Entering the last days of my 20s has caused a bit of reflection on my part over life up to this point. I’ve become nostalgic for the days of my youth and filled my DVD library with cartoons from the 80s and 90s. Nostalgia led to reflection about my peers, and ultimately, I’ve become increasingly interested in the behaviors of these peers and in American culture in general—the drives and motivations of my generation. Unfortunately, what I’ve found is a pervasive lack of humility, almost total self-absorption, a detachment from learning and knowledge, and rampant apathy. It’s not everyone, but it certainly seems to be a common, embarrassing trend. And, I’ve come to blame, at least in part, the primetime drama Beverly Hills 90210.
If you’re like me, you can open up your Facebook, Google+, Twitter, or whatever your social networking poison may be and find incredible amounts of bullshit. There’s constant complaints about every little change these sites make, for one thing. This basically amounts to griping about a free lunch which we all should know is a little absurd. In your feed, you’ll find relationship drama and hidden messages in status updates directed towards someone that the poster doesn’t have the guts or maturity to confront face to face. You’ll find people who make fake profiles to be able to escape unhappy relationships for awhile. Bragging about material possessions is as commonplace as gripes about not having enough material possessions. Of course, there’s also a lot of repost-copy-and-paste statuses concerning any variety of social issues and causes, but where’s the activism in pressing 2 keys? Posting your shoe size in your status isn’t the same as actually taking the time to advertise a link to a breast cancer research organization which depends on donations and grants. But, you sure can find advertisements for music videos. Look, Lady Gaga made over $60 million last year; she doesn’t need the advertising, but for HappyBlankies, a company that donates blankets to orphanages and hospitals for every purchase you make, posting a link and giving this free advertising can only help spread the love to children who really need it. Music videos are easier and fun, though, so that’s what you find covering your social feeds. Seeing any kind of altruistic post, however, is fairly rare. And, at least in my experience, someone with goals who is motivated to have a successful career, has a desire to learn, or and has productive, enriching hobbies is very scarce.
I’ve also found that people my age, give or take a few years, seem to have very little success in relationships. I might know one couple who has been together more than a few years and is still happy, but more times than not people would rather be miserable with someone than learn to be content with themselves. Most people I know including myself are divorced, and the others fight constantly, do the breakup-makeup routine, or need antidepressants and/or drugs to achieve any sort of stability.
Here’s where the blaming begins.
Beverly Hills 90210 originally aired in 1990. I was born in ’81, so that puts me as a preteen/teen when the show hit its peak. The same is true for people near my age--20-somethings and 30-somethings alike. The show was marketed as a primetime teen drama, the first of its kind. It’s since revolutionized television making these sorts of shows an entertainment staple for the last few decades.
The plot of the show focuses on a group of teens in “dramatic” situations set in posh Beverly Hills, California (as the name so creatively suggests). These kids are all attractive and live in upper middle class neighborhoods. These kids and their families have absolutely nothing in common with mainstream America. They do, however, represent an ideal which only succeeds in strengthening their appeal. The point, seemingly, was to have individuals who the common folk could look up to face a number of social issues such as unplanned pregnancy, AIDS, drug use, etc in an effort to help the viewing public cope with these problems more constructively in their own lives while simultaneously providing exemplary entertainment. The creators of the show really got this whole idea very wrong.
The characters of 90210 were supposed to be a very close-knit group of friends who all attended high school together. Apparently, said creators’ idea of close-knit friendship is vastly different from mine. I consider friends to be people who care for one another, strive to help each other, and who find enjoyment in each others’ company. To be considered “close-knit,” I’d say these friends would be as close or closer than family. On the show, these characters were constantly in turmoil with themselves. Friends become enemies and vice versa in an hour timeslot. Relationships begin, end, and become rattled with infidelity. Gossip is rampant, and the kids’ prove themselves to be spoiled brats. Not one of the characters that come and go over the years is someone a parent would want their child to idolize—something that was inescapable considering these are television characters who are beautiful, wealthy, and desired. In the season’s pilot, Brenda, the character played by Shannon Doherty, lies about her age to seduce a guy well into his 20s while she is just 16. The next episode shows the group to be extremely shallow and materialistic with Brenda in the lead. And the rest of the season involves characters who are liars, law breakers, and backstabbers. Then when the show actually tackles a social issue like AIDS, the discussion of safe sex only hints towards the entire group being sexually active, and by the end of the show, Brenda does sleep with Dylan (played by Luke Perry). In the very first season, girls were shown how to be vapid, manipulative sluts.
The rest of the show wasn’t any better for sure. Brenda has a pregnancy scare right at the beginning of the second season. She then attempts to hide a trip with Dylan to Mexico that her parents forbid her to go on but eventually gets caught. She is grounded but sneaks out to see Dylan anyway. After her parents tell her she can’t see Dylan anymore, she decides to move in with him. She ends up going to France for a few months and cheats on Dylan while he cheats on her with Kelly, another member of the group, in Beverly Hills. This ultimately leads to their breakup by the end of Season 3. This is just one character’s main storyline over 3 seasons span. That’s not to mention the crimes, sex, scandals, emphasis on material wealth, lies, addictions, and more involving the other characters over the years. Nothing is taboo with this group from sleeping with your best friend’s boyfriend, to screwing your teacher, to breaking into a school to change grades.
Is this really any different from daytime soap operas? No and yes.
Daytime soap operas have always been ripe with extramarital affairs, fights, backstabbing, manipulation, and overly dramatic bullshit. Everyone in the rather small casts would ultimately end up screwing everyone else unless the person was a known blood relative with no regard for anyone else involved. Consider Victor Newman on The Young and the Restless. He has been married to 8 different women sometimes multiple times and had various affairs with other women including with his own son’s former wife and the mother of his grandchildren. These shows are meant to be intensely dramatic for sheer entertainment value, but they’re on during the day and focus mostly on an adult audience, mainly housewives. Even primetime dramas like Dallas were focused on adults and had little appeal for younger generations.
With 90210 and the advent of teen dramas, the focus was drawing in a younger crowd, and they worked. Scores of young girls were able and more than willing to drool over Jason Priestly and Luke Perry while envying and copying the characters played by Shannon Doherty and Tori Spelling. The show aired after school was over and after homework was likely to have been completed but not so late as to concern parents about letting even their 10-12 year olds watch it.
Those early preteen and teen years —the years which my peers would have been watching 90210—are pretty impressionable ones. Personalities are really budding, hormones are changing, and the brain is becoming more fully developed yet still not able to realize between an entertainment figure and a role model. Independence becomes more important as does the idea of romantic relationships. Being influencing by characters on a show like 90210, where it all started, or even envious of the popularity of people like Snooki from The Jersey Shore, who has her own Halloween costume this year can make some major changes in the forming self. In my time reflection, I’ve seen how deeply that influence can cut.
Here I am about to celebrate the very last weekend of my 20s, and I find I’m surrounded by a culture which approves of people keeping the tags on clothes to show off the brand and who are continuously trying to gain success and happiness through material possessions. Teen pregnancy has become a commodity which is glamorized on television. Teen moms make 6 figure incomes to act like complete white trash in front of a massive world-wide audience. Divorce rates continue to climb, and America continues to have the highest rates of depression. Children carry cell phones and spend their days playing video games instead of visiting museums. Jersey Shore gives us a glimpse of “reality” these days by proving people have become a real version of a 90210 cast. All in all, the things I see every time I open a social network are reminiscent of 90210 and the shows created in its image over the last 21 years.
What can be done?
Not much I’m afraid, but really I have to send a big thank you to Brenda, Brandon, Kelly, Donna, Andrea, Steve, Dylan, and David. Thanks, guys, for showing us the art of being fake.