by Jon Savage
2008 (originally published 2007) • 576 pages • Penguin Books
I always viewed the classical teenage experience as mainstream American media sold it to me by way of Saved by the Bell reruns as pure fantasy. It probably helped that any time Madame McBride caught me watching said show, she would always pause behind me and sigh importantly that it gave my brother “unrealistic expectations about high school.” Between being an angry, nerdy preteen too dumb to realize she was queer and the old McBride gene pool being so Catholic that it just fast-forwards all inheritors through puberty in about a week, none of it seemed particularly relevant to me and my experiences. Even the mischief my alternative kid friends would get up to seemed beyond me: my fear of my mother outweighed any desire for teenage rebellion. It was always glaringly obvious to me, the tallest girl in fifth grade, that adolescence was a social construct.
Of course, understanding that a thing is socially constructed does not mean resolving it right out of existence. (Blip!) As Rebecca Jordan-Young reminds us (while clearing up some misconceptions about gender theory), things that are socially constructed are nonetheless real. We simply have more access and agency in their construction than most social forces would like you to think. For instance, the English language is socially constructed out of historical encounters between several cultures. The English language is very, very real. But its invention and construction is obvious enough that I can yell a lot about how it is absurd that appellation is a word in English but the verb from whence it is derived is not.
So—the teenager, as we all know from the special edition DVD of Back to the Future, was invented in the 1950s for marketing purposes. But that’s only the label for a phenomenon that had always been with the human species.
A thousand blessings upon journalist Jon Savage subtitling Teenage with “The Prehistory of Youth Culture 1875 – 1945”. A lot of political elements, social forces, and youth movements led to the construction of the teenager, but none of them on their own invented the teenager. While Savage cites pre-1945 sources that do make use of the term “teenager” (or several unwieldy variants thereof), Savage insists on using, at most, “adolescent.”
It’s an astonishingly wide-ranging prehistory of Western youth culture—Savage alternates between the United States and Western Europe—so much so that I feel inclined to forgive Savage when he falls prey to superfluous footnotes highlighting little details from his research. Almost. (Although I would have loved more information on the English Mitford sisters, one of whom was named Unity and ran off to be an everloving Nazi. ON PURPOSE.) Like nearly all of my nonfiction reviews, this one threatens to turn into another rapturous recitation of the fascinating facts, so I’ll hold my tongue and focus instead on the macro.
The propulsive force drawing this narrative along is a slowly growing recognition of the potential of adolescents, from both themselves (whether furiously journaling, declaiming, or engaging in some countercultural behavior whose appeal partially lies in frustrating the expectations of the old) and the powers that be, which ranges from their parents to the free market to the government. Over the seventy years Savage covers, adolescents are mythologized and demonized. (It’s kind of hilarious to see people having the same stunned reaction to young fans losing their minds over musical acts on three separate occasions decades apart.) Reading this gave me a better appreciation for how World War I and World War II link together in history, despite its narrow focus on how the wars and the interwar period affected adolescents. As adolescence is lengthened through more consistent public schooling, the push and pull between the adolescent’s traditional dependence on others and growing sense of independence becomes compounded. Robbed of more traditional ways to ritualize becoming an adult as cultures become more secular, war, troublingly, becomes a ritual and an outlet for a lot of adolescents. One chapter starts off with a quote from a preteen in World War II calmly wondering if the next generation will have their own war, as hers does and the one before hers did.
After making it through Savage’s sometimes dry prose and decades of prehistory, it feels almost tragic to arrive at Savage’s final point—the already foregone conclusion that the only reason the teenager was officially born in the 1950s is because that’s when market interests finally aligned for it to be sufficiently valuable in the eyes of capitalism. (Savage also twists the knife by comparing Elliot E. Cohen’s 1945 cheerful “A Teen-Age Bill of Rights” against Anne Frank’s last days, because those were two things happening at the same time.)
I’ll be watching the documentary quite soon; it’s streaming on Netflix and it’s kind of the reason I wanted to read the book in the first place.
I rented this book from the public library.