Stereotypes and Hot Threesomes Abound in the World’s Most Popular Teen Soap
I learned Spanish in high school with the low-fi help of an educational VHS series called “Destinos.” Scripted after popular Latin telenovelas, the show followed plucky, polite 30-something lawyer Raquel through language lessons packaged as “episodes.” Raquel travels to several Spanish-speaking countries to solve some tame mystery, asking for directions to the library and casually mentioning the names and colors of simple objects along the way.
These days, I’m brushing up on my Castellano with popular Spanish teen drama Elite, one of the most-streamed TV shows in the world. While critics are panning a darker, rockier season 2 and fans are ignoring them in anticipation of season 3, I’m realizing we’re a LONG way from Raquel’s beige raincoats and paisley scarves.
Sexy Teenagers on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Elite follows three working-class kids who win scholarships to a posh Spanish prep school that resembles the Google campus, and then bad things and sex happen. Think “Big Little Lies” meets “Gossip Girl” at a club in Madrid, then they do ecstasy and have graphic underage sex in an infinity pool behind a mansion. Critics slobbered over creators Carlos Montero and Dario Madrona “turning teen drama themes on their head” — but after clockwork-oranging my eyeballs through two seasons of no-strings humping and catty face-offs, its evident they just rehashed the same tawdry storylines with more topless high schoolers and underage sex, no artfully-manipulated tropes in sight.
Elite lays out its dog-eared cards as the talented actors kinda mourn their classmate’s mysterious death and slow-mo party to bubblegum club beats: pill addiction, pregnancy, out of touch adults, STDs, swimming in pools, coming out, adoption plot twists, organized crime, dancing at fancy parties, a murder coverup, Important Money Papers, cheating, rich people doing nasty things, and more sex than you can shake a pregnancy test at.
Elite follows three working-class kids who win scholarships to a posh Spanish prep school that resembles the Google campus, and then bad things and sex happen.
And by “more sex” I mean at least three scenes per episode where fully naked 16-year olds are going at it for minutes at a time. There are threesomes, half-sibling hookups, school-shower sex, club-bathroom sex, hookups next to sleeping people, etc. Yet for all the socially-conscious, boundary-shattering coitus, the show mentions and/or deploys condoms precisely twice. Season 2 is a little less…genital-focused, and adds a few Outrageous Characters With Secrets (boxer Rebeca, fraud Cayetana and the rake Valerio), but as the students continue to fistfight and snort lines and have public intercourse, Raquel and I have some questions.
First: why is Nano, who is clearly out of high school and looks like a 30-year-old James Cavaziel, having sex with a 16-year-old student in season 1?
Second: Why does Elite use sex as an empty, sugar-rush-cheap plot rut where kids swap partners like bored 40-somethings at a key party? Are the writers just cross-mating characters by spinning a wheel and hoping cringey pubescent sex will keep things fresh? I’m not judging, that’s how I entertained myself when I got tired of my ragged pool of Barbie dolls when I was six. But so many teen dramas don’t lean on NSA voyeurism to buttress their content: My So-Called Life, Degrassi, Veronica Mars, Stranger Things, Glee, and Freaks and Geeks managed to convey hormone-driven sexual tension with clarity AND nuance.
A Woke Show Full Of Stereotypes
Third: why does the show claim to tackle Islamophobia, yet perpetuate many of its worst stereotypes? Elite portrays the conservative Muslim father (Abdelatif Hwidar) of teens Omar (Omar Ayuso) and Nadia (the excellent Mina El Hammani) as a critical, negative foil for their personal growth in every sense, and their mother (Farah Hamed) as a non-entity with no major lines at all. If the show truly wanted to break boundaries, it might present conservative religious standards as a multi-dimensional, supportive, grounding dynamic that allows for growth and personal development. But without a single Muslim or female writer on the show, Elite pigeonholes these standards as a dampening force on freedom and a one-dimensional obstacle to familial closeness.
Europe’s tense relationship with the headscarf plays out in a few scenes where the school tells Nadia her hijab is an “accessory” and must be removed, or they’ll expel her. Most American shows would make this the central controversy of the episode, culminating in a dramatic Supreme Court ruling after a heart-wrenching monologue. But Nadia simply removes it without stating any opinion of her own, and the hijab never appears in school scenes. Meanwhile, the other characters come to school like this:
Wearing hijab is the result of social and individual conviction and personal interpretation. The show treats Nadia’s option to honor her faith tradition as a neutral plot point, not an object of friction that her own decisions resolve. There were also two personally problematic Muslim “jokes” about Nadia planting bombs that the show doesn’t present in the context of hostile bullying, but rather as playful banter between two protagonists.
Spain remains one of the most classist countries in Europe, with centuries-old social stratification that still lifts the velvet rope for the right combination of old family names. Elite does its best work when it illuminates and criticizes this structure. Working-class immigrant son Omar hides his true personality from his conservative father, while his Spanish lover Ander receives immediate love and acceptance from his rich, socially-established parents. Scholarship kid Samu becomes entangled in crime to ease his financial burdens, as his brother languishes in prison for a crime committed by a wealthy teen. In season 2, a maid’s daughter on a scholarship desperately “fakes rich” to climb the social ladder, and a mob boss’s daughter finds that new money won’t win her access to the posh world she can now afford.
Season 3 just completed filming and is expected to hit Netflix mid-to-late next year. And while it promises more groping and expensive drinks and pill-gulping and punching, I’m still hoping for more nuance, social criticism and genuine artistry than I afforded my ragged Barbie dolls.