Post War Teens: Rebellious? (Feature Article)

Pierce Lancor

How to define the typical teenager: respectful, modest, politically correct, and eager to support their country. Or at least, this was the definition of a perfect teen in America at the time of World War II.

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At that time young boys were eager to grow up, and get out of adolescence so that they could serve their country in the war and be celebrated heroes. Young girls were just as eager to grow up, get to work and be able to supply goods and clothes for the men over seas. This is what was expected of them, what was celebrated of them to do. No fancy clothes, fabric had to be saved for the soldiers uniforms. No flashy cars, factories had to be converted to make parts beneficial to the war effort. No excess splurging, rations had to be followed to conserve resources and money to be used overseas. There was seemingly nothing special for these teens to be indulging in. Boys were simply to be hyped for the fight and girls were to take on the “We Can Do It” attitude and contribute in any way they could. But they all loved it and embraced their responsibilities.

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But then the war was over. And the new generation of teens had nothing to be excited for. No reason to be celebrated. Nothing that made them noteworthy or acknowledgeable. Nothing that made them special. This left the new generation needy to be recognized (Lopes 130).

After the war, factories were turned over to the production of cars. Unique clothing styles and new brands were popping up everywhere now that more fabric was available. Cosmetic products, gadgets, and entertainment tickets were highly marketed and available to indulge in once the war had ended and resources were no longer limited. Many teens held good paying jobs and were large consumers for all of these new markets.

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The teenage experience at this time was developing into a whole new world that the adult- parent generation had experienced, or expected. These teens were nothing like them as youngsters. And they were certainly nothing like the young war-veteran generation before them. This concept was terrifying to the adults. They viewed the up and comers and hooligans, and everything they did was seen as an act of rebellion(Mail, 1).

But were these teens really rebellious? Was all of the hype and fear created around this generation and their actions really worth the uproar? This depends on how rebellion is defined. If rebellion is looked at as the simple act of going against societal norms, then yes this generation can be seen as very rebellious. But if rebellion is taken it a step further than that and defined as an act of going against societal norms through resistance of authority and violently and intentionally being offensive for the sake of disobeying “the man,” then it may be harder to argue that this generation is truly rebellious. It seems like more of a case of broadening horizons in terms of self-expression, and changing the terms of what was considered the normal culture of a teenage boy or girl.

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What did these teens do that made adults so afraid? Why did they see rebellion?

The answers to these questions are not so simple. They start with the availability of resources contributing to self expression though. Teens limits were gone. They were free to break out of the typical mold of conservative looking pre-adults the second resource focus was taken away from the war effort.

New clothing styles started to emerge. The typical plain Jane and Joe style was out the window. Teens began decorating themselves in more elaborate styles. The typical girl could be found appropriately dressed in full poodle skirts, big belts, and tight fitted blouses with high heeled shoes. The ideal boy was in a shirt and tie, with some pressed slacks and dress shoes (http://www.retrowaste.com/1950s/fashion-in-the-1950s/1950s-fashion-for-teens-styles-trends-pictures/).

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However, these styles became boring very quickly and teenage boys and girls wanted to be different, and stray away from the typical fashion. Rebel boys started dressing in dark colors of unironed clothes that were baggy and rough looking. Girls started wearing jeans for leisure (a concept never dared to be attempted before) with big baggy T-shirts not tucked in (http://www.retrowaste.com/1950s/fashion-in-the-1950s/1950s-fashion-for-teens-styles-trends-pictures/).

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This just was not appropriate to adults and they were horrified. Where were their pretty little girls and dapper young boys? AND WHERE WERE THEIR TIES? To them, these teens were grubby looking and looked like unprofessional mongrels. Adults were judging the books by their covers and those books were entitled “I am a hood rat.”

Teens freedom with how they dressed came hand in hand with how they spent their money. Many teenagers worked good paying jobs, with no true responsibilities to put that money into such things as rent or food, they could splurge on items like clothes…or cars.

Car culture in the Post War Era was huge (See Car Culture). Customization was an industry on the rise. Everybody was looking to have the next hottest car, especially teenagers. These cars gave them an intimidation factor, and a way to easily socialize. They were easily available to hang out and get places like local diners and drive-in theaters.

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Teenagers in the post-war could now be identifiable by their car. A teen and his group of friends would be associated with a type of car leaving a development of social groups that would be known by the types of cars driven, similar to the way gangs would be identified. This intimidation terrified parents, because they saw that these social groups gave teens who would individually not be tough, the confidence to stand up and be violent as a group(http://www.shmoop.com/1950s/society.html).

This may have been a bit of an exaggerated fear considering that not many of the groups were known for actual violence committed, but the parents were not wrong about the Car Culture promoting the formation of social groups.

A very famous example, likely only known because of the hit movie Grease, are the Greasers, (see Greasers) famously known for their hot-rod cars.

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These Greasers were hardly something to be afraid of. Yes, they were a group formed to intentionally be rebellious. Yet, the most rebellious thing they ever did was take their name after an unappreciated minority(http://www.retrowaste.com/1950s/fashion-in-the-1950s/1950s-greasers-styles-trends-history-pictures). Acts of violence were hardly ever seen from subculture groups like these, yet immense fear was held by parents against them, simply just based on their bad boy looks of greasy hair, dirty dark clothes, and thunderous cars. While no violence itself was seen, the adults were terrified, and attached a stigma of violence to groups such as these.

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Maybe the petrification of all of this violence wasn’t created by the teens themselves, but by the media. The media industry was on a significant rise after the war and a largely highlighted portion of the topics taken on was teen behavior. Movies such as Blackboard Jungle and Wild One came out leaving the country as a whole horrified (Walkers, 950). What were these images of? They are horrendous!

The teens in these movies were absolute delinquents. They used wildly inappropriate language, and were cold blooded criminals with no respect for elders, and no discipline in their lives whatsoever. They couldn’t be controlled(McCarthy, 320). While the government and adults in general expressed an overall panic of being afraid that the message that this is what teens are like in America to other countries of the world, it seems that maybe the panic was a bit more internal. It seems as though they were really just afraid that this WAS was teens were like in America, that must be why movies like this hyped them up so much. When teens went to see movies these movies, they were rambunctious and rowdy. Yelling and screaming at the songs that played in the credits, getting amped when acts of violence took place in the film, and leaving the movies in overall energetic mood. It left adults afraid because what if this was what they were really like in school and they were excited about it. Or worse yet, what if it wasn’t like this, but these films were inspiring them, and giving them ideas to start acting so crudely? This never proved to be the case, but the fear was still there (Morgan, 57).

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It wasn’t just images and violence and a new wardrobe that drove the parents into panic. It was also based on change in music (see Rock ‘n’ Roll.) There were no more sweet tunes or smooth jazz, there was hard core Rock ‘N’ Roll and the teens loved it where as the parents saw it as terrible noise. This stuff must be polluting their brains (Adelman,1).

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A large portion of the Rock ‘n’ Roll influence came from the man himself, Elvis Presley. He was the sole influence of the signature Greaser hairstyle and influenced a lot of young men on how to portray themselves. The way he thrusted his hips and sang made the girls crazy, and do crazy things in the hopes of being noticed by him. Young men quickly caught on and presented themselves in a similar manner, hoping to woo the ladies. Adults were astounded by this and saw it all as part of the rebellion. These kids were acting like their bodies were sex objects and giving in to a clash and clatter of bad music influenced by black people. I mean, they are seriously just getting out of hand(Adelman,1).

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Adults were afraid of the teenage culture because it was new. It was different, and they didn’t know anything about it. It was a bit edgy, but rebellious? Hardly. Yet programs such as Toughlove were still developed to teach teens “lessons” about consequences to their unruly actions. This included getting them sent to jail overnight to learn what hardships they would face if they carried on with their bad personas (Knapp 7).

Parents developed this mindset based on media publications such as Blackboard Jungle and deemed that any change in teenagers, was bad change. A change that was setting teenage changes as their downfall, making them inappropriate members of society. They were afraid to look at the changes. Afraid to accept, or attempt to understand. This is what led to the rejection of everything new that was marketed toward a youth culture.

New series of comic books came out? Targeted towards youth culture? Banned, and burned. They must be the cause of dyslexia and put to blame for youth social rebellion.This was the reaction to many things publicized around a teenage market (Lopes 129).

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Post war teenagers were just looking to be recognized. They wanted to be noticed. They weren’t heroes of the country, and they didn’t have anything to accomplish to get them recognized as easily as the generation before did. So they seeked a new form to get recognition through changing their looks, and seeking to stand out. And parents reacted stronger than intended.

The point is that this teenage rebellion everyone was so scared about wasn’t actually a rebellion. But heres the disclaimer: When the Greaser’s slicked their hair back, and rode their hot rod cars around town with stiff faces for intimidation, they were trying to be tough. To be rebellious from the typical teen. And when the normally pristine, preppy teenage girls decided to throw out her poodle skirt for a pair of slack’s and her boyfriend’s t-shirt, she was trying to be rebellious. To turn her parents heads and make them question her. There is no saying that post-war teenagers were not trying to be rebellious, to exit the norms of society (Mair, 4). But they were not doing so in violence. They were not doing so to create immense fear, or to be derelicts. They were doing so to get noticed.

Parents just weren’t used to teenage freedom. They weren’t used to teenagers for that matter. Especially during war time, once you were of age of maturity, you were an adult. You were ready to go. Ready to fight, to work, ready to take responsibility on, full fledged.

So this new type of teen, they weren’t used to it. Teens had responsibility still. They had the jobs that were funding their antics the adults hated so much. But adults were blinded to this still instilled responsibility by what they saw as atrocities of actions. They couldn’t see through the greasy hair, baggy clothes, and loud cars.

Post war teens they did things differently. And they looked a bit rough around the edges. But where was the violence? The riots and crimes? Nowhere but in the media representations. In the 1950s there was a country wide panic about the rebellious youth, and what was going to be done with them. How they were the downfall of society. But there is no evidence to support it was anything more than teens looking a new part than a goody two-shoes, and adults got scared of what that might entail, and just acted as if more grave matters were taking place.

A change of wardrobe and a new attitude is hardly a rebellion.

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Resources:

Lopes, Paul. “Strategies of Rebellion in the Heroic Age of the American Comic Book.” The Journal Of Arts In Society 2, no. 2 (2007): 127-34. Accessed April 12, 2015. 

Walkers, Anders. “”BLACKBOARD JUNGLE”: DELINQUENCY, DESEGREGATION, AND THE CULTURAL POLITICS OF “BROWN”” Columbia Law Review 110, no. 7 (2010): 1911-953. Accessed March 2, 2015.

McCarthy, Kevin. “Juvenile Delinquency and Crime Theory in Blackboard Jungle.” 2007, 317-28. Accessed March 2, 2015.

Morgan, Linda. “Insight through Suffering: Cruelty in Adolescent Fiction about Boys.” The English Journal 69, no. 9 (1980): 56-59. Accessed March 27, 2015. 

Mail, Mary. “Teenagers Social Code “Preposterous”” The Washington Post and Times Herald, December 4, 1956. Accessed April 16, 2015.

Adelman, Lorraine. “Elvis Presley Setting Bad Example For Youth In U. S., Chaplain Declares.” The Hartford Courant, January 10, 1957, I ed. Accessed April 14, 2015. 

“Society in the 1950s.” Schmoop. 2015. Accessed April 17, 2015.

 

 

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