As a teenager, so much of the prospect of adulthood embodies compliance, loss of purpose, and settling for much less than one could hope for. We live in a complex epoch, and persistently being told that we can be whatever we want to be inspires within us only obfuscates our views of our personal futures. We are told to dream greatly, but somehow, some might say naturally, we also intrinsically hope for the things every generation of Americans has had and does have: stability, family, property, accomplishments within a system, a place in society. Which way do we, as teenagers, turn when these seemingly inherent ideas contrast against our convictions of rebellion and individuality?
Who We Could Be
The truth is, I certainly don’t know. More so, though, I don’t think anyone ever has. Take, for example Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause. In some ways resembling James Dean’s own personal experience, Jim’s conflict is rooted in his attempts to establish his identity. The man he wants to be certainly doesn’t include the submissive nature his mother has instilled in his father. However, this doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to be an adult. At least he feels like his actions are with a central purpose. When, then, his “relationship” with Judy begins to develop, he hangs on to it as a demonstration of his dominance, perhaps his conquest of Buzz.
The grand culmination of Jim’s internal conflict comes towards the end of his story, when Judy confesses her love for him in the mansion they’re hiding out in. His reaction is best described in a quote about a kid named Sam from a 1950s film titled Teens: The Age of Turmoil: “Sam feels safer saying nothing. At least then he can’t say the wrong thing.” Jim simply mumbles gibberish and kinda looks away. The fear of failure as adoption of aspects of adulthood like complacency prevents Jim from following through with the situation which he may hope for. The feelings of helplessness that characterize the teenage experience encourage rejection of norms: rebellion.
Knowledge & Understanding
Perhaps the greatest deficiency in the teenage quest for adulthood is the necessity of the teenage mind to adapt to the new ideas and environments to which it is exposed. While many aspects of the adult lifestyle stay consistent for extended periods of time, childhood and adolescence are full of frequent change. Thus, even in a rebellious move towards adopting the romanticized component of love of the adult lifestyle, Jim’s “mind needs adjusting to its new learning” (Age). He mumbles and looks away because he wasn’t expecting to have to deal with something so much deeper (and thus less enjoyable) than just the kiss that would follow.
Of course, Jim’s actions perfectly mirror those of teenagers today. As a manner of demonstrating our independence and capability of individual thought, we seek to expose ourselves to situations for which we aren’t ready: for which there are “prerequisite experiences.” When we realize the expansive nature of necessary considerations which come with these experiences, we try to get out of them simply by feigning response and “running away,” at least mentally.
Arrogance of Values
Prof. Michael Goldberg states the following in a set of notes for a class on Modern Youth Culture at UW Bothell in 1999: “One [historian] view [of 1950s youth culture] attacks the counterculture as being the [product] of overindulged suburban brats, while the other view celebrates the counterculture as saviors of an America that was fast approaching a failure of its soul due to the massive buildup of hubris and smug material self-satisfaction in its ever-more restricted veins.” While most of those involved with the counterculture movement would argue that the latter view better represents their own intentions, I would argue that Jim’s actions demonstrate the former. In pursuit of an ideal of rebellion (for example, by becoming the man his father isn’t), Jim begins to associate his own “self-satisfaction” and pride with living up to this ideal. Thus, when Judy proposes to subject him to a new form of “emotional surrender” in the form of love (with seeming expectation of reciprocation), he feels an inherent need to reject it in order to stick to his values. His rebellion places him back in the category which it aimed to oppose: “an America that was fast approaching a failure of its soul due to the massive buildup and smug material self-satisfaction in its ever-more restricted veins” (Goldberg).
Where does all this lead us? Perhaps to the conclusion that, in the end, every generation, despite innovation and progress, believes in the same ideals. They attach themselves to new ideas, often in opposition to those of the past. They follow these with all their effort until they realize that neither is this sustainable nor does it allow them to live lives that fulfill the most basic purpose of life: reproduction. Perhaps each generation is individually aware of this, but now, more than ever, rebellion is conscious of this perspective. Does it mean it’ll stop? No. Does it mean that perhaps it’ll have more purpose? Tumblr and Twitter could be pretty good arguments for this. If our rebellion is against oppressive ideas of the past towards other groups, then maybe there is an advantage that rises from it. Either way, we’ll look back at our teenage years in twenty years and who knows what we’ll think. We’ll see.
Age of Turmoil. Perf. Lorne Greene. McGraw Hill Text-Films, 1953. YouTube. YouTube, 2 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.
Goldberg, Michael. “Lecture Notes for Youth Culture and the Culture of the 50s.” BLS 467: Modern U.S. Youth Culture. University of Washington – Bothell, Autumn 1999. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.