At an airport a few months ago, as my plane was boarding, I rushed to purchase a fashion magazine. Once up in the clouds, with the children drugged by Pixar, I reached for my own glossy narcotic only to find I had accidentally bought a publication with Leighton Meester on the cover. Who? you may ask. In which case, read no further.
But here you are, which means you may know that Meester is a co-star of Gossip Girl, a TV series whose title is a roadside sign that says you have missed the turn for Masterpiece Theatre. In its three-season run, I’ve encountered GG a few times, just often enough to know that Meester plays Blair, a mostly meanie teen whose appearance suggests a kind of rich-kid variation of sexy schoolgirl, mixing hair bands with neck-high Ungaro heels. It’s a look well-suited to wreaking psychological havoc within the Park Avenue bubble of fame and fortune where she and her friends dwell.
The show, fast and frothy and occasionally smart, is a very expensive game of teen paper dolls, with young characters placed into adult situations by adult writers, where they weep over text messages and sip champagne cocktails. Gossip Girl is one link in a chain that includes MTV’s The Hills and The City, the new Melrose Place and any of the slew featuring unblemished, non-working trust-fund babies re-enacting high-school dramas straight into their 20s.
What this has to do with my life is pretty much nothing, unless you replace champagne with tea, and iPhone intrigue with a lengthy scene wherein I yell at my cellphone provider about nefarious billing practices.
And yet, I visit this fluff occasionally, and it floats over to me in between the bills and deadlines of adultland. And sometimes the fluff takes up residence nearby, not on the cover of Seventeen but on my copy of Harper’s Bazaar, formerly known as a woman’s magazine.
Of course, putting a teen icon on a magazine is a desperate plea from a traumatized publishing industry, but the point is this: I could pick out Meester from a lineup, and I am fairly certain that when my mother was staring down 40, she could not identify Susan Dey of The Partridge Family. Today, women of a certain age will gather round the printer and discuss The Hills, or weigh in on America’s Next Top Model. Dozens of sites like Twilightmoms.com are super-fan meeting places for grown-ups who love vampire teen melodrama. I know from the commercials on the new 90210, often featuring Avril Lavigne, that such shows aren’t designed for me or the advertising dollars I represent. Those Lavigne ads are equivalent to a Friday-night schoolyard brush-off non-invitation: “You can come if you want. . . I guess.” And yet, those of us outside the coveted twentysomething money-to-burn bracket keep showing up.
For many parents whose preteen offspring pour their morning cereal while dressed as Paris Hilton, the merger of teenage and adult culture is scary — an unnatural rush toward an unwieldy set of expectations: the kid-in-thong problem. But perhaps for adults, those expectations are something that needs to be fled to from time to time, and so we meet now in the middle, our opposite demographics awkwardly face to face.
The paradoxical image of this phenomenon is the teenage girl who carries a gigantic coffee with her the way that only bond traders used to. She’s weary-looking in giant sunglasses as if she has markets on her mind rather than gym class. Meanwhile, her mom parades a coffee suffixed by -cino and topped with whipped cream, sipped beneath her giant sunglasses, while Lady Gaga plays in her car.
The phenomenon of extremely sweet coffee and adults gravitating to teen culture has been scoffed at by reams of sociologists. A British one named Frank Furedi labels it “middlescence”: “a state of mind that fiercely resists the usual trappings of encroaching middle age.” He has a book called Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? so you pretty much know how he feels about The City, a faux-reality show about a fashion assistant in New York named Whitney, who, in a climactic episode, was totally bummed when her Australian then-boyfriend, Jay, went on tour with his band. (Of course, there are less trashy, more nuanced depictions of youth out there too, like the new critically acclaimed show Glee and last year’s documentary American Teen, but affection for those isn’t a bellwether for the end of adulthood.)
I’m a believer that highbrow and lowbrow can, and do, coexist; and it takes a quivering, elitist kind of anxiety to pearl clutch over Harry Potter’s influence. Pop culture has always been sneered at from above as the pastime of the unwashed masses. In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche complained about the time-wasting, prole pastimes of theatre and music, calling them “the hashish-smoking and betel-chewing of Europeans.”
The reason I will take my hash and betel in the form of the new Melrose Place is that I am not simply the things I watch or the magazines I flip through. My Melrose curiosity is complemented by a Mad Men obsession, a subscription to the New Yorker and a love of Bach, but do these culturally sanctioned interests make me a better person?
Australian writer Kate Crawford, in her book Adult Themes, argues against the impulse to write off those grown-ups who still surround themselves by childish things. Maturity should be measured by the substance of our lives, not the stuff we consume. Crawford has her own checklist for adulthood that has nothing to do with whether graphic novels are on the bedside table: “Are they engaging in their community? Are they making personal commitments to others? Are they responsible in their conduct?”
Just because one consumes pop culture about youth doesn’t mean one is stuck in youth. Sure, there may be nostalgia-strangled viewers who like teen culture because Man, those were the days! Perhaps this is one of the Lady Gaga–mochaccino mom’s many problems. Generally it is best to avoid these people. They are clearly crazy, since 1) high school did suck and 2) depictions of teen life in pop culture rarely have anything to do with real life, anyway, but are more like abstractions — youth filtered through an adult perspective.
When the late, great John Hughes — recently deceased director of The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, among other teen classics — was all the rage in the 1980s, I adored his films but still felt as if I was watching nature documentaries about animals in jungles I had never visited. At the time, I was precisely the age of the characters onscreen, navigating the complexities of real adolescence with less drama and worse skin.
I liked the safe distance that the movie fantasy of high school gave me then, and I like it now, watching those familiar humiliations even in their unfamiliar outfits, with their unfamiliar technologies. Teen life is a period I want to revisit not because it was awesome, but because I screwed it up so badly. Maybe there’s catharsis in this: the wound that can only be healed by slipping back inside it; the way airplane-crash survivors go back to the disaster site just to taste their survival. It’s only possible to do that from the safe shores of adulthood, laughing.