Review: Fashioning Teenagers

Fashioning Teenagers by Kelley Massoni


When I was what is technically considered a teenage girl, I was far too busy reading fanfiction, scheming to get my hands on Velvet Goldmine, and being a femmephobic little terror to even realize what mainstream teenage culture was. In my understanding, it was something to do with Saved By the Bell, which I couldn’t watch without my mother darkly muttering about how it gave my brother unrealistic expectations of high school. It’s both a blessing and a curse: I never felt like I was chained to a script, but mostly because I had no idea that the script existed. Thus, I was pretty blind to Seventeen magazine until I read an article that cited this book, which pointed out both Seventeen’s age and its origin story as a women’s service magazine. I had to investigate.

Fashioning Teenagers is the first cultural history of Seventeen magazine, the hugely influential American teenager magazine launched in 1944 by Helen Valentine (although there are plenty of other narratives floating around). Kelley Massoni limits her focus to two years in the history of Seventeen magazine—its first year and its fifth year, to show us where the magazine began and where the magazine ended up. Despite Valentine’s efforts to create a magazine that nurtures the whole human being in America’s teenage girls, the more pecuniary interests of Walter Annenberg, her publisher, and the advertisers the magazine relied on won out, creating the Seventeen magazine we know today.

“But why do you think they did it?” My high school English teacher asked our class once, about The Crucible. (They being the teenage girls accusing people of witchcraft, of course.)

“Well, you know, they were teenagers,” one of my classmates offered.

Actually,” I chimed in, “the concept of adolescence wasn’t invented until the 1950s, when teenagers began having disposable incomes and companies began to advertise to them!” (Yes, dear readers, I was that kid. Stand back, I’ll punch me myself.) I said this because I had just watched the director’s commentary on Back to the Future, which had informed me of this fact. I was utterly fascinated by the fact that the “teenager” was a modern invention. Fashioning Teenagers proves my own teenage estimate to be a little too recent; Massoni opens by informing us that the phrase “didn’t become a part of the popular lexicon until the late 1930s and early 1940s” (27). In the early 1940s, teenagers existed and businesses were starting to become aware of them as a market. But there was not a single magazine on the market that catered to teenagers—young women and very young girls, yes, but not teenagers.

Enter Helen Valentine, fresh from Mademoiselle. When publisher Walter Annenberg was looking to revamp Stardom, a declining movie magazine, he approached Valentine. She declined reworking the movie magazine, but proposed a magazine of her own—a service magazine aimed at teenage girls. Thus, Seventeen was born. While it covered the beauty and fashion its modern incarnation did, it also included material on jobs in the workforce, making things yourself, questioning gender roles, interacting with your parents, arts, literature, politics, and learning about the global world, such as other teenagers in different cultures or, domestically, a recently integrated Quaker community. Everything a (white, middle-class, American) teenage girl needed to be a well-rounded human being. She even, in her first editorial letter, invited her readership to not only talk back, but to disagree. Teenagers were barely a thing yet and here was Valentine, treating teenage girls not as children, but as people. Whoa cowboy.

Of course, Seventeen was hardly a feminist wonderland. Magazines run on ads, and the teenage girl the marketing department was telling potential advertisers about was a gullible, self-conscious trendsetter with access to her own pocketbook and her daddy’s, not a put-together, outspoken young woman who “borrowed” her daddy’s ties and thought about global issues. As you can imagine, Valentine soon lost ground, with no help from Annenberg, who demanded that she minimize the already minimal amount of people of color in the magazine. Five years into the magazine, the section of the magazine that had previously focused on the global world now focused on the world of boys. A narrative preparing girls for male attention as the necessary step to the ultimate achievement—marriage—soon infiltrated the magazine (down to ads for your future silver collection), the first step in Seventeen’s evolution to what it is today.

It’s a harrowing story, really. While reading this, I dug up a recent copy of Seventeen, which happened to be the March issue of this year, and was kind of appalled to find no articles on difficult issues and almost every page focused on selling a lifestyle. (To be fair, the letters section did mention a February article on gay rights, but, tellingly, the letter was from a straight ally, not an actual queer reader of Seventeen.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with a fashion magazine; what’s making me frown here is that Valentine’s vision of a magazine that provided cultural analysis and global connection to young women has been so neutered, especially for a magazine that remains the top-selling magazine for teenage girls. With the help of Fashioning Teenagers and my economics classes, I’ve become hyperaware of how advertisers advertise to me, and my hackles raise when an ad crosses over from “this is a pink lipstick that is more moisturizing than our competitors!” to “this pink lipstick will make boys fall in love with you!”.

I saw yards of that in Seventeen—as did Massoni. As a text unto itself, Fashioning Teenagers can be a little dry, and I was surprised to find typos so bad I couldn’t ignore them (you expect some typos, but chapter headings missing? Yikes!). Still, the story itself is fascinating. I highly recommend checking out the article that made me want to read this at The Awl, because it’ll take you through the decades to the modern Seventeen. Massoni only focuses on the forties, briefly touching on the modern magazine at the end.

Bottom line: Fashioning Teenagers can be a little dry and, surprisingly, typo-ridden enough it’s worth mentioning, but the story of how Seventeen, a service magazine for teenage girls aimed at fashioning ideal citizens, lost its soul is harrowing. Well worth a read.

I rented this book from my school library.

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