le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Monday, September 13, 2010

adolescence, stereotypes and cliques

My Adolescence class is picking up steam, I think (I hope). We started in on actual primary texts this week (the introductory classes were reading various contemporary news/opinion articles on teenagers, "emerging adults" etc, and some fun with G. Stanley Hall); today's topic was the John Hughes' film THE BREAKFAST CLUB.

Somehow I managed to never see the entire film all the way through until about seven or eight weeks ago. My sister was a fan of the movie when we were younger, and I frankly cannot grasp how I managed to never see the movie in its entirety before now, but there you have it. I've seen it twice now, in a span of about seven weeks, and it's pretty fantastic for a lot of reasons.

But today - and the reason I put it on the syllabus - we talked in class about stereotypes. The students had a lot to say (which was joyous, and a number of them raised points that I hadn't thought of, which always delights me), and I'm looking forward to talking more on Wednesday. In the interim, I got to thinking (as I drove home from school) about the kind of stereotypes in the movie: the jock, the basket case, the brain, the delinquent, the jock ("Sporto"!).

And I wonder if these kinds of stereotypes really only manifest during adolescence. The kinds of cliques Melinda identifies at the start of Speak, for instance; it's a more comprehensive and updated list than Hughes's collection of types, but it's essentially the same kind of stratification.
Now, stereotypes run rampant across the adult world, of course, but it seems to me, on intial thought, that those tend to be organized around some relatively fixed aspect of a person's identity. That is: racial, ethnic, gender, sex/sexuality, religious (which can cross over with ethnic, for example: Jews and Muslims, where it's not just religion that's being singled out but a kind of ethnic or at the very least cultural identity). There are other "character types," - the Boss, the Soccer Mom, types within professions - the Lawyer, the Account Exec, the Secretary - but those are only visible when the person is inhabiting that role. For instance, once The Secretary gets in her car and drives home or goes to the supermarket, that Secretaryish type is almost or entirely invisible to everyone else. Ditto Soccer Mom, who, alone at the library or at Hot Yoga or the supermarket sans children, could just appear to be a woman.

Put another way: in my first year of grad school in Pittsburgh, a co-student of mine said (as we discussed clothing): "you're not really subculturally aligned."
At the time (and admittedly still) that comment rankled, for some reason; possibly because I was then 25 and it seemed to me that the time for subcultural alignment had come and gone long ago, and my acquaintance's remark (and her own persistence in subcultural alignment) struck me as silly and childish.

In retrospect, I was never subculturally aligned, primarily because I was never aligned. I was odd-girl-out through most of my high school years, and then in college, surrounded by a seething mass of mostly-hippies, I was again un-aligned except by virtue of my non-hippie-ness.

BUT. Subcultural identities and/or stereotypes seem to hold strongest and truest in adolescent and/or young adult life. I'm sure there are exceptions - bikers are one, I think, where there is a distinct "look" that accompanies biker life that makes bikers far more visible away from their bikes than for other kinds of subcultures.

The question is: WHY?
why do you get cliques? Why do you get jocks and princesses and brains and criminals and goths and hippies and hipsters and headbangers and stoners in high school, maybe in college, and then - somehow - they seem to seep away into the larger, less obviously differentiated mass of adulthood.
And when you do see vestigial subculturally aligned adults, they seem....well....sort of sad. The adult man who presents as Jock seems kind of like a joke, reliving (possibly imaginary) glory days of his youth. Adult (and old) hippies just seem out of it, kind of very worn and faded and disconnected from reality (though they probably seemed like that as young hippies too). Adult Goths seem sort of pathetic. In each case, encountering the older version of these younger identities always feels like the older version is either 1) immature/not really grown up  2) sad  3) trying to remain young and cool and/or 4) desperate for attention.

These visible marks of difference and identity that we put on as teenagers, and which are then used (by us and against us) to sort us into stereotyped categories, somehow shouldn't be necessary as an adult. You shouldn't need to wear lots of black eye makeup and petticoats to make your personality, your individuality, known. Ditto with the jock attitudes, or the hipster glasses, or whatever group you like. There is a point, it seems, by which one ought to have grown out of these stereotypes. How often do you walk into a gathering of adults and group them off into "jocks" and "cool kids" and "nerds" and "delinquents" and "goths" and "brains"???
you may get tech geeks drifting together, you may have a group of Beautiful People, but you can't tell by looking who those people are (even, sometimes especially, the Beautiful People).

So how does this work, this stereotyping, this subcultural aligning? WHY does it work? Is it part of that "trying on identities" thing the developmental psychologists talk about? How come most people only try on one other identity? I don't know anyone, personally, who went through multiple of these disguises. You went from Generic Girl to Goth, or from Brain to Cool Kid, but there wasn't much movement after that. Angela Chase's season-starting transformation in My So-Called Life makes this very visible; she switches it up, dyes her hair red, starts wearing plaid and funky skirts and shoes. But she doesn't try on yet another new persona.

I'm intrigued by this, and by how it works, and how it lingers, and if that's even a bad thing. Maybe it's a good thing. Maybe carrying the external, visible marks of your subcultural alignment is a useful, important, disruptive thing. I'm not sure.

It's unexamined territory, for my brain anyway, which is pretty content to be un-aligned and (consequently) always observing.


Library Diva said...

Maybe it's because adults can define themselves through their job, whereas teens have to go to school, like it or not, so they seek out a different way of defining who they are. That's why gauging your ears is bad. Long after the subculture is gone, you will still be aligned with it.

Library Diva said...

Maybe it's because adults can define themselves through their job, whereas teens have to go to school, like it or not, so they seek out a different way of defining who they are. That's why gauging your ears is bad. Long after the subculture is gone, you will still be aligned with it.

Kate P said...

I think part of the "stereotype" is an intense interest in something- be it sports, fascination with death, fashion, etc. This is displayed in the clothes selected and the people chosen to be in the same group.

Regarding adults- most adult workplaces do not allow for such creativity in wardrobe and so adults wear what they must and therefore may have multiple identies dependent on what are the social allowances. I don't find the adult jock sad. Is this the guy who still plays ball on the weekend? How wonderful! But, perhaps adults aren't allowed to play anymore and thus are cornered and found weird if wearing black mascara instead of black slacks.

I work somewhere with no dresscode and a lot of young adults. There are cliques.

I don't know if this is good or bad, but I think there are less adult clique stereotypes because most adults are stereotyped as "adult" wearing business casual, working 8-6, going home, eating dinner, watching tv or reading a book, and going to bed. There is little room in this to explore an interest. Maybe adults are more moderate in that exploration.

I think that adolescents are, in general, far more extreme than any other age. So, the "stereotypes" are simply a manifestation of taking things to a very predictable extreme- something both safe and "not normal", which is what most adolescents want to be.