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.


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