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Bookblog: Teenage Mystique + Entitlement = ??

I’d propose the answer is bullying, although the equation is of course not that simple. My private research has suffered a little recently as I’ve been preoccupied with rehearsals for “Hamlet” at the ART and with the neverending funding search for my upcoming study at UF. However, I’ve been able to keep up with a sprawling, if a little dry, overview of the cultural construction of the adolescent, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, by Thomas Hine.

With a core thesis that teenagers are not an inherent division of the human life cycle (not that there are any), Hine, primarily a historian and greatly influenced by Erik Erikson, takes us on a journey through America from the Puritans to the Millenials, tracing the development and alteration of the teenage persona in accordance with the sociocultural, psychosocial, and political factors of the times. As discussed by Jean Twenge, the children of the baby boomers were taught an attitude of entitlement. But boomers themselves never would have imparted that ethos were they not themselves the product of a blossoming teenage “character” seeded by the post-Industrial Revolution and spurred by 1920s pop culture. Moreover, this new age group had little to do with the creation of the high school, although that institution became not only the venue but the instrument of the eventually exclusive youth culture.

I do not have time at the moment to discuss Hine’s illuminating stories and incisive historical analysis, but even before my thoughts have finished coalescing, it seems apparent that the necessary separation of a heterogeneous high school from working society, combined with entitlement, has not only enabled the spoiling of Americans who are excluded from the labor force, but the cementing of a youth culture that is so long divided from the real world that it never truly leaves the real world.

Wow, lotta long sentences tonight. I guess I’m in a flow mood.

This bookblog to be continued. Then I begin reading the work of foremost bullying expert Barbara Coloroso.

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Bookblog: The Cultural Roots of Bullying

Thanks to Dr. Jean Twenge, one of my key questions, i.e. key aspects of my core hypothesis*, is a step closer to being answered, by accounting the self-esteem movement as a primary psychological factor among people under 30. This also means that my project will have to take generational differences into account, particularly when analyzing workplace harassment (BWAISH).

Twenge’s 2007 book, Generation ME (the “ME” is short for Millennial Edition but reflects the selfish attitudes of the folks in question) makes one argument and makes it well: that the children of Baby Boomers and their children were raised to believe they were special, and this has massive implications for all of American society, particularly in schools and workplaces, by causing a sense of entitlement and an abandonment of responsibility. Twenge writes in a snarky, lighthearted style even when doing a big sell, which is good because most of her data is statistical and based upon personality questionnaires and survey data going back decades, which is a fantastically scientific approach but hard to digest without a little humor. Twenge impressively crunches this data, comparing results across economic and political factors to demonstrate large shifts in basic American personality over the past 40 years. She also demonstrates that the changes are still occurring (boosted, perhaps, by technology, a factor Twenge will hopefully address in her next book). Twenge’s age (she’s just past 30 as of publication) is occasionally a distraction more than an asset (she references “Avenue Q” a few too many times), and her cynicism threatens what would therefore be inappropriate ageism. Twenge is attempting to apologize for her generation, but doesn’t address the same behaviors and tendencies as conducted by older generations (and trust me, from working in retail, I can say with certainty that 80-year-olds can be just as bratty and snooty as 20-year-olds).

So, the self-esteem movement has produced feelings of entitlement in people under 40, particularly the tweens, teens, and twentysomethings. This leads to bullying, harassing, and violent behavior when those feelings are challenged or otherwise need to be reinforced. This isn’t the only factor, of course, but I strongly believe that any narcissistic tendencies mixed with a capitalistic one-upmanship worldview means not only acceptance of psychological cruelty, but acceptance of, and furthermore excuse-making for it. (This is an excellent source on this topic.)

* Roughly: that bullying and workplace harassment are linked phenomena encouraged by an ethos that emphasizes supremacy, competitiveness, and replaceability, and reflective of hierarchical social institutions as well as economic and cultural markets that are oversaturated with choices. See also here.

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Bookblog: Back to the Fandom Study

Sadly, my investigation into the bullying phenomenon is going to have to wait for a professional or academic backer. In the interest of not making this project too difficult for myself, I am considering other options to build a support network before beginning the interviews, rather than networking through the project.

However, a recent read I picked up at the library, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories, has renewed my interest in my folklore studies project on the consutrction of narrative using social and cultural ideas. The book is a nerd’s read for sure, referencing multiple video games, science fiction and fantasy films, and comic books. But as Rose notes, these particular genres are ripe for fandom, which is the psychocultural phenomenon that most piques my interest and the best demonstration of how contemporary humans relate and create according to their stories.

My interest in the passion for story-sharing and making characteristic of geek culture began, of course, with my very nerdy friends in college who had an almost obsessive worship of all things “Star Wars” and James Bond. Though familiar with and fond of the franchises, I hadn’t realized the anthropological potential of this kind of fandom…nor the similarities between Bond and “Star Wars'” resident anti-hero, Han Solo, that empower such fandom.  Inspired, I wrote a literary analysis paper exploring the sociocultural construct of the “folk hero” as expressed in two distinct genres, and analyzed why these figures were of such importance to Americans, especially young male Americans. The possibilities of this research go far beyond the reach of a standard term paper, but I am still interested in expanding the project.

However, I would rather focus on the construction of narrative, which in a nutshell is what Rose does in The Art of Immersion.  Rose focuses on how stories are constructed socially, in particular with the benefits of modern technology. I, however, would focus on how stories are constructed using our common cultural experience and then distributed, reconstructed, and deconstructed through culturally prescribed means of storytelling. In other words, archetypes, myths, and sociophilosophical “truths.” Like Rose, I can think of no better way to explore this than the fantasy and sci-fi genres. And I suppose any genre would do, but I’d rather analyze the questions of gender and sexual power in “Buffy” than in “Jersey Shore,” thank you very much.

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Bullying: a silent killer

Bullying has received nationwide attention thanks to a string of high-profile suicides prompted by relentless bullying. Tagged an “epidemic,” “media hype,” and everything in between, public outcry and legal action following each suicide case is changing both the definition of and the response to a common childhood experience. Considering all this, it seems inappropriate to call bullying a silent killer. Yet only bullying in the context of suicide is being reinterpreted as a destructive symptom of a social problem endemic to young people; lines have been drawn around “bullycides” as separate from bullying in general, and this subtle change in definition has both structural and psychological ramifications. Meanwhile, “regular” bullying continues to occur everyday, and while our use of terms suggests it vanishes once people leave high school, it merely becomes recoded and renamed.

Which is where the anthropologist steps in, to elucidate on why and where bullying happens, and to answer critics’ biggest question: Are the “bullycides” really the direct result of bullying? I am of the opinion that both bullying and teen suicides are surface indicators of a deeper structure of interaction, internalized by children and coded into both adolescent and adult institutions. An anthropologist well acquainted with communication theories has a unique perspective on the phenomenon of bullying. When the tragedy of suicide strikes a community, it ripples throughout the nation thanks to expanded media coverage, coverage using the same technology now employed by bullies and manipulators of all ages. Bullying is a silent killer in that its effects are only loud when they are made loud, and even then, for every case that receives media attention, countless more have occurred and will continue to occur.

So my current independent research project is to examine the underpinning causes of bullying and harrassment, and its implications for anti-bullying laws and other measures to counter bullying. I would rather not divulge my theory just yet, as it is never wise to put the cart before the horse, or conclusions before data. Currently I am devouring as many news and academic articles as I can find on bullying, suicides resulting from bullying, and legal action related to bullying and harrassment in schools (I had to limit it somehow, and my particular interest is children and adolescents). I am also reading The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future(Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) by Mark Bauerlain
and The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager
by Thomas Hine for answers, and intend to conduct some interview- and survey-based research. Below is my research statement:

Anti-bullying laws exist in 45 states, with Massachusetts being the most recent. These laws give law enforcement officials and educators new avenues through which to apprehend and prosecute bullies, particularly in cases that result in suicide. In addition, they require programs that give victims a way to have their stories heard and their cases investigated, and that promote compassion and tolerance in the hopes of cutting bullies off. Unfortunately, cases of suicide still occur, and bullying still occurs among adults, where it goes by other names. This project consists of preliminary research into the social negotiations of children and whether bullying has responded to anti-bullying programs, the ramifications and effectiveness of the new legislation, and possible anti-harrassment measures for adults. In addition, I hope to draw conclusions about the structural and ideological characteristics of the United States that allow for bullying.

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Bros before hos…so fros before ros.

Much was said about the bromance in “I Love You, Man,” released in 2009. There have been “buddy cop” movies for years, but they focused on comical pairings playing on racial and class stereotypes. Similarly, movies featuring groups of male friends have typically focused on those guys’ sexual and other adventures (e.g. “American Pie,” “Clerks”). Few movies actually explored the development and minutiae of male friendship, despite scores of movies exploring female friendships, so “I Love You, Man” was somewhat of a landmark as well as an endearing film. In the film, Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd, playing against type) is a “girlfriend guy” who’s never really been into testosterone rituals typical of the “guy world.” Rather, he’s inclined to chat with female coworkers and invest time and energy in cooking and fencing rather than binging and playing football. He’s also painfully socially awkward around other men. Frustrated that he’ll be without a best man at his wedding, he goes on a friend hunt, and although the writers draw amusing parallels between this and the frustrations of dating, his search is taken seriously enough that we the audience are forced to consider our own experiences with friendship. As we watch Peter evaluate the people he hangs out with, we see the reasons they’re wrong for him as clearly as we see the reasons the random dates of the protagonists in romantic comedies are wrong for them. Clearly, we are normally so focused on the trials of dating, we forget about the perhaps more important and more painful work that both blooming and enduring friendships require. “I Love You, Man” makes us turn the mirror on our friendships and wonder why we agonize about making this one “The One,” but let friendships just happen and take them for granted when we have them. Why don’t we evaluate our friendships for compatibility and health as we do our potential mates?

So why do we settle for friends in our own lives? Friendship should be natural and rich, just like the relationships we seek. The moment we meet Sydney Fife (the always amazing Jason Segel) and see his interaction with Peter, we know they’re perfect for each other. It’s not just a (b)romantic comedy cliché—in our own lives we’ve all met people with whom we hit it off right away, while other friends we have to evaluate and second-guess in every second of conversation. A bad friendship is just like a bad relationship: You fight more than you get along, discussions are artificial and one-sided, and you aren’t quite sure you can trust them not to hurt you. Everyone should ask themselves about everyone they spend time with, “Why is this person in my life?” I appreciate “I Love You, Man” for showing what true friendship is. Sydney accepts Peter for who he is, and doesn’t cut him down or punish him for his shortcomings (“I still want to hang out, despite that joke”), and doesn’t measure him for what he can provide him, unlike Jon Favreau’s character Barry, who dislikes Peter simply because he isn’t interested in poker and beer. Sydney encourages Peter to believe in himself and acknowledges his strengths and talents while still offering suggestions for improvement. Any friendship or relationship should enrich one’s life, bring one’s most positive aspects to the surface, and give one a safe outlet for self-expression through companionship.

On the other side of things, and a rather alarming reflection of the current attitudes towards female friendship, is a film released in 2008, “The House Bunny.” While intended to be a cute movie about growing up and girl power, the movie has but one message: Female friendships are conducted superficially and are based on material changes in one’s life. A far cry from excellent films about female friendship such as “Thelma and Louise,” “The House Bunny” follows the story of Shelley, a former Playboy bunny who becomes house mother to a group of socially awkward, ugly Zetas. While Peter is socially awkward around other men, he is a good-looking, intelligent, and successful real estate agent and talented musician, and doesn’t need to be saved by some champion of popularity. By contrast, the Zetas are all defective in some way, whether it’s with extreme geekiness, personal hygiene, androgynous appearance, or handicap, and it takes flighty and pampered but good-hearted Shelley to increase their confidence and make them “winners.” The movie pretends it’s championing confidence, not makeovers, but the two are equated, and worse, the friendships among the Zetas and Shelley is based upon this. Shelley is their friend because she makes them beautiful and gets them dates. She doesn’t bring out their better selves, she raises their self-esteem by applying to them her own standards of beauty and dating.

In a world of various celebrity “frenemies” and feuds among famous women, and with increasing awareness of female bullying, it is clear that female friendship needs attention. Now I don’t intend to imply that male friendship is doing well while female friendship is suffering. But the prevalence of female, as compared to male, friendship as a topic of movies and TV shows, doesn’t mean that female friendship is healthy, either. “Girlfriends” are consistently portrayed as involving discussion of fashion, boys, and beauty, and friendships between women of different “levels” in these domains are rarely portrayed. We more often see the swan taking the ugly duckling under her wing, than we do two birds of a different feather just enjoying a friendship.

“The House Bunny” demonstrates very clearly the unhealthy notions of self-worth bred by popularity contests in grade school—a process that never really goes away for men or women. I believe this is why friendships are often treated as things to collect and then dispose of; in school, children are ridiculed if they have “only a few friends,” while the “popular” kids are liked by everyone and thus are spoken of as though they are idols. Countless teen movies have expounded upon this idea, and countless movies regularly use the stereotypes and rules of grade school to cast characters and derive plots. It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint Peter as the geeky outsider who doesn’t get along with the “real boys,” or even as the sensitive male of ambiguous sexuality. Peter is a real character, while Emma Stone’s Natalie in “The House Bunny” is a shade, a two-dimensional representation of the geek girl who can’t get guys with her own merit. Shelley may be ignorant of this fact, but the screenwriters certainly were not.

What I hope is that popular culture doesn’t reflect social reality as neatly as it represents it. I hope that most friendships aren’t conducted so superficially, or held onto or let go for selfish reasons. I myself and people close to me have experienced bullying, taunts of “you don’t have any friends,” and general meanness from people we thought were friends, and have had friendships dropped as soon as the “benefits” of friendship were no longer clear. Most of this has come from women. I encourage everyone to consider and choose their friendships carefully, and to invest in people who make us feel comfortable and good about ourselves, rather than people we have to strive to please. The bottom line is, if you feel inadequate around a person, it’s because they’re making you feel that way. Ultimately you are responsible for your self-esteem, but if you feel like the battle to increase your sense of self-worth is more challenging than it should be around your friend, they’re not being your friend. So I hope that we’ll continue to see films like “I Love You, Man,” that explore, demonstrate, and inspire true friendship, between men, between women, and—here would be the next landmark—between a man and a woman.