Teens, self-image and the media

Posted: Apr 18, 2001 12:00 AM
In spring, a modern teenage girl's fancy turns to thoughts of ... actually, she may not have time for reveries after all. Listen to Annemarie Iverson, who's in her 30s and edits the teen-girl-oriented magazine YM: "Whenever I talk to girls, I am just amazed at how their lives parallel mine. They are so stressed out. They need help more than you can imagine." What Iverson doesn't appear to realize is that YM and similar magazines are contributing to that stress. One of the major points Alex Kuczynski makes in her April 2 New York Times story about these publications is that "underlying many articles is the guiding premise that teenage girls are swiftly becoming miniaturized versions of grownups ... Magazines for teenagers have reached a new level of adult frankness." The innocence of youth is no longer an ideal to be cherished. It is the stuff of dreams for daydreamers. It is a standard fare for YM, published since 1932 under a succession of names, to run the sort of material, such as the advice-column question, "Why do boys' testicles change color?" That would have caused its readers to faint back when the magazine was called Polly Pigtails. Forgive me for stating the obvious: Teens aren't adults. They don't, and can't, and shouldn't know everything that adults know. More to the point, they shouldn't feel as if they need to. Sadly, at least some of those who run these tawdry magazines openly champion the opposite. Atoosa Rubenstein, editor in chief of the Cosmopolitan offshoot, CosmoGIRL, declares, "We have to give girls tools that they have not needed in past generations ... (CosmoGIRL) is everything we finally learned at 25 (that) we wished we had known when we were 15." It's not new for the young to occasionally see their youth as, in certain senses, confining. It
is confining, if a parent worthy of that title has done his or her job. What 15-year-old doesn't wish he/she were 16 and old enough to drive? But this incessant hankering by adults to have a child leave his/her entire childhood behind is new. And it's a perversion of the natural order. "I think the fact that most of their parents worked is an enormous influence," remarks Iverson, adding that under those circumstances, children "have been sort of left to their own devices." The media has filled that vacuum. Iverson believes, in Kuczynski's paraphrase, that "MTV has had the most profound influence on transforming children into sophisticated consumers." That MTV might have "the most profound influence" on anyone is the most troubling idea I've heard lately. And the stress begins well before a girl's 13th birthday. The Sunday paper supplement, Parade, recently reported that a Girl Scout-sponsored survey found that "girls aged eight to twelve ... feel pressure to be teenagers before their time." But why draw the line there? Why not make 5-year-olds feel pressure to be 8 before their time? Or would that, somehow, be unnatural? Girls and boys, teen and preteen, are susceptible to the pressures of pop-culture poison. In the April 12 issue of Rolling Stone, the magazine's 30-something music editor, Joe Levy, reminisces about the music of his early childhood. In so doing, he illuminates part of the difference between
growing up then and growing up now . Levy remembers that the "first song I ever remember hearing on the radio was 'Hey Jude,'" released in 1968 when he was 4. "Right now," he adds, "there's a (4-year-old) out there who's having that exact same experience with (rapper) Jay-Z, and what he's gonna do or she's gonna do (musically) at age 17 is gonna be pretty weird. And it will probably involve the word 'pimpin'.' And I hope it's gonna be exciting." Yes, Virginia, you can have the mental acumen of a tomato and grow up to be the music editor of Rolling Stone. The flaw in Levy's statement is that a listener simply cannot have the "exact same experience" with the Beatles' classic as with the Jay-Z tracks to which he seems to be alluding, any more than one can have the same eating experience with creme brulee as with dirt. You're familiar with "Hey Jude." By way of contrast, here are a few lines from "Parking Lot Pimpin'," a cut from Jay-Z's latest album: "Big trucks when I wanna f---/And it's time to get ass/I turn automobiles/To hotels on wheels/ ... Bitches love when I cruise up the boulevard." And here's a bit of last year's Jay-Z hit "Big Pimpin'": "I thug 'em/F--- 'em/Love 'em/Leave 'em/'Cause I don't f---in' need 'em/Take 'em out the hood/Keep 'em lookin' good/But I don't f---in' feed 'em." Bringing up children has always been hard. If there's a truly compelling reason for popular culture's insistence on making it a thousand times more difficult, it'd be the first I've ever heard.