Perspectives on Film

Teenage: Documentary Features the Stories behind an Invention

Marcia Chatelain, September 2014

We were teenagers, but we didn’t always exist . . . we were a wartime invention” is one of the reflections in Teenage, a 2013 documentary that captures the construction and contradictions of this new category in the 20th century. The film is a spirited and visually stunning journey, and the magnificent score highlights the collaboration between punk music historian Jon Savage, who authored a social history of the same name, and director/filmmaker Matt Wolf, who portrayed a disco cellist in Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (2008). The film convincingly argues that British, German, and American youth shaped the course of the 20th century largely by asserting an identity other than adult or child. This 78-minute narrative about the emergence of youth culture substantiates the power of the label of teenager by demonstrating how young people confronted political, economic, and social forces that allowed youth to simultaneously embrace frivolity and uphold massive responsibilities.

Teenage incorporates historical dramatizations with newsreels and early film footage so seamlessly that the viewer can easily mistake the staged scenes for documentary content. The film uses voice-over actors and reenactors to represent American and Western European youth culture. Each actor performs a vignette of early teenage culture, ranging from the turn-of the-century crusade to ban child labor to the explosion of rock-and-roll and teen representations of popular culture in the 1950s. Although Teenage spans three nations and about half a century of history, a common, and astute, theme resonates throughout: the teenager is a product of both peril and prosperity. The film argues this forcefully in its focus on the role of the world wars and how they created a desire for emotional escape and fueled a psychological predisposition toward youthfulness. Fighting wars, as well as maintaining hope in wartime and during postwar economic revitalization, strengthened teenagers’ resolve to recapture and exemplify an innocence that was too fragile to ever lose again.

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Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

These stylish young women from Washington, DC’s Drexel Institute Rifle Team embraced a modern look of bobbed hair and fur coats. Flappers of the 1920s would plant the seeds for an emerging teenage culture.

Teenage presents the formation of the teenager as a reaction to the exigencies of industrial life; the teenager could not appear until the liberation of the child from the factory, the coal mine, and the mill into the school and playground. One of the young narrators reflects, “In the factories, we were prisoners. In the streets, we were free.” Yet the schoolhouse was also subject to military violence, the Depression, the rise of totalitarian states, and racism. Teenagers drew upon their psychological reserves to remain young even though the world around them asked them to fight, to earn, and to protest. As they tried to resist these forces, some became juvenile delinquents or mediated their trauma with jazz and alcohol; others weathered the constant loss by indulging in fantastical popular culture productions. By destabilizing the notion that teenagers were an exclusive by-product of the post–World War II economic boom in the United States and telling a transnational story, Teenage makes an important intervention in helping students understand that adolescence—which psychologist G. Stanley Hall called “a new birth”—was slow and imperfect.

As teenagers grew surer in their identities as such, they crossed boundaries of race, sexuality, and class. The fictionalized character of British socialite Brenda Dean Paul (played by Leah Hennessey) dramatizes this incredibly well. Her vignette captures the Bright Young Things of 1920s London, portraying them as under a spell of costumes, endless parties, free-flowing booze, and opiates. The film beautifully displays British youth culture’s transgressive allegiance to extravagant, and what we now call queer, modes of self-presentation via freak parties. The story of early youth culture in Germany depicts a brief moment of jubilation, as the Hitler Youth’s militarization and indoctrination of teenagers unfolds through the story of Melita Machmann (Ivy Blackshire). Melita’s German compatriot, Tommie Scheel (Ben Rosenfield) is the face of resistance. His opposition to the machinery of the Nazi party in favor of Swing led the Gestapo to arrest him and sentence him to a labor camp in 1940. The images of healthy and energetic Hitler Youth are later juxtaposed with the sight of teenage soldiers captured by the Allied forces at the end of World War II. The focus on German youth culture echoes what many scholars of childhood and youth have established: being a teenager cannot provide shelter from any social storm or the weight of responsibility.

US popular culture had considerable influence across the Atlantic. Black youth popularized the jazz, swing, and bebop that electrified international audiences. Race, of course, is an issue throughout the documentary, and black youth are depicted as struggling to realize change in the face of long-held customs of segregation and racial marginalization. Black youth were clearly arbiters of cool to the white teenagers who “slummed” in juke joints and snuck race records into their homes. Teenage pairs footage of lively dance halls with the 1943 Harlem Riots. These scenes illuminate how black youth responded, with both anger and creativity, to the failure of patriotism to surmount racism. The narration in this section from a black Boy Scout named Warren Wall (Malik Peters) feels a bit contrived. Wall’s monologue about his pent-up resentment toward whites sounds one-dimensional. Considering the plethora of archival material about and from youth in black newspapers and magazines, the script does not touch upon the experiences a boy like Wall would have encountered in the pre–Civil Rights Movement era. Although he talks about frustrating competition with white boys, a mention of segregation within the Scouts, police brutality, or anxiety about employment would have grounded Wall’s story in the film more successfully.

The film takes up the issue of gender most explicitly in its inclusion of post–World War II footage of girls indulging in a consumer culture increasingly attendant to girls’ interests in fashion, popular music, and magazines. Despite these moments of teen girls shopping, socializing, and participating in the heteronormative youth dating culture of the 1950s, the film does not delve deeper into the destructive impact that discourses on masculinity and femininity had on youth. The feelings of gay and lesbian youth do not reappear in the narrative, nor do the narrators provide a hint of a critique about mid-century expectations for dating and marriage. The viewer is left to sense that something may be amiss in how boys and girls are treated and imagined in popular culture. Yet we hear no clear voice to make real the intersections of gender and age. The documentary’s format does not readily lend itself to such an analysis; nevertheless, within the fictionalized accounts that suggest the broader thinking for the viewer, gender is not considered in thoughtful ways.

By the time the film closes, with a montage of the freedom movements of the late 1950s and early 1960, the narrator recites Elliot Cohen’s 1945 “A Teenage Bill of Rights,” a declaration of youth independence published in the New York Times Magazine. As the film lurches the viewer forward to the contemporary period—with flashes of tanks in Tiananmen Square, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, and flag waving in Tahrir Square—we are convinced of the substantial impact of teenagers on the world, regardless of their invented nature. Yet we are also left with many questions and without very much context, and thus one could misunderstand that social revolution is only for the young. Imagine telling the story of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee without movement elders Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and A. Philip Randolph. It is impossible and irresponsible to suggest that social change is the monopoly of the young.

Teenage attempts to tell a broad story of a nebulous category, so it cannot stand alone as a lesson on the topic of 20th-century youth culture. Instead, it can complement a well-designed syllabus that captures the pivotal dates, court cases, conflicts, and intellectual movements that led to the creation and sustenance of the category of teenager. In the absence of talking heads, youth become the authorities, and this film can help students understand the possibilities of using primary sources in public history, as well as articles and monographs. The exclusion of commentary, however, heightens the responsibility of the educator to fill in the gaps left open by the documentary’s orientation. Teenage will require an adjustment of expectations for professors and instructors used to screening Ken Burns–style documentaries showcasing their graduate school colleagues and friends, stills of archival photographs, and ambient music that won’t disrupt the philosophy course in the next classroom. Yet Teenage is as defiant as the generations it celebrates and a worthwhile addition to many history classes.

Marcia Chatelain is assistant professor of history at Georgetown University and author of the forthcoming South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration (Duke University Press, 2015).

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