The American Adolescent

Here is a rewrite of my presentation on The American Adolescent for Literary Criticism. Some of you may enjoy it, if you like theory. I’ve added links for background info if you’d like to learn more deeply what I’m talking about. Some of these arguments may seem silly, but I do passionately believe that the world needs to expect more out of its young people or we’ll be left with a generation that cannot do anything!

Here goes:

Adolescence first became a class in the twentieth century. It first became a prominent psychological class when Stanley Hall did a study on it in 1904. It may have originated due to social or economic forces or it may have come about because young people were becoming pubescent much younger, therefore requiring an “in-between” stage on their way to adulthood. Whether the cause is biological or not, the primary measure of a youth’s ability to take on the responsibilities of adulthood should not be age alone. It’s like gender. Yes, we have biology, but no, there is not an essential meaning for that gender. Woman-ness is not the most important thing that women have in common.

I would argue that we actually have about four biologically related categories in our society. We have the generally recognized man and woman, but then we also have childhood and adolescence, periods of life in which the expectations for behavior differ drastically from one another.

Adults rule in society. There is very little room for adolescent leadership, but some of these young people are perfectly ready to take on more of the world than they are given. It is the compulsory secondary education that enforces the same period of development and subordination to adults for every teen. The only exception to this is something that we call “legal emancipation.” The term in itself shows that adolescents are not free until they are 18. Even then, society makes it almost compulsory once again for students to get a college degree, which sometimes means growing up, but for many it means extended adolescence. College is just one more phase of life where the student’s job is to think of him or herself above anything else. This idea of compulsory adolescence perhaps relates to Adrienne Rich’s idea of compulsory heterosexuality.

This is a video challenging education paradigms. It suggests that our current system is out dated. We have a very industrial way of dealing with educating children, and, for the sake of efficiency, we group the departments separately, we use separate bathrooms, and we group students primarily by age. And it raises the question: Is the most important thing young people have in common their date of manufacture? Well, it isn’t.

Another way to view the Otherization of adolescents is through the fact that most of their identities are negative. Society defines them in terms of what they no longer have (like innocence) and what they can’t yet do (like get married, or have a job). In this Britney Spears song, we see this negative identity taking shape. She is not a girl and not a woman. Adolescence is just “in-between.” Many cultures don’t have this in-between, so is it really an essential phase?

So adolescence is another layer of otherness that criticism should deal with. We talked in Literary Criticism class about how being female is a layer of otherness. And if you are part of an ethnic group on top of that you are Other squared. But if you are Adolescent, Female, and Ethnic, then you are really Other cubed.

So as an example of what it is like to be an adolescent, I have an urban dictionary definition. “The worst years of your life when your enimies are your friends and your family and your family is you enemy. When girls freakout because they think having a pimple is acne and spend 50 grand on products to cover it up. When guys try to get in a girls pants before they even kissed the girl. Just to be cool around their friends. When everything is a mess. Homework piles to your head and you go on ms/aol/yahoo for at lease half of your day. When coke is not just a drink. Skirts are pulled up to barely cover the ass and pants are pulled down to show half your boxer. If your caught with your parents your social life is over. When people try to buy the most expensive things they can lay their hands on just to fit in. Friends are backstabbers and you life is just a living hell so you make you life seem so perfect by partying every weekend and getting high.” My question is: Why do we put kids in this place? And how does it come to this?

In her essay, “One is not born a woman,” Monique Wittig makes the argument that the concept of race did not exist before slavery. This also applies to adolescence, because, quite literally, adolescence did not exist before compulsory secondary school. She also says that women are a class. So are adolescents. There is an adolescent myth similar to the one Wittig calls the myth of “woman.” That myth is one of rebellion and subculture creation. Not all adolescents would become the image of the mythical American adolescent were it not for their belief in the reinforced constructed identity. And some never become that kind of kid anyway. Some adolescents never go through the “teenage dark tunnel.”

So now, I am going to take a look at Gilbert and Gubar who asserted that women have “anxiety of authorship” as opposed to “anxiety of influence” due to a lack of predecessors. Adolescents are told that they need to be fully developed before they try to achieve anything outside of academics, for this reason, there are very few examples of canonical writing by adolescents. More time should be allowed for students to generate literary work. I know several who would and many others who would not, but we ought to open the doors for students to actually create something substantial, rather than roping them into the impersonality of the school system. It is possible that there could be an adolescent literary cannon.

Cixous has said that women need to write themselves because no one else will. Once again, same to adolescents. Yet we do have young adult fiction. But this is not written by teens, it merely enforces the stereotypes because it entertains themes of: identity, sexuality, science fiction, depression, suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, familial struggles, bullying, and many others. Many of these are relevant to adolescents, but unless they are written by adolescents, the experience cannot really represent the adolescents of today with an inside perspective. Even I could not write a young adult novel that would really be applicable on a deep level to the teens of today. They are practically born with cell phones in their hands. I didn’t have a phone until I was in high school and I didn’t text often or have a Facebook account until I was a high school senior.

There might be a new way to think about adolescence if we take a look at bell hooks’s essay Postmodern Blackness. We need a postmodern adolescence, a more fluid look at what it can mean to be a person that has been alive for 12-21 years. Adolescents are not biologically inclined toward the tendencies that have been constructed to represent their essence. Hooks suggests that there is both a lack of interest by blacks in participating in the critical canon and that there is a lack of audience. So for teens is it a lack of audience or lack of interest? I would argue both. In the present system it would be difficult for students to feel that critical studies are relevant to them. Hence the proverbial student question: How is this relevant to my life? Hooks also says that rap is where many black people find their critical voice. So is there a critical outlet for other adolescents too?

This meme in itself makes the argument that these outlets really are the adolescent venting of their sense of otherness.

Youtube, social media, and memes are the critical channels for today’s adolescents.

Another helpful theorist is Gloria Anzaldúa, this age discrimination might also be helped by her idea of the Mestiza. The idea of adolescence as an inferior state also makes it a candidate for Anzaldúa’s list of liminal identities that make up the mestiza. It is important that the adolescents on the fringes who are most oppressed by the current situation focus on their overlap with people who take part in other liminal identities.

So what about the Cultural Critics? They must be important to this discussion since they spend so much time analyzing youth and their subcultures. I think Stuart Hall’s notion of the distinctions between politics and theory is important to make. Theory, he argues, should always be open, but any political move requires what he calls “arbitrary closure.”  Education is a political thing. It requires some sort of arbitrary closure to make learning happen, and education is important. What we need to do is to keep the theory open to the fact that adolescence is an arbitrary construction based upon a political action.

What Hebdige actually takes note of in his analysis of subcultures is the “Otherization of teens.” They are disarmed through the idea that their garb is “meaningless exotica.” The term exotica shows, in fact the otherization of these groups. They must be otherized in order to be incorporated. This incorporation hinders the ability of kids to actually have powerful political ideas. So this is just one more way that adolescents remain unempowered.

Because culture expects so little of its adolescents, we end up with hordes of directionless teens who turn to media to give them a sense of well-being. The media does not challenge them to move out of this identity. It preserves their adolescent state. The first step in undoing this construction is revamping the educational system. We need to teach them that even before adulthood, they can have real-world accomplishments. That is where feminism began, with education, way back when with Christine de Pizan and Mary Wollestonecraft.

Although patriarchy may seem to have Biblical support, at least the good book is on the side of adolescents:

“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).


About Jacquelyn Barnes

Former English Literature and Writing major at Whitworth University. Spanish Language minor. Browne's Addition Resident. Editorial Assistant at Gray Dog Press. Interested in postcolonial, multicultural, and feminist theories. Former ski racer. Longboarder. Runner. Member of Vintage Faith Community Church (we have no building). Painter. Morning person. View all posts by Jacquelyn Barnes

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