It might seem that we’re a bit enamored with MTV right now. And that might be accurate.
Not the Jersey Shore variety – this Jersey girl can’t bear to watch her beloved Garden State reduced to an unseemly stereotype (or perhaps it’s just that it’s not all that interesting?). But if we could have created any show on TV right now, it would probably be MTV’s If You really Knew Me. And file “Challenge Day,” the organization at the center of this show, under brilliant ideas we wish were ours.
The challenge that’s central to the show is, “Can one day change a high school?” Through the camera, we meet five key characters and hear their stories. These self-aware teens begin by revealing, in a pretty profound introduction to the half hour show, how they are “known.” Nerd, jock, even stoner – these are a few of the labels that teens (girls and boys) use to describe themselves. And then we get to know their real stories.
MTV has taken on bullying as its issue of the moment. And while our recent data shows that today’s youth don’t site bullying or aggression or violence as one of their top concerns (in fact, it falls quite close to the bottom of the many things on their minds), we know that the emotional lives of teens are, as perhaps they always have been, fragile. Beyond offenses that teens commit on each other, these teens remind us that the complexity of the human experience starts young. Many of the “characters” on the show have already experienced hurt, pain and loss that rivals most adults. And this is what they bring to the school cafeteria with them every day.
Challenge Day looks a bit more like group therapy. We see teens exposed, but in a way that feels raw and real versus contrived and camera-aware. It certainly doesn’t feel for show when a teen boy tells of a father who cut off his relationship with him for no reason. Or a black teen – who identifies himself as the only black student in the school – admits that the racially charged jokes that his teammates on the basketball team often make, are not something he feels comfortable with afterall.
To call this entertaining is a bit of a stretch. As a mom (albeit of a very pre-pre-pre-adolescent), it’s heartbreaking. As someone who has dedicated her recent past to research with kids, tweens and teens, it’s both validating and eye-opening. It’s a reminder of the vulnerability that often lives behind the most seemingly confident teen. It’s a push to see our “subjects” as having a history that lives long before they enter the focus group facility. And it’s eye-opening to see how open these sometimes cynical teens are to the kind of reflection that we might assume requires a maturity beyond their years.
Perhaps what’s most interesting is that while we look to research to help us understand the teen psyche, we might have some examples that – while being edited and produced – start to show us a different, deeper side of today’s adolescent. And it challenges us to question our own simple frameworks and definitions of what this group is – or who they really are.