Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sex Is Bad

While I have no interest in watching the new "90210", I read the Times interview with many members of the old cast, and this jumped out at me:

[Executive Producer Charles] ROSIN We did our prom episode, which was written and directed by Darren, and Brenda loses her virginity to Dylan McKay in a hotel room and comes down and tells Kelly that indeed this has happened.

[Creator Darren] STAR The affiliates were scandalized — not because they had sex, but because Brenda was happy about it, and it didn’t have any dire consequences. I was strongly advised to write a show that would address the consequences of that sexual experience. So the first episode of the second season Brenda broke up with Dylan because their relationship had gotten too mature. (Bold mine)

There has been a long history in television of showing negative consequences for teenagers having sex. Pregnancy scares are usually the first plotline, hyped up to get the kids a-watching. For girls especially sex is usually aligned with punishment--something Amy Sherman Palladino tried to mock in "Gilmore Girls" by having Paris have a public meltdown when she discovers she was rejected by Harvard, thinking it's a direct connection to losing her virginity. Of course it's preposterous, but that wasn't the message that came across. If you have sex and enjoyed it, you will pay.

So now we have "Beverly Hills, 90210" to thank. I haven't watched this show in a long, long time--since maybe I was 14--and even then I didn't like it. I found it then to be too slow and painfully boring; I found it hard to believe that this show was so controversial and scandalous. And the episodes I saw were the early seasons. To a viewer with another eight years of teen shows behind her, the old 90210 would only look even more old-fashioned and quaint (those were the words I used then) compared to Gossip Girl, Dawson's Creek and The OC.

But notice: The Dylan/Brenda breakup--which I'm sure was a pivotal, dramatic moment in the history of the show--was necessitated by suits too uncomfortable to show a regular teen girl (albeit in stylish Cali '90s wear) living a regular life. They can't show that! This is a show about teens for teens! What will happen to the youth?!?!? Brenda fell for the bad guy, a guy who was going to lead her down the Wrong Path, and for that they needed to show that she should have waited.

I bet that many, many shows followed in this wake, whether it was because the execs pressured them to, the showrunners felt other pressure to showcase a certain value set, or just because they couldn't fathom doing something different. Teen sex isn't always the best course of action, we know. But to demonstratively prove, time and again, that the woman who is having the sex must be "punished" in some way is sexist and ridiculous. Far too many girls (and even boys) take away messages from the television they watch, both conscious and unconsciously, and for them to fear or worry that sex will always negatively affect them is wrong and irresponsible. I understand where the execs were coming from, especially considering a new network that needs to desperately please advertisers, but too many times the need to moralize is just a knee-jerk reaction. Did Dylan go through any doubts or fears? I doubt it. From the little I can recall, he was an Elvis-type figure, aloof and cool to the extreme. This was before the era of sensitive guys, and it wouldn't have occurred to anyone that he would have any of the hangups that Seth Cohen did.

Granted, I haven't seen the scene, so if someone has, feel free to enlighten me. This also goes for the original "90210" as well, in addition to any examples of teen sex where the plot twisted in a way that made the girl regret she had sex (though if you give me time, I can find some that aren't Gilmore Girls-related).


John said...

I'm pretty sure that any show will seem watered down in comparison to Gossip Girl. Isn't that the show that makes the movie Kids seem moral and decent by comparison? Where even the good girls party harder than Tara Reid? Perhaps I'm believing too much of their hype.

It is strange to think that the execs forced Brenda and Dylan to break up because they were having too much fun. Might it not have been better to have them simply scale back their relationship because they were worried about possible pregnancy? A decision like that would show that they were capable of responsible, level-headed decisions, but I guess it's not salacious enough to draw in viewers. It seems like the network should have decided whether the teens were role models or escapist fantasies, and let them be either one or the other.

MediaMaven said...

I don't think there usually can be an either/or in regard to role models and escapist fantasies, because even "escapist" characters tend to be idolized by people, and with television it's very easy to fall for charisma. Even though there are actors who point to their characters and explicitly say "they are not role models" it doesn't mean that people won't emulate that behavior.

petpluto said...

I love this whole post. I think you're entirely right. I wish I had more to say about it, but I never watched 90210. I could do a whole rant about the nature of sex on television and how it seemingly corresponds to the ideas of society where boys will have sex, but only bad girls have sex -or good girls have sex and then must be punished for it. But I think you did that will enough here.