Teenage Leisure Trends

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In the twentieth century, American teenagers were often among the first to embrace new innovations in commercialized leisure. Teens found in music, dance, movies, and other recreations opportunities to experiment with new identities, form relationships with peers, and assert their independence from parents. At various times, teenage leisure practices alternately reaffirmed and challenged the values of the dominant culture. Invariably, those challenges to mainstream values, both real and imagined, spurred moral panics over the seemingly corrupting influence of mass culture and made teenagers and entertainment industries targets of reform. Teenage leisure was thus the site of numerous struggles for cultural authority in which teenagers, entertainment industries, parents, reformers, and government officials all jockeyed for position and control. In the process, Americans continually reimagined and renegotiated the boundaries of sexual respectability, personal expression, commercial responsibility, teenage autonomy, and parental authority.

Teenage Youth and Mass Commercial Amusements in the Progressive Era

Around the turn of the twentieth century, teenagers were not yet regarded as a distinct leisure market, but they represented a large portion of the audience at nickelodeons, vaudeville theaters, public dance halls, and amusement parks. Such entertainments proved especially popular with working-class and immigrant youth eager to break away from the confinements of factory work, crowded tenements, and the old-world restrictions of immigrant parents. These affordable mass commercial amusements became the public staging grounds for dating and casual sociability among strangers. There, older traditions of chaperoned courtship gave way to the new practice of treating, in which young men paid for their date's entertainment, often with the expectation of sexual exchange in return. Working-class girls set new limits on the shifting boundaries of sexual respectability—engaging, for example, in physical intimacies only with a steady boyfriend or fiancée—but for many, respectability no longer hinged solely on chastity.

The free-and-easy sexuality that mass amusements seemed to encourage alarmed Progressive Era reformers, who warned that unsuspecting young women might be lured into prostitution by white slave merchants posing as charming escorts. In the minds of anti-vice crusaders, the movies were especially fraught with danger. Not only did the darkened theaters encourage sexual delinquency, but the films themselves—with their scenes of crime, violence, and scantily clad women—offered poor moral guides for vulnerable youth. Reformers adopted varied strategies to combat the allures and debasing effects of commercial recreation. Some, seeking to control mass amusements through government regulation, created state and local movie censorship boards and passed laws banning unaccompanied minors in movie theaters. (In response, the movie industry headed off more stringent regulation by creating its own industry review board in 1909.) Other reformers like Jane Addams, sympathizing with adolescents' cravings for adventure, romance, and mystery, sought to uplift amusements through expert supervision. They called for the construction of playgrounds, community recreation centers, and chaperoned parties as wholesome, adult-supervised alternatives.

Reformers, at best, achieved only modest success in controlling adolescents' encounters with mass culture. Adult-supervised recreations were often too sedate to successfully compete with mass amusements, underage children invariably found their way into movie theaters, and the moral endings added to films as the price for including sexually charged fare and depictions of crime nevertheless could not erase all that came before.

The Origins of a Distinct Teenage Leisure Market

During the 1920s and 1930s, teenage leisure developed more distinctive, age-based contours. For the first time in American history, teenagers of all social classes were spending more time in the company of their peers than with adults. Teens' greater access to automobiles facilitated this development, but more important still was the dramatic expansion of high school attendance. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, only a small elite—those preparing for college and professional schools—went to high school. Attendance rose dramatically during the first three decades of the twentieth century, thanks to compulsory education laws, which raised the age limit for school attendance, child labor laws, which forced more working-class youths into the schools, and the rising corporate demand for high school graduates to staff the new economy's expanding white-collar sector. High school attendance rates climbed to nearly 60 percent by the early 1930s and reached nearly 80 percent by the decade's end, owing to diminished job opportunities for youth during the Great Depression.

During the interwar years, the expansion of extracurricular activities and youth organizations that catered to adolescents' recreational needs afforded more opportunities for peer-centered interactions. Organizations that had originated in the Progressive Era—Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, Boy Scouts, YMCA, and YWCA—continued to enlarge their ranks, though at a slower rate in the 1920s. Athletic boys battled for coveted spots on high school basketball and football teams, which became focal points of school spirit. Others found outlets for self-expression and sociability as members of the debate team, drama club, yearbook staff, choral society, or school band. To a certain extent, adult supervision of these activities circumscribed the influence of peers. Indeed, adults often embraced extracurricular activities, youth organizations, and summer camps as antidotes to the growth of an autonomous youth culture influenced by mass commercial recreation. Even so, the very existence of these activities and the conservative motives that inspired them testify to the increasing importance of adolescent sociability and peer-centered interactions.

As teenage leisure became increasingly segregated from adult leisure, teenagers themselves struggled to adapt to the norms and expectations of their own peer culture. Teenagers' preoccupations with their place in the social pecking order were often exacerbated by the competitive "rating-and-dating" system that measured popularity by the frequency and variety of dates one commanded. Especially during the depression, when many postponed marriage because they could not afford a home of their own, young people valued dating less as a means of choosing a lifelong mate than as a means of validating their social standing. On college campuses, where the rating-and-dating system originated, women college students carefully preserved the facade of popularity by turning down last-minute invitations and by never being caught for too long with the same partner on the dance floor. As these dating conventions filtered down to the high school, some female students, eager to avoid humiliation at school dances, actively campaigned to eliminate stags and permit fixed-partner dates.

Swing Culture

Much of teenage leisure, fashion, and dating during the 1930s and World War II revolved around swing music. Listening and dancing to swing music played on the car radio or soda fountain jukebox gave cash-strapped teens a relatively inexpensive way to enjoy dating. Giant movie theaters, eager to pack the house, charged a mere 25 cents during the depression to hear live big bands, while Harlem's Savoy Ballroom offered discounted admissions to its young Sunday Matinee Club dancers. Among swing's biggest fans, high school students helped to make swing music the nation's first multiracial youth culture. For white youth, participating in a musical culture created by African Americans contributed to its allure; most of the new dances were invented by black youth, as were the clothing and slang that went along with swing musical culture. Immigrant teens embraced swing as an expression of their new American cultural identity. Swing culture nevertheless had its mainstream and hipster counterparts. Mainstream white teenage girls—known as bobby soxers—wore saddle shoes, bobby sox, and full skirts that allowed for unencumbered dancing. Boys wore sport coats without ties. By contrast, the zoot suit, popular among working-class blacks, Mexican Americans, Filipinos, and some working-class whites, represented something more rebellious. Wearing the zoot suit expressed defiance of middle-class norms of respectability—it was a look associated with gangsters—but it also expressed deeper disaffection from a society that provided limited economic opportunities and tolerated racial discrimination. The zoot suit—with its wide-kneed, cuffed trousers and long, wide-shouldered jacket—made an especially dramatic statement of rebellion during World War II, when fabric shortages led the government to prohibit the manufacture and sale of zoot suits.

Although swing sometimes united adolescents in a multiracial youth culture, it also became the focus of racial tensions. Rumors of racial mixing at swing nightclubs in East Los Angeles partially contributed to the nearly weeklong zoot-suit riots in 1943, when white servicemen assaulted young Mexican American and black zoot-suiters, often by "depantsing" them. For many concerned adults, however, the zoot-suit rebels were but one manifestation of a disturbing trend: the rise in juvenile delinquency. World War II had seriously hampered teen leisure, as gasoline rationing limited the availability of fuel for joy riding, dating, or even transportation to high school athletic meets. To compound matters, with fathers at war and mothers assuming breadwinning duties, unsupervised teenagers created their own excitement, sometimes skipping school, committing petty crimes, or getting drunk. Some girls, looking for an adventurous night on the town, enjoyed picking up soldiers. Thought to trade sexual favors for an evening's entertainment or pair of stockings, "victory girls", as critics called them, were blamed for rising venereal disease rates among teens.

Viewing swing music as a cause of delinquent behavior, some state and local authorities tried to ban jukeboxes and institute curfews to keep teens out of juke joints and dance halls. Rejecting such harsh external controls, Mark McCloskey, recreation director for the Office of Community War Services, instead proposed the creation of teen canteens where adolescents could enjoy swing dancing, playing Ping-Pong, and listening to music from the jukebox. McCloskey recognized that teens had few outlets for fun because many cities had cut funding for swimming pools and community centers. Much like Progressive Era reformers, McCloskey sought to contain excesses by offering wholesome, adult-chaperoned alternatives. Rules prohibiting drinking, gambling, and pick-up dates helped the canteens to win community support. McCloskey, however, also tried to avoid the heavy-handed adult guidance that had limited the effectiveness of Progressive Era efforts to uplift amusements by giving teenagers a greater hand in designing and managing the canteens according to their own tastes.

Teen Markets and Teen Rebellion in the 1950s and 1960s

During the 1950s, the most important development in popular culture—the rise of television—relocated the primary site of leisure from the public realm of urban nightlife to the private realm of the home. But even as television's growing popularity reinforced that decade's obsession with family togetherness, American teenagers often found more satisfying outlets for self-expression in other realms of leisure. As television ate into the profits and popularity of other mass media, television's competitors, ever more conscious of teenagers' consumer clout, tried to increase their market share by going after teenagers. Hollywood catered to teen interests with films like The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause that explored juvenile delinquency. Radio stations that played rock 'n' roll appealed to teenagers' disdain for the bland conformity of the suburbs. Much to the dismay of established DJs and singers, teens found in rock music's aggressive beat and sexually charged lyrics a refreshing alternative to the cloying pop music of the day.

Teens' attraction to rock music and movie stars like James Dean, who seemed to glamorize teen alienation, alarmed many adults and fueled the nation's intensifying obsession with juvenile delinquency. Juvenile delinquency was on the rise, but typically involved curfew violations and truancies rather than violent crime. Nevertheless, in 1953, a congressional committee criticized movies, rock music, and comic books for undermining parental authority and encouraging teens to revel in their alienation. Some Americans even viewed rock music as a communist conspiracy to destroy American values and discipline. Much like earlier detractors of swing, critics complained that rock music promoted sexual promiscuity and racial mixing. These fears were especially pronounced in the South, where white citizens' councils viewed rock music as a "plot to mongrelize America." Most southern white teens, however, easily ignored the political implications of crossing the musical color line, and remained committed segregationists.

Despite opposition to rock music, the mass market ultimately prevailed. Major record companies, eager to cash in, made rock music less threatening and more appealing to the larger white-teen market by covering black originals with watered-down versions performed by whites. No one, however, more effectively translated black culture to a mass white audience than Elvis Presley, whose hipster clothes, gyrating hips, and rebel image made him something of a surrogate black man. Television shows like American Bandstand also played a crucial role in legitimizing rock music for white teens. Hosted by the undeniably wholesome Dick Clark, American Bandstand featured white teens dancing (only with other whites) to hits by clean-cut artists singing about the agony and ecstasy of teenage romance. On American Bandstand, rock 'n' roll shed its low-class, outlaw image and was repackaged as harmless teenage fun. With the release ofGidget and other beach films, Hollywood, too, did its part to promote reassuring images of a wholesome and carefree white, middle-class youth culture.

During the 1950s, beatniks and other marginalized teens represented a tiny undercurrent of overt defiance, but by the mid-1960s a much broader spectrum of teenagers openly defied authority of any kind. Teens found much to disdain: the Vietnam War, the escalating arms race, intransigent racism, rigid gender roles, and society's overinvestment in material comfort. Their disillusionment in turn fueled experimentation with drugs, the folk music revival, and a sexual revolution. Thanks in part to the invention of birth control pills at the beginning of the 1960s, teens increasingly conceived of sexual expression as a matter of personal choice rather than an issue of morality. While going steady in the 1950s had often been a prelude to early marriage, teens in the 1960s were more content to postpone marriage and play the field. Counterculture youth in particular rejected anything that smacked of a preprogrammed life and strove instead to live in the moment. In abandoning college to join a commune or using psychedelics to explore alternative ways of thinking about the world, counterculture teens were embracing the reigning ethos of the 1960s: the right to do your own thing.

Teenage Leisure Trends Since the 1970s

In the last third of the twentieth century, teens' investment in doing their own thing led to the proliferation of youth subcultures defined by race, gender, sexual orientation, musical taste, drug habits, sports interests, hobbies, religious affiliation, and academic inclination. High schools, to a certain extent, facilitated this fragmentation when they abandoned dress codes in the 1970s. On high school campuses, congregations of druggies, surfers, computer nerds, goths, and hip-hop fans became easily recognizable. The mass market, however, was the more important engine of fragmentation. Evermore refined micro-markets replaced the relatively homogenized, white-teen market of the 1950s. Much to the dismay of teens who defined themselves in opposition to mass-market commercialism, marketers became increasingly expert at discerning and then mainstreaming subcultural styles. Teens resisted commercial cooptation by reinventing the meanings of commodities associated with subcultural styles, as rappers did when they substituted preppy sportswear for the droopy pants they had made fashionable in the suburbs. An increasingly rapid pace of cultural reinvention and commercial exploitation characterized teen leisure in the late twentieth century.

If the cultural revolutions of the 1960s seemed to make schools and parents more tolerant of teenagers' desires to do their own thing, teenage leisure nevertheless continued to incite moral panics. At the congressional hearings on gangsta rap in 1994, black civil rights leaders criticized rappers for glamorizing violence and degrading women: some recommended a parental advisory rating system for popular music; others advocated censorship of offending lyrics. New technologies like video games, MTV videos, and the Internet revived long-standing anxieties that commercialized leisure fostered sexual promiscuity and violence. In 1999, a murderous rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, conducted by two teenage boys who played violent video games, compounded such anxieties. That many teenagers enjoyed new technologies of leisure from the privacy of their bedrooms raised concerns that teenagers were at once overindulged and inadequately supervised by working parents. Long-standing worries about the unhealthy consequences of too much passive spectatorship acquired new resonance in the 1990s as childhood obesity rates soared. Such trends in teenage leisure, however, proved far more contradictory than critics supposed. If the Internet encouraged greater passivity and isolation in some teens, it also provided the building blocks for others to forge new cultural identities and associations with like-minded teens.

See also: Computer/Video Games, Cyber Dating, Cruising, Dance Halls, Extreme Sports, Hook-Ups, Internet, Movies' Impact on Popular Leisure, Progressive-Era Leisure and Recreation, Rap Music Audiences, Raves/Raving, Rock Concert Audiences, Scouting Movments, Skateboarding, Television's Impact on Youth and Children's Leisure, Wilding


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Lisa Jacobson