Stigma surrounding youth within the juvenile justice system have a lot to do with society’s admiration for specific crime-heavy television and action-packed movies. The issue with this type of entertainment isn’t the action-based scenes themselves, but formerly incarcerated young individuals or youth with foster system experience being written and depicted as the suspect characters. Spectators are forced to believe that all trauma-experienced youth will have some form of dangerous motives due to their atypical upbringing. This further enforces stigmatization which prevents our society from realizing just how false these perceptions are.
Movies like Orphan, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, fall into these false narratives. The film depicts a nuclear family who decides to adopt a “troubled” child, hoping to give them a “better life.” The orphan, Esther, slowly begins to turn on the family, showing murderous desires. Throughout the film, Esther is seen taunting her adopted siblings and showing flirtatious manners towards her adopted father. It is eventually realized that Esther has been lying about her life as a youth, and that she was actually an adult formally involved in crime and theft. The movie ends with Esther being murdered by her adopted mother, who then is seen as the hero for saving the family from their mistake of adoption. The movie further entertains the stigma of adopted youth being susceptible to crime, adultery and lying. The movie is marked as “horror.” However, the real horror is the impact it may have had on families who were considering housing youth in need of real support or rehabilitation.
TV shows don’t shy from the same ideas of false delinquent portrayal. The common storylines of the “troubled” minors seem deeply affected by the abandonment of their families and project them to feel as if revenge unto others is how the youth will end up living their lives. An example is best seen in the television show Criminal Minds, where episodes like “Children of the Dark” show that the adult suspects were formally system-involved and abused by their host families, giving the audience an excuse to justify the criminal’s abusive motives. These are plots that seem exciting to the audiences watching. Yet, they are most likely far from the director’s understanding of what the system actually entails.
The United States is already facing low percentages in rehabilitating centers and housing for system-impacted youth. Only in the last year has the state of California begun offering resources rather than bars for minors. By enticing an audience with stories of youth burdened by the system, the media is only contributing to this nationwide issue as an excuse to create good storylines to sell to their audiences. While those impacted are constantly trying to get the world to recognize their strides of success and the facts of youth burdens, there’s a new episode ready to be premiered which knocks them down a few steps further. We need films and shows that show the real subjugation and raw unethical truths of the overall system. Youth do not need nor deserve the perception of suited detectives and armed officers “saving” the day by imprisoning the youth suspects — or sometimes, even killing those suspects on screen. These shows end in heroism by the system, which supports the pipeline to prison, and doesn’t show the long-term harms that such results can have on families and generations of youth who were in need of proper care by their governments. It’s time to fancy reformation in the juvenile justice system and acknowledge the power of system-impacted young people in entertainment and everywhere.
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