Will Teen Readers Recognize that Movie/TV Show Reference?

Happy October!

I hope you’re enjoying the fall. I’m still hard at work revising my current manuscript. It’s taking a bit longer than I expected–probably because of that total restructure. But maybe also because I keep getting distracted. As a result, I’ve been taking another social media break. I’m just popping back on this week to do my newsletter and promo around it.

So, speaking of my work in progress, a funny disconnect happened in the comments from my readers regarding a movie reference. Early on in the book, it includes a small anecdote involving Mean Girls, which released in 2004 (before my teen characters were born). Here’s the setup: Eighteen-year-old Dove is reflecting on a scene from when she met her best friend, Reese. They were both twelve at the time. One of Reese’s defining characteristics is that she’s a total film junkie. In the flashback, Reese tells Dove that she’s just received the Regina George treatment. Afterward, Dove reflects:

Reese’s Mean Girls reference went over Dove’s head at the time, but in the years since, Reese has greatly broadened Dove’s film knowledge. 

Here’s where it got interesting. One reader basically asked if teen readers would recognize that movie because it’s so old, while another (who has teen girls) commented that most teen girls are familiar with the movie. I think they’re both right—a lot know it and many don’t. I mean, how many times did you see a Mean Girls meme or gif on Oct. 3?But it got me thinking about older movies/TV shows and just generally about awareness. Thanks to the rise of streaming services, it seems to me that there are fewer universal references (especially for TV), while at the same time teens are exposed to a variety of older shows and movies. Ten years ago, everyone was watching shows from pretty much the same place–network and cable TV. So there were universal TV references like The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, Glee, plus all of the reality competition shows. Even in the middle of the 2010s, Netflix was the main player, so shows like Stranger Things had widespread recognition. But as more and more streaming services popped up and then the pandemic hit, I noticed a shift in my own family’s viewing habits, and I think it’s probably true of others too. https://cdn.statcdn.com/Infographic/images/normal/25382.jpegRegarding universality: not every family subscribes to the same services, so not everyone has access to the same shows and movies. It gets expensive adding on monthly subscriptions. Netflix is still at the top, but it’s lost some of its dominance. Of course it’s never been true that every teen was watching the same show, but with the plethora of streaming services, it’s less likely now. Just looking at this chart to the right, my own family subscribes to the top four but not the rest, and these aren’t even all of the services available. And then we get to the topic of how recent the show is. Newer shows that release on streaming services typically have fewer episodes than the older shows that were on network/cable. They aren’t meant to span a full year. So viewers burn through them quickly and start looking for something else to watch. They can’t create content quickly enough to keep up. As a result, I think viewers–including teens–are more aware of older shows and movies than they used to be. At least my teens seem to be. My 13-year-old has watched basically all the old tween and teen shows available on Disney+ and Netflix, while as a family we’ve been alternating between Once Upon A Time, The Good Place, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My teens will watch anything with a good story. Sure, they notice it’s not from 2023, but they’ll overlook outdated special effects and technology if the characters and writing engage them. (I posted last year about catching up on shows I’d never watched the first time around. I made a note about seeing what my kids had to say about Buffy, so stay tuned. They love it so far, but we’re only on season three…)So what does all of this mean for writers? Well, I think the comment about whether a teen reader knows a reference is not as relevant as it used to be. And I’m not saying that as license to pepper your novel with references to all of your favorite movies and TV shows from when you were a teenager. My point is more that maybe your question should not be so much: Do teen readers know that TV/movie reference? Instead, the question should be: Does your teen character know that TV/movie reference? Honestly, that probably should have been the question all along. Here are a few questions you might ask when considering an older movie/TV reference:

  • Is it available on a streaming service? Easy to check on IMDB!
  • Are there regular memes/sounds/trends going around that highlight the movie/TV show? Certain shows & movies lend themselves to this. For example, I frequently see quotes/sounds from The Office, Friends, Gilmore Girls–all shows from decades ago that teens are likely to recognize because of trends, even if they haven’t watched them.
  • Is there a remake or sequel? Teens are probably more familiar with Top Gun after the release of Maverick. (Side note: the name Maverick is now in the top 20 boy names of 2023 🤯)
  • Does it feature someone they might be curious about for other reasons? (My current binge is Suits, because I was curious about Meghan Markle as an actor.)

Even beyond these considerations, if there’s a good reason to use the reference, you still can. The truth is, even when you use a current reference, it becomes outdated pretty quickly. So if there’s a really perfect older reference that works with your character, I think it’s less of a worry than it used to be that a teen reader wouldn’t recognize it. They can always look it up.And if you’re curious what’s trending right now, it’s pretty easy to find that on streaming services. I took screenshots last Friday for Netflix and Hulu and added years (initial release year for TV shows). Hulu doesn’t have a spot for TV shows and movies combined, so I went with TV. That one’s interesting because it includes network TV. Hey, who wants to watch sixty years of a soap opera? (I actually didn’t check if you could. But maybe…)

What have you been watching lately? What about the teens in your life?

My October newsletter is out today! In addition to this feature, it also includes a Halloween character corner, book club info, and more info on what I’m currently reading/watching. Subscribe to catch the next issue!

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