Multiple studies have shown that depicting alcohol in films make teenagers more likely to drink. But movies and television shows that strive to portray realistic teenage characters can't avoid the subject of drinking entirely. For decades, the media has wavered between glorifying, criticizing, and ignoring underage drinking. To this day, no one quite knows how to handle the touchy topic.
While Disney has shied away from the issue of teenage drinking in its recent ventures, way back in 1940, Pinocchio blatantly argued against it. The film depicted an island free from rules and full of temptations (including beer), but the child inhabitants who indulged got their comeuppance when their bad behavior turned them into donkeys. In Pinocchio, underage drinking was both portrayed as desirous and rejected as a forbidden and evil act.
The 1980s saw a surge in teen movies, but many avoided the subject of underage drinking entirely, or chose not to make a value judgment on it. Two of the most famous films of the era, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, don’t involve alcohol at all. Other films involved alcohol in a party setting, but did not praise or cast scorn on the drinkers. Teenage drinking was only important in that it amplified the films’ themes of rebellion and growing up.
In the 1990s, underage drinking was seen as more of a problem. A lot of shows aimed at very young children discouraged drinking long before viewers were old enough to consider doing so. In 1991, Tiny Toon Adventures featured a horrifying episode that was later banned, in which three of the characters tried beer, stole a cop car, and drove it off a cliff. Around the same time, the show Full House featured two episodes about the perils of underage drinking, which focused on D.J., but let her boyfriend Kevin and her friend Kimmy do all the imbibing. Both episodes were wrapped up with heavy-handed lessons about safety and health that were scored to sentimental violin and piano music.
A study by communication professor Susannah Stern, published in the Journal of Health Communication, focused on films from 1999 through 2001, and discovered that 40% of those films’ teen characters drank alcohol. However, the films didn't pass moral judgment on the teens who drank; at the turn of the century, underage drinking was treated as a fact of life. A follow up study by Stern and Lindsey Morr looked at top-grossing teen-centric films from 2007 through 2009, and found that only 20% of teenagers were shown imbibing alcohol. Although the percentage decreased, the films did not portray drinking in a harsher light, or depict consequences of underage drinking. Even a film series as well-loved as Harry Potter gave in to the trend. The penultimate book's film involved quite a bit of butterbeer and mild tipsiness, reinforcing the theme of growing up.
Ever the bastion of the after-school special, Glee dedicated an episode to its characters “discovering” drinking, which was appropriately titled “Blame It On The Alcohol.” The uptight Rachel Berry throws her first house party for the glee club, the members of which get into all sorts of debauchery. Yet the only consequences of their actions are hellish hangovers and a gentle reprimand from glee club director Mr. Schue. The school’s principal even rewards them after a performance-gone-wrong-then-right. Ironically, Mr. Schue is the one for whom drinking causes the most damage, as his drunken voicemail is read on the school's PA system. While the glee club kids renounce alcohol, and have rarely been seen drinking since, the episode implies that a great time was had by all.
Why are movies and TV shows more lax about the issue of underage drinking when it's a bigger problem than ever? Perhaps teenage drinking has been accepted as inevitable. Or maybe we can depend on other mediums and institutions, from schools to the internet, to supply teens with the facts they need to make informed decisions about drinking. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the television and film industries have moved away from combatting this difficult issue, and toward prioritizing drama, comedy, and storytelling.