Teenage Wasteland

Donna Gaines in 1978Now that I have forsaken the academy (just kidding!) and have copious amounts of commute time, I’ve been trying to read all of the books I punted on over the past 6 years. I just finished Donna Gaines’ Teenage Wasteland, an ethnography of the youth culture in the late 80’s that coincided with a number of suicides. In addition to descriptive biography and cultural criticism, Gaines’ book espouses young people as a cohesive social group, one with solidarity but not sovereignty. The book is largely focused on teenage suicide, a behavior increasing in prevalence over the 80’s. She concludes that this act comes from a state of oppression, not disenfranchisement:

In a now famous footnote in Suicide, written almost a hundred years ago, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim described fatalistic suicide as “the suicide deriving from excessive regulation, that of persons with futures pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline.” … Yet most experts attribute youth suicide to anomie—the opposit of fatalistic suicide in Durkheim’s thinking. In anomic suicide, the individual isn’t connected to the society—the glue that holds the person to the group isnn’t strong enough; social bonds are loose, weak or absent.

In other words, parents think that kids are detached from society and from themselves, when in fact they feel completely connected to each other, and disconnected from any concept of a future. This is not an area I know much about, but it seems that the parental view of “kids” or “teenagers” has been on a gradual decline since the baby boom. Take for instance Leave it to Beaver. In the light of today’s paranoid, parental propaganda, Beaver’s shenanigans would probably be interpreted as the actions of a conspiring gang instead of just some goofy kids. When Beaver got suck in the giant bowl of steaming soup, he was simply given a slap on the wrist, when today he would probably be arrested as a graffiti artist or culture jammer. Dude, it’s just the Beaver!

The book concludes with an afterward covering some cultural changes occurring during the 90’s, but it concludes long before the ubiquity of the internet. Gaines’ describes teenage fatalism as largely being associated with the geographic prison that many kids live in; she blames quite a bit of the “problem” on kids’ inability to get away from their home town. The internet has a huge impact on the concept of geography, giving people the ability to escape their immediate surroundings for other people and places.

The past few years have certainly seen a marked increase in youth adoption of internet communication tools; this has been the case since the onset of the web, and will probably be true for many years to come. We can assume that IM, blogs, Livejournal, MySpace, Friendster and the like are all helping support local relationships among kids, but to what extent are they allowing them to escape their hometown? When teenagers feel trapped, oppressed, and ultimately fatalistic, to what extent do they now turn to a kindred spirit somewhere far away? My guess is that today’s youth have even more solidarity than they have in the past, but it is certainly a topic that needs further exploration.

Any references to current research would be greatly appreciated.

4 thoughts on “Teenage Wasteland

  1. This is an issue to complex to do justice here but I so appreciate your discussion of it. Your point regarding the rise in youth solidarity is well taken. However, it is important to realize that solidarity among youth is usually a by-product of family deterioration. In other words, youth gangs, delinquency, massive participation on the internet and even youth groups, clubs and movements are all solidarity builders that, for the most part, take place when strong, caring, healthy families are on the decline.

    This will be a hard point to see from a U.S. lens where the intense focus on accomplishment and productivity and massive lack of focus on caring and time together keep us pretty low on the old human intimacy meter. However, in many less “advanced” countries young people are still so involved in close families that, apart from the U.S. influence through globalization, they do not have the massive amounts of time without family involvement that gives room for the formation of solidarity.

    The sense of togetherness we call solidarity comes from who you are “together” with. If your family is gone, your heart goes looking for it elsewhere. If you are surrounded by enough other orphaned, latchkey kids whose youth involved more Nintendo than footballs caught and thrown, more chatrooms than long talks on dates with either Dad or Mom, than you will certainly find your togetherness with those who become your default family: the other orphans.

    In this, Gaines’ idea that young people are helpless within their hometowns is completely missing the point. These kids are helpless within dead, boring, unloving families and their hearts will implode if they don’t do something about it. Gaines apparently sees running away as the key. The young people committing anomic suicide found their escape from the helplessness another way.

    Imagine, if young people actually grew up in families where human interaction in an amazing home was better than the electronic connection with strangers across the world. Cyber-solidarity is great and all but there is still a real world with real flesh and blood people who need real hugs.

    To review: Without hope and love, people feel helpless. As a result they do whatever they can to change it. That lack of hope and love is oppressive. If they can not escape it by finding hope and love, they will either run away from their current situation, change it somehow or kill themselves.

    Imagine a country decimated by the highest teen pregnancy rates in the industrialized world (costing the country at least $7 billion annually). Where more than five million high school age young people binge drink at least once a month. Where 53% of twelfth graders report having used an illicit drug in their lifetime. Where 17.4% of students reported carrying a gun to school in 2001. Where an average of 14 young people are murdered each day. Where a young person commits suicide every 15 minutes. Where 11 million young women and men report struggling with eating disorders. Where one of every 3 girls has had sex by age 16 and 2 out of 3 by age 18. Two of 3 boys have had sex by age 18. Imagine a country where young people between the ages of 13 and 24 are contracting HIV at the rate of 2 per hour.

    The country you are imagining is the United States of America.

    There is tremendous solidarity in a graveyard too.

  2. Donna Gaines is fucking moron.

    After working closely with her, and her knowing fully about my own depression issues and familial suicide, Gaines sent me hate e-mails and asserted that I was a “loser.”

    I immediately checked myself into a hospital…for suicide prevention.

    I hope Donna Gaines and her theories about “human interaction” rot in hell.

  3. I have read Donna’s book. What a crock! First of all let me say I am one of the lucky few that got out of that damm town without the help of a casket.

    She was never there, if there was an adult trying to hang out with us when we were 14-18 she would of been tagged a freak. So that leads me to believe that she made her money off of her books by reading the newspaper articles that were circulating at that time.

    Donna, what about the kids that died BEFORE those 4 in the car. WHat about the drugs that were all over town? did not know about any of that huh? Because it was not PUBLISHED!

    The reason why there was so much crap going on at the time is because the coke was cheap, parents were making good money in the 80’s and were too damm high to worry or care about the kids.

    Donna, if you ever read this and are able to tell me about each and every one of those poor kids that died prior to the “famous” mass suicide, I MIGHT take the time to have a conversation with you.

    Until then, you are nothing but another ass who made some money off of the kids without even attempting to get to the core of the real problem.

  4. Wow! Some intense comments here….. I read “Teenage Wasteland” and thought it was slightly confusing, and I couldn’t grasp Donna’s point.

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