Those between thirteen and twenty-something represent both the “downfall” of American society and serve as its trend-setters and hopes. Teens have also become icons of modernity and symbols in a culture deeply oriented towards youth in the postwar era. Nonetheless, social dependency on the ability of teenagers to replicate the social roles of adults produces a type of anxiety that consistently revolves around the activities of youth (Cohen, 1972).
The teenage years are viewed as the definitive time of identity formation. This becomes the focus of school and extra-curricular activities like sports, as well as family anxiety. While religious rites, social celebrations (coming out, commencement) and civic landmarks—especially acquisition of a driver’s license at sixteen—mark increasing adulthood, it remains partial. Even as many teenagers work in addition to school and family obligations, they are often treated as potential victims. Hence, laws censor adult information and shield them from vice (alcohol and tobacco sales are legally discouraged). Teens are also viewed as vulnerable to problematic peer relations— whether status groups or gangs. These prohibitions, in turn, become foci of rebellion.
Hence, the activities of American teenagers have become the focus of countless socialscience studies that tend to focus largely on the notion of deviance. These studies were concentrated during the 1960s, which remains an iconic decade of teen rebellion, from Vietnam to Woodstock. Drug use, teenage suicide and sex remain consistent trends among analysts (Gaines 1990) and policy-makers. Moreover, both underscore the special stress on those who are marked as different in race, class, gender or ability from the larger society. Teenagers can be cruel, yet this is often only a refraction of cultural values and socio-economic opportunity. Hence, the socially constructed category of adolescence becomes a series of trials, tribulations and experimentation that one will survive, it is hoped, to become an adult.
Yet teenagers, individually and en masse, have also become important agents in their own right. Since the Second World War, teenagers have become a major consumer force with a large amount of disposable income. An entire cultural industry has been created in the United States to appeal to this age group in the form of clothing stores, music trends and entertainment, incorporating a rapid obsolescence despite the endurance of sex, jeans and rock ’n’ roll as primary motifs. In the 1990s, the survival of many corporate entities depended on teenage consumer power.
While often viewed as frivolous, teenagers have also been at the center of important social changes in society. Teenagers have been involved in landmark political events and moments of social upheaval, including social demonstrations in the 1960s, especially the antiwar and civil-rights movement. With the draft beginning at eighteen, and the voting age being lowered to eighteen nationwide in the 1970s, this has made them real as well as potential actors in major issues, even if politicians speak of them still in terms of tutelage (on issues such as abortion).
Representations of teenagers in popular culture often reflect their position as consumers in fashion, music and mass media. Again, this historically focused on the notion of deviance and rebellion, with some interesting changes. Films such as Blackboard Jungle (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and West Side Story (1961) portrayed rebellious teenagers of the 1950s, coupled with subtexts of class, race and social hierarchies. The tension between teens on the beach or at the drive-in and those in the gang or the “hood” continues to shape teen flicks. Teenage anxiety permeated films such as The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles in the 1980s, while also reflecting on dysfunctional families. In the 1990s, the sobering Kïds (1995) and Basketball Diaries (1995) have treated drug use and sex, while being criticized as causes, rather than effects of youth violence. Representations of teenagers in television have generally dealt with less political teenage dilemmas or have focused on family interrelations in shows such as Happy Days (1974–84) or Beverly Hills 90210 (1990–9), although news media often play up stories of gangs and victimization.