While some genres, like sci-fi/fantasy, had a breakthrough with the 2020 Emmy nominations, one genre still got overlooked: teen shows. Even in a year packed with genuinely excellent shows highlighting teenage experiences, only a few nods went to these shows and the people behind them. It’s a frustrating trend that, unfortunately, is nothing new.
This year, with one exception, the closest teen shows have come to the Emmys is a handful of nominations in the creative categories. Euphoria and The Politician both snagged a few nominations each in the creative arts categories, and Zendaya managed to break into the best actress category for her leading role in Euphoria. An argument could be made that Stranger Things is sort of a teen show, but since it focuses on its adult characters as much as its preteen and teen characters, it really doesn’t count as an example of the genre.
For longtime viewers, this isn’t a surprise: the Emmys rarely, if ever, recognize teen shows, and when they do, it’s usually in the creative categories, not the marquee nominations. After all, media that is aimed at teenagers (especially teenage girls, which is the main demographic of many of the most popular teen shows) has historically been dismissed as lesser across the board. It happens with movies, it happens with TV, and it especially can be seen in the music industry. Music critic Brodie Lancaster suggested in a 2015 Pitchfork article that an artist’s “legitimacy” is often tied to when they leave girl-group or boy-band “hysteria” behind:
“Pop artists earn respect only when they stop appealing to a teen demographic . . . The boy bands and girl groups—not to mention their passionate supporters—that made these artists famous are seemingly only of value when they act as stepping stones to the next, better group of appreciative listeners. Drop the chaste pop songs about unrequited love and hand-holding, they’re taught, and they’ll move on to the right kind of fans: adults, men. That is how one becomes an artist, right?”
This isn’t a new phenomenon, either. The Beatles are, today, hailed as music icons; in their early days, they were dismissed as floppy-haired teen idols until fans other than young women liked them. There’s a prevalent idea that the fandom of girls and young women is “hysterical” — that ugly, historically fraught word that suggests in 10 letters that women are less capable of critical, rational thought and therefore can be brushed off as vapid. The same applies to television: stories that dive into the experiences of teenagers, especially teenage girls, get brushed off as being overemotional, silly, vapid, foolish, you name it.
The Television Academy, like many critics, seems to think that the only “worthy” narratives of teenagers are the ones that cast them in negative lights and cover the darkest corners of their lives.
This dismissal forgets two things: one, that we were all teenagers once, going through all of these things, and, two, that the melodramatics of teenagedom aren’t really that different from the overwrought melodrama on many adult critical favorites. Isn’t it interesting that the “teen” shows that are getting Emmy love — Euphoria and The Politician — are the ones that treat their teenage characters basically as adults, exploring sex and drugs and gritty, dark things. Is that part of the teen experience? Sure, for some teens, it is. But for many teenagers, the stakes are a little lower in daily life — and that’s not good enough for critics and voters, apparently.
It’s why the omission of shows like Never Have I Ever, for instance, stings. The Television Academy, like many critics, seems to think that the only “worthy” narratives of teenagers are the ones that cast them in negative lights and cover the darkest corners of their lives. They are like anthropologists studying some foreign culture and latching onto the most scandalous elements. Never Have I Ever covers the awkwardness of being a teenager, cultural identity concerns, figuring out sexuality (for multiple orientations), and grief — all themes that should appeal to voters, if history is anything to go by. And yet, it’s a snarky comedy centered on a teenage girl and her friends.
Let’s get this straight: I’m not saying that every teen show that doesn’t get an Emmy nomination is actually a high-quality program that’s only being left out due to snobbery about its target audience. I don’t think anyone would argue that something like Riverdale or Outer Banks is Emmy-worthy programming! But when there are shows over the years like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Gilmore Girls or, more recently, Sex Education or Never Have I Ever that are genuinely excellent TV, it’s hard to find other reasons for their exclusion other than genre bias.