Sells like Teen Spirit

Savvy about the media, steeped in pop psychology, today's kids have problems the experts still don't understand.

By Alissa Quart
Published September 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Ophelia no longer needs reviving -- at least not in publishing circles. A welter of new titles devoted to American teenagers appeared this year, ranging from pulp fiction to sociology to self-help. The boom is no surprise, given the 31 million teens now alive in America. Teens are the prized target audience of an entire television network, the WB, a slew of gross-out coming-of-age movies, clothing catalogs and Web sites. But despite all this shiny new adolescent media, it's still hard to hear actual teen voices. Teenagers are the sector of the population most looked at and least listened to. You can read about teens in case studies and ogle them in misty photographs but they're rarely given the space to tell their own stories.

And today's teens do have new stories to tell. They are working more hours at part-time jobs, including during the school year, than they did two decades ago. And with the money they earn from laboring at diners and dry cleaners they shop like crazy, spending $141 billion per year, according to Teen Research Unlimited. 1980s teens spent just half as much.

What are these fresh-faced materialists thinking about? We'd know better if we met a live one in the pages of "The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager." Instead, author Thomas Hine offers an engaging, if contrived, history of teenagers in America from Puritan days to the present. Before 1900, adolescence concluded when boys and girls matured physically. A century ago, girls menstruated at an average age of 15. (Today, it's at 12 years and nine months.) In the 1930s, a majority of the kids who enrolled in high school did so because the Depression had eliminated many of the jobs they might have taken instead. In fact, the word "teenager" emerged out of the New Deal gestalt. According to Hine, social and market conditions have altered considerably since the word "teenager" first came into general usage and the time has come to scrap the concept. He believes the category "teenager" encourages adults to think of young people as dependent and irresponsible. Hine thinks we should start thinking of teens as "beginner" adults.

For such a zealous would-be reformer of today's youth, Hine seems remarkably unconvinced that 21st century kids are in trouble, and traditional social indicators do suggest that they aren't. Late '90s teens, for example, have lower pregnancy rates than people in their 20s. "The early word on them is that this new cohort isn't as depressive or angry as their Gen-X grungy forbears," Hine writes. Why, then, use the word "fall" in the title? Like David Stevenson and Barbara L. Schneider, authors of another recent book, "The Ambitious Generation: America's Teenagers, Motivated but Directionless," Hine has jumped on a gloomy trendlet in books about adolescents -- servings of optimistic data crowned with a paradoxically glum title. It's as if these authors think that they can give instant urgency to their studies by making dark insinuations that never quite pan out.

Hine realizes that the facts don't point to any kind of "fall" in the traditional sense of the word. The "fall" he's talking about is a happy one, the new irrelevance of the term "teenager." As he puts it, jettisoning this false, overprotective category will be character-building for the newly redefined young people, sort of like the casting out of Adam and Eve from Eden. At the same time, Hine dismisses some of the forces that really are troubling today's adolescents. Although he notes that some theorists have christened these teens "a postmodern proletariat," a generation so opiated by pop culture that they are unaware of how cruelly the economy is treating them, he doesn't credit the observation, dubbing it simply the "leftist" view. As in the rest of "The Decline and Fall of the American Teenager," Hine doesn't offer new material, such as interviews with teens, to back up his claims.

"Girls on the Verge" on the other hand, teems with real teen life. 27-year-old author Vendela Vida did her field work, talking with Texas debutantes and Wiccans, gang girls and Latinas at their quinces (15th birthday parties). Vida's subject is contemporary initiation rites. After attending a variety of them, she concludes that as "time and feminism have liberalized sexual mores," maturity rituals are no longer primarily sexual. Now they are rites of "personal choice." In other words, today's teen girl doesn't ask God for her period; instead, she's begging for the approval of the head surfer girl.

Class and race are omnipresent forces in the scenes Vida visits, however, they barely show up in her interpretations. She writes of Cuban-American families who get their daughters professionally photographed for their quinces: "like mannequin dressers in a department store, Monica's mother and sister tend to her ... from the way Monica is dressed and the way her mother and sister are acting, I'm sure she is headed off for the biggest party of her fifteen-year-old life ... [Monica] says, 'I decided not to have a party. Instead, my mom and I agreed that for my fifteens I would have my pictures.' This is it, she is telling me and this, I think, is bizarre." Monica's folks are not actually throwing a quince party because they don't have enough money. But Vida doesn't probe why the strapped family strives so hard to maintain a "good life" fagade or consider that a transplanted Cuban bourgeois clan might be so ashamed of their current impecuniosity that they would do anything to keep up appearances.

Likewise, when Vida hangs with gang girls like Alicia, "a striking 17-year-old of Mexican descent," she doesn't give much thought to the clearly essential role of Latino and working-class identity in the fighter demimonde Alicia inhabits. Vida's most salient observation is that Latina gang girls have "highly arched, extensively plucked eyebrows." Monica, Alicia and the rest are, in her eyes, little more than varnished babes.

Vida quotes the girls she studies only briefly, usually when they issue sitcom-ready bon mots. In a chapter on young brides, Vida goes to a Las Vegas chapel and writes about teen brides-to-be. Why are they getting married in Vegas? "Because we saw it on TV and we thought it would be cool," says one. Which show? asks Vida. "'Hard Copy,' the bride answers. Other brides look at the chapel's wall of photos. One cries ecstatically. 'Is that Ricki Lake?' another chimes in. 'Ricki Lake got married here?!'" Vida recounts tales of food-phobic sorority sisters freaking out at the very mention of pasta. "'I especially love anything Italian,' Yvonne continues. 'I love pasta,' I exclaim ... Both girls stare at me -- not just at me, but more specifically at my thighs." Vida depicts these girls as little more than caricatures -- each one a mass of dark lips, shiny hair and toned gams.

There's a psychological block at the center of Vida's book and at the center of Hine's as well: These authors are afraid of adolescence. Hine unwittingly provides this self-diagnosis when he quotes Anna Freud on why adults forget their own puberty -- Freud says it's because teenage experience is so filled with "pain, trauma and turmoil that our conscious minds suppress it."

"Ophelia Speaks," a bestselling collection of writing by teenage girls, doesn't gloss over adolescent angst. Many of the book's agonized authors write freely about their eating disorders (the book's teen editor writes that each meal she eats is a decision not to be anorexic). As one girl puts it: "All of a sudden I'm insecurity-laden, nervous and dedicated to becoming Miss Skin 'n' Bones Teen USA." Others write of depression and addiction and pregnancy: "After the suicide attempt, I grew stronger. The reality of the situation became clear to me. I found a purpose to live for -- my baby." Meanwhile, coddled girls rage at their mothers.

There are a number of quite moving essays in this collection. The best is by 15-year-old Emily Carmichael. In her sophisticated, painful and amusing meditation on girl power, she writes, "'Girl power' is a product, like for instance peanut butter, not a movement, like for instance suffrage ... why do we buy this shit? ... It's something about being beautiful, that's what it is. We want to be happy, to be surrounded by boys who lend us sweaters and girls who share their Slurpees." Her rant against girl power's beauty myth takes on a personal note as well: "Did you know that when I was anorexic and looked like a beanpole, I felt more powerful than I do now?"

Carmichael's essay is scathing and outward-looking as well as inward-looking. Many of the other writings in "Ophelia Speaks" are more strictly self-involved. "Ophelia Speaks" is understandably intoxicated by its own youth, and the writing in it is often raw and true. But the book's problem-oriented chapters reflect a less appealing aspect of adolescence: generational myopia. Shandler and her writers are appalled by high school drinking and teen pregnancy, and seem to believe that these dilemmas are not only difficult personal struggles, but radically new social problems. I was surprised by some aspects of "Ophelia Speaks," but not these. What startled me was how readily most of the contributors have adopted a confessional, "problem memoir" mode. I was surprised to find that they take both pop psychology lingo and adolescent anorexia for granted. The chapters march to the rhythm of a self-help manual, with titles like "Self-Inflicted Wounds" and "Depression and Therapy." Shandler doesn't seem to consider these elements of her anthology surprising. Like brand-mania, they've become part of the adolescent landscape.

I've interviewed a number of kids over the last few months for a project I'm researching. Although my conversations with teenagers have shown me that the "Ophelia Speaks" writers are accurate representatives of adolescent life, the teenagers who have confided in me talk about a burden that Shandler's book never addresses: an ever-intensifying pressure to buy and wear the right stuff. These kids hail from a range of class and racial and cultural backgrounds, including Jamaican-Americans from Brooklyn, suburban princesses and Christian Midwesterners. They tell me that if they wear "scrubby" non-name-brand clothes to their urban private schools or suburban or inner-city public schools they know they will be dubbed "out group." In their circles, Tiffany bracelets or oversized FuBu T-shirts or Capri pants from Barney's are a must. At the same time, kids are incredibly sophisticated about the forces that make them feel that they must be thin, they must shop and they must be covered in logos.

"Can you believe this ad? No one's body looks like that!" said a 14-year-old, pointing to an ad in Vogue. "A bunch of old men are telling me how to look!" Declaring their disgust with fashion models and pricey wardrobes, these girls will tell me, in the very next breath, how much they want Kate Spade bags and cell phones and Polo jeans, the objects their popular peers think are the "hook-up." Thirteen-year-old girls express pained astonishment at "11-year-olds who get their eyebrows waxed"; meanwhile, their own legs are smooth from daily shaving.

The girls (and a few boys) I talked to explained that even saying where you shopped was a minefield. You mustn't admit that you bought your shirt at TJ Maxx or Target (pronounced "Tar-jay"). "Someone might recoil in horror," said Jill, 15. "Those aren't high-fashion places." "To stay popular, you have to wear a different name-brand outfit every day," a 13-year-old told me.

Similarly, groups of girls freely volunteered information about their eating disorders and those of their friends. Their self-understanding didn't change their behavior, though. They are like birds who know every bar of their gilded cage by heart.

This ambivalence about consumer culture may have quite a bit to do with the women's movement. The mothers of most of these girls are feminists or have in some way been touched by feminism. Their mothers have told them that they shouldn't want to look like the women in the magazines, or like Britney Spears; that they are beautiful the way they are, and that they won't be happier after having accumulated a new Urban Outfitter's slip dress. But teens also appear to believe that if they followed adult feminist thinking to its logical conclusion, they would be cast out by their peers. They would also feel overly controlled by their mothers. As theorist Angela McRobbie observes in "Feminism and Youth Culture," for teen post-feminists, the women's movement has come to stand for common sense. It has also become a sign of an excessive dependence on adult authority.

We are entering a period in which teens will dominate our culture. But will they have any real control over it? They might be a generation of silent shoppers who can only speak through the logos on their jackets. Or they might become a generation of media critics, better at analyzing and rejecting the advertisers that aim to seduce them than any previous generation. A comprehensive book about this cheery, if ambivalent, cohort would be most helpful, but, alas, such a book is yet to come.

Alissa Quart

Alissa Quart is the author of the poetry collection "Monetized."

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