The Vampire Diaries sets an unrealistic precedence for both magical creatures and teenage hotness in small town America. Glee is an intensely self-righteous revenge of the nerds, based in a mythical land where glee club is cool and high schoolers are always breaking out into song and dance. Twilight is Mormon abstinence porn. The Carrie Diaries is horrible. Luckily, there is one ray of hope in the dark wasteland that is today’s crop of teen-centric entertainment—you just probably haven’t heard of it. Awkward.
Awkward., the brainchild of creator Lauren Iungerich, premiered on MTV in July of 2011. The series centers around Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards), who returns to school after losing her virginity to the very popular, very good looking Matty McKibben (Beau Mirchoff) during a memorable summer camp cleaning closet escapade. Unfortunately, Jenna’s lost V card isn’t her only red letter—she’s also forced to contend with an added stigma after a series of random accidents make her appear suicidal.
From the start, Awkward. was honest about how hard high school can be, and the unique adolescent affliction of being reduced to a single label or incident at the very moment when you are trying to figure out who you truly are. As Jenna begins to navigate her intensely stratified world, we are shown that teenagers—especially our female protagonist—are intelligent, critical, and complex, a fact that underlines the cruelty of one dimensional, reductive high school stereotypes.
Jenna Hamilton is a loser. More specifically, she is an introspective, shy observer, which renders her all but invisible in the typical high school hierarchy. In the world of Jenna’s Palos Verdes high school, she’s an outcast, but in the realm of adolescent pop culture heroines, she’s in good company. When it comes to teenagedom, the outsider is a natural narrator. She sees everything, and, with no cheerleader practice to run off to or devoted boyfriend to neck with after school, she has ample time to record, comment, and reflect. She’s smarter than her classmates, and blessed with the ability to see through their superficial social interactions and high school pettiness—but she’s still a teenager, which means she cares a whole lot more about prom, bullies, and high school boys than she likes to let on.
Awkward. is easily placed on this proud lineage of pensive protagonists. Add a pair of glasses and Jenna’s a live action Daria double, rolling her eyes at the cheerleaders from under the bleachers, singularly pale next to her tanned, smiling peers. She’s so similar to My So Called Life’s Angela Chase, it’s uncanny—except that Jenna’s voiceover narration actually makes you laugh, while Angela’s often makes you want to force feed her a Xanax and tell her to cut it with the melodrama. Jenna, who considers herself a writer (and whose personal blog is heavily featured in the series), is also in good literary company. Jenna Hamilton is a modern day Judy Blume character, except she doesn’t just think about sex, masturbation, divorce, and relationships—she blogs about it. And Awkward., when boiled down to the essential arc of losing your virginity and finding yourself, is essentially a Sarah Dessen novel. Of course, Dessen never wrote, “O to the M to the F to the G. This place is a pinterest board full of bangable dudes.”
While Jenna’s attempts to chronicle her high school experience and redefine herself in the process are fairly routine, it’s her unique voice that catapults Awkward. into the teen television hall of fame. Her quick wit and arch intelligence capture the absurdity of high school drama, while her self-consciousness and ever-present vulnerability never let us forget that Jenna is essentially just a kid. Jenna reads book and mocks her peers, and she’s a bit of a know it all. But she also cares what people think, wants the boy she’s sleeping with to her like her, and is more than a little clueless. As a teen protagonist, Jenna is more authentically insecure and relatable than a good deal of her predecessors, and most of her current peers. But she’s also some one you’d actually want to hang out with—like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she’s the kickass heroine you’d follow anywhere—except for Jenna, the hellish drama is in the every day.
Like Jenna herself, Awkward. doesn’t sound like its peers, and has a language and rhythm that’s alarmingly current and fresh. Awkward.’s characters throw around social media terms, pop culture references, and adorable abbreviations like there’s no tomorrow. Jenna and Tamara (Jillian Rose Reed) her best friend, speak almost exclusively in inside jokes and ever-evolving slang. A typical exchange reads like shorthand, “Jenna: Bad breakup? Tamara: 10.5 on the dick-ter scale.” Their rapid rapport is an amazing illustration of the entire world that can be built between two best friends; deliberately impenetrable, Jenna and Tamara’s language is like a high-pitched squeal that only teenagers can hear. It makes Awkward.’s predominately teen audience, those who presumably understand at least half of what these characters are talking about, feel understood.
From DTR (define the relationship) to behymen (exactly what you think it means), the Awkward. lexicon consists of extremely specific terms that help its characters mock, articulate, and classify the world around them. This linguistic autonomy and creativity, which is almost exclusively exercised by the show’s female characters, is an important facet of Awkward.’s larger message: teen girl empowerment. In Awkward.-land, the ladies are constantly leaning in. While the show’s initial premise rests on the unattainable appeal and god-like popularity of Matty McKibben, Matty is eventually transformed by his love for Jenna, who eventually outgrows him and his high school antics (at least for now). When it comes to their on again, off again relationship, Jenna is clearly calling the shots.
While Jenna is making the hottest boy in school her personal boy toy, Tamara is acing her SATs and building her resume, attending to her high school presidential duties with the terrifying enthusiasm of an ambitious, sexually-unfulfilled, fashion forward type A personality (these are three-dimensional characters, people!). Meanwhile, Sadie Saxton (Molly Tarlov) is both terrifying and sort of amazing as Palos Verdes’ resident shameless bitch. With lines like “I don’t need to manage my anger. I need everyone else to manage not to piss me off,” Sadie says what the worst part of you is probably thinking, then doles out her signature “you’re welcome.”
Sure, Sadie, Jenna, and Tamara are still relatively powerless when it comes to man-child mood swings, manic parents, and high school stereotype stigmas. But at the end of the day, despite the undertone of “life is so unfair” that’s become standard issue for the teen pop culture canon, these women are ruling their own world and, in the case of Jenna Hamilton, actively rewriting them.
In this way, Jenna Hamilton is a reimagining of the sensitive outsider, engineered for the digital era. She may not fit in in high school, but she lives in a world where adolescent hierarchies are less important than ever. As any misfit with a modem can tell you, the Internet gives you access to an entire universe where your interests and talents can be appreciated, no matter how niche. In our post-Seth Cohen zeitgeist, Jenna’s WordPress revelations are the newest iteration of geek chic. As Tamara explains after Jenna’s private blog goes public, “You’re like a small cable show! You may not have a budget or marketing, but you’re interesting and catching on with the right peeps. Peeps that get you and care what you think!”
In a world where everyone wants to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, isn’t it possible that high school stratification has evolved beyond the unpopular nerd and the jock-as-Adonis? Awkward. offers a window into the cruelty of high school, and the pervasiveness of stereotypes and social stigmas. But it also focuses a new spotlight on the murkiness of adolescence, and the often unexplored complexities beyond the cheerleading skirts and under the bleachers. In this almost-authentic arena, groups of teenagers are brought together in a myriad of ways. Cheerleaders fall in love with freaks, jocks aspire to be indie musicians, and relationships are in a constant state of flux. Stereotypes exist to delineate but also in order to be defied. After four seasons, every main character in this series has been humanized in surprising and vital ways, proving that popularity, self-confidence and mutual admiration are fluid and ever-evolving. High school in Palos Verdes might be hell, but at least you’re not confined to just one circle.
With its emphasis on self-expression and three-dimensional adolescents, Awkward. occupies a unique space in the current teen zeitgeist. In many ways, these imperfect teens, who are more often than not played by actual teens, feel incredibly real. Their drama is every day, their references are au courant, and they, like us, navigate high school without supermodel looks, magical powers, or prodigious vocal abilities. Still, it’s important to note that Awkward. is extremely aspirational. These teens are smart, motivated, and remarkably self-assured. They are, we imagine, going somewhere (except for Matty, who seems destined for a career as a shirtless Abercrombie employee).
Conversely, Teen Mom and Sixteen and Pregnant, MTV’s reality teen offerings, paint an alarmingly different picture. On these shows, young mothers struggle to support themselves and their fledgling families, often dropping out of high school and working minimum wage jobs. Watching these reality shows, the most overwhelming feeling is that of harsh, unending monotony: the routine of caring for an infant, often alone, having the same arguments and internal battles day in and day out. In this slice of reality the future appears bleak, the present somehow both bland and exhausting.
And yet, Teen Mom and Awkward. are two sides of the same coin. According to a 2010 government study, U.S. teen birthrates plunged dramatically in 2009 after years of steady increase. A report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy cites 16 and Pregnant, specifying that 82 percent of teenagers say that the series helped them understand the challenges that accompany teen pregnancy. While MTV’s reality programming plies teens with images of a reality they then choose to eschew, Awkward. presents them with relatable alternatives. Any teenage misfit (and at the end of the day, isn’t every one a teenage misfit at heart?) can aspire to be Jenna Hamilton: some one who speaks their mind and is appreciated for it, who surmounts obstacles with wit and poise, and who even manages to more or less get the guy. Jenna Hamilton is the girl that modern day, real life teenagers want to be, and the daughter every parent wishes they had. And, as shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom make painfully clear, she’s a breed of heroine we could use a whole lot more of.