Twenty-first century teenage monsters: representations of coming of age on the fringes of America.

Author:Bernstein, Sara T.
 
FREE EXCERPT

Werewolf Bar Mitzvah, Spooky Scary! Boys Becoming Men, Men Becoming Wolves --30 Rock, "Jack Gets in the Game"

In a brief scene from the television series 30 Rock, the show's fictional star, Tracy Jordan, flashes back to the video for his award winning novelty song, "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah." The parody initially appeared only as an absurd blip in the storyline. (1) However, as we argue, the reference is revealing for how it underscores--and even critiques--the shifting role of place in shaping dominant imaginings of youth identity within early twenty-first century teen fantasy.

In 2007, when the episode of 30 Rock aired featuring "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah," teenage werewolves and vampires were becoming ubiquitous in popular culture: the first three books of the Twilight saga were cluttering bestseller lists, and fans eagerly anticipated the first film adaptation. The Twilight series can either be blamed for or--perhaps more likely--was an early beneficiary of a revived interest in supernatural "teen gothic" stories, such as Beautiful Creatures (another bestseller to 2013 film adaptation) and a string of television hits, including The Vampire Diaries (2009-) and American Horror Story (2011-). Rather than take place in generic Middle America, this new crop of stories is frequently set in two distinct regions of the U.S.: the small towns and primeval forests of the Pacific Northwest, and just as often, in the backwoods bayous and sultry cities of the Deep South. In these stories, children and adolescents discover their "true" identities as monsters while living, literally and ideologically, on the margins of the American landscape. And just as often, 'normal' young adults form relationships with supernatural characters, such as in Coraline (2009), Gravity Falls (2012-2016), or The Haunted Hathaways (2013-2015).

It is apparent that rather than offering the classic tale of an all-American teenager from 'Anywhere, USA,' these stories meld together images of 'monstrous' youth with landscapes that are far from generic. Our aim is to explore the context of this phenomenon from a cultural studies perspective, situating the current historical moment within a longer history of American teen cinema, and reflecting on how meanings of landscape, place-based identities, and larger social and economic realities all shape fantastical ideas about age and generation. While these narratives in certain ways reinscribe dominant ideologies of race, class, and gender by utilizing place to articulate diversity and difference, they also open up possibilities for understanding how place is central to the organization of inequality in today's global economy.

The History of Place in the Teen Fantasy Genre

With its catchy 4/4 rhythm and corresponding shuffling dance move, Tracy Jordan's song is riffing on the 1962 novelty hit "Monster Mash"; at the same time, the performance mimics Michael Jackson's "Thriller," (1982) down to the iconic costuming and mise-en-scene. The thirteen-minute "Thriller" video was itself an homage to 1950s teen monster movies, complete with Vincent Price's "spooky" narration. The opening "film within a film" contains manicured lawns and sparsely planted "woods" that recall a Hollywood studio's approximation of generic, suburban, Middle America--the setting for most of these movies.

It was in the mid-twentieth century, partly through B-movies like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Teenagers from Outer Space (1959), and Teenage Zombies (1960) that werewolves, vampires and other assorted paranormal weirdos began to become common ingredients in coming-of-age stories. These movies were different from the bulk of earlier "horror" stories. For one thing, they conflated supernatural powers and monstrosity with the physical and emotional turmoil ascribed as "natural" to "teenagers," an identity category that had only recently emerged out of the political, economic and cultural upheavals following the Great Depression and Second World War (Hine 11). For another, these films transferred the setting from crumbling New England mansions and crowded cities to more "wholesome" environments like suburbs and Midwestern small towns. Through these two shifts, the emerging teen fantasy/horror genre articulated a specific figure, one that relied on the idea of youth as "'the vanguard' of social change" (22).

In "Subcultures, Cultures and Class" or Chapter 1 of Resistance through Rituals, the authors argue that the formation of a 'classless' youth culture in post-War Britain was rooted in a particular set of economic and political forces that worked in tandem with a move toward national 'consensus' and 'bourgeoisfication' (Clarke et al.) Simultaneously in the United States, similar forces operated to conflate national identity with a unified middle class culture, including government-backed suburbanization and expanding policies around compulsory education. These melded with the formation of "the new 'teenager,' with his commitment to style, music, leisure, and consumption," (21) who epitomized the cultural shift toward homogenization.

As Thomas Hine writes in The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, "What was new about the idea of the teenager at the time the word first appeared during World War II was the assumption that all young people, regardless of the their class, location or ethnicity, should have essentially the same experience ... in an environment defined by high school and pop culture" (11). However, despite--or maybe precisely because of--this movement toward consensus, there were still anxieties about rapid social change, "otherness," and youth out of control, seen within the very representations that depicted homogeneity among this group. In many post-War adolescent films, these were expressed through a contradictory articulation of the potentially dangerous (that is, delinquent) teenager onto a middle class subject, signified through the placing of that subject within a normatively 'American' backdrop, complete with a sprawling suburban high school and a single-family home in a manicured development. For example, some of the most iconic teen films of the 1950s, such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Delinquents (1957) feature protagonists from "good" middleclass, nuclear families who are seduced into bad behavior by unsavory elements (working-class kids who drive fast cars, run around with fast girls, and listen to rock'n'roll--i.e. "negro"--music). Paradoxically, the "good" (male) teens are especially susceptible to this threat because of the emasculating influence of suburbia, excess leisure time and modern, middle-class life in general.

As compulsory education and a broadening middle class expanded the category of 'adolescence' to a wider range of class and ethnic subjects, the metaphor of the paranormal solidified this age category as a universal life stage, one that was rooted in biological processes. In this context, suburban/small town teenage monster films proliferated, with werewolves, zombies and aliens standing in for class and ethnic "others" and their dangerous sexual and consumer habits. And consider, too, that Michael Landon, star of I Was A Teenage Werewolf, was born Eugene Orowitz,. His hidden or masked Jewish-American identity reflects a negotiation of the perils and promises of incorporating "The Other" into middleclass whiteness. Early to mid-twentieth...

To continue reading

REQUEST YOUR FREE TRIAL