Shows about being a teenager are ten a penny – The Gossip Girl reboot, Euphoria, Riverdale, the list of glossy teen dramas goes on and on. But Channel 4’s new offering, Consent, is a different thing entirely, and it’s going to make you unbelievably glad that you’re not a teenager.
It’s a show set at a prestigious private school (not an unfamiliar premise) which takes girls from sixth form, and where there is an endemic culture of toxic masculinity and a serious, untreated problem of boys sharing sexually explicit commentary and photos of their fellow pupils. In the show the boys have an expression ‘no face, no case’ which enables them not to worry about revenge porn laws. It’s all utterly gross and hideously true to life.
Having attended a pretty similar school, watching the show was almost a little bit triggering, if not triggering then at least very depressing to learn that my experience of being a teenager surrounded by nasty, wealthy boys hasn’t changed much, even if the technology is better now. My friends and I spent our teens being treated like objects by boys at prestigious schools. I was upskirted, groped, ranked and rated.
Nude culture was kicking off in the noughties. Somewhere in the ether of cyber space there are hundreds of grainy photographs of my naked or semi taken body, taken on primitive phones, all with my face in, all very much illegal, and created exclusively to try and entertain other people. And now it’s much, much worse, because rather than a grainy photo on a Razr phone, it’s staggeringly good quality footage shot on iPhones, uploaded to the internet and shared everywhere, almost instantly. Part of being a teenager in 2023 is constantly documenting your life, creating a narrative in which you are the lead part. I was struck watching the show by how these kids have their phones in their hands at every possible second. Perhaps it’s middle aged, but I can’t help wondering if schools might be better places if teenagers weren’t allowed to bring their phones.
It would have been easy for the show to villainise the boys and sanctify the girls, but it’s cleverer than that. The show captures the toxic Whatsapp group culture, the way that these young men make each other worse and worse, not because they’re inherently evil but because they don’t know how to be men without being toxic, and because they’re constantly competing to be the best, the most powerful, the most adult.
In the same sense, it feels entirely understandable when the lead character, who is accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour, has his parents and sister swoop in to defend him. They love him. He’s their child, their brother. You protect the people you love – right? It’s much braver and more interesting to have made a show where the adults who are behaving poorly do so from a place that you can totally understand. It’s human nature to side with your own flesh and blood, but it’s also why these boys think they can get away with murder.