Dear ‘Underage’ producers, it’s 2022. Can we please stop sexualizing minors?

Screenshot: Underage teaser (GMA-7)
Screenshot: Underage teaser (GMA-7)

Let’s not pretend that depicting three girls, in soaking wet tank tops and shorts underneath a waterfall with the words “Underage” plastered in the middle, is anything but problematic.

@gmanetwork Ngayong January 2023, mapapanood n’yo na ang coming of age series sa hapon, ang #Underage! ♬ original sound – GMA Network

For those out of the loop, this is the teaser television giant GMA-7 recently released for its upcoming TV show Underage, airing in January. It’s apparently a modern-day remake of the 1980 film of the same name that starred Snooky Serna, Dina Bonnevie, and Maricel Soriano.

Clearly, GMA wants to position this show as a vehicle for its lead stars, relative newcomers Lexi Gonzales, Elijah Alejo, and Hailey Mendes. This is in keeping with the legacy of the original film, which launched the careers of its then-young actresses into eventual superstardom. Still, there is no denying its problematic themes and scenes that veer toward the exploitative. 

To back up: the OG Underage told the story of three teenage sisters who move from a small town to Manila, where they face the harsh realities of life — mostly doled out by the adults who mistreat them — including one problematic rape scene that serves as the film’s subplot. What ensues is a fairly typical Filipino melodrama about girls going experiencing a “rude awakening” about life along with a smattering of teenage love scenes here and there. 

We’re apparently not alone in our discomfort, either. In a Reddit thread in the Philippines subreddit, many commenters agreed with the OP who said they were “grossed out” by the remake’s sexualized depiction of the actresses, given the context of their roles. That they’re all at least 18 years old in real life is beside the point, since their characters are supposed to be underage, as the title suggests.

Sure, Underage is hardly the first provocative coming-of-age story to come out of the Philippines or elsewhere. In the West, there are plenty of films and TV shows rife with depictions of teens engaging in questionable behavior such as drinking, smoking, and sex. We’re not saying teens don’t partake in these activities in real life or that media should only depict adolescents as wholesome two-dimensional characters like they’re on the Disney Channel. But there are ways of representing those truths on screen with sensitivity and without exploiting or objectifying minors.

To be fair, GMA-7 isn’t even the first to do a remake of Underage. There was a sequel to the original film, Underage Too, that came out in 1991, and rival station ABS-CBN also came up with its own remake in 2009.

The 1980 film was clearly a product of its time; its tagline literally read, “The trouble with little girls is that all too suddenly they become women. Goodbye, lollipops and toys — Hello, boys.”

Yet nearly four decades later, and after the 2010s’ decade-defining #MeToo movement, you’d think we would have learned from the missteps of the past, especially when it comes to controversial content that depicts minors in vulnerable situations. At a time when the world continues to broaden its understanding of power structures, patriarchy, and the prevalence of the male gaze, shows such as this new Underage feel unnecessary and retrogressive.

Could it be too early to judge this remake? We’d like to be proven wrong and find out that in contrast to its sleazy marketing, this modern-day retelling somehow manages to incorporate today’s sensibilities and nuances for a more progressive narrative. But even if that were the case, it would leave us with more questions than answers.

Why bother making a modern remake of such a problematic film in the first place? Why do coming-of-age stories have to imply some sort of sexual awakening? And what’s with that damn waterfall?

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