Trusting Teenagers


Ah, teenagers. Every single person who makes public policy was one once, but the deep irony of our nation's attitude towards the entire adolescent age group is that we treat them like a strange species, and we have ever since rock 'n' roll and the baby boom created the teen as we know her.

American culture somehow can't grasp the complexity of a stage between childhood and adulthood. In our laws, we imagine our teen girls as virginal children who will eagerly kneel at the altar of abstinence-only education (yeah, right). But the media, eager to avoid nuance, portray teens as mini-adults, sexy ingénues who behave in every way like grownups, except to the backdrop of school lockers.

The problem is particularly magnified when it comes to teenage girls. While movies like Superbad nail the awkward posturing that make teenage guydom what it is, we have yet to see a movie about teens that focuses on girls and doesn't use them as sexy props or bland love interests.

That's why Sophie, the teenage girl patient on HBO's "In Treatment" (the first season comes to a close tomorrow, Sophie's final episode aired yesterday) is such a breath of fresh air, even though it's a painful breath. Watching Sophie's nine sessions with her therapist, Paul, is an education in what adolescence is really all about, and why we need a realistic, honest approach to dealing with the sexual, physical and emotional health of teenage girls.

Sophie is a particularly damaged teenager (although adolescence itself is a trauma for most who go through it), but beyond her intense personal issues, her sessions reveal the incredible range of maturities a single teen can display. At times she acts like a child: teary, whiny, petulant. She curls up in a ball on Paul's couch, or slumps in the pillows, or stretches out on the floor. Other times, she is a young lady: she pirouettes into the office, does a graceful gymnastic routine on the couch, or trades caustic wit with Paul. Sophie can be surprisingly wise — she has a young person's ability to see right through the phoniness of adult discourse. And she's innocent; her essential nature not quite jaded.

And the contradictions continue. Sophie can be womanly; she walks in heels and makeup after staying up all night at a party. Usually, hidden in a hoody and jeans, she's girlish and almost asexual.

In short, Sophie is real. She has all the complexity of an adult and the vulnerability of a child. And she's one of the most mesmerizing characters I've ever seen on TV. But there's a surprising amount of Sophie-hate in the fan community, people who complain that she is a "brat" or unruly because of her anger. This epitomizes a strain of deep, misogynistic discomfort with the emotions and decisions of young women. The Sophie-detractors remind me of the commenters who respond to posts about combatting the alarming rate of STDs among young women, wondering why young women can't just not have sex. All these people seem to wish "if only these girls, with their nascent sexuality and their individual agency, and their feelings and stuff, would just get out of my sight."

But what Paul recognizes as he helps Sophie come into her own and throw off the pain of her troubled youth is that even with her childlike qualities — and even with a history of sexual victimization — Sophie is not a child. She's old enough to have a deeply complicated relationship with sex. Old enough to have to make her own choices about school, gymnastics, home — old enough to seriously attempt to hurt herself or ultimately, to choose to accept herself. Rather than being sheltered from the harsh realities of life, she needs the tools to enter adulthood safely.

Despite the fact that he obviously wants to protect her, Paul knows that he can't. Instead, he teaches her about how to manage her feelings, how to address the root of her anger and self-loathing. He encourages her to look after her physical and emotional well-being and uses logic to persuade her, because he respects her intellect. Paul, a flawed therapist who often crosses boundaries, is redeemed by his adept understanding of Sophie. By trusting her as a young woman and also supporting her as a mentor figure, he enables Sophie to move forward into life.

Would that lawmakers in DC trusted young women the way Paul trusts Sophie. As Pamela described it this week, abstinence-only education in practice only ends up creating a culture of teens making ill-informed decisions. Knowledge — about bodies, about boundaries, and in Sophie's case, about her own psyche — is power. The very act of gaining knowledge can give girls a huge boost in self-esteem. But in order to enable them to gain knowledge we first have to trust them. And like the viewers who can't stand Sophie, there are far too many lawmakers who would rather push them out of view.

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  • http://www.caitlainscorner.com invalid-0

    What an excellently written article. Adolescents are far more complicated and complex than many people (read: adults) believe that they are. The majority of teens have the ability to make decisions for themselves if they are given the tools, and the freedom, to do it.

  • invalid-0

    Very well written. Wouldn’t it be great if they reran “In Treatment” on a network (like they did “Dexter”) for the many that cannot afford HBO. Parents and teens would benefit greatly in viewing theses episodes and hats off to Mia Wasikowska for her Emmy-winning (my opinion) performance as Sophie.

  • invalid-0

    I was redirected here from the In Treatment message board on the IMDb, and I’m so glad! Sophie is my favorite character on the show and the reason I got hooked. I love your analysis of her complexity and maturity. I also appreciate how well you describe how we, as a society, should be giving teens tools to become responsible adults instead of shoving them away from view.

    I never comment on these things, but since you only had 2 comments, I wanted to add my support. Great article!!