Coming of Age and Television

A tad overdramatic
A tad overdramatic


This is the first time I write an article that is very personal. However, because it is personal does not mean it isn't universal. In fact, to write about it in a general and abstract manner would only serve to obfuscate the issue. The more personally I can describe the issue, the more universally it can be understood and appreciated. I've decided to write because I believe the experience I will be exposing is indeed a shared one, yet one that is rarely if ever discussed. It's an important issue that impacts the psychological and social health of each wave of young adults to come. But it receives no attention. The critics would rather scrutinize the media for 'violence' rather than how it genuinely affects us. Consequently, those who suffer from this issue are probably unaware that they are not alone and that they are not responsible. The issue is the impact of television and cinematic depictions of growing up on how we, as individuals, actually grow up.

To make my point, I will have to indulge in some autobiography. This is important for making the phenomenon under consideration as clear as possible. Following this, I will try to analyze the autobiographical experiences and their effects in a more objective manner. I do not intend, in this short article, to 'get to the bottom' of the issue, but only to make clear that there is indeed an issue and that it warrants further study.

Growing Up with Television

I was raised in a single-parent home. Oh, there was some help from my grandmother, of course. I could say I had two moms. But I really consider myself to have three parents. When my mother wasn't at work, she was busy with housework or reading; and my grandmother was perpetually baking. Fortunately, my third parent was always around, available at the flick of a switch. Sweet, faithful television, the father of my mind in many ways, played an incalculable role in raising me.

When we boys grow up, we look to Mom for nurturing, but we look to Dad, or whatever stands in for him, for guidance. He lets you in on how you should grow up. He leads you to the hoops, whether you choose to jump through them or not. He is the spirit guide into adulthood. My spirit guide into adulthood was television.

Television has a lot of good advice. But it's just too detached from the real world, or at least from my real world, to be applicable. Television has screenwriters who can arrange dramatic moments into nice, neat packages. When the teenage girl yells at her parents, "I hate you!", her parents are momentarily dumbstruck and she gets off with a fade-to-black. When the teenage girl yells at her parents in real life, there is no comfortable fade-to-black and her parents certainly won't be at a loss for words. Nobody's writing our scripts. Nobody's making everything run smoothly. Nobody's in control of the chaos of life.

What Television Teaches

Television doesn't just show reality; it dictates reality. What's on the screen is hyperreal. It seems more real than reality. Reality is thus falling short of being real enough if it isn't like what's on the screen. We don't say "Television is lying!" but rather "Reality is failing!" Certain tropes represented on television take on a normative character through repetition. Some highly-repeated tropes transcend just slight 'normative character' to all-out commandments. Television lays down the repertory of experiences one ought to accumulate in the coming-of-age process. Here are some examples:

  • Getting a driver's license and car
  • Asking a girl out to a dance/getting asked out by a boy
  • Falling in love for the first time and experiencing a first kiss
  • Hanging out at a regular spot
  • Hanging out after school with friends

There are more complex tropes involving high school sports, rivalries, bullying, the appearance of the high school, the experience of one's teachers, and so on.

These tropes go as far back as the '50s. They're hallmarks of the American coming-of-age story. They are emminently American, emminently utopian, emminently necessary in becoming a full-fledged adult.

My Growing Up

I grew up in a small town in Quebec. Television is based on a small-town American vision of life. A small Quebec town is nothing like a small American town. We aren't arranged into residential grids around a conveniently within-walking-distance commercial center. There is indeed a commercial center--there must be--but we're scattered everywhere for miles, across bridges, through valleys, over hills.

Then there's the language issue. Being in a small Quebec town is bad enough, but being an anglophone in a small Quebec town is worse. The regular high school experience seemed to be reserved for the francophones. We anglophones were stuffed into an irregular corner of the third floor and it resembled what television claimed high school would be like not at all. The sports teams were truly extracurricular; no-one but the players was expected to give a flying hoot about sports. There were no cheerleaders, needless to say. That was all reserved for the francophone students. There were no clubs, no high school plays, no swim team, no prom, no bullies--there wasn't much of anything other than pure school and we its bewildered denizens trying to make the most of it.

I've never been certain whether I should blame myself or this environment, but I didn't get to experience many of the coming-of-age milestones. I let television down. I never fell in love, never kissed a girl, never asked a girl to a date, didn't hang out with anyone after school, didn't get my license until college. In movies and television, even the nerd falls in love and tries to get a date, even if he fails. In my high school experience, we didn't grow up; we didn't even try to do grown-up things; we remained children. The vast distance between everyone made socializing difficult anyway. One would have to depend on parents to drive one everywhere. This deprived us of much of the independence upon which the American coming-of-age tropes depend.

How It Feels

Television told me the way life should be. My life didn't go that way. It feels like I missed out on life and now it's too late. Television gives us narratives. Our lives are our self-narratives. And mine is missing chapters. Maybe I should have made more effort to be a 'normal kid.' It's not as though everyone in my town was so deprived. Many of us were, but not all.

Now whenever I watch a movie or television show that depicts teenage boys getting to live these standard coming-of-age moments, boys who do get to fulfill the repertory of experiences, I'm struck by an agony akin to nostalgia. Nostalgia is longing for things past; this is longing for things that should have been past. It's a sort of regret and a sort of resentment. There's no way to experience teenage love now that I'm in my twenties. Drew Barrymore tried it in Never Been Kissed. David Lynch tried it through Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet. I think it's a project doomed to failure. The moments have been lost.

What It Means

Though my description may seem depict those idle moments of sentimentality we all experience from time to time, I think there's more to it than that. On the one hand, there is certainly no reason to believe television is correct in dictating reality. It is presenting a small town American series of experiences that aren't the standard coming-of-age experiences in much of the world. It's a standard that has spread to Japan, Canada, and other highly Americanized nations. However, boys who grew up in British boarding schools, boys raised in African nations, Middle Eastern nations, or in just about any non-American culture, or even in urban American culture, will have distinct experiences that naturally will not be represented in American television. It's just a unique suffering non-Americans have to endure due to the prevalence of American television and its normative character.

On the other hand, just because it can be explained does not mean it can be explained away. Coming-of-age is important in constituting psychologically and socially healthy adults. Every culture has rites of passage. These are ritual stages, formal or informal, one must go through to become fully-fledged adults. I claimed above that television was my spirit guide to adulthood. Though slightly tongue-in-cheek in phrasing, I nevertheless must emphasize that it is a totally serious point. Television showed me the rites of passage. They don't appear like rites. They're informal and not evidently ceremonial. Yet in our modern, enlightened culture, they are our rites of passage. The high school girlfriend/boyfriend, the prom, the driver's license are all rites of passage. I failed to accomplish them.

I believe that has hindered my adult life. I am trapped in an existential neurosis, constantly repeating the lack. Despite being intelligent, friendly, and modestly attractive, I have still never fallen in love; I do not drive; I scarcely socialize offline. I am not alone. My friends who grew up in the same circumstances as myself report the same difficulties in realizing normal, healthy social lives. The one saving grace is that, well, I kinda like it. I'm a happy-go-lucky guy. But that doesn't make the problem go away. Not everyone, after all, will be as bemused by the situation as I. And since I've never been normal, I'm in no position to make comparisons. Maybe I would be even more pleased had everything gone according to television's plan.


As I promised, I have not gotten to the bottom of things. Far from it. This is a matter of anthropological and sociological concern for our culture(s). It's a concern that needs to be scrutinized scientifically, by examining the lives and feelings of those who have watched much television and lived the standard coming-of-age narrative, those who have watched little television and lived the standard coming-of-age narrative, those who have watched much television and have not lived the standard coming-of-age narrative, and those who have not watched much television and have not lived the standard coming-of-age narrative. This article has been more of a confessional, a chunk of data for those competent enough to take the study further, and a reaching-out to those who feel the same.


How about letting us know your coming-of-age stories? I encourage you, dear reader, to share. Did you follow the American standard? If so, how does it feel? If not, do you feel deprived? I'd love to know.

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Comments 17 comments

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

'Trapped in existential neurosis' eh? Aren't we all? I really admire your's not easy to expose yourself like that. I think you might be a real writer.

If it's any comfort, few teenage lives reflect in reality the television own family wasn't the Brady Bunch that's for sure and teenage love for me was awkward, confusing and sometimes very painful. I wouldn't want to be 15 again.

From my perspective, I'm glad you are what you are and not a representative of the great seething mass of *normality* or what we are informed by television normality is supposed to be. You're the most interesting person I've come across in a long time.

Loved the're positively dripping with despair...sure you're not trying to turn yourself into a romantic hero? Lol.

I'd rather live in a Fellini film than an episode of Beverly Hills 90210

Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Turning myself into a romantic hero or just showing off my beefy forearms? The jury's still out. haha

Thanks for all the kind words. That's high praise and I appreciate it.

You mention how teenage love can be awkward, confusing, and painful. Sometimes television does show that aspect. I wonder if that's not an important experience to go through in youth, if suffering teenage heartbreak is not part of the rite of passage to adulthood. I've never suffered a broken heart, because I've never risked myself in love. Maybe I'm missing something that experience with such suffering brings.

Anyway, you're right. Normal is dull. Once a general physician I came to complaining about a stomach ache tried to give me Zoloft saying, no joke, it's good to be drugged into normalcy. Also, have you seen Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland yet? The Red Queen is so much more interesting than the dull, sterile White Queen that I really think Wonderland's worse off.

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

It is an important experience...but if you've missed it, you've missed it...forget about it.

Advice from Auntie Jane....

There's still time! If you want to fall in love you do have to risk it...get off the computer go out into the real world and mingle those earthly hormones. Of course it is worth it. What good is your beautiful poetry without the feelings to experience what it is really about?

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

I haven't seen Alice in Wonderland but the imperfect characters usually are more interesting.

Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

No, I don't want to fall in love. Good heavens. I was just wondering aloud. The pond's still waters contain many fish, but when the boy drops his lollipop, they swim away and are eaten by a bear. That's a koan for you. If someone falls in love with me, I'll consider it. Until then, I have things to create. Like these hubs o mine.

Green Lotus profile image

Green Lotus 6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

Dear Arthur. I'm not sure I can add much to Jane's sage advice except to say that it's very wise. Having a lot of experience working in TV Land as well as being a child of the boob tube, I've learned that it projects a picture either too rosy or too weird to be considered reality. They do have to sell dish washing liquid and monster trucks you know :) Unless you need to learn a second language, it's a lame teacher. But you already know that.

I will say that you are an immensely gifted writer and I might add a very attractive young man, whose talent will only improve over the years... but only if you have the life experience to support that talent. I'm not saying plunge into a relationship or a job, I'm just saying go slowly, but do it now and do what feels good. Being open to uncertainty is scary, but the possibilities are too good to pass up. You may think you've lost too many years, but believe me you haven't. Voted up for beautiful and awesome.

drbj profile image

drbj 6 years ago from south Florida

So, Arthur, now that you have opened up in your own personal confessional, how do you feel? Relieved? More open to what may come your way? Still mired in your "existential neurosis"? (a wonderfully descriptive phrase, by the way).

Not only are you an incredibly talented writer but you have a gift for pulling the reader in to your narrative. Very few writers occupy this stellar space.

Do not dwell on yesterday and what you may have missed. Start with this moment and plan for new experiences. What is normal anyway? You haven't missed a thing. I have many friends and I don't think any of them are really "normal."

Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Hey Green Lotus,

Thanks for the kind words. That's very sweet of you. I'm sure I'll branch out into the non-TV reality someday. And that day begins when I've finished my thesis. haha

I'm curious if your perspective comes from having gone through those American rites of passage or not.


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Hi drbj,

Thanks for the kind words! Glad my little stabs at self-expression have not been in vain.

I've followed your profile information to the online bookstore. So I know you're an actual doctor--a MIND doctor! It's nice to get professional advice for free. :D

I'm afraid I'm still stuck in my existential neurosis. But I am satisfied to have these ideas out there in an apparently understandable article. I've been feeling this way for a long time and I've kept putting off expression. I'm curious to see if anyone else has the same feelings.


Green Lotus profile image

Green Lotus 6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

Since you asked, I'll say that my "rite of passage" was quite mundane, although I for one couldn't wait to leave the nest. That's when great things began to happen.

I do know that compared to you, my writing skills were underwhelming at 20-something. It wasn't until I put myself "out there" and fell on my face a few hundred times, that I (along with others) realized my potential. It's good to share the wealth outside of cyberville. It will make you an even better writer at the very least. Small steps to that effect are good too. In writing this article, you've already begun :)

Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

I haven't been in the nest for a long time. I went to my first monastery at 17 and was a Benedictine Monk in Scotland at 19. Then I worked for months on a commune (i.e. non-paying) farm before I started my B.A. here in the city. So it's not like I haven't lived at all. I just haven't lived the life TV says I should.

But I get what you're saying and it sounds reasonable to me. Thanks for the advice, GL! You're a sweet lady. :)

CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

Maybe what you need to let go of is the belief that you missed out on something because your teen years did not resemble an American TV show. You have followed a very unique path in life, which has all contributed to the very unique Arthur Windermere of today. There are enough one-dimensional high-school jock types out there, without you joining their ranks Arthur! So please don't be sad, be glad that you are who you are.

Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Hi CM,

Thanks for the advice and kind words. I may be inordinately pleased with who I am. I think I'm pretty amazing. But I still feel some of those experiences would have been worth experiencing and would have contributed to greater social health in my adult life, if only because TV really does reveal the cultural milieu in which we all inhabit. I can't help but be a little affected when I see signs of lost opportunities on screen. Perhaps it's desire fueled by believe, but on the other hand it may just be belief fueled by desire.


Lee B profile image

Lee B 6 years ago from New Mexico

Loved reading this, Arthur. I've often wondered many of the same things though I'm coming at it from a very stereotypical, "normal," adolescence. Even though I did all of those expected things--driver's license, dating, prom--it still wasn't like what I saw on television. I always felt inadequate compared to those images. And I lost the opportunity to say what I really thought and do what I really wanted to. I sold out to be part of the crowd and still regret it all these MANY years later. Coming of age? I still don't feel that I have.

Your life experiences, Arthur, are so unique. I know that it's been difficult, but I envy you.

Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Hi Lee,

Wow, you live in a yacht! How awesome is that? I've wanted to live on a boat for a long time.

That's a very interesting take you have on growing up. It makes sense that even the things that seem to fit the cultural standards could never quite live up to the images on TV. Maybe it's just the plight of all reflective people to feel a little inadequate in the face of these images of perfection. Thanks so much for sharing.


Nellieanna profile image

Nellieanna 6 years ago from TEXAS

Arthur - I'm still reading this, but I see you asked for others' takes on coming-of-age. I'm writing a series about the subject in a generation prior to yours, but I believe which has affected the generations thereafter quite dramatically, the Baby Boomers - and an insight about what happened to cause the "generation gap" which happened then & touched off dynamics which continued. Perhaps you'd be interested. I've written several segments thus far, the first of which is the prologue which sets the background, and it's @

Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Ah, I wondered what those Magnolia hubs were about, but didn't satisfy my curiosity through the obvious means of clicking and reading. I assumed it would be about flowers. haha

I'll check it out. Thanks!

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