Los Angeles Times, March 15, 1994
Op-ed, 950 words The teen-age soap opera "Beverly Hills 90210" has committed many sins, both artistic and conceptual, in its four seasons on television, but they have rarely been serious enough to make me worry about my two daughters' sometime addiction to the show. Just before Christmas, however, the scriptwriters took their young characters, now freshmen at the fictitious California University, into dangerous territory. The foreshadowing was all too obvious. Andrea, the editor of the high school paper, the valedictorian, the only person in the class of 1993 who was admitted to Yale (although she couldn't afford to go), met a new man, Jesse, a law student who actually went to Yale. At about the same time, she had a conversation with a middle-aged woman that went something like this: Woman: "So, Andrea, what are you studying?" Andrea: "I'm in pre-med. I want to be a doctor." Woman: (smiling brightly at the man at her side) "I wanted to be a doctor when I was your age. But I married a doctor instead." Andrea: "That will never happen to me." On the spot I predicted that Andrea would get pregnant, get married, and drop out of school. Everyone in my family scoffed. Andrea? The only really smart and ambitious young woman on the show? She would never do that! In recent episodes it had become apparent that Gabrielle Carteris, the 30ish actress who plays Andrea, was in fact pregnant — she wore dark tops covered by blazers, and the camera never showed her mid-section. The writers would have to find a way to remove her from the action for a while. Sadly, I have turned out to be right. Andrea got pregnant, struggled briefly with the idea of having an abortion, and a couple of weeks ago elected instead to marry Jesse and have the baby. She says she will go back to school later, and because this is Hollywood (well, Beverly Hills), I am sure she will. Never mind that this young couple will have no visible means of support. (Andrea is the only character on the show who isn't wealthy, and Jesse is working his way through school by tending bar.) Never mind that daycare is in very short supply and of very poor quality in most places. Never mind that the time, energy, and level of organization that are required to go through university, medical school, internship, and residency while looking after a child are beyond the reach of most ordinary mortals. Though I foresaw it, I am appalled by this turn of events. I wouldn't mind if a different female character failed to use a condom and became pregnant or HIV-positive. More than 1 million American teen-agers, one in nine girls aged 15 to 19, get pregnant each year, and the number of women with HIV is on the rise. The young people who watch "Beverly Hills" ought to be thinking about such subjects. I can even excuse the way the writers handled the abortion question. The treatment was hopelessly superficial and sentimental—but where this complex and emotional issue is concerned it's impossible to satisfy everyone. But I bitterly resent that Andrea has been singled out to carry this plot line. She of all the young women on the show has the potential to go places—the brains and the drive to become a doctor or anything else she desires. I liked the fact that she was out there in prime time showing girls what they could do if they set their minds to it. She was the character I would have my daughters take as a role model. Now all of that is over. Andrea is no longer someone to emulate. If she becomes a doctor—or even returns to school—it will be because she is a Saturday-morning cartoon character who can fall off of steep cliffs and walk away unscathed. In real life, a girl in her predicament would probably never achieve her goals. Andrea and her fans deserve better. Symbols have immense power, and having positive role models is crucial for all of us. To set our sights high and follow our dreams, we need to know that something is possible, that others have been there before. Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) have given us a giant boost up, but we also need to see examples closer to home—women who are school principals, presidents of companies, lawyers, scientists—in both their adult and their incipient forms. Each week Andrea was showing the millions of girls who identify with her what their futures could be. If the producers of "Beverly Hills" had let her stay in character, they would have written her out of the script by giving her a scholarship to Yale or sending her to France as an exchange student. Instead they have chosen to foreclose her options, slapping her young female audience in the face and telling them forcefully that, even in the 90s, they must still seek their identities vicariously, through their men. Their place is still in the kitchen. The producers' decision shows a complete lack of imagination, and it carries a very negative message: that even the boldest and brightest young women are totally bound by their circumstances, without power over their own fate. This choice is both an insult and an injury. The people who make their money and their ratings off of teenagers have a responsibility to this young and vulnerable audience. If they would do them the courtesy of treating them seriously, thoughtfully, and respectfully, and if they would make the effort to enlarge their vision of the world and themselves, all of society would reap the benefits.
Copyright © 1991 by Judy Sklar Rasminsky. This material may not be reproduced in any manner or medium without written permission. For information, contact jud...@challengingbehavior.com.