Originally published on Toronto Social Review
Matt Wolfe’s 2013 Hot Docs selection “Teenage,” a whimsical and entertaining reflection of the term and emergent lifestyle, is opening at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on Friday, May 9th and running until mid-month. Click here for the schedule!
The American-German co-production feels like an intro course to North American, Deutsche, and UK youth cultures, opening with an unwavering premise – words by American psychologist G. Stanley Hall:
Adolescence is a new birth.
The rest of the quote, not given in the film, states, “for the higher and more completely human traits are now born.” Wolfe uses historical occurrences as a skeleton to explore general habits of teens, but doesn’t delve too deeply into the psychology of the times. The visual and archival footage used to exemplify the emergence of the term and lifestyle of a teenager is abundant and fascinating. Like peeking into the diary of an umbrella term, the teenager grows and develops on the screen.
Narrated in serious tones by actors like Jena Malone and Ben Wishaw, the film presents the weighted idea of a teenager and its cultural fortitude, as though the teens were the most important entities in the sociological structure of the last 100 years.
The film begins in 1904 when governments declared child labour laws illegal. Kids were back in school and invited to be young again. Soon termed hooligans, they were a worrisome force to the local police. People like Robert Baden-Powell wrote military training manuals for boys – what we now refer to as Boy Scouts – turning “rat faced slum kids to fit soldiers primed for war.” After the war, shell-shocked and stock full of PTSD, adolescents were full of resentment and hatred for having to participate in such a horribly honourable feat.
“We want to be young before we’re old,” the film declares.
Blurring the lines of history in favour of this fluidity, we are brought into the realm of flappers – the flaming youth. With youth leading youth, naked and free, they partied, gathered, and rioted. Freak parties (or theme parties) and gender bending became the norm. It was a transgressive, sexual, liberating time. Wolfe introduces us to Brenda Dean Paul – a self-proclaimed and practiced party girl – the Lindsay Lohan equivalent of the 1920’s? She partied, got into morphine, and became famous for it, crashing and burning and making the front page of the paper. Everyone’s dream…
The stock market crash and war put youth on the street or back into the war effort. Hitler youth became the shape of the future. Teens were welcomed to work at labour camps. Swing dancing went underground and if you weren’t in a uniform, everyone knew where you stood. It was rebel or conform. Because of this, segregation grew to be present force. Parents worked full time, leaving teens at home. Marijuana hit the market. Liberated females, or Victory Girls, arose. They had multiple partners, and fluid sexual activities. New social clubs emerged. Teens started to jive.
When Pearl Harbor encouraged more women to work, now with pocket change, big businesses started focusing on their buying habits. The commercial economy according to young people drove sales, rolling advertising and marketing into the demon it is today. Sexual and economic energy occupied the masses and leaves us with the feeling that our world hasn’t changed much since.
Teenage is a compilation of thoughts from those who first made sense of the term. Aside from the astounding amount of found footage, the most interesting inclusion was an article that appeared in the 1945 New York Times called “A ‘Teen-Age Bill of Rights.” It was a declaration of the generation. The invention of the word. The definition of the adolescent “right to struggle toward [one’s] own philosophy of life…” And what better way to fight for the right to figure out where we fit in. The question now becomes whether or not teenage-dom allows us the do so anymore.
Andrea Wrobel, Senior Staff Writer