW (Not Suitable for Work) forum was running a wait-list in the thousands, for contributors who were counting down to Stranger Things' star Millie Bobbie Brown's 18th birthday.  

These are extreme examples, but a quick social media search for Harry Potter or Stranger Things reveals, despite being fantasy and science-fiction respectively, the fervour around "shipping" (desiring a relationship between) main cast members, with speculation and fan-fiction whipping commenters into a frenzy. This focus of adult audiences on the relationships of children and teenagers, irrespective of genre, should give us serious pause.

Follow the Money

The sexual economy of children and young girls is nothing more than culturally sanctioned sex trafficking. We’ve built, sustained and fed a media machine designed to profit from paedophiliac tendencies and endorsed it in the name of entertainment.

The writers, producers and directors of these shows and movies are overwhelmingly middle-aged men. Women are staggeringly under-represented in the creation and production rooms of prime-time TV and blockbuster dramas and comedies.

I hate to bring it all back to the patriarchy, but here we are. We’re looking at a multi-billion dollar industry, driven by wealthy, powerful men, exploiting the labour of children and young adults to reinforce cultural narratives about objectification and sexualisation.

And if our Netflix statistics are anything to go by, we’re eating it up.


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