Theory of Adolescence

January 2015

Adolescence is a strange and painful time for everyone involved, from teachers to parents to adolescents themselves. Or so the story goes. The dominant culture teaches us from an early age that the years marking each young person’s transition from child to adult are an veritable crucible of hormonal torture flecked with mortifying memories that will persist for years until washed away by the numbing release of alcohol. The films and literature examined in this class paint a bleak picture to be sure, but even in the midst of their apparent doom and gloom, they offer a certain fledgeling, flickering hope.

The unfortunate reality that every adolescent must face when embarking upon the journey is the simple fact that their social webs will require significant restructuring. Adults, once all-seeing and ever-present, will now be useless in almost every circumstance. From the very first film, Rebel Without a Cause, we see a father who refuses to step up and be the strong, committed role model that his son needs him to be until Jim pushes him to do so. In The Outsiders, there are practically no adults; when they do appear, they play extremely minor roles, sometimes making things worse (killing Dally or driving Johnny away, for example). In Thirteen, Tracy’s mother misses every opportunity to reach out to her daughter during her downward spiral. In River’s Edge, Matt’s mother renounces her role to her children in a bout of frustration. And on and on and on it goes.

In place of these adults, adolescents must construct their own adolescent groups to function as replacement families. In The Outsiders, Darry, Soda, and Ponyboy form their own family after the death of their parents, and the gang functions as a larger family group for all of the boys, all of whom have found their traditional homes to be lacking. In The Member of the Wedding, Frankie rejects her family, feeling a strong urge to change, and instead seeks belonging amongst strangers on the streets of her town. In Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Stacy, whose parents never appear in the film, asks her friend Linda for advice on every subject instead.

These themes remain constant across the media we have studied, but one thing stands out quite starkly: the open-ended conclusion to almost every work. Though nearly every work seems to assume a defeatist attitude regarding the inevitable misery of the transition every adolescent faces, the endings they provide are bittersweet, open, cautiously hopeful. Welcome to the Dollhouse ends on an ambiguous note as Dawn seems to accept her lot in life, resolved to do whatever it takes to muddle through. Alike recites a poem about leaving her old life not to run but out of a personal choice at the conclusion of Pariah. Veronica concludes Heathers by reaching out to an unloved student, breaking the traditional clique boundaries. These endings by no means guarantee “happily ever after,” but they hint that things can be better if we choose to make them better.
In spite of so much pessimism and darkness, the canon of media about and for adolescents offers this one piece of advice: make yourself what you want to be. Adults will fail, social structures will crumble, and rules will hold you back. If you wish to avoid the same fate as the now useless and pitiful creatures that went before you, you must be better by doing better. The heroes in these works are those who realized this and in some way, no matter how small, found a way to make a change. That is what yesterday’s adolescents have to offer today’s adolescents. The question I now have is this: are they listening?


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