Posts Tagged ‘Teenage’

Gina, in the scientific world, when they see that something is happening again and again and again, repeatedly, they don’t call it old hat. They call it a pattern.

John Clarke, The Games, IOC Man

Something that’s bothered me for a while now is the current profligacy in YA culture of Team Boy 1 vs Team Boy 2 fangirling. Beginning with Team Edward vs Team Jacob in the Twilight fandom and expanding rapidly to other series – such as Jace vs Simon and Will vs Jem in Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments and The Infernal Devices respectively, Daniel vs Cam in Lauren Kate’s Fallen, and Dimitri vs Adrian in Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, to name but a few – the phenomenon has arisen as a natural consequence of so many boy-girl-boy love triangles. Despite the fact that I have no objection to shipping, this particular species of team-choosing troubled me, though I had difficulty understanding why. Then I saw it applied to Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy – Team Peeta vs Team Gale – and all of a sudden it hit me that anyone who thought romance and love-triangles were the main event in that series had utterly missed the point. Sure, those elements are present in the story, but they aren’t anywhere near being the bones of it, because The Hunger Games, more than anything else, is about war, survival, politics, propaganda and power. Seeing such a strong, raw narrative reduced to a single vapid argument – which boy is cuter? – made me physically angry.

So, look. People read different books for different reasons. The thing I love about a story are not necessarily the things you love, and vice versa. But riddle me this: are the readers of these series really so excited, so thrilled by the prospect of choosing! between! two! different! boys! that they have to boil entire narratives down to a binary equation based on male physical perfection and, if we’re very lucky, chivalrous behaviour? While feminism most certainly champions the right of women to chose their own partners, it also supports them to choose things besides men, or to postpone the question of partnership in favour of other pursuits – knowledge, for instance. Adventure. Careers. Wild dancing. Fun. Friendship. Travel. Glorious mayhem. And while, as a woman now happily entering her fourth year of marriage, I’d be the last person on Earth to suggest that male companionship is inimical to any of those things, what’s starting to bother me is the comparative dearth of YA stories which aren’t, in some way, shape or form, focussed on Girls Getting Boyfriends, and particularly Hot Immortal Or Magical Boyfriends Whom They Will Love For All Eternity.

Possibly I say this because the prospect of having ended up married to, vampirised by or otherwise magically linked with any of the boys I crushed on and lusted after in high school is a grim and frightening one, even if they had all looked like GQ cover models and been in a position to shower me with riches. (They didn’t, and weren’t.) As a fantasist, I well understand the power of escapism, particularly as relates to romance. But when so many stories aimed at the same audience all trumpet the same message – And Lo! There shall be Two Hot Boys, one of them your Heart’s Intended, the other a vain Pretender who is also hot and with whom you shall have guilty makeouts before settling down with your One True Love – I am inclined to stop viewing the situation as benign and start wondering why, for instance, the heroines in these stories are only ever given a powerful, magical destiny of great importance to the entire world so long as fulfilling it requires male protection, guidance and companionship, and which comes to an end just as soon as they settle their inevitable differences with said swain and start kissing. Notable exceptions to this theme can be found in the works of Tamora Pierce and Scott Westerfeld (for starters), but they’re bucking the trend, not starting one. And that worries me.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk

the Law runneth forwards and back —

For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,

and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

– Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

I’ve been trying to find a clear, clean word or phrase to express myself in this post, sadly without much luck. But what I mean to invoke is something of the danger of mob rule, only applied to narrative and culture. Viz: that the comparative harmlessness of individuals does not prevent them from causing harm en masse. Take any one story with the structure mentioned above, and by itself, there’s no problem. But past a certain point, the numbers begin to tell – and that poses a tricky question. In the case of actual mobs, you’ll frequently find a ringleader, or at least a core set of agitators: belligerent louts who stir up feeling well beyond their ability to contain it. In the case of novels, however, things aren’t so clear cut. Authors tell the stories they want to tell, and even if a number of them choose to write a certain kind of narrative either in isolation or inspired by their fellows, holding any one of them accountable for the total outcome would be like trying to blame an avalanche on a single snowflake. Certainly, we may point at those with the greatest (arguable) influence or expostulate about creative domino effects, but as with the drop that breaks the levee, it is impossible to try and isolate the point at which a cluster of stories became a culture of stories – or, for that matter, to hold one particular narrative accountable for the whole.

By way of demonstration, consider the following two articles: Women in Refrigerators, by Gail Simone, and Who Cares About The Death Of A Gay Superhero, Anyway?, by Perry Moore. Both pieces are concerned – legitimately – with the depowerment, torture and generally horrific abuse leveled at female and gay characters within the comics industry, by way of the comics themselves. Reading through the respective lists, there’s a grim inevitability to the conclusion that something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong. But when it comes to the reactions of creators whose works appear on the list, as Simone puts it in a conversation with Tom Peyer,

Every writer has jumped in with a defense of why they stuck THIS one in the fridge.

And the thing is, they’re not entirely wrong to defend their work, particularly if the aim is to counter the suggestion, however reasonable in the big picture, that they’re contributing to a wider, negative culture. Context is everything in both narrative and real life, and while the accusation is never that these creators deliberately set out to discriminate against gay and female characters, the unavoidable implication is that they should have known better than to add to the sum total of those stories which, en masse, do exactly that. And if the listmakers can identify the trend so thoroughly – if, despite all the individual qualifications, protests and contextualisations of the authors, these problems can still be said to exist – then the onus, however disconnected from the work of any one individual, nonetheless falls to those individuals, in their role as cultural creators, to acknowledge the problem; to do better next time; perhaps even to apologise. This last is a particular sticking point. By and large, human beings tend not to volunteer apologies for things they perceive to be the fault of other people, for the simple reason that apology connotes guilt, and how can we feel guilty – or rather, why should we – if we’re not the ones at fault? But while we might argue over who broke a vase, the vase itself is still broken, and will remain so, its shards ground into the carpet, until someone decides to clean it up.

In the end, it all comes down to individual preference and a willingness to change. I love a bit of romance with my stories, but when I look at the culture being created around true love in YA, it’s not something I want to be a part of. Even though I could explain, with eloquence and conviction, why the perennial woman in the freezer belongs in certain of my plots, having looked at it this way around, I don’t want her there. And so I go back to the drawing board and ask myself, how else can I write this story?

And the whole world answers: let me tell you.

So, OK. As those of you who’ve known me for any length of time can attest – and as I have once or twice admitted in the writing of this blog – I am a zeusdamn stubborn, conservative person. It is actually very irksome! Because stubbornness and conservatism are not behaviours I consciously cultivate; are in fact the very antithesis of the behaviours I like, let alone try to cultivate; and yet they are apparently innate enough that I am constantly forced to suspect myself of them, to press the ever-present bruise of my own laziness in order to determine whether I am being honest and discerning as opposed to reactionary and biased at any given time. As I am simultaneously the kind of person who goes around recommending books and films (for instance) to all and sundry with the expectation that they start to adopt my tastes, this makes me very close to belonging to two categories of person with whom I am otherwise deeply uncomfortable: hypocrites and preachers.

My only saving grace is the fact that I recognise this at least some of the time, and am actively struggling to change. But for most of my life, that hasn’t been true, with the end result that now, slightly less than a month out from my 25th birthday, I’m starting to wonder exactly how many awesome things I’ve been missing out on for no greater reason than my own intransigence. Which is, itself, a conceit, because I mean, come on: twenty-freaking-five. It’s not like I’m Citizen Kane crying out for Rosebud on my deathbed, here. Despite the fact that I’ve been married for three and a bit years, and in serious relationships for five-odd years before that, and in the midst of becoming a published author for about two years, and have finished a Bachelors degree, and have moved first states and now countries, and held down a frankly surprising variety of the sort of jobs I never really knew existed until I started applying for them, and all the sort of gunk that seems to fill up your late teens and early twenties if you’re lucky enough to live in a first world nation where you speak the national language and have been relatively well-off your whole life and have never had to contend with poverty or civil war or persecution or any major trauma; despite all that, I am, by the standards of both my own culture and the scientific community, barely out of adolescence. I am young.

But I am also much less young than I was even a year ago, or the year before that, or the year before that; and even though as a teenager it would never have occurred to me that I could sit here and be almost 25 and so very different now to how I was then, I can still – just – stretch to remembering my teenage self, her views and preoccupations and ignorances, without universally cringing at how utterly infantile and stupid they were, so that any sense I used to have that I was already grown up must only ever have been wrong. I feel torn: can I deny that I’ve grown since then, and that those changes have been increasingly positive? No, I can’t: but does that automatically mean that whatever I used to be is therefore rendered incorrect, reprehensible? Psychologists say that one of the key stages of childhood development is the tendency to first disdain and then throw away those trappings of whatever age we have just outgrown, like a fledgeling tweenager tossing out her toys. I must still be a child, then, because more and more, I feel like every step I take to change myself is simultaneously a battle to refrain from mocking, not plastic horses and skipping games, but previous ideologies.

Once, as a first year university student, I wrote an angry letter to a Sydney newspaper about its inflammatory coverage of a series of car crashes involving adolescent drivers. It was terrible, yes, and those people had been stupid, but their reactionary condemnation of all youthful drivers – the suggestion that driving curfews be implemented, limitations imposed on the ability of teens to carry passengers – was out of line. No matter how much they raised the age limit for acquiring a driving license, I argued, and even taking into account whatever risk-taking predispositions we could all agree were more likely in the young, a significant part of the problem would still be inexperience behind the wheel. Some things you simply cannot learn through shortcuts, or any way but the hard way: sooner or later, we all make mistakes, because suffering their consequences is how humans learn, and even if nobody was ever allowed in a car before the age of 27, new drivers would still account for their fair share of accidents. Not because of their age: because they were new. And in the mean time, given that adult drivers would continue to account for the other eighty-something percent of accidents, what would happen if we broke the statistics down into age brackets? Would we find that the most elderly drivers were the least accident-prone, or that the probability of accidents would regularly decrease with age? Does getting older always make you better?

Turning five did not make me morally superior to my two-year-old self; just older and physically different. Turning fifteen did not make me morally superior to my twelve-year-old self; just older and physically different. The same will be true again when I turn twenty-five, and thirty-five, and every age after that. In so many of these blogs, I’ve written about the frustrations I felt as a teenager, how it was hard to get adults to take me seriously and how they all appeared to have gone through a brainwashing machine at some point or emerged fully formed from alien pod-plants. Even though I could understand things at fourteen that were incomprehensible to my four-year-old self, that greater proximity to the adult world made it seem as though adulthood was a static realm towards which I was both inexorably travelling and closer to reaching than ever, so that any suggestion of considering how much I’d already changed as a way of anticipating how much farther I had yet to go would have seemed futile, insulting; as though, on the cusp of adulthood, I still deserved to be reminded of – judged by – those things I’d outgrown; as though I hadn’t really grown up at all.

Which, of course, I hadn’t, because the whole idea was a lie. Nobody ever grows up. We just grow. But our language, which betrays so much of culture, suggests otherwise: hierarchies are linear, top to bottom: growing up means growing better. Nobody grows down. And yet up connotes even more than that. It makes us think of a fixed destination when there is none; it makes us want to not only cast off who we were, but disparage it as unnecessary, as though the very notion of ever being someone else is embarrassing, taboo; as though that prior person were utterly unrelated to every single subsequent incarnation.

Tonight, I have been reading Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E Butler, a single novel made from the collection of a trilogy of novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. Having only just reached the start of the second of these, I came across a particularly beautiful quote. It is the reason I stopped to write this post; to consider why I had never read Butler before now, despite having heard of her, and to wonder if perhaps the reason I find her so moving, so compelling, is because I am reading her now. Would any of my earlier selves have understood?

Butler asks:

“Trade means change. Bodies change. Ways of living must change. Did you think your children would only look different?”

And I answer:

Not any more.

This week, it seems, I am pretty much incapable of not ranting. I’ve ranted to the Sydney Morning Herald about education in NSW (scroll down for my letter); I’ve ranted about paranoral romance – and now, it seems, I’m ranting about tweens.

Not being a parent, let alone an American, I’m probably ill-placed to judge how crazy this article on tweenage freedoms may or may not be. For starters, its about tweens in New York City, which would seem to be a fairly unrepresentative slice of Americana, but that doesn’t stop it from raising alarm bells. I’ve long since accustomed myself to the notions of helicopter parenting and cocooning as repugnant (if apparently widespread) symptoms of the modern age, and yet somehow, I’ve never really sat down and thought about the age bracket in question. Most often, I rant about teenagers being downtrodden by foolish adults, and while I’m certainly familiar with tweens as a concept, it hadn’t actually occurred to me that they might be copping an even worse end of the stick.

Of all the lines in the article – the sentiment of which, for the record, I wholeheartedly agree with – there’s one which made me pull up short and sit down, once again, to rant. It’s this:

‘”Kids like to feel that they are doing something of value,” explains Michael Thompson. “Boys who like organized sports like them because it feels like they’re doing something valuable, and by that I don’t mean getting good at soccer. I mean entertaining adults.”’

On the one hand, Michael Thompson clearly means well. He’s identified a problem facing tweens – not being allowed out of parental sight for fear of cataclysmic life failure – and is trying to suggest ways of fixing it. On the other hand, it would seem to be a fairly self-evident statement, when removed from an ageist context, that people generally – and not just ‘kids’ – like to ‘feel that they are doing something of value’. Actually, scrap that. People like to actually do  things of value, and not just be given the illusion of same. Which is where I start to get angry – not at the article, or even (necessarily) Michael Thompson, but of this damnable habit we seem to have fallen into of treating everyone as a separate demographic. Has it become completely alien to our sense of being that some things, regardless of whether one is nine, nineteen, forty-nine or ninety – or, for that matter, male, female, religious, agnostic, atheistic, a ufologist, black, white, Hispanic or Chinese – might be universal? I’m not talking about complex moral truths, for heavens’ sake: just a simple recognition of the fact that we are all human beings, and therefore hold a certain type of base need in common. 

Must everything be looked at in terms of marketing? Sure, it might be a comparably slender percentage of likes which bind us together, but I’d wager they hold a pretty deep significance for the same reason. People want a purpose. Why is that such a difficult notion for society to understand? Kids might be less emotionally mature than adults, but that doesn’t make them stupid, and it sure as hell doesn’t make them any less human. Children like to entertain their parents, but past a certain age, they also want to feel like they’re getting older, a quality which, up until about age 19, is most readily identifiable by the grade we’re in at school and how we’re treated by adults. And if the latter isn’t there, the former doesn’t matter a jot, because one of the most pivotal reasons students recognise their school years as a valid progressive hierarchy is that it leads to the adult world.  Nobody goes to school for the sake of school itself, ‘school’ here being distinct from a concept of learning. What grade you’re in is based almost solely on age, not any kind of meritocratic policy. If each successive birthday from six to sixteen brings no increase in social respect, parentally granted autonomy or actual real-world power, why shoudn’t tweens be sullen – indeed, why shouldn’t they become disrespectful, disobedient teens in turn?

During a recent conversational rant about the failings of education, another adult asked me why I still gave a damn. After all, I’ve been out of school for five years, and despite my complaints, I did well enough while there; it’s been over a decade since I was a tween, and almost five years since I ceased to be a teenager. Why was I still ranting about problems which no longer concerned me?

But the thing is, they do still concern me. Part of what bothered me then – what still bothers me now – is the extent to which, despite every study telling us that children are learning increasingly more each year from younger ages; despite the leaps in technology which are picked up most readily by the young; despite the fact that tweens and teenagers are the future, adults are still persistently talking over their heads, treating tweens and teens as if they don’t matter, when everything about our new society is screaming that yes, they do. Even worse, this realisation of increased child-knowledge compared with their relative lack of emotional experience has spawned a rash of parenting techniques designed expressly to prolong the gaining of wisdom by wrapping one’s offspring in cotton wool, as though emotional experience can be achieved without any kind of learning-through-error. I keep ranting about things that no longer concern me directly because they do concern me, and everyone, indirectly. The current social system with regard to youth is predicated largely on the assumption that nobody under the age of 18 is worth listening to, while everyone over the age of 18 can no longer be bothered arguing, having managed to escape the conditions they were previously so animated about. It’s stupid, and irritating, and more than anything else about growing up, I am terrified that one day the Adult Brainwashing Machines will get me, too, ensuring that not only will I forget what it was like to be young, but, in losing all interest in youth beyond self-perpetuation, I’ll forget that there is more than one kind of youth; that the Youth of Today are just as human, just as bright and gawky and volatile as I was, but that they nonetheless are not me, and that this is not automatically a cause for concern.

So, parents: let your tweens go down to the shops or pick up the laundry or – horror of horrors – take the train alone, but don’t act as though you’re doing them a favour. Don’t be condescending in your permissal of freedoms, because if you are, then they’re not really freedoms at all. The difference between extending a privilege and acknowleging a right is the most profound difference in the world, once you’re aware of it – and with the current rate of information absorption among tweens, it’s a safe bet that most of them are.

Growing up in the 90s, I learned to use the internet at the same time I was entering adolescence. Arguably, the internet was also entering its teenage years: that awkward, teeming period when modems ceased to be the exclusive perview of geeks and big business and started finding find their way into private homes. After listening to the ludicrous crrrk bing-bong! bing-bong! ksssssshk of 56k dial-up, I’d log in to MSN Chat, check my various Hotmail accounts, surf poetry forums, look at fantasy pictures, type search queries into Yahoo: all the preoccupations of my thirteen-year-old Gen-Y self. Then as now, there were legion free sites and services to join, which I, glorying in the creative freedom of multiple online handles, was only too happy to test-drive, only rarely contributing under my own name. The internet being what it is, many of those sites no longer exist, the accounts I created and any content published thereon long since vanished into the electronic ether. But twelve years later, despite the myriad accounts I’ve let lapse, a handful still remain.

Like salmon returning upstream to spawn, I find myself revisiting these earlier haunts. To my now twentysomething self, they are cringeworthy reminders of my teenage years: that penchant for writing everything in lowercase, the often-bad poetry, the meaningless rants and banal social commentaries. But rather than abandoning these realms altogether, I find myself logging back in, culling the crap and instating new, up-to-date bios. Partly, it’s because of the book: I’ve worked long and hard to become a published author, and am therefore unable to resist shouting my triumph across every available server. It’s also a kind of catharsis, closing off the old efforts my younger self made towards the goal I’ve subsequently achieved: validating her efforts, even though she-then, as distinct from me-now, will never see it. Mostly, though, I feel a kind of allegiance to these places. I owe them the honesty of an up-to-date status, even if it’s only to proclaim the reason for my absence. Call it a strange, personal scrap of netiquette, but I find it disquieting when someone I’m following online in whatever capacity suddenly stops updating without any mention of why. It’s like holding a phone conversation in which the line abruptly goes dead at the other end. To delete the account, rather than locking it into explanatory stasis, would be like pretending the conversation never took place at all.

I still sign up for things and forget about them, of course. Everyone does. By and large, it’s harmless. Either the site is large enough that you can eventually come back and unsubscribe, or small enough that when it dies, there’s nothing left hanging about for unwary friends to find.

Unless, of course, you wrote an ill-informed, poorly constructed rant at age eleven and posted it to a site which, though many years dead, is still Googleable, left to drift eternally through the seas of Internet like some Goddamn Marie Celeste of prepubescent idiocy. Of course.