Overview

Recall some of your recent conversations and interactions with someone who belongs to an older generation—think of your parents, your grandmother, your millennial-skeptic boss. Chances are, these conversations, at one point or another, have led to the criticism of your own generation.

You know the spiel all too well: “Times just aren’t as difficult as they used to be.” “Technology makes life easier and easier.” “Phones have made kids self-centered and antisocial.” You’re lazy. You’re entitled. You’re selfish. And… you’re evil?

In American society, there exists an age-old problem (excuse the pun) of generational stereotyping, and unfortunately, teens and youth culture get the short end of the stick. They are stereotyped, generalized, and even demonized.

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Figure 1: In 2014, CBS published an article providing stats on teen drug and alcohol use. The articles feature image is a staged stock photo of a young girl partying and smoking. This sort of fabricated portrayal perpetuated stereotypes of teens.

This anti-youth sentiment is disseminated through the spread of propaganda in a variety of media outlets which negatively depict teens (Fig. 1).

Now, at first it might seem strange to refer to this message dissemination as propaganda–after all, it’s a word historically used to describe diabolical campaigns utilized in attempt to wipe out entire populations from the face of the earth. However, propaganda, by definition, can be “as blatant as a swastika or as subtle as a joke.”[1] At its core, propaganda is a message framed to persuade its audience to think a certain way.

Core Concepts and Historical Context

Now this examination of teen-demonizing propaganda must begin with an acknowledgement that teenage years are, without a doubt, difficult for most. They’re a time of hormonal imbalances and inevitably tense parental-child relationships. There are definitely good and bad teens out there. In a sense, the angsty, moody teenage characterization exists for a reason–and it was birthed from a major media conglomorate.

In fact, the concept of the “teenager” was thought up in the 1920s when laws against child labor were passed rampantly. Children spent more time in school, and as a result, parents waited longer to push their children out of the house and into jobs and marriages. The creation of this new stage of life molded an adolescent who possessed more freedom with little responsibility attached. In 1944, LIFE magazine released and issue introducing its readers to a new breed of Americans who belonged to the “teen-age.” [2] In a sense, the  teenage persona (and its negative connotations) was invented by a magazine, a major sector of American entertainment media. Since then, this depiction has been historically perpetuated and exaggerated by news outlets and entertainment media.

 

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Figure 2: A quick google search shows the negative press that teens receive from major news sources.

It is disheartening to realize that that the majority of news coverage involving teenagers is heavily negative–certainly, it outweighs the positive coverage.

According to education journalist Richard Garner half of news coverage involving teenage boys in 2009 was about crime.[3] In these news stories, the words most commonly used to describe teens were “yobs,” “thugs,” “sick,” and “heartless.”

When a middle age adult commits a terrible crime, she is often regarded as an individual psychopath–not as one who is telling of an entire age category gone mad. However, when a teen commits a horrible crime, he is made into a media mascot for youth culture and teenage violence. This is a common fallacy that is often committed called “The Hasty Generalization Fallacy.” When this fallacy is committed, a single example or instance is used as the basis for a broader generalization, and it’s not a solid ground on which to base an argument.

The occasional violent crimes committed by teenagers are magnified by news outlets worldwide, and consequently create a propagandistic demonization of young culture as a whole. Googling the word “teen” produces more than 66 million news results, and most of the top stories depict teens in a negative light (Fig. 2). 

Teen Demonization in Action 

Young people are commonly represented as criminals, as partiers, or as trendy conformists who are incapable of making rational decisions.

This demonization takes place first and foremost, in the news. In her book, Law and Youth Work, civil rights activist Mary Macguire describes how the law protects, empowers and regulates young people’s lives. In chapter 6, she frames her discussion around youth crime and disorder. She points out that stories of teens doing amazing things do not get much press at all, in fact, studies have shown that teens have the best chance of being described favorably by the media if they meet a saddening and untimely death (Maguire, Ch. 6). [4]

It is this emphasis on teenage delinquents in the media that has led to a slew of cultural narratives which are reflected in pop culture and entertainment. One of the most dominant narratives present is that teenagers are obsessed with drugs, sex, and alcohol. In 2009, the movie, Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2013) was released, telling the outrageous story of four college-aged girls who hold up a restaurant in order to fund their drug and alcohol filled spring break trip (see fig. 3). As film critic Heather Long argues in The Guardian, the movie is 90 minutes of reinforcement of the party-girl stereotype, but it’s taken even further by also depicting these girls as cold, hard criminals. [5] The girls deceive their parents and commit unthinkable crimes, and are depicted as troubled, guiltless, and dangerous members of the youth party culture, who will stop at nothing to have a reckless good time. 

spring_breakers1.jpg

Figure 3: The cast of the film Spring Breakers:  Faith (Selena Gomez), Cotty (Rachel Korine), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), and Brit (Ashley Benson).

 

Furthermore, this narrative of sex-crazed youth is exaggerated in the film, Superbad (see fig. 4). This movie is a cult favorite, and compared to Spring Breakers, it seems to take a much more humor-based and light-hearted approach to commenting on teen culture. The film follows two seniors on a mission to lose their virginity and find girlfriends before graduation. The exaggerated scenarios in this film may seem harmless, but they perpetuate the stereotypes portrayed in Hollywood and plant the seeds of this negative depiction of adolescent culture in the minds of adults and the general population  (Fig. 4).

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Figure 4: In this infamous scene from Superbad, high school student Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) uses his fake ID (which describes him as 25 year old”McLovin”) to buy alcohol.

Not only are young people depicted as crazy party animals, but they’re generalized as a sector of the population who is unable to make rational decisions. According to cultural theorist Camille Paglia, teens have been described as hysterical and susceptible to any ideology they may come across, unable to critique new  world-views before latching on to them.[6]
Of course, there are more blatant moments in media when teens are downright demonized and made into villains. This occurrence is very common in children’s TV shows–the older sibling or high

Vicky2.png
Figure 5: Vicky, from Fairly Odd Parents, embodies historically evil visual tropes such as red eyes and wringing hands.school bullies are made into villains using consistent visual tropes in addition to playing on the cultural narratives that have been mentioned.

school bullies are made into villains using consistent visual tropes in addition to playing on the cultural narratives that have been mentioned.

In the Nickelodeon cartoon, Fairly Odd Parents, the main antagonist comes in the form of an evil babysitter, Vicky (Fig. 5). She is conniving and deceptive, and comes across as responsible and sweet to the adults of the show, while only showing her true, evil self once the babysitting begins. Vicky embodies many historically evil visual tropes, such as red eyes and wringing hands. [7] During her most evil moments, she breathes fire and her tongue even protrudes and slithers like a snake’s would (Fig. 6).

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Figure 6: Fire breathing is just one of the characteristics that demonizes Vicky’s character.

It is important to understand that stories and movies involving teenagers can exist without disseminating demonizing propaganda of teens as hoodie-wearing, binge-drinking, sex-crazed members of society. In 2015, the movie Dope was released– it addresses stereotypes of all sorts throughout the film, but it especially defies cultural narratives regarding teens. Despite getting involved in a radical “non-normal” situation involving gangs and drugs in the film, the three main characters are depicted as healthy teenagers–they’re great students, play in a band together, and are preparing for college interviews. Most importantly, they’re disconnected from negative tropes and narratives that plague teens in media today (see fig. 6).

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Figure 6: Characters Jib (Tony Revolori), Diggy (Kiercy Clemmons), and Malcom (Shamiek Moore), the three main characters of Dope.

In attempt to cope with the distrust felt toward teenagers, adults and media have stereotyped and villainized youth culture through the dissemination of anti-youth culture propaganda. This propaganda often takes place formally through major new conglomerates and outlets, and is consequently reflected and narrated through television and movies. It is important to recognize this message dissemination taking place. Watch for negative stereotypical characteristics. Be wary of sweeping generalizations and narratives. In order to become a more responsible, media literate member of society, protect your thoughts and worldview and watch out for attempts to impress ideas and opinions on you without properly questioning information.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What other characteristics and signifiers can you recall regarding demonized teens in media?
  2. Are there any specific teen characters that come to mind who reflect negative messages about teens?
  3. Do you feel that you possess preconceived notions about teenagers that may have resulted from propaganda in media?
  4. How has your view of propaganda changed after reading this article?
  5. Are there other cultural narratives that begin as a result of stereotyping by news outlets?

Additional Resources

  1. In a column written for the Los Angeles Tmes shortly after the Columbine massacre, Mike Males asks “Why demonize a healthy teen culture?”
  2. In the article “Negative stereotypes hurting teen job prospects,” BBC.com describes the challenges that pervasive stereotypes pose to young people.
  3. Time Magazine released an issue on millennials and the nation’s perception of them. Read the feature article of this issue on timeinc.com
  4. In this short video excerpt from the first episode of Fairly Odd Parents, the song “Icky Vicky” describes the evil babysitter .
  5. Sid from Toy Story is another evil teen. Watch a short clip of him here.

References

[1] Delwiche, Aaron. “Propaganda Critic: Introduction Why Think about Propaganda?” Propaganda Critic: Introduction Why Think about Propaganda? Web. 26 Sept. 2016.

[2] Cosgrove, Ben. “The Invention of Teenagers: LIFE and the Triumph of Youth Culture.” Time. Time, 2013. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.

[3] Garner, Richard. “‘Hoodies, Louts, Scum’: How Media Demonises Teenagers.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 12 Mar. 2009. Web. 26 Sept. 2016

[4] Maguire, Mary. “Crime and Disorder.” Law and Youth Work. Exter: Learning Matters, 2009. N. pag. Print.

[5] Long, Heather. “Spring Breakers Isn’t Just a Terrible Movie, It Reinforces Rape Culture | Heather Long.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 28 Mar. 2013. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.

[6] Paglia, Camille. “Scream of Consciousness.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 29 Sept. 2009. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.

[7]“Red Eyes, Take Warning – TV Tropes.” TV Tropes. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.

 

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