Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What do I mean by "Adolescence Narrative"?

It might help to clarify the conditions I will use to select titles for study. First a note about media. I'm in the Comparative Media Studies program, so that gives me the special freedom to select narratives from just about anywhere I want. I'll be looking at film, television, literature, and video games, mostly. But I may consider others, especially comic books, music, and fashion.

As I see it, there are three primary overlapping approaches to identifying adolescence narratives, each organized around the types of subjects with a stake in teen consumption.

1. Textual analysis - Author intent.
2. Marketing/distribution analysis - Industry strategy.
3. Ethnography/Market research - Reader response.

First would be a more traditional interpretive approach concerned primarily with the text. Any text with a major teen or young adult character, then, would be relevant. With this approach, it's not particularly important whether the text be marketed to or read by teens. It therefore conveniently sidesteps issues of fidelity to real youth culture. By the same token, though, analysis of such material limits one to questions about the cultural surround of a given text. Not, what does this text teach us about how teens live? But, what does this representation tell us about the author's view of teens? Or, how does this text reflect cultural constructions of adolescence? Important questions, to be sure, but with a limited utility.

The second considers adolescence as a market for cultural producers and the media industry. It interprets marketing strategy and product placement to give a picture of teen consumption patterns and industry expectations. For example, one would look at the books classified in the Young Adult section of the bookstore. This is a notoriously slippery methodology for several reasons. Teens may be unusually resistant to corporate marketing strategy. So what if NBC markets a show to the youth of America if teens see through it and its audience turns out to be younger children? Furthermore, the industry may not be advertising to the obvious demographic. Knowing teens to be skeptical to media representations of teen life, they may ostensibly target a media product to a higher age range, but really be aiming at the lower range. A show marketed to teens may really be a show made for children.

The third approach attempts to document, through accurate market research or close ethnographic studies with teen participants, what teens are really watching, reading, playing, etc. Any such study must be aspirational, with a recognition that the total complexity and diversity of teen media consumption habits, and how individual use and transform what they consume, may be ultimately unknowable. Such studies must be rigorously developed and carefully controlled, but the resulting data could be extremely powerful.

A possible fourth approach would be a personal archaeology: to think back to what media I was consuming as a teen. This would be subjective as a rule, and I can't say how accurate my memory would be about what I really consumed during that period vs. what I remember consuming. But, the limited data I could produce from this methodology may well prove insightful.

For my thesis, I'll likely be aiming for a kind of sweet spot between these approaches. I want to find texts that meet several of these conditions at once: texts about teen life that teens actually watch. I'm also going to pay particular attention to texts that explicity concern the relationship between adolescence and adulthood. For this blog, however, I intend to record my thoughts about texts that fit any one of the conditions mentioned above.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


I'm a first year graduate student in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. I'm writing my thesis about media representations of adolescence, or, more specifically, the transition from adolescence to maturity; what one might call "coming of age." I decided on the topic after considering the films, books, and TV shows that have been important to me during the last several years. I assembled a list of favorites, and an obvious trend stared me right in the face. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Harry Potter, The Virgin Suicides, and the list goes on. It wasn't an exclusive trend, I'm a well rounded individual, but, clearly, part of me is obsessed with adolescent culture. Or, our culture is obsessed with adolescence. Or, adolescence is just an extremely critical period of contemporary life. Probably all three.

By most quantitative standards, I'm an adult. I'm 29 years old, married, a college graduate, licensed to drive, etc. So, what do these narratives of adolescence do for me? What is the appeal of The O.C. for adults? And what is the appeal of the show to the age range that it ostensibly represents? We grow up understanding that childhood is a liminal period, that is, it's merely a transitional path on the road to adulthood. When we become adults, we stop growing, our identities coagulate, we know all we need to know about living. We're finished.

Except that just about every approach to studying development now refutes these truisms. Postmodern theory challenges the very concept of a coherent identity, describing instead a multifaceted personality formed in dialog with media. If there's a postmodern marker for maturity, it's merely an awareness of one's own participation in a capitalist economy (Trites). From cultural studies comes the concept of adolescence as a social discourse; best understood not as a biological or cognitive fact, but as a series of fictions, often perpetuated by adults to keep youth a perpetual underclass (Vadeboncoeur & Stevens). And in developmental psychology, the information processing model of human cognition rejects the empirical existence of developmental stages, asserting that human development proceeds through aggregate learning and competencies; that development is a lifelong process.

Furthermore, a series of economic and social upheavals have troubled conventional markers of maturity. Rarely do individuals stay at the same job for their entire lives. Career mobility is the rule rather than the exception. The postindustrial requirement for highly educated workers, which has sent more people to college and graduate school, has pushed back the age range in which people "settle down." In short, being an adult is more and more like being a teen, if it ever was really that different. In a way, this is all great. Who wants to believe that they can't change and grow after the age of 18? But in another way, it represents a significant challenge to education. How do we prepare people for such a dynamic world?

But, this is all background to the goal of this blog, which is to record my reflections on adolescent representations in media, and to share some of my research on media use by teens (as soon as I do some). The title, for the uninitiated, comes from The O.C., a fine example of a narrative of adolescence, and one that constantly brings the changing relationship between adolescence and adulthood to the fore. The quote is a bit of peer to peer wisdom, advice to one of the teen heroes of the show, Seth Cohen, which then becomes a self-affirmation, and then a memorable tagline. Maybe it functions as a life-lesson towards a more mature Seth, maybe it represents a realization that one's self-narrative determines one's reality. Or, maybe it just sounds nice.

Cited works:

Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000.

Vadeboncoeur, Jennifer A. and Lisa Patel Stevens, ed. Re/Constructing 'the Adolescent': Sign, Symbol, and Body. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2004.