I watched the first three episodes of MTV’s new teen show Awkward. last week, and it struck me that teen comedies do an astonishing amount to undermine our faith in public educators. The show follows the adventures of a girl named Jenna who, after sleeping with a popular boy while they’re both summer camp counselors, returns to school with a broken arm, an embarrassing cast, and a rumor that she tried to kill herself, but manages to parlay those deficits into a kind of halfway popularity. I like that the show goes beyond the increasingly baroque descriptions of cliques that have become a standard part of any teen comedy and recognizes that there are people who drift between groups and nerds who get cool-kid passes.
But it also features what has to be the most wildly malfeasant guidance counselor ever to appear on television, a woman so desperate that keep Jenna coming into her office that she insists that there must be something her charge feels bad about “Course load? Your body? Not even your big teeth? What about your breasts?” showing her a cell-phone picture of Jenna that some mean girls snapped in a locker room, totally missing that it could count as child porn. For all the use she is to Jenna, and for all she wants the approval of the miserably vicious cheerleader who’s targeted Jenna, the counselor might as well not exist.
The silly guidance counselor has been a trope since Allison Janney’s great comic turn in 10 Things I Hate About You:
There’s nothing wrong with the idea that teenagers can solve their own problems. But there is something odd about the idea that guidance counselors aren’t just squares, they’re actively incompetent and undermining. We might overpathologize kids these days, but it’s not totally crazy to think that it’s useful for kids to have an impartial, non-parental adult to talk to about their issues.