Inventing Modern Adolescence: The Children of Immigrants in Turn-of-the-Century America

Inventing Modern Adolescence: The Children of Immigrants in Turn-of-the-Century America

Inventing Modern Adolescence: The Children of Immigrants in Turn-of-the-Century America

Inventing Modern Adolescence: The Children of Immigrants in Turn-of-the-Century America

Synopsis

The 1960s are commonly considered to be the beginning of a distinct "teenage culture" in America. But did this highly visible era of free love and rock 'n' roll really mark the start of adolescent defiance? In Inventing Modern Adolescence Sarah E. Chinn follows the roots of American teenage identity further back, to the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. She argues that the concept of the "generation gap"--a stereotypical complaint against American teens--actually originated with the division between immigrant parents and their American-born or -raised children. Melding a uniquely urban immigrant sensibility with commercialized consumer culture and a youth-oriented ethos characterized by fun, leisure, and overt sexual behavior, these young people formed a new identity that provided the framework for today's concepts of teenage lifestyle.Addressing the intersecting issues of urban life, race, gender, sexuality, and class consciousness, Inventing Modern Adolescence is an authoritative and engaging look at a pivotal point in American history and the intriguing, complicated, and still very pertinent teenage identity that emerged from it.

Excerpt

The 1980s, the years of my own adolescence, were the decade of the films of John Hughes and his muse, Molly Ringwald. The most celebrated movie in his oeuvre, The Breakfast Club (1985), featured five teenagers, each of whom fit a specific adolescent stereotype: the jock, the bad boy, the nerd, the weirdo, the popular girl. Forced together for an all-morning detention, the five argued, got high, formed new alliances, and, finally, came to understand that despite their superficial differences they had one crucial thing in common: they were all teenagers in an unjust adult world.

Coming from a teen culture in England in which this was not the common wisdom, and in which clothing styles, racial identity, social class, political affiliations, and taste in music all combined to construct a variety of specific (and often mutually exclusive) youth identities, I found exotic the message that differences in style were ultimately meaningless. Although a mainstream urban youth culture was definitely in abeyance in the mid-1980s in the United States, on hiatus from the fierce energies and fashion innovations of punk and funk and before hip-hop and its attendant styles reached beyond black and Latino neighborhoods, Hughes’s movies represented an adolescent culture bubbling away in suburban and small town high schools, gently rocked by the conflicts between jocks and nerds, popular kids and hermits, bad boys and yearbook editors.

In retrospect, the manageable suburban adolescents represented in popular culture during the 1980s were the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the way teenagers have been imagined in the United States. However, there was no question that they were teenagers, that is to say, members of a defined, knowable age cohort who had in common, if nothing else, their identities as adolescents. The 1990s returned the image of adolescence to its previous incarnations—threatening, exciting, wild, unpredictable, sexually powerful, and uncompromisingly urban—with the twin phenomena of postpunk rock and hardcore rap, movies like Larry Clark’s Kids, and new fashions in clothing and body styles that sufficiently outraged parents and the mainstream media. Ironically, this combative relationship between the adult power structure and . . .

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