Saturday, August 14, 2010

Katy Perry's Teenage Dream: Not Mine

This is the last cross post from my new site Please update your bookmarks!

I'm not a fan of Katy Perry as an artist. A month or so ago, I found myself turning to Facebook for help making sense of her video for "California Gurls," a degrading confection of lollipop licking, naked cloud laying, and low production value. Her songs are Frankensteins of lyrical clichés, grafted together with infectious pop beats. Along with her conventionally adorable appearance, these catchy beats are probably what make her songs a perpetual fixture in every retail store I've been in in the past month, and I'm shopping for freshman year at college, so that's a lot of stores.

Issues aside, I can't get enough of Perry's music, and I resent myself for it. In my defense, her songs are what can only be described as, "so fucking catchy." I find myself listening to them in my bedroom at least daily. I don't, however, listen to them in the car, in fear of a passersby hearing her voice through my open window and catching Perry fever. Honestly, I wish her music didn't exist. I imagine that the bulk of her listeners are teenage girls, an audience that really doesn't need more media enforcing the idea that women are merely sex objects and appearance reigns king. I'm not saying we can't take it, I'm just saying that we probably don't need it. Her music, however, does exist, and I am still listening to it. Lucky for me, her new video for "Teenage Dream" is a cesspool of misrepresentations of adolescence, so I finally have the chance to redeem myself somewhat in pointing how it goes wrong in capturing the true "teenage dream"....
The song begins with the lines, "You think I'm pretty/without any makeup on." At this point, I'm bobbing my head and telling Katy, "Yeah girl! Reject those societal conceptions of beauty!" But then she's all, "You think I'm funny/when I tell the punchline wrong," and suddenly I'm like, "Nooo Katy you don't have to be dumb to be funny." Then this guy is introduced, who is clearly not a teenager. He is the only thing in the video that is likely to ever make a cameo in any actual teenage dreams. Probably in this state of dress too.
Next they drive around and wave to their ultra-hip, also non-teen friends. One of these friends wears a Native American headdress for no apparent reason. Nobody wears their seatbelt. Chiseled Perry boyfriend speeds. Katy sings some generic lyrics about love and being ready to totally do It with him.
They go to a motel and have sex. It is appropriately PG-13 to ensure that people will blog about it.
At the end of the video, Perry says, "Let you put your hands on me/in my skin tight jeans/be your teenage dream tonight." I don't know how much thought was actually put into the meaning of these lyrics when they were being written, or if it was just a matter of a convenient rhyme, but I am somewhat bothered by the use of let. Ultimately, I don't think sex should just be one personal finally relenting and letting the other person do them, but a matter of mutual desire and consent between both parties. This sort of, "fine...we can fuck" attitude isn't the best to promote as a component of the teenage dream in my opinion.

In fact, the entire video seems more like a teenage reality than a teenage dream. Teens drink. They party. They drive around in cars. Hopefully not in that order. Teenagers have sex with each other. Dreams are supposed to be aspirational. Teens I know dream of careers, college, and great loves that do not reach their pinnacle with motel sex. Perry's teenage dream seems like something more nostalgic, thought up by a team of people way past their teenage years, dreaming of what it was like in their youth. Part of me is sad, though, that these are the conventions of adolescence they come up with, especially when the people listening to the song are only likely to have just begun their teenage experience.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Hey everyone! I'm leaving tomorrow to do three weeks of travel/soul searching/general world exploration. I'll be back in early August with plenty of insight/snark/thoughts to share. In the mean time, feel free to join my email list so you can stay updated with what's going on when I get back. You can also follow me on Twitter, which I'll update while I'm away. Most importantly, though, enjoy your summer!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Kids These Days: Empathy, Stereotypes, and the 'Me Generation'

This post cross posted from my new project,!

A few people were thoughtful enough to link me to an article on the Psychology Today website entitled "Is the 'Me Generation' Less Empathetic?" I generally hate these sort of articles, as they tend to take a sensationalist, self-satisfied, kids-these-days tone in covering what it usually a made up news story based on a minor study out of an obscure university. As I perused the article though, I realized that my initial judgement was wrong, and that the title of the article does not give justice to the fair thought that author Ray B. Williams puts into exploring generational differences.

In his article, Williams explores the oft-cited stereotype that my generation, Generation Y, is lazy, self-centered, and less empathetic. He pulls quotes from 60 Minutes describing my peers as cynical with fragile egos as a result of childhoods rife with trophies and compliments. He supports these claims with university studies insinuating that we are less empathetic than generations before. Williams also discusses popular theories as to the causes of this so-called epidemic, which call on Facebook, television news, and, of course, violent video games.

This is the point in the article where I usually stop reading, as I can get the "the-kids-are-NOT-alright" trope elsewhere without seeking it out directly. I figured, though, that there was a reason so many people sent me this article, so I kept reading. Turns out, I was right!

In the second half of the article, Williams pulls a double surprise turnaround. First, he turns against all traffic-driving, anti-teen articles that have come before in saying that, perhaps, we shouldn't be so quick to pin unfounded stereotypes on upcoming generations. He writes:
In 1967, Time Magazine ran an article about the "hippies," (Baby Boomers) stating, "to their deeply worried parents throughout the country, they seem more like dangerously deluded dropouts, candidates for a very sound spanking and a cram course in civics." In the 1920's the Dallas Morning News described youth of the day as not caring about people, not "having any sense of shame, honor or duty." These visits to the past may be a wise warning for social scientists to not use scientific research to fuel unfounded stereotypes of young people.
What a breath of fresh air it is to see an article, written by an adult, even entertain the idea that kids these days have more in common with kids those days than just a rebellious spirit. A trend that has persisted through the ages is that young people are routinely pinned to misconceptions and generalizations that aren't necessarily true. It makes me immensely happy to see a publication as mainstream as Psychology Today go to battle in our defense.

The second move I love that Williams makes is when he proposes the idea that perhaps the issue of empathy deficiency isn't a generational issue at all, but an issue indicative of the era we are living in. He asks:
So is the apparent self-focus, and apparent declining empathy of Gen Y peculiar to this generation or part of a larger general societal trend? Are we witnessing an age of declining empathy?
In bringing up this question, he establishes a sort of cultural accountability that I think is often neglected in discussing "the problem with kids today," and this is where I think Williams hits the metaphorical nail on the head. He asks if this trend is not just teenage, but societal. I think oftentimes, we get so caught up in looking at how a trend is affecting young people, that we neglect to notice if the trend is doing damage to society as a whole.

So to sum, I'd say, yes, some teenagers might be less empathetic. And yes, maybe it's a result of new developments in our culture. But I'd venture to say that adults who live and work in this new-media culture are likely to be empathy-lite as well. In looking at teens as an isolated market segment, we often fail to see the big picture trends. It was nice to see an article do such a great job of pointing this out.

Points of Entry
This post cross posted from my new project,!

Monday, July 5, 2010

What do teenagers smell like?

This post has been cross posted from my new project,!

Depending on where and when you grew up, you likely have an answer for this, one that you are willing to defend with forehead-vein popping passion. For my mother, the answer is Jōvan Musk, an earthy drugstore concoction that brings her back to her Forenza sweater wearing days in the mid-80s. For me, a whiff of Victoria's Secret Love Spell puts me right back into a middle school hallway, dragging my feet to the whine of Dashboard Confessional. Other popular teenage fragrance choices from various eras include: Drakkar Noir, Love's Baby Soft, and Bath & Body Works' Sun Ripened Raspberry. Some more timeless scents include: sweat, and parents'-basement-sofa-handjob.

Somewhere around the time that I entered high school, Axe body spray started to gain popularity, which signified a paradigm shift in my teenage experience, at least from an olfactory point of view. Suddenly, boys locker rooms became torture-chambers for the musk-averse. With the aerosol applicator, it was now easier than ever to apply the long-held teen beauty mantra of "more-is-more."

Something that I find to be interesting about these newly-marketed fragrances is the unique nomenclature used to appeal to teens. While previous fragrance names tended toward descriptive, such as musk, strawberry, or powder fresh, today's names try to lure in teens with appeals to emotion.

Take, for instance, some of the names from the Axe line of body sprays, which include Phoenix, Essence, and Dark Temptation. None of these names actually speak to what the spray smells like. The same can be said for sprays from Old Spice's line, which include names like Swagger and After Hours. Bod Man, a lower-end brand, includes scents with names like $$$ and Really Ripped Abs. As a whole, the rhetoric for naming fragrances marketed toward teen boys tends toward fantasy. Words used are evocative of the forces of nature, contrarianism, and stereotypes of masculinity. I made this word cloud out of all of the names of male teen fragrances in my CVS:

Fragrances aimed at teenage girls are the same in that their names also do little to describe the actual smells of the products. Their titles, however, focus more on promoting ideals of fantasy and romance, than on adventure and badass-ery. Deodorants, meant to mask the smell of your sweat, are named things like Classic Romance and Sweet Surrender. Travel fantasies are called to mind with names like Capri Breeze and Island Falls. Again, none of these things point to a specific scent, but a feeling that teens will get from purchasing the product.
I'm not sure what sort of comment there is to make here about adolescent culture. I find it to be ironic that marketers are trying to tie aspiration and fantasy into a product that is meant to cover up your stink. Then again, maybe this speaks to a perception that exists saying that, to address my generation, it is no longer enough to simply produce a quality product. My peers and I have been groomed to buy into a lifestyle, so a simple deodorant may no longer suffice.

This post has been cross posted from my new project,!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Welcome to the Teenagerie

This post is cross-posted from my new project, a blog about media representations of teenage culture!

The notion of a separate teenage culture is a concept that is relatively young. Prior to the 1930s, nothing but the thin line of employment separated those who were kids from those who were adults. With the onset of mass unemployment during the Great Depression, however, young people suddenly found themselves idle-- redundant in the overcrowded workforce. As a remedy to this problem, Roosevelt's New Deal conceived of the National Youth Administration (NYA), an agency that aimed to keep young people out of the glutted workforce by encouraging them to finish high school.

The NYA ended up increasing graduation rates, but more importantly, it succeeded in centralizing America's young people into secondary schools. As young people flocked to high schools, an environment was created that allowed for the inception of a unique teen culture, one with its own music genres, fashion tastes, and outlooks on life. For the first time in history, society began to regard the public life of the young adult as something separate from the life of the family. Thus, the teenager was born.

Somewhere along the line, though, between today and the birth of teen culture, society's conception of what it means to be a teenager has changed. What was once dictated by a hand-jiving and heavy-petting set of young people has now largely been appropriated by businesses and the media as a means of exploitation. Teen culture today is something that is packaged, marketed, and sold back to teens for their own consumption, and usually not with the most encouraging message. Through the eyes of the media, teenagers are shown as narcissistic, lazy, and unintelligent. We are condemned for being tech-obsessed, shallow, and impulsive. The irony in this situation is that this perception stems not from teens, but from a preconceived set of norms that we as a society have allowed to dictate our expectations for how young people should behave. Instead of liberating us, teen culture restricts us by setting boundaries for who we as teens are allowed to become as we come of age.

With my previous project, The Seventeen Magazine Project, I spent a month living according to the gospel of Seventeen magazine, exploring expectations that modern media sets surrounding beauty and girlhood. I drew the above conclusions during my work on the project, and but had difficulty finding information that broke down the social construction of what it means to be teenaged. Through this struggle, the idea of Teenagerie was born. Taking inspiration from one of my favorite blogs, Sociological Images, as well as from the vast amount of other sources on the internet devoted to breaking down societal norms, I created this blog with the hopes of promoting discussion around and challenging the idea of what it means to be teenaged, and what it means to come of age in our changing times.

This blog, which will update on weekdays, will offer analysis of advertisements, film, and other media--past and present--along with essays on important topics surrounding "the teenage condition," which often has far more in common with the human condition than we are led to believe. My hopes for this blog are that it will be productive in promoting discussions surrounding the important questions about adolescence, which range from What are today's teens really like? to How accurate is the media in portraying these representations? Through promoting critical analysis, I hope this blog can serve as a place for celebrating teens and humanity in general, as well as for breaking down the generational barriers that keep us apart.

This post is cross-posted from my new project, a blog about media representations of teenage culture!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Search for Teen-Friendly Media

Throughout this project, I've been asked by friends and press alike, "If teens shouldn't be reading Seventeen, then what should they be reading?" I've put some thought into this question, and the answer that I've come up with really isn't as cut and dry as a good answer usually is. There isn't a whole lot of teen-specific media on the market "getting it right" when it comes to providing teens with content that is entertaining, relevant, age-appropriate, and not entirely demoralizing. Seventeen makes an effort, but falls short of achieving this goal by addressing teen girls as a monolithic block of people with a unified interest in nail polish, dieting, and winning the attention of swoopy-haired boys. If the perfect piece of mainstream teen media did already exist, it'd be unlikely that I would have ever even found myself motivated to begin this project in the first place. There just would not have been a need.

In an effort to explore some less-mainstream alternatives to Seventeen that are available on the market, I put out a call a few weeks ago on my blog for information about teen-friendly media. Besides this phrasing, the only other qualifications for submissions that I required was that anything submitted must "get it" when it came to addressing teens and the teenage experience. This vagueness was intentional. In failing to define the term media, submissions ended up ranging from movies to music to books to innovative advertising campaigns. People also took liberties with the term teen-friendly, frequently submitting content intended for more general audiences, but that teens could also enjoy without feeling looked down upon or excluded. Ultimately, the amount of submissions that I received from everyone ranked somewhere on a scale between ridiculous and very ridiculous. I decided, for my sanity, to only include on this list things that teens might use in their life as a supplement to or replacement for Seventeen.

What this list is not is a pearl-clutching list of child-friendly fluff. The content included does not consider teenagers to be ignorant to world trends and complex ideas. Thus, if you are a parent or other adult, you may choose to preview this content before sharing it with the young person in your life, though it is likely that their knowledge of these subject areas exceeds your expectations.

I've organized everything loosely into categories for your browsing convenience. Each suggestion is attributed to the person(s) who submitted it. If there is no name, it is a personal recommendation of mine. Feel free to leave additional recommendations in the comments, and I'll add them in as I see fit!

The most logical direct substitute for Seventeen.
  • Shameless: As their website puts it, Shameless is, "Canada's independent voice for smart, strong, sassy young women and trans youth." As one Seventeen Magazine Project reader put it, "I've always thought of this as sort of the anti-Seventeen." (Submitted by Heidi, also Kim.)
  • Justine: If you find Shameless to be too progressive, but can't stomach Seventeen, then you might appreciate Justine, which includes real girls in its pages and focuses on careers and books as much as it does on beauty products. Not perfect, but a definite step in the right direction for younger teens. Link. (Submitted by Brenna)
  • Bitch: Though not specifically geared toward the sub-18 set, Bitch has plenty to offer bright, older teens who don't spend all day in their rooms inhaling nail polish fumes and gazing at photos of Justin Bieber (i.e. most of us). This "feminist response to pop culture" includes really interesting book, film, and movie reviews. If anything, this is the closest thing that exists to what I'd like to see Seventeen become. It's hardly high-level, and hardly radical-- just good content in an enjoyable package. (Submitted by Dominique, seconded by me)
  • Teen Voices: A really fantastic biannual magazine, Teen Voices tackles everything from sex trafficking to college essay writing to social networking. Articles are written by and for teen girls, which helps the magazine avoid coming off as patronizing, as content written for teens is wont to do. Teen Voices does a fantastic job of treating teen girls as a real, dynamic humans, not a flat set of stereotypes. (Submitted by Laura)
  • Sadie Magazine: Sadie deliberately positions itself as an alternative to the hair-and-makeup model of teen magazines. In their mission statement, they say that they strive to empower young girls, not train them to consume. I kick myself for not thinking of this brilliant way of phrasing things, and fully support this line of thinking. Even more awesome, their "centerfold" section actually features interviews with women who are out in the world doing kick-ass things. (Submitted by Anna, and others!)
  • Bust Magazine: Bust is a lifestyle magazine that treats its readers like they actually have a life. That is, Bust is full of interesting articles and fun activities with which to fill one's time, not just makeup tips and advertisements. While not technically for teens, I would say Bust's overall message is far less harmful than that which Seventeen sends. It really depends on what kind of parent you are though. I think I'd rather expose my kids to swear words and sex talk than the belief that their natural appearance is inherently flawed. That's just me though. (Submitted by literally everyone I know)
  • New Moon: This magazine has nothing to do with the Twilight series. In fact, I'm not sure if New Moon magazine's mission could be farther from that of the consumerist Twilight propaganda. New Moon is an ad-free magazine that challenges girls aged eight and older to confront cultural stereotypes of physical beauty and pursue self-discovery and creativity. I am not one for new-agey things, but this sounds incredible. I wish there was a version of this for teenagers, or even for women.
Like magazines, but on the internet!
  • The F-Bomb: A blog for teenage feminists, written by teenage feminists. What I particularly like about this concept, besides everything, is the fact that a number of girls contribute, so instead of a single party line, you get a complex discourse on the past, present, and future of feminism. (Submitted by Claire, also Miranda)
  • Women's Glib: More bright young women writing about feminism! Also, beauty, education, ageism, government, reproductive rights, masculinity, and a ton of other stuff. Reading this blog makes me so excited to see what my generation will accomplish.... I have no idea where you ladies live, but if you read this and are ever in Philly and want to hang out, email me or something! (Submitted by Miranda)
(books, online, and otherwise)
  • Scarleteen: Scarleteen offers facts about sex for teenagers of all genders and sexual orientations. That's it. No political or moral spin. No connotations. No partisan funding. The writing is casual and often funny. What I love is how the site treats sex as something neither dirty nor sterile, and still manages to communicate its consequences, a rarity in the teenage world.
  • TeenHelp: Like writing into a Seventeen for advice, except questions actually get answered, promptly, by non-profit volunteers. TeenHelp doesn't shy away from topics like disability, eating disorders, and rape, but you can also check the site out for general chatting about pets, sex, gaming, and hobbies. (Submitted by Imogen)
  • Savage Love Podcast: You can absorb the gospel of Dan Savage, the voice behind this podcast, in the form of a blog, a column, or an iPhone app, but personally I prefer the podcast. Newcomers beware, Savage's brand of advice is not for the weak of stomach or closed of mind. Uncensored and brash, he readily tackles any question thrown at him. On first thought, this may not sound ideal for teen listeners, but he frequently fields calls from the younger set, and what I like most about his responses is that he takes care not to talk down to us. Dan Savage tells it like it is, euphemism and sugar-coating free, a welcome reprise to the candy-coated, pinkified bullshit that is so often sold to us as teens.
Obviously, there is much more content out there that teens can look to for advice and entertainment than the few items included on this list. In lots of cases, what I would recommend is that teens look outside of the teen world entirely, and instead look into the world of interest based content. For instance, if you like photography, why not subscribe to Popular Photography? Into science? How about checking out Wired, a personal favorite of mine? I think that sometimes in their attempts to market to us, mainstream media tends to trap teen girls into a box, both interest and intelligence wise. The items on this list do a good job recognizing my peers and me as a diverse group among ourselves, but I'm not sure how bad it would necessarily be to sometimes allow us to just assimilate into society as a whole. I'm going to put some more thought into this, but sometimes I think that the notion of a separate teen culture is actually hurting teens.

Some favorites from this week!

Hey Mainstream Media!  I am...

Hey Mainstream Media!  I am...