Saturday 1 February 2014

The Invention of the Teenager

By Candy Gourlay

Apparently, teenagers were invented by Americans in the 1940s.

Trailer for Matt Wolf's documentary Teenagers (2014): "A lot of people try tlevio shape the future. But it's the young ones who live in it."

I learned this nugget while trawling through podcasts the other day. This was from a fantastic Film Programme tracing the rise (and fall) of teenagers in film.

And here I was thinking that teenagers have existed since the beginning of time.

Joan Crawford's teenage character in the silent film Our Dancing Daughters (1928) goes to a wild party, dances in her underwear and knocks back alcohol ... but the film is clearly a warning from a moralising older generation.

The Andy Hardy series with Micky Rooney and Judy Garland (1937) were family films, not specifically targeted at teen viewers 

The explanation is interesting: until the 1940s, teenagers didn't have any money and therefore no power. But post war, they became a consumer demographic, with money to spend.

The Film Programme played a clip of Samuel Z. Arkoff, co-founder of American International Pictures, who spotted the gap in the market.
I saw an opportunity that nobody else seemed to have seen ... that was the people who were going to the movies were young people. We started to make pictures for teeneagers, by teenagers, about teenagers, and starring teenagers. 
Arkoff, says film critic Kim Newman in the podcast, "invented the future of the film industry".  Researching teen tastes, the film makers discovered that teenagers liked monsters and drag-racing. Suddenly Hollywood was churning out teen movies in their hundreds.


Says Newman, the teenager "(was) a figure that spread American popular culture all around the world."

"Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?" "Whaddaya got?" - Marlon Brando goes all cool and dangerous in The Wild One (1953). Films like these attempted to describe young people from an adult sensibility.

Though Fifties film featured characters who walked and talked like real teenagers, young people were still portrayed as dangerous and in need of control. In Blackboard Jungle (1955) Glenn Ford plays a teacher who must contend with the anti-social behaviour of hunky teenagers like switchblade-weilding Vic Morrow (People my age will be excited to see the star of the TV series Combat).

I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) - the title, in first person, is a far cry from the patronising adult point of view in Our Dancing Daughters. Here are scenes from the film mashed to the soundtrack of Michael Jackson's Thriller  (People my age will be excited to recognise Michael Landon who played the dad in the TV series Little House on the Prairie)

James Dean at his most delicious in the iconic Rebel Without a Cause (1955). He doesn't look too rebellious in that tie.

Did this heightened awareness of teenage culture feed literary sensibilities, giving rise to the rebel-without-a-cause characters of The Catcher in the Rye (1951)? (Seriously, I don't know the answer.)

The book business acknowledging youth culture followed in cinema's wake. By the Sixties, the teenager became a literary demographic when  the Young Adult Library Services Association coined the term 'Young Adult' to represent the 12 to 18 age range - representing "mature contemporary realism directed at adolescents" like S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders.


Apparently there was a golden age of young adult literature in the Seventies, the era of Judy Blume and Robert Cormier.

I was surprised to discover this. The first time I heard the term 'Young Adult' was in the 2000s, when I became serious about writing for children and began reading books like How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff and Junk by Melvin Burgess.

Perhaps I was not aware of the category because I wasn't a young adult at the time. Or maybe I never read a Judy Blume because I was living in a country where nice girls didn't read books that started with the sentence:
Sybil Davison has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six different guys. From Forever by Judy Blume
Today, we are apparently living in another golden age of YA - but the difference between the Judy Blume golden age and the Twilight/Hunger Games golden age can be measured in dollar signs.
The book world began marketing directly to teens for the first time at the turn of the millennium. Expansive young adult sections appeared in bookstores, targeting and welcoming teens to discover their very own genre. J.K. Rowling's well-timed Harry Potter series exploded the category and inspired a whole generation of fantasy series novelists, Cart said. The shift led to success for Stephenie Meyer's Twilight vampire saga and Suzanne Collins' futuristic The Hunger Games. From A Brief History of Young Adult Fiction by Ashley Strickland

American Graffiti (1973) - by the Seventies teen culture had been around long enough for films to be nostalgic about it.

More nostalgia in Grease (1978) - featuring some of the oldest teenagers in the world


The teenager as consumer is an interesting proposition, given their famously short attention spans. That first Judy Blume golden age created a rash of "single problem novels" but teens quickly tired of the formulaic stories. Which led to the rise of genre fiction of the Eighties, such as R. L. Stine's Fear Street and adolescent high drama of Sweet Valley High

In cinema, teen movies of the Eighties were liberal in a way that would be unacceptable in the 2000s with underage sex and abortion, according to journalist Hadley Freeman, who was featured on the podcast because she's writing a book about film in the 1980s.

Porky's (1982) - one of a rash of films in which directors waxed lyrical about losing their viriginity. The losing of virginity still makes pots of money.

The Breakfast Club (1985) - brought together five of the 'Brat Pack' - Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall.

Heathers (1988) - teen films had been around so long, here was a film that tried to subvert the genre (it's Mean Girls with a body count!)

In the Nineties, teenagers became The Audience. If you wanted to make a film, says Kim Newman,  you made it as a teenage movie. So genres - cop films, horror, sci fi - and even classics were remade as teen films.

Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon Levitt in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) - a take on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew

Cruel Intentions (1999) starring Buffy, was a take on Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Sex, drugs and excess.

Romeo and Juliet (1996) starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Claire Danes (Claire Danes!) gives the bard a hip, modern reboot


But at the turn of this century film economics changed. Hollywood now makes what they call 'tent-pole' films - blockbusters that have to hold up the finances of the parent network. Which means, says Freeman, "Teen films now are really superhero films. Studios aren't making films just for teenagers, they want films for twenty-something guys!"

I suppose book publishers, like movie companies, also have to follow the money. Hey, have you heard of the new book category "New Adult"?  A New Adult book is basically a Young Adult book with sex and cursing thrown in, writes Lauren Sarner.  And don't forget lucrative.

Recently, I met up with a young writers group. They were prolific writers  and readers. Published writers - they published fan fiction via Wattpad.

'I read hundreds of books a month,' one girl told me. She didn't read books like you buy from a bookshop, or even on an ereader. She read free books on Wattpad written by young people like her.

She is one of 18 million readers and writers who use the publishing platform dubbed 'the most active social site you never heard of'. Wattpad's creator is Allen Lau whose profile says 'don't be surprised if I am reading one of your stories'.
"Storytelling has been a social experience from the get go," he says. "Think of a town square where everyone would congregate to share ideas and news, or even stories told around the campfire. Look at Charles Dickens and the way he hooked people by serializing his stories, a trend that’s re-emerging on Wattpad today. Great stories bring people together." Read the article
Wattpad is an amazing advocate for reading, as long as you don't mind giving your writing away for free.


Looking back, it is fascinating to see our evolution as storytellers for teenagers.

We started out with the desire to control them, to tell them what was good for them, we saw them as misguided delinquents who needed a firm hand.

Then we empathised with youth culture and tried to represent their issues as problems.

Later we fell in love with the Teenage Voice, adopted Coming of Age as a highly evocative story arc.

Right now perhaps with our dystopias and fantasies we are re-imagining the world through the prism of youth.

Today, teenagers have surpassed their storytellers.

They are the masters of new media that many of us are struggling to understand. The nature of the internet means they are not only consumers of stories created for them but through social media and platforms like Wattpad they tell their own stories, have their own voice.

Nobody has to invent them anymore. Perhaps it's us -- we who want to write teen fiction --  who need to reinvent ourselves.

In Project X (2012) teenagers trash a house with an over the top party. The future of teen cinema? Only if they can watch it. Project X was rated R.

My new teen novel, Shine, was published in September. Read this wonderful Guardian review.

You might also want to read:
The Writer is You
Multicultural is Not About Difference But Inclusion


  1. Great post, Candy! Yes, teenagers are a relatively recent phenomenon, just as children weren't catered for till some time in the 19th century and then it was moralising stuff which threatened death to naughty children who didn't do what they were told. I believe that Catcher In The Rye is considered the first YA novel.

    And you have to remember that a lot of adults read YA so a popular YA title will sell a LOT of books. Why wouldn't you publish it?

    I know of Wattpad. Some of my students write on it, having lost their previous writing platform, Inkpop. They seem happy with it.

    1. Thanks, Sue. I was astonished at how much these children on Wattpad read and write. But they also have no awe for the culture of the book because they are right in there. They themselves are authors ... and their heroes appear to be those of film and TV rather than books. It made me really wonder about the future of the book as a cultural object.

  2. Brilliant! And Wattpad is a revelation! I should write a complementary post on When did childhood begin? But would probably take me a couple of years to do the ground work!

    1. There was a BBC documentary maybe 2012 or 2011 about childhood, would love to see it ... missed it when it came out.

    2. I've heard of some authors being active on Wattpad in the hope of attracting readers.

  3. The problem with Hollywood leading the charge of course is that the poor teenager we see in the movies and many books can be such a cliché. Glee characters without the singing.

  4. Could it be this?

  5. Fantastic post, Candy. The money issue is an interesting one, a lot of my friends left school and got jobs at 14yrs so you would think they would have had a disposable income but no, most had to hand it over to their parents and got pocket money.

    1. That doesn't sound fair ... and it probably wouldn't happen in this era. Or would it?

  6. Great Post Candy. really enjoyed seeing the evolution of the teeneager through films.

    1. Which era did you enjoy the most? I have to say I loved the retro era of Grease and Back to the Future. I found the eighties cookie cutter teen movies too numerous and too similar to each other, although I have some big favourites.

  7. I remember being a teenager in the 50s and early 60s. My parents spent the whole time on tenterhooks waiting for me to "break out". In the end they were more dysfunctional than I was!

    1. I wonder if some teenagers are just acting up to the type they see in the movies! Grown ups certainly treat a lot of teenagers that way.

  8. Great post and lots of food for thought! Clearly the biological phenomenon of adolescence has always been there, but i'd never thought of the economic driver being the thing that has helped crystallised the grouping of people of that age in such a clearly defined way! And as for Wattpad! Whaaaaa!!!! Is that a game-changer? We live in interesting times


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