There have always been teenagers, at least in the chronological sense. Teenage culture as we know it today, however, is a relatively new phenomenon, and it’s a funny thing. Its public face is arbitrated and controlled by the adults with varying degrees of involvement from actual members of its demographic, and may not necessarily reflect what it’s like for teenagers to grow up in any given era. In Teenage Confidential: An Illustrated History of the American Teen, authors Michael Barson and Steven Heller cover plenty of the former, but not much of the latter.
Barson and Heller’s book divides teens into two categories: KleenTeen and JD, or Juvenile Delinquent. KleenTeens are, of course, of the Andy Hardy variety. They’re kids who never get in trouble, are respectful to their elders, and are basically miniature adults. Pop culture tried to cultivate the KleenTeen attitude in the younger set, not only via characters like the aforesaid Andy Hardy, but also his hackneyed competitor, Henry Aldrich. Shirley Temple was also a classic KleenTeen, and starred in such films as Miss Annie Rooney and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. Educators got in on the movie racket as well, using Coronet instructional films that showed kids everything from personal hygiene to table manners to how to find The One.
Heh, yeah, about those instructional films. While the messages they contain lean towards the excellent or at least thought-provoking, no one was expecting anything from them but the barest of bare bones in terms of acting or production. They definitely weren’t looking to make blockbusters. Barson and Heller rather sardonically note that the films probably got a lot of kids snickering (watch a Coronet film here).
KleenTeens had more than films to encourage them to stay Kleen, as print media was also a thing. Many people default to Seventeen when they think of the first teen magazine, but it was actually the second. Preceeding Seventeen by three years was Calling All Girls, first published in September of 1941. Barson and Heller called it “relentlessly cheerful,” and a pale shadow of its more sophisticated successor. The magazine morphed into what we know as YM and ceased publication in 2004, while Seventeen is still going strong.
Teenage Confidential doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on KleenTeens, though, because it thinks JDs have more fun. The book states that juvenile delinquency began to skyrocket during the Second World War, when many parents were in the Armed Forces or working at war jobs, leaving teens to their own devices. More than a few cities responded by opening clubs and sponsoring activities to fill the void, but even so, gambling and drinking were widespread.
Additionally, there was a spike in venereal disease among teen girls, particularly those who went with soldiers. These women and girls were referred to as “V-girls.” Allistair Cooke, who was a journalist during the war, wrote of one V-girl who married seven soldiers under assumed names to get their allotment checks and their insurance if they were killed. She was convicted on felony charges and sent to prison.
Naturally, juvenile delinquency was fodder for the entertainment industry. Besides blockbusters like Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without A Cause, there were scads of pulp fiction and B-movies. Serials such as The East Side Kids and The Bowery Boys showcased the proverbial boys-in-gangs scenario, with the protagonists as what amounted to anti-heroes before anti-heroes were cool. One of the most famous of these was The Amboy Dukes, a no-holds-barred story of gang life that was made into a weak little movie called The City Across the River. Many of these tales showed the main characters getting what they deserved, but it still must have seemed glamorous to certain moviegoers.
Speaking of glamour, Teenage Confidential‘s main focus is on teen idols, with Frank Sinatra leading the pack. Exempted from the draft due to a punctured eardrum, Sinatra had girls screaming their lungs out twenty years before the Beatles and kept his star shiny almost consistently until his death in 1998.
Barson and Heller are obviously Elvis fans, because the King gets a healthy amount of print space compared to other artists of the fifties. Elvis had long-for-the-time hair, he gyrated like nobody’s business, and he flirted ever so slightly with being a bad boy. He also made movies, cut records, and did TV spots galore, the latter most often filmed from the waist up to minimize that dangerous pelvis shaking. Quelle horreur! What’s funny about the furor over Elvis’s pelvis is that he had been inspired by watching black preachers.
Elvis’s icing-on-the-cake stage was surprisingly brief, as he made it big in 1956 and was drafted in 1958. When he got out, nothing was the same. He had no sideburns, he had gained some weight, and his songs were more treacly than dangerous. It didn’t hurt Elvis in the long run, though, as he is an icon and his imitators are everywhere.
In the authors’ minds (and they just might be correct) the artists who moved in to fill the void left by Elvis going into the Army were bland and boring, paving the way for surf culture and the British Invasion. Nothing against folks like Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, and Ricky Nelson, but they could never really touch the King.
Teenage Confidential is written in a witty style with a touch of snark. It’s visually busy, crammed with magazine covers and sample pages from various publications. However, the book misses the boat in that it presents a pretty full picture of what pop culture was telling teens to think of themselves while skimping on what teens were actually doing. If we were to base our view of history on the way the media of a given time looks, we would get a very skewed picture of what that period was like. People don’t live the way magazines and films portray, because none of that is real. At the very least, pop culture is an idealized approximation of reality.
Not to mention, people aren’t that easily categorized. There were plenty of guys in the fifties who kept a pack of cigarettes rolled up in their T-shirt sleeves, but they weren’t necessarily juvenile delinquents. It was just something some boys did.
The thing about pop culture is that it can get so ridiculous it’s just easier to ignore it and live one’s life. As the forties, fifties, and sixties get farther and farther into the rear view mirror, a book like Teenage Confidential will be less and less relevant because it relies on the ridiculousness instead of on actual life. It’s fun, but forgettable.
Thanks for reading, all, and see you next time…
Barson, Michael and Steven Heller. Teenage Confidential: An Illustrated History of the American Teen. New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc. 1998, 2005.
Cooke, Allistair. The American Home Front, 1941-1942. London: The Penguin Group. 2006.