I feel like I have some obligation to comment on the essay in today’s NYTBR by Naomi Wolf about the young adult fiction teens are gobbling up. They are, to be blunt, sex novels, whose plots center around 15 year old girls sneaking off behind statues at MoMA to have "semi-sex." Oh, how repulsive!
This is, of course, just another adult outraged at the state of pop culture (read: teen culture), though that doesn’t make it any less legitimate. Wolf’s spin is that it’s not just on television screens anymore; it’s intruded our novels. Weren’t books supposed to be an untouched oasis?
I guess my question is what purpose essays like this serve. Awaken parents to the chilling reality? Aren’t parents hit over the head with this stuff all the time? Is it with the hope that a combination of the monthly "tales from the teen trenches" piece (last month it was Caitlin Flanagan and the teen oral sex epidemic) and an expose on college dorms from Tom Wolfe, parents of the 60’s will get off their butt and install internet filters?
Here’s my theory.
There are traditionally thought to be two groups of teens. Both indulge in the ugly: they drink alcohol, smoke pot, hook up with guys/girls indiscriminately, glorify the slutty girl or the dumb jock (Wolf: "Girls…are expected to compete with pornography, but can still be labeled sluts"), watch hours of MTV, and buy pornography. One group engages in such behavior without a cloud of intellectual confliction. It’s just the thing to do. Another group partakes, yet with a deep moral dilemma. Aren’t they going to be instructing their kids to not drink or do drugs?
And yet there’s this little known third category. This is the group of teens who don’t resolve the moral dilemma by saying "Should I do this?" and then light the joint anyway. Instead, they fake their drunkeness, play up their Saturday night at school, exaggerate their sexual experience. When done right, this earns them a place among the hot, popular kids — after all, to completely opt-out would mean social isolation — and concurrently keeps them from breaking every moral fiber.
Wouldn’t it be more useful for writers like Wolf to stop bashing the lifestyle of that one group of teens — the mindlessly hedonistic — and instead lay out a playbook for this third category, which no doubt is the most difficult to pull off?
It is clear that if the ugly teen culture adult critics love to beat up is going to change, it’s not going to be because of essays in high culture media. Instead it will come from infiltrators within, from the quiet warriors fighting to carve a lifestyle that strikes an impossible balance.
They need all the help they can get.