Though there are rare exceptions children are generally not allowed to shape media in their own image. Instead, entertainment intended for teens has always been based on approximations of the clothing, music, and lifestyles of stylish youths as filtered through the imaginations of the adults in control of the narrative, which teens then attempt to emulate before adults come along and appropriate these trends in some new, slightly different iteration, creating a media snake eating its own tail.
For example, when I was a teenager in 1999, I coveted Bianca’s two-piece prom dress from Ten Things I Hate About You so badly my stepmother drove me three hours from rural Louisiana to Dallas, Texas to find it on sale at BCBG. And when I arrived at the big dance, three other girls’ mothers had given in to similar demands, so there we all were, little Biancas all hoping to live out our shared fantasy that Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been in love with us the whole time.
Yet as someone who still consumes just as much media featuring teenagers as I did in 1999—from films like Booksmart to Netflix series Stranger Things to Sex Education and, most recently I’m Not Okay With This—I’ve noticed that the clothing on these children has not changed much since My So-Called Life taught me that flannel and tie-dye pair quite sensibly. Their blazers and powder-blue polyester suits, ironic Members Only jackets and boxy short-sleeved button-downs all look as though every teenager featured on the streaming service shops at the same Brooklyn thrift store.
Outside of Netflix, I only know three teenagers, so, curious about how accurate these portrayals are, I texted them screenshots of “teenagers” from Netflix’s I’m Not Okay With This and Sex Education along with the question “Do teenagers dress like this?”
The response, from two teenagers living in rural Vermont and one teenager living in my hometown in rural Louisiana, along with the responses of the teenagers sitting near them, was a resounding no.
“Like someone might dress like that and all power to her, but she would NOT get invited to a party if she dressed like that,” one teen said of the green ensemble featured in the header image that I would absolutely wear. The Louisiana teen simply texted “No ma’am” (which I am still recovering from). I was also sent a picture from a Vermont high school cafeteria in response to a cafeteria shot I sent from Sex Education of a current high school lunchroom where everyone is dressed in jeans and tee shirts, which is, coincidentally what the Louisiana teenager told me most kids are also wearing in his part of the country.
It dawned on me that the Netflix teenagers are all dressed like they are going to a house party in Bushwick or a Beach Bunny concert at the Roxy in West Hollywood. And the most likely reason that Netflix teens are dressed in this particular seventies by way of 1996 style is that the millennials styling them are creating content to appeal to Gen Z without making Gen Y feel old. The obvious solution is splitting the difference and freezing high school years in a perpetual Clinton era where everyone feels comfortable. It’s not that Gen Z isn’t watching, it’s that they aren’t seeing themselves, according to my research.
“When I watched Sex Education, I genuinely thought it was set in like the ’90s but then I remembered that they had phones and I was like ???” one of my teenage reviewers told me.
The phenomenon of nostalgic teen television is not a new one. Boomers had The Wonder Years and Gen X had Freaks and Geeks, but those shows were actually set in the decades they looked like. This hybrid catch-all reflecting a timeless hinterland in which everyone can easily place themselves in the teenage protagonists’ shoes seems unique to a generation that can’t afford houses or kids and therefore can’t admit that the oldest among them are closer to Marriage Story than Stranger Things, age-wise.