- Adolescents and young adults, tired of TV's romantic focus, want more inclusive values.
- Gen Z finds forced or toxic romantic relationships in the media as one of their most disliked themes.
- Nearly 4 in 10 U.S. teens want more aromantic and asexual characters on screen.
Adolescents and young adults in the U.S. have had it with the overuse of romantic and sexual themes on TV and in the movies. They have more open-hearted and inclusive values, and they want to see them represented in the shows they watch.
Those were some of the results of a survey by the UCLA Center for Scholars and Storytellers described in a report, Teens and Screens, issued in October), authored by Stephanie Rivas-Lara, Hiral Kotecha, Becky Pham, and Yalda T. Uhls.
The survey included 1,500 young people, 100 of each age from 10 to 24, with the race and gender distributions roughly proportional to national estimates. The questions about romance and sex were answered only by 1,200 people 13 or older. The participants also discussed their thoughts in a group chat.
More Friendship, Aromantics, and Asexuals; Less Romance and Sex
Here are some of the key findings about what the 13- to 24-year-olds are saying about movies and TV shows.
They want to see more content that focuses on friendships and platonic relationships:
- 52 percent agreed with this, and only 15 percent disagreed. (The others were neutral.)
For example, in the group chat, a 16-year-old said, "I don't like that every boy and girl friendship has to be romantic at some point. Sometimes, people can just be friends."
They think that romantic themes are overused:
- Given three options (agree, disagree, neutral), "agree" was endorsed more than either of the other two answers: 44 percent
They think sex isn't needed for the plot of most TV shows and movies:
- 48 percent agreed with this, perhaps implying that sexual themes are overused.
They want to see more aromantic and asexual characters on screen:
- Nearly 4 in 10 agreed with this (39 percent)
It is a remarkable finding, especially considering that aromanticism (little or no romantic attraction toward others) and asexuality (little or no sexual attraction toward others) have only entered the cultural conversation fairly recently and are still stigmatized.
One of their most disliked themes was the inclusion of romantic relationships that seemed forced, unnatural, or toxic:
- This was ranked No. 4 of their top 10 objections
For example, in the group chat, a 23-year-old said,
This guy would be a jerk to the woman but she would end up falling in love with him.
Another 23-year-old said,
The main [stereotype] I always see is a person who comes from nothing, falls in love and gets everything they wanted. I feel sometimes it sets a mindset [for the] younger generation that all they need is a significant other to be happy.
Being Single Is "Its Own Happy Ending"
The report does not use the phrase "Single at Heart," the title of my book. However, the adolescents and young adults expressed single-at-heart values. For people who are single at heart, single life is their most joyful, meaningful, fulfilling, and authentic life.
They do not want to organize their lives around a romantic partner. They often value their friends; they put more into their friendships and get more out of them. Although most are heterosexual, they are more likely to be asexual than people who are not single at heart. They are more likely to be aromantic, too.
By saying they want to see more friendship themes and fewer romantic themes, the young people in the survey were expressing single-at-heart values. By objecting to media portrayals of romantic relationships that seem forced or unnatural, they are expressing their value of authenticity, something that is very important to the single at heart.
By saying they want to see more characters who are aromantic and asexual, they are giving voice to the open-minded, open-hearted, and inclusive values of the single at heart.
The single at heart are defined by their love of single life and not by any antipathy toward romantic relationships or sex. They might like romantic relationships and sex, dislike them, or feel indifferent toward them. That's not what matters.
What matters is their embrace of a single life and all that has to offer. When the young people who participated in the research were asked what themes they would like to see in TV shows and movies, friendships ranked 5, and content that doesn't include sex or romance ranked 7.
But romance and sex were on the list, too, ranking 13. I think that suggests that many are interested in romantic and sexual themes. They don't want those themes to dominate or to be inserted gratuitously.
The report highlighted this finding:
Fifty-six percent of American Gen Z say, 'I’m noticing that more and more people in my circle are deliberately choosing to be single,' signifying their belief that 'being single isn’t something to fix—it’s its own happy ending.'
That beautifully captures how the single at heart feels about being single. Maybe among the young, even those who do not want to be single, understand that for others, it truly can be its own happy ending.