Nothing is Normal About Being a Teen
Revisiting portrayals of virginity in "The O.C.," "Friday Night Lights," and "Sex Education"—and what I got wrong
In middle school, we once had an assembly where a group of 30-somethings, acting as teenagers, performed a play about puberty. It was, unfortunately, a musical. The first song’s refrain went something like, “normal, normal, normal, who’s normal? What’s normal?” The song perhaps served as a reminder to the audience of fidgety sixth graders that when it comes to puberty, sex, and relationships, there is a wide range of “normal” experiences. Another part of the play involved one of the actors shouting the word “penis!” to her scene partner, I guess to show us that we don’t need to be ashamed of our body parts!
Despite the show’s earnest attempt at sex education, even at the time I remember wondering just how in the dumps these actors’ careers must have been to agree to participate in such a humiliating exercise. Nonetheless, it was clearly memorable, and I still periodically reference the “normal” song.
When I was a teenager, the shows I watched made me feel like I was decidedly not normal when it came to sex and relationships. While on teen soaps, every character was constantly ensnared in romantic entanglements, I longed for any opportunity to even get any guy’s attention. I felt like if i wasn’t having similar experiences, there was something seriously wrong with me, and that I was far behind my peers. I held onto these insecurities, in varying contexts, for far too long, and sometimes still struggle to shake them.
Looking back, my takeaway about shows like “The O.C.” had for years been that they negatively fed into these worries, and gave me unrealistic expectations about sex, romance, and relationships. In the parlance of the puberty play, it’s normal and fine for teens to have (protected, consensual) sex, but it’s also normal to not have sex if they don’t want to or don’t have the opportunity.
I recently rewatched an episode from “The O.C.” that caused the most strife in my household as a teen, inspired by a new podcast, “Welcome to the O.C., Bitches!” about the show, featuring two actresses from it, Rachel Bilson and Melinda Clarke, as they rewatch and dissect each episode 20 years after they first aired. In “The Heartbreak,” the characters Seth (Adam Brody) and Summer (Bilson) have sex for the first time. In my memory, Seth often bemoaned his virginity and claimed he was the only virgin left at school, despite being just 16. But nothing like that showed up in the episode. In fact, I think it had a pretty good message about accepting a wide range of what’s “normal” for teens having sex for the first time.
First, it represents how awkward and uncomfortable first sexual experiences often are, something rarely seen on TV at the time. (Seth says to Ryan afterwards, “There were limbs everywhere, I’m lucky I can still see!”) There’s explicit acknowledgment they used protection. Later, Seth goes to his dad to ask him for a sex talk, and his dad, after ensuring they used protection (“If you’re gonna have sex you gotta be repsonsible!”),, offers him totally nonjudgmental advice in a funny, cringey, but kind of sweet scene (Seth has never heard of foreplay). “You dog, you,” he congratulates his son, which made me wonder what he’d say if he had a daughter in the same position.
Seth assumes that the sex was bad because he did something wrong. After all, he was the virgin nerd and Summer is the popular hot girl he’s had a crush on for years, who he assumes has way more experience. He thinks it’s because he’s not good enough for her. But at the end of the episode, we learn that Summer wasn’t being honest with Seth, and was also a virgin. Why did she lie? “I felt like I had a reputation to uphold, and I figured you’d think less of me or something,” she says.
Like me, they both saw sexual experience as a stand-in for coolness, popularity, or acceptance from their peers. But by the end of the episode, this perception actually gets shattered. Seth is flabbergasted that Summer thinks he would think less of her for being a virgin. In the end, they agree: “This was a huge moment in both our lives and we just blew past it. It was a big deal,” says Seth. “I think that it should have been special, and we rushed it,” says Summer. In the end, they both decide to slow things down, and have a romantic dance in Seth’s room to the Ryan Adams (oof) cover of “Wonderwall.”
As I recounted in my first post, after seeing this episode, my parents tried to forbid me from watching the show. Maybe it wasn’t because of Seth and Summer but because of the other plotlines, where Marissa (Mischa Barton) tries to get Ryan (Ben McKenzie, who recently left acting to write a book about cryptocurrency) to forgive her through sex, though he continually rebuffs her. It’s not portrayed in a positive light. It’s sad watching Marissa so desperately want to get back into Ryan’s good graces, and that using her body is the only way she knows how. Then there’s the more questionable trope when Marissa’s ex-boyfriend Luke seduces her mom, Julie, played by Melinda Clarke. (On her podcast with Bilson, Clarke acknowledges that the plotline may not have passed the censors if it had aired today, and that the producers had to go to great lengths to let the audience know Luke is 18, and remove any mentions of the word “MILF.”)
All in all, I’m not sure what was so offensive or worrisome to my parents about the episode. Maybe it wasn’t the content itself, but my reaction to it (running around the house screaming about how embarrassed I was maybe wasn’t the best signal of maturity around such topics). They knew I loved the show, and maybe worried I’d use the characters as role models and assume that it was normal (that word again) to expect that every 16-year-old on the planet was having sex except for me. The reality is quite different. Apparently, as of 2019, 38% of teens were having sex, down from 46% in 2009, according to one study.
Looking back now, there’s certainly a moralistic tinge to Seth and Summer deciding to put the brakes on the sex thing. That’s amplified in the “Friday Night Lights” episode, “I Think We Should Have Sex,” when 15-year-old Julie Taylor declares the eponymous statement to her boyfriend, Matt Saracen. In true teen show fashion, of course her mom Tami is in the drug store at the same exact time Matt is there buying condoms, and gives Julie an emotional lecture about her being too young to have sex. Julie doesn’t see why having sex is such a big deal, because it’s “just one body part going into another.”
Tami is quick to correct her: “Let me tell you what can happen,” she says. “What can happen is that you can be hurt. And you can be degraded. And you can become hard and you can become cynical.” Watching the episode now, I really appreciated this emphasis on feelings rather than simply throwing in a pregnancy scare plotline, as a lesser show (see: “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”) might do.
“This is something that’s special. It’s something that’s meant for people who are in love,” she continues. “And you can wait. I want you to be able to talk to me about it.” Tami’s speech isn’t perfect, but it feels true to the time and place of the show, and some honestly excellent parenting, something we don’t see in most teen soaps from the time. In the end, Tami gets through to Julie, and so does Matt, who assures Julie they don’t have to have sex just because they are in a relationship, and that there’s no pressure to do so.
For a show that takes place in Texas and is clearly trying to capture an audience with a wide spectrum of political views, even the fact that Tami’s speech goes beyond preaching abstinence feels like a big deal. Shows since, from “Jane the Virgin” to “Teenage Bounty Hunters,” have explored the corrosive impact of abstinence-only education on girls.
Today, shows like “Sex Education” are demonstrating that there’s not just one “normal” way to have sex. No, it isn’t just for people who are in love. In fact, the show’s raison d’etre seems to be to normalize and destigmatize all of the sex and relationship issues the characters have as acceptable and even embraceable. Doing it will not give you chlamydia, and then kill you.
But at the same time, the show also demonstrates that it’s normal to wait. In the first season, one character, Lily, an eccentric and direct girl who writes alien erotica, is seen propositioning different guys at school to have sex with her. But when she finally finds someone to do it, she can’t perform. Otis, the main character, who dispenses sex advice to his fellow classmates, tells Lily she has vaginismus, which basically means her anxiety is making sex too painful to have. Lily’s desire to control the situation around having sex ironically makes her unable to do it at all. Why, Otis asks, does Lily want to have sex so bad?
“You just seem… You seem desperate to have sex, I don’t know why,” says Otis.
“I dunno,” says Lily. “I guess I just feel like, if I don’t do it, then I’ll graduate school and I won’t have had sex, and then I’ll go to uni and I’ll behind everyone, and no one will have sex with me because I’m just the weird virgin girl.”
Even though most of the characters in “Sex Education” are having sex, I really appreciated this plotline, and hope that high school kids watching it now do too. I find Lily super relatable, although my fan fiction wasn’t about aliens and I hope I wasn’t quite that eccentric in high school. But I had the exact same fear that I would be behind everyone else, and would have to catch up.
Looking back, I don’t think those fears were really about sex per se, but about feeling like I would never be desirable in general, and that no one would ever want to be with me, period, like they would with insanely attractive television characters I could never be like. Their experience, I told myself, was normal, while mine was abnormal, unacceptable, and made me a freak. But when I was a teenager in my cookie cutter suburb, I thought anything that set me apart was a smudge on my reputation, and I wanted nothing more than to fit in. I wanted straight hair, a Juicy Couture sweatsuit, and a perfectly taut stomach. I’ll never forget the time that my (similarly uncool, closeted) friend spread a “rumor” about me that I was wearing a “weird skirt.” Why, as teens, were we so desperate to be “normal,” to stand before some nonexistent jury that would decide whether or not we deserved to have value in society based on what we had or hadn’t done. It was a recipe for misery, based on what I read in magazines and saw on TV, some patriarchal notion of what gave me social capital.
I hope that being a teenager now is less confining than it felt then, and that “normal” isn’t as much of an aspirational ideal as I’d once deemed it. If Gen Z Tik Tok is any indication, being a “normal” cog in the capitalist, patriarchal system isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and we’re seeing more and more media today that seems to make that point in one way or another. With increasing representation across race, religion, and sexuality, and to a lesser extent, class, it’s clear that there are growing challenges to the heteronormative white stereotypes of the peak rom-com era. Of course, I’ll be writing more about those in newsletter posts to come.
What I’m Watching: This weekend, I started watching “Dickinson” on Apple TV, and it is wonderfully weird, funny, dark, bizarre, anachronistic, enchanting, queer, brilliant, etc. This Vulture review put it best: “All Hail Dickinson, a Show Made Specifically for Literary Weirdos.”