By Alanna Strauss and Nirmal Deshpande/Ad Council
Despite their good looks and homes they could never afford in the real world, TV characters face real issues and often offer guidance and support to viewers. And I’m not just talking about Tony Soprano and Donald Draper; I’m talking about everyone from Naomi Clark on the recently revived “90210” to Jason Stackhouse on “True Blood.”
“Glee” often touches on the issues facing high school students today: bullying, insecurity, heartbreak, competition, peer pressure and as seen in last night’s episode, underage drinking. This was “Glee’s” opportunity to take advantage of their large, loyal audience and offer a voice of wisdom on what motivates teens to drink and the consequences that follow. Ultimately, the episode sent a redeeming message to teens experimenting with alcohol. Moreover, the alcohol culture portrayed in the episode highlighted several key issues to consider when communicating about underage drinking prevention.
MYTH 1: Throwing parties makes you cool. One epic party can take you from zero to hero on the high school social scale.
Glee TRUTH: Rachel wasn’t any cooler after the party. She didn’t gain new respect and is still unlucky in love.
MYTH 2: Drinking makes you more outgoing, and often more attractive to others due to liquor’s secret yet potent ingredient – “social lubrication.”
GLEE TRUTH: As Finn wisely explains to Rachel there are 4 archetypes of the drunks: 1) The weepy, hysterical drunk; 2) The Needy Drunk; 3) The Angry Drunk; 4) The Happy Drunk; and 5) The Girl Who Turns Into A Stripper Drunk. None of them looked cool – all of them made fools of themselves. We couldn’t wait for them to sober up.
MYTH 3: Beyond hangovers, potential vomiting, and the embarrassment that follows asking “what did I do last night?” there are no serious or long term consequence
Glee TRUTH: For all the lessons the episode provided, this was its weakest. The club got off pretty easy after their performance. We know the show doesn’t have the time to incorporate detention or suspension into their plotline (regionals are just weeks away after all), but we wish they could have been a little more realistic about some of the more significant consequences underage drinking.
Beyond mythbusting, Glee’s portrayal of teen drinking cultures and the reactions of adults offer a very realistic glimpse into the challenges of communicating underage drinking prevention messages.
First – Teens are surrounded by influencers encouraging drinking. Advertisements and pop songs glorifying alcohol abound – the episode’s catchiest songs “Blamed it on the Alcohol” and encouraged brushing teeth “with a bottle of Jack”. Given that it’s often difficult to compete with these influencers, messaging that targets interveners – parents and community members – can be more effective.
Second – Teens are excellent judges of hypocrisy. They are thrown when adults who they know drink tell them not to. Parents who have candid conversations admitting that they drank underage are more likely to get through to teens. One effective argument parents can make is that when they were younger, they didn’t know what they know now – that starting drinking too early can lead to bigger problems later on, and that alcohol is very often a contributing factor in accidental teen death. Teens are more likely to consider what they’re told when their parents are being straight with them.
Third – Parents are often more concerned about drug use or sexual activity than underage drinking. In this episode, Kurt’s father is more concerned about the boy in his bed than about the booze soaked party held at Rachel’s. The truth is that many of the same things that parents worry about – injury, drug use, and sex – can be brought on by alcohol use. It’s very rarely an either/or scenario, so if parents are concerned about one, it’s probably a good idea to be concerned about alcohol as well.
All in all, it’s not often that a hit show takes on a social issue and presents a nuanced view of the topic – all while entertaining and providing a valuable lesson to impressionable viewers.
And to end, one last myth:
MYTH 4: Teens will now stop drinking after seeing that episode
REAL TRUTH: Fat chance. The Glee kids themselves seem to be waiting to be done with regionals before hitting the bottle again. But this episode did push a very strong lesson in moderation from Mr. Schuster, possibly the only wise adult influencer in their life it seems. Having witnessed the hangovers, vomiting, and the general failure of drunkenness to live up to expectations – surely the Gleeks, and some of their fans will at least think twice about drinking in excess.