Analysis of a Teen Soap Opera

Analysis of a Teen Soap Opera

Claire Killian

I hate teen dramas. I’ve actually really struggled to watch them in the past. I can’t get past the actors. The twenty-two year olds who go around talking about how hard sophomore year is, and how excited they are to turn sixteen. In a way, I’ve always sort of felt bad for them. Is this what they thought they would be doing when they started acting? How do they feel about being used primarily for their looks? What about those actors who then get pigeon-holed into a career exclusively composed of B-tier Netflix original rom-coms and poorly written soap operas? I tried to watch 13 Reasons Why in the seventh grade, before we all realized how horrible it was, then Riverdale, then even One Tree Hill and Gossip Girl after hearing rave reviews. I couldn’t get past more than a few episodes of each. When my friend texted me saying how obsessed she was with the Outer Banks, a new Netflix drama that checks all the boxes of teen drama, I admitted my distaste for those shows. She said I was being harsh, and to be honest, I was. We wagered a burrito that I couldn’t make it through all ten episodes without eventually liking the show. Trust me, you don’t fall in love with this show for the writing, or even the plot for that matter. But, if you keep in mind that you’re watching a kitschy teen soap opera, you pick up on things that make it stand out.

 

One of my favorite things about the Outer Banks is their portrayal of female characters. While there are really only two main female leads, they each have their own plots, personalities, and agendas. Beyond that, there are no slow-motion shots of them walking out of the ocean in a bikini, or cameras centered on their chest rather than their face. That’s not to say that their bodies aren’t on display, because they definitely  are, but it feels more passive. The male characters are also equally scantily clad. Because of that, you don’t feel like any of the characters are hyper-sexualized, because that’s just how everyone’s dressing. While the comparative sexualization of the male characters may reflect the interests of the intended audience, it can also be indicative of a changing culture, which demands that women are not singled out for their looks. I guess what I’m saying is that everyone is equally objectified, and that’s a nice change of pace. 

 

Another thing which really caught my attention, as I’m sure it did for fellow viewers, was a five minute scene within the first three episodes of the show. The crown jewel of any teen drama is the Good Girl/Rich Girl who’s dating the Douchey Boyfriend but falls in love with the Poor Guy. It’s the quintessential love triangle which acts as a centerpiece to the plot. I’m talking about your Serena and Dans, your Betty and Jugheads, and yes I had to google those. The Douchey Boyfriend is often vilified, as he generally deserves to be, and the viewer realizes that he was just using the Good Girl for her body, money, or status. He usually ends up hurting her, calling her rude things, slut shaming her, or any of the other horrible things he can do to degrade her. When, in the Outer Banks, our resident Good Girl decides she’s ready to have sex with the Douchey Boyfriend, only to change her mind a couple minutes later saying she’s not ready, the show does not miss a beat. Even though he’s the entitled bad guy, and is a little whiny about it, he completely respects her wishes and stops what he’s doing, without trying to force or convince her otherwise. When women in these types of shows are so frequently portrayed exclusively as sexual objects, and suffer sexual violence often as a plot motivator, it was truly refreshing to see that the writers chose not to take that route. That was a five minute scene which stuck in my head for days. 

 

One of the things that the viewer becomes increasingly aware of, even if they don’t notice it in the beginning, is that all the violence is purely class-based. For the uniformed reader, in the Outer Banks, you have two main cliques, the really rich, spoiled, entitled bad guys, and the working class, tough as nails, good guys. While there is violence, hatred, and cruelty, none of it is on the basis of race, gender, or sexuality. As I approached the end of the show, that really stuck out to me. Don’t get me wrong, this show is above all other things, a thirst trap. It’s not meant to leave some sort of stark, marxist commentary on the world. But every now and then they pepper in comments about the wealth gap, environmentalism, and the corruption of businesses. That light politicism is not something you see in teen dramas made before our time, and, I think, acts as a good indicator of the inherent politicality of Gen Z. Even in just deciding the filming location, you can see how Gen Z priorities play a key deciding factor. While the show is set in North Carolina, they filmed in South Carolina, after learning of harsh anti-transgender laws in North Carolina. 

 

The show features some heavy underaged substance abuse, but to be honest, so does the lives of a lot of their viewers. The kids in this show seem to exclusively drink beers, even though they run around in the sun all day. That being said, they take an interesting stance when it comes to drugs. Weed is smoked at least once and episode every episode. It’s never vilified, it’s never smoked by the bad guys, and it’s never really emphasized. It’s just there. That relaxed attitude towards mairjuana is indicative of a shifting social perception of it, especially among young audiences. That plays into stark contrast against the other drugs featured prominently, cocaine, which is exclusively used by villains, and plays a key role in showing their mental collapse.  

 

Finally, even after all these things they do to break some of the smaller stereotypes anc clichés of a teen soap, that’s what this show is at its heart. From the font they use for the title at the beginning of the show, which harkens back to other teen dramas of the 90s/00s to the guitar riff that plays whenever some action picks up, you never forget that this show is fundamentally by and for teens. It might be the effortlessly gorgeous characters, the absentee parents, the relaxed law enforcement, or the ongoing plot of a murder-mystery (because obviously social drama is not enough to keep an audience) but you never forget exactly what you’re watching. It’s a fantastic quarantine binge, and probably a laugh for anyone skeptical of teenage soap operas, like I was.