‘Teenage': A Documentary Looks At the Origins of an Age Group

By Mark Walsh — May 27, 2014 4 min read
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In “Teenage,” a documentary about the rise and recognition of the age group between children and adults, there is nary a sighting of Dick Clark.

Even the earliest national success of “American’s oldest teenager,” as the host of “American Bandstand” in the late 1950s, post-dates the study period for this film, from the early 20th Century until the end of World War II.

Only a brief montage at the end of the film alludes to the teenage culture we’re familiar with from recent decades: “Bandstand,” skateboards, punk rockers, and so on. The film by New York City director Matt Wolf is based on a 2007 book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, by Jon Savage. Both the film and the book (the second edition of which had a slightly different title) focus on how we arrived at that familiar culture, not just in the United States, but in other countries, too, particularly Britain and Germany.

The concept of the “teenager” didn’t even exist at the turn of the last century. In an interview in The Washington Post with Wolf and Savage last week, Savage noted a seminal 1904 book by G. Stanley Hall, titled Adolescence, which began to identify the teenage years of American youths as a reflection of nationalization.

As Education Week observed in stories published as part of a fin de siècle examination of schooling throughout the 20th Century, the early part of that century was a time of child labor, when youths went from primary school (or often just from home) into mills and factories. The comprehensive high school arose by the 1920s, as an institution geared toward this age group.

Wolf’s 78-minute film largely starts in Britain, where Robert Baden-Powell published his Scouting for Boys in 1908, part of an effort to “tame young hooligans,” the film says.

“We went from rat-face slum kids to fit and healthy soldiers,” an unidentified voice from that era declares of the militaristic Scouting movement. “Fit for war.”

As Britain and other countries hurtled toward World War I, youths in that country embraced dressing up as newborns and toddlers in “baby parties.”

The film has lots of good archival footage that is supplemented by stylized modern “portraits” of four young people whose stories are recorded in books and diaries but for whom original film sources simply didn’t exist. Wolf said in the Post interview that he wanted to use these “character portraits,” but these individuals were relatively obscure figures.

“It felt like the best way to bring about these portraits of these forgotten figures was to visually reconstruct,” he said in the Post interview. They include Brenda Dean Paul, a reckless British starlet who was, to credit another reviewer, the Lindsay Lohan of her day; and Melita Maschmann, an early Hitler Youth member.

By the 1920s, white U.S. youths were doing something they would repeat more than 60 years later: embracing black music that their parents didn’t understand. Beginning in the 1980s, it was rap and hip-hop, but back in the Jazz Age it was swing music that brought black and white teenagers together.

While the Boy Scouts helped a new age group emerge in Britain, in the United States it was the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, the film says, which gave teenagers (and older age groups) a chance to develop their independence.

In Nazi Germany, the Hitler Youth was filling that role, and the film spends a considerable amount of time on that. Some German youths rebeled against that organization’s “denial and degradation of the individual,” though with tragic results.

The film glancingly covers certain episodes that, as some critics have suggested, could have been explained in greater detail, including the Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles in the 1943; the “sub-deb clubs,” a sort of anti-debutante movement for young women; and the bobby soxers who swooned over a young Frank Sinatra.

One fun section in an otherwise darker-than-expected film discusses how novels and movies of the 1940s in the United States depicted sexually promiscuous “wayward girls.” The film also takes note of “teen canteens,” corner pub-like youth clubs, but without alcohol.

Wolf’s film seems dead-set against showing academic talking heads, with not even an appearance by author Savage, who is a co-writer of the film. Some perspective of that sort would have been welcome. So would some pop-culture context, such as how teenaged youths were depicted in film during this era. (I’m thinking of the Andy Hardy movies and the Dead End Kids, who morphed into the Bowery Boys after World War II.)

“Teenage” closes with the 1945 publication in The New York Times of “A Teen-Age Bill of Rights,” which the film suggests helps cement the term for the age group. Written by Elliott E. Cohen, the article appears to be along the lines of a Sunday magazine submission or an op-ed, with the introduction attributing the list to the Jewish Board of Guardians, the child-guidance arm of the New York Federation of Jewish Philanthropies.

Among the “teen-ager’s” rights in the manifesto:

• The right to let childhood be forgotten.

• The right to a “say” about his own life.

• The right to have rules explained, not imposed.

• And the right to question ideas.

It’s questionable how influential the obscure article was at the time for U.S. youths, not to mention for those in Britain and Germany. But there’s no doubt that “teenagers” soon were exerting those rights. And within about a decade, they were telling Dick Clark that the music they liked had a good beat and was easy to dance to.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.