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Middle Tennessee State University
In television genre studies, scholars tend to neglect the teen drama or situate all series that concern teens under the same umbrella, often dismissing the genre for connections to the soap or for its appeal to a teenage, often primarily female, audience. This dissertation asserts that the term “teen drama” itself is misleading and suggests that the name is actually of more use industrially than theoretically or practically, as the label considers the target audience instead of how these series are aesthetically constructed or how the genre has evolved. In its analysis of the genre, this study also shows that the teen drama is not a monolith; to fill a gap in current television scholarship, this project identifies three important subgenres: the teen family drama, the teen soap, and the young adult fantasy drama. Each of these subgenres has distinct thematic concerns, iconographic elements, and cultural work. Though these subgenres certainly share some characteristics, it is important to understand their unique contributions to teen drama to advance scholarship in the field.
After providing an overview of teen drama scholarship and a description of the thematic and generic elements of three of the more popular subgenres, this project considers how one series in each communicates cultural messages to their audience. An example of the family drama, Gilmore Girls is widely known as a series with a pro-feminist message—its central teen character even identifies as such early on—but the narrative’s clear preference of white liberal feminism makes Lorelai and Rory hard to identify with for many third- and fourth-wave viewers; when one adds the events of A Year in the Life into the diegesis, Lorelai and Rory’s viewpoints and choices become even harder to reconcile with feminist concerns. As a teen soap, Pretty Little Liars is often dismissed as escapist fare—and many critics’ negative reviews of the series are heavily gendered—but the series’ use of slasher tropes allows the narrative to deconstruct and subvert its subgenre’s traditional gender roles. In particular, it puts female friendships at the center of the Liars’ lives, rather than romantic attachments or social concerns—a significant change to the teen soap subgenre. A young adult fantasy drama, Buffy the Vampire Slayer uses its feminist heroine’s constant fight against patriarchal villains to endorse communal action rather than top-down order; in Sunnydale, only those who work together and utilize everyone’s strengths will win in the end. By identifying and describing three subgenres and examining the cultural work in three popular series in each, this study shows that the teen drama is much more multifaceted than scholars currently recognize—and it is ripe for further academic work.
Feminist television criticism, Genre studies, Popular culture, Teen drama, Television studies