Monday, June 19, 2006

Self Evolved: The Problem of the Past

I need to diverge briefly from my concern with TV shows and literature to address an article I read recently which asks questions that hit to the heart of my interest in adolescence. It's a historical overview of human self-understanding and provides a compelling but, for me, problematic framework for describing how human psychology has evolved over time.

Roy F. Baumeister's "How the Self Became a Problem: A Psychological Review of Historical Research" was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1987. Yes, it's almost 20 years old, so I may be merely shadowboxing here, but it's a very evocative treatise. It's a complicated article, supplemented with an impressive graph depicting ideas of selfhood across major historical stages, but I'll try to boil it down.

Baumeister describes four "problems" pertaining to the self: self-knowledge, self-definition, self-fulfillment, and the relationship to society. He then shows how each of these problems were addressed from the late medieval period to the late 20th century. Students of sociology may not be surprised at the overall trajectory of his historical evolution: folks in the medieval period were untroubled by psychological issues, and the farther you get from this period the more complicated things become.

So, for example, on the issue of the relation of the individual to society, those in the late medieval period took for granted that they were part of a fixed and stable social order, and that everything was ordained by God. They also did not question that Christian salvation was the way to personal fulfillment, or that there was any difference between one's inner and outer selves.

He provides a lot of evidence, and concedes that his article describes trends rather than universals, so I don't want to mischaracterize his arguments as trite or simplistic. I'm still skeptical, however, about historical arguments that exploit a belief that those in the past were fundamentally lacking some major human insights, or that take a lack of historical evidence as proof that medieval serfs were cool with their plight.

This is similar to the argument that I've encountered in my research on childhood that says pre-modern folks did not see any difference between children and adults: the "tiny adults" thesis. Ideas of human development have indeed changed, and my own thesis is built on our ability to perceive and describe those changes. But it's sobering to consider how deceptive the historical record can be. How arguments about reality, whether philosophical or scientific or literary, persist and are held up as the truth for a given period is such a complicated process, involving economics, politics, and mere chance.

Similarly, arguments about contemporary life tend to skew and oversimplify reality. "Trends" are revealing, but also misleading because we tend to glom on to what is novel. Of course people are still dealing with psychological issues that were first described centuries ago, hence the continued relevance of Shakespeare's plays. Baumeister shows how the early modern period (that's Shakespeare's era) was highly concerned with sincerity, the "equivalence of inner and outer selves, as a virtue." Are we so postmodern, as many suggest, that we've abandoned the struggle for authenticity? Honesty and sincerity may not make the most compelling subject for contemporary drama--it's "been done"--but it's something I certainly struggle with. We don't collectively solve all of our psycho-social struggles and move on, having learned our lessons.

Having said that, I do like Baumeister's categories. If adolescence narratives are concerned with how their heroes solve these "problems" of the self in reaching maturity, it gives us four questions to answer of any such story. How does a character define the self? How can she know her true self? How does she find fulfillment? And how does society help or hinder the path to fulfillment? This is just one possible starting point.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Veronica Mars - Trauma Is Good For You?

I'm about three quarters of the way through my Next Big Teen Show, Veronica Mars (or at least the first season of it), and am really enjoying it. It's as smart and funny and well-acted as everyone says. You should watch it.

The conceit of the show is that Veronica is a kid detective. Not your light-weight Bloodhound Gang-type detective, but your full-on crafty private dick. In the ever-widening spectrum of teen sleuths, she's stylistically somewhere between Nancy Drew and the kid from the recent movie Brick. She's abnormally resourceful, witty, and fearless. She's also alienated and has a terrible reputation at school (not at all uncommon for a teen drama). So what made her this way? Flashbacks reveal that she used to be one of the flighty popular girls (shades of Buffy, pre-slayerhood). Then her best friend was found murdered, her parents got divorced, and she was slipped a mickey at a party and likely raped. And now she's ever so cool!

This seeming contradiction isn't exclusive to teen drama. All drama is driven by conflict and extremes, and heroes are often flawed or damaged or otherwise made complicated and/or sympathetic. The cliche that whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger is at the heart of many a story. But showing trauma as empowering for fictional teens has become quite a trend lately. Harry Potter is basically neglected and abused through his entire childhood, but comes out a lot more well-adjusted than his spoiled cousin. Then, when a friend is killed before his eyes, it gives him the special power to see things others can't.

I hate to be PC about this, but I have some good friends who work with traumatized kids every day, and know sexual abuse rarely transforms someone into a super-intelligent crime fighter (at least not initially). So why is this convention powerful? The kids in these stories are usually drawn in contrast to a community of spoiled and unselfconscious preppies (the rich kids at Neptune High, the blue-blood legacy wizards at Hogwarts, the "newpsies" of The O.C.'s Newport Beach). What makes them strong is whatever makes them different from the kids who get everything they want. It's less a comment on trauma, perhaps, then on contemporary perceptions of youth. So we seem to be back into a phase of: our kids are spoiled and need some tough love. And I was just getting used to the related but more adult-centered criticism: we're too overprotective and quick to medicate.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Beyond the Break - Surfer Girl Redux

I heard some decent things about Beyond the Break, a new cable drama about teenage professional surfers, so I caught the pilot episode. It's on The N, a fairly new nighttime-only channel which specializes in teenage programming (it shows original series as well as repeats of shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch). So this new show is clearly designed to appeal to the contemporary teen, and it wears its influences on its sleave. Anyone who remembers the 2002 surfer girl movie Blue Crush will recognize the basic formula: a multi-ethnic cadre of up-and-coming female surfers try to make a name for themselves while holding down day jobs in Hawaii. Beyond the Break also throws in a twist cribbed from The O.C.: one of the characters is a misunderstood juvenile delinquent from the California hinterlands.

Stylistically, when the show isn't throwing in 24-esque split screen transitions, it has the feel of, well, "verite" if you're feeling generous. It's shot on location, which yields shots of beautiful scenery, but can just as often look rushed for the character shots. And some of the cast look a lot better than they act, which adds to a certain roughness around the edges.

But I'm being too hard on the show. I didn't find it terribly compelling, but compared to the down-market teen TV of my generation, like Saved by the Bell, it represents quite an evolution. The dialogue is punchy enough and at least a few of the characters edgy (and pretty) enough that it will probably find an audience.

Thematically, perhaps the only place it really held my interest was in its depiction of the class differences between the surfer girls. As I thought about it more, I realized how many adolescence narratives deal explicitly with social class. Teens in the US are perhaps in a much better position to appreciate class difference, as they are forced into contact with each other in school, or must take on menial or service-oriented jobs (a thread of cultural studies considers children to be a "perpetual underclass"). TV shows about adults rarely show characters from a range of backgrounds, as if once people grow up they prefer to believe in a classless utopia.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Legacy of Catcher in the Rye

When I made the unlikely comparison between Catcher in the Rye and The O.C. in my last post, I was probably writing under the influence of an essay I read recently, "Teenage Wasteland: Coming-of-Age Novels in the 1980s and 1990s" by Kirk Curnutt, published by the journal Critique in 2001. Cornutt uses Catcher as a starting point to talk about the notable novels concerned with young adults that came after. He provides a simple yet powerful model of development to describe changes in the fiction, as well as the changing social attitudes toward youth. The adolescence of Salinger's novel is an uncompromising moral idealism confronted with the corruption and hypocrisy of adulthood. Holden Caulfield rebels against an authority that does not deserve patronage, and hopes to protect the next generation from adult phoniness. In short, though he may be cynical and disenfranchised, Caulfield is passionate and yearns for social engagement.

According to Cornutt, the novels that followed retained the cynicism but jettisoned the passion and idealism. Works like Less Than Zero, Generation X, and The Secret History show adolescence as a bleak, amoral period. The characters in these novels have an incapacity to feel, and experience their own lives as if mediated, often through the lens of empty popular culture. Instead of challenging adult authority, the novels display a kind of nostalgia for adult attention and guidance, and a concern with rebuilding family, not surprising given the rising divorce rates during that time period. Cornutt gives a name to the narrative formula employed by many of these titles: "despair-repair." He warns against the kind of sociological simplification these titles exhibit, and suggests that future novels should not merely reinscribe pre-Catcher in the Rye notions of adult authority.

I generally found the article very helpful for its description of intellectual trends in a swath of fiction I am not yet totally familiar with, but I do have some criticisms. The method of identifying a kind of authoritative vanguard of titles to prove this teleology from adolescent idealism to disaffection has limits. What about all the titles that don't necessarily earn critical acclaim, but may speak more directly to and about the generation they represent? For example, the oft-ignored category of Young Adult fiction--all those stories about high school sports, the embarrassments of puberty, and teenage detectives. Or genre fiction like Ender's Game, which offers a pretty scathing indictment of adult authority. Or works in other media, such as John Hughes' influential teen movies. Granted, Cornutt's project is to ask why the examples he gives have earned such notoriety, how they have tapped into adult fears about children, rather than if they represent accurate reflections of youth.

Also, I wonder if there is perhaps a simpler explanation for this evolution. If coming-of-age novels are a genre, then how much of this innovation can be explained as a challenge to genre conventions rather than intentional commentary about youth. How else could novelists escape the shadow of Catcher in the Rye than by pushing the disaffection towards the nihilistic? Also, could the visibility of these particular titles be a matter of population dynamics and political economy? Generation X was a numerically smaller generation than the Baby Boomers. And if the Boomers are a greater market force, it shouldn't surprise us that stories idealizing Boomer adolescence, like Catcher in the Rye, but vilifying Gen X adolescence would gain prominence.

But if there's some truth to Cornutt's model, as I do believe there is, how do we fit contemporary adolescence narratives into his progression? Is a series like Harry Potter, with its glorification of adult authority figures like Dumbledore and Serious Black, merely recalling the nostalgia for authority? Or is Harry's general apathy towards the rules, and his distrust of adults like Snape and the Dursleys, put him more in the Holden Caulfield vein? Or how about Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Buffy's talents both alienate her from and connected her to society. She endures a period of numbness (season 6), but gets over it. How to describe these works' attitudes towards adolescence without simplifying?