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Schoolin’ life: Absence of the uni experience on TV

By Bea Crawford

Bea Crawford laments the lost university experience on the small-screen due to the disproportionate amount of wild, teen-centred series

If the new Gossip Girl reboot has taught us anything, it’s this: TV producers love to portray an edgy high school experience. From Skins to Riverdale and Euphoria, the running theme across most teen shows today is that of the exceedingly gritty, where every child is sexed up and shooting up. But, in the midst of all these dark and twisted interpretations of a high schooler’s social and academic life, it seems like the university/college student has been pushed to the side. Where is the consistent content for navigating higher education? And, in the absence of such depictions, where does this leave freshers navigating a new all-adult space?

Of course, the higher education experience has enjoyed some media portrayals in the past. The American film industry has long offered silly, frat-bro narratives, as well as the occasional Pitch Perfect or Legally Blonde which are, apparently, supposed to mirror our university experience. I would argue acapella aficionados and girlbosses only make up a small percent of a campus’ population. So, apart from very recent shows like Grown-ish and a handful of Normal People episodes, there are very few modern explorations of the stressy college years. This bizarre romanticisation of a chaotic, drug-and-excess-fuelled teenage experience has gripped TV producers since the turn of the century. Yet, this affects not only its target teen demographics — making more “normal” high school experiences seem boring in comparison (it isn’t always orgies and opium) — but also those it leaves out. With little modern media to turn to when navigating the tricky experiences of new adulthood, the 18-25 age bracket is left insecure and disillusioned. Where are we supposed to turn to when faced with the challenges of university life, whether that’s living away from home for the first time, the trials of independent learning, or just navigating a new social space with fewer restrictions on where you can go and what you can do? With the absence of these depictions on TV, there is a notable lack of relatable content in the media for our age range. Indeed, to crystallise, almost to comic effect, this very issue, Riverdale recently did a seven-year time jump, diving from high school graduation into the career and marriage dilemmas that come with being in your mid-20s.

“With little modern media to turn to when navigating the tricky experiences of new adulthood, the 18-25 age bracket is left insecure and disillusioned.”

There is also the argument that, surely, the university experience is more suited to more intense themes than the high school environment: legalised drinking, independent living, and more. Personally, my own high school experience was the furthest thing away from those presented in modern TV shows. Living at home, with curfews and a reliance on public transport to get me here and there didn’t exactly allow me to attend many lavish Gossip Girl-esque parties or solve any mind-bending mysteries à la Riverdale or Elite. And, sure, I have been as hooked on such shows as the next person; but should we be questioning our society’s obsession with children acting like adults, while new adults starting or returning to university are left in the dust? 

Undoubtedly, series such as the original Gossip Girl were shockingly unique upon its premiere in 2007, in comparison to other, more earnest teenage series like Gilmore Girls and Dawson’s Creek. Watching 16-year-olds betray each other, make drunken scenes at high-class New York establishments and hook up behind their parents’ backs might have seemed like the most interesting thing on TV when it was in the minority. However, when every other show on TV exhibiting the adolescent experience follows the same shock-value formula, the magic somewhat wears off. If nothing else, teenagers can watch such shows and draw some semblance of relatability from it due to the protagonists’ ages; on the other hand, the university student is left to fend for themselves. 

At the end of the day, we all just want to feel understood; seeing ourselves and our experiences represented in the media is an essential part of this. We need to see our own circumstances mirrored in the media we consume: the awkward first days with new flatmates, the freshers madness, the general anxiety of heading into your honours years without a dissertation topic. As fun as another Riverdale hate-watch may be, I think the TV industry should consider the university student when searching for the next big thing. Not only would it be less uncomfortable for the viewer to watch legal adults navigate sex and alcohol rather than literal children — but it would also give us university students something tangible to relate to during such turbulent times. 


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