What is a Teenager?

11 Jul

For most of the last year, I’ve been reveling in, and suffering through, some major life transitions. Primarily, the transition from girlfriend to fiancé and the transition from graduate student to “real-world” job holding adult (that came with it’s own set of new job transitions a couple of times). It’s left me feeling unstable, in more ways than one, and a bit aimless. So, I’ve returned to focus on some topics that I love. And this is where I approach the topic of the teenager.

Mid-Year Exam, 1974 by Joseph Szabo
(via tumblr – click image)

It’s weird that when you say the word teenager or teen, most people feel like it means something very specific. There’s an idea that being a teen embodies more than an age range but also some aspect of identity. The word itself however, wasn’t used much before the early 1900’s and was originally popularized to sell clothing.

But if you’re a fan of pop culture, and I so am, you know that we are obsessed with teenagers. So it’s a fair question to ask: what really is a teenager? And why do we like them so damned much?

This is where I really think I get back to what I mentioned earlier about transitions. The thing about teens is that they are the go-to example of transitioning life. They are, to quote one of the most famous, “not a girl, not yet a woman,”

yeah, I went there. via

or boy, or whatever. The idea is that one day you’re a child and to smooth that transition into adult, we invented a time period that helps ease the way. This wasn’t always the case.

Ready for a vast simplification of American history? Really, ready? (And I mean this is how I remember it from previous research and I class I took a long time ago, so feel free to submit comments where I’m wrong.) Here goes: remember how once upon a time kids went to work in factories to support their families as soon as they were able? Child labor laws lead to more time in school and then, a few decades later, a growth in the middle class afforded us more time in school, and this all worked to prolong the space between childhood and adulthood until we have successfully created a group of youngsters with nothing to do expect wonder what they should do.

And yes, I recognize that there are actual years of age that end in teen but what I’m saying is that the “teen” as object, the “teen” as comodifiable, compartmentalized being that we idealize when we say “teens like” or “teens do this or that” is something that we, as a society, have created.

So, what does it matter? For me the “teen” as a market, as a sub-group, etc. has given birth to the teen as identity and ideology. Why is it that we have had so much “crossover” appeal for texts that are identified as “teen” or “young adult” markets? What is so important about retaining this distinction and how does it change how we approach them?

I’m not sure I know yet but I do know that I find it all very interesting and will likely have more to say on it and probably in the near future. Having said all of that, if you are interested in continuing to read what I have to say, you’ll at least know where I’m coming from.

Maybe I’ll end up going back for a Phd or maybe I’ll learn that what I love can let me learn about myself and help keep be grounded.

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5 Responses to “What is a Teenager?”

  1. Wiggles July 11, 2012 at 5:54 pm #

    Shana,
    Very interesting post. I look forward to more of your thoughts in the subject. I love ya fiction and coming of age stories, so yeah! Good job!
    -sara

    • redshana July 12, 2012 at 8:56 am #

      Thanks! What YA fiction are you into? I’m in between reads 🙂

  2. Nikki July 11, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

    I LOVE this topic! I think it appeals to me now also because of transitions and a recurring recent discussion of “powdered butt syndrome.” I have felt in recent years like I need to leave childish, or more accurately teenish, things behind and act/dress/etc like an adult (whatever that means), especially since transitioning from eons of school to the “real world.” It seems like the world is constantly changing – and delaying when a person is considered “grown.” Is that how the “teen” came to exist? Did the addition of a period between “child” – when one is too young to work, and “adult” – when society says one needs to join the “real world” create this societal force?

    • redshana July 12, 2012 at 9:00 am #

      It’s an interesting cross-section of ideas and how we label them, right? At what point do we call something a societal/social construct and at what point do we say we just got better at understanding what was already there?

      I think there has to be a combination of things because there has been cognitive research that shows brain development that would basically excuse a certain amount of what we consider “teenaged” behaviors. (There’s a specific article I read that I can never find when I want to cite it… if I find it I’ll post about it here.)

      But hey, I’d love to hear more about “powdered butt syndrome” in the meanwhile 🙂

      • Nikki July 18, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

        “Powdered butt syndrome” – the idea is that anyone who has powdered your butt/changed your diaper won’t take financial advice from you because you couldn’t possible know more than they do. I’m finding that for me at least it’s not just financial advice, but also true for many other subjects. Technology is the exception here – the rule that the youngest person knows the most still applies in this one area. My recent version of this in real life includes finances, all aspects of moving, and child rearing. It’s a joy to be the most experienced mover present and to be completely ignored when making suggestions as to the order of moving in (ie unload the furniture from the truck then deal with boxes). It is also a joy to be told you’re over feeding and under feeding your child (by his grandmothers within days of each other – the doctor thinks he’s just right btw).

        At what point do parents say they’ve done the best they can and allow their children to make it or break it on their own? For me, it seems like joining the real world (having a job, a house, a spouse, and now a child) isn’t quite enough for some parents to let go and have faith in their children. Is that an isolated thing or an extension of the teenage period?

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