On the Other Side of Teen Freedom
‘All you’ve ever known is freedom’.
Sure, sometimes it looks like it. It matches what we grew up watching and reading, the firsts and rites of passage seem accurate enough to be something to aspire to.
But other times it’s embarrassing to watch from afar. Last night you were sexually intimate and today you’re asking for permission to use the toilet. Over the weekend you were getting high and now you’re handing in your homework. For some strange reason, I don’t feel like I’m missing out. You need validation, you’re showing me strange bruises, texts, telling me about the life under your bed sheets as proof. You seem to exude confidence, but all I can hear is: ‘Look at me! I’m normal! I’m wanted! I’m being loved, right?’ I can’t help but remember that your sexual awakening is all taking place under your parents’ roof. It is amusing, the new meaning you give to dirty laundry; so young, and while your mother is still doing it for you. You show me your outfits, provocative, short, sexy. But I overhear you lamenting about how you can’t eat because of the tragedy that would be a bloated stomach in a bodycon. I don’t exactly envy this experience.
I wonder if you’re happy wearing what you feel obligated to wear, and I wonder if he appreciates your entire self as you share this bragging right. Were you comfortable, making decisions entirely of mature free will? If you had said no, would he have slithered away, the word ‘prude’ forming ready on his lips? I don’t think you like the taste coming from stolen bottles, drinks you don’t know how to mix. I wonder if you really felt safe, inhaling with others loudly encouraging you, probably thumping your back afterwards and congratulating you. Coming back down from that high must have been lonely.
I imagine you must feel sad, all of a sudden. Sad because you have to be embarrassed of the things you love. Sad because, so quickly, you have to bundle away so many parts of yourself under your bed beside your old toys. Sad because you might not be ready to join the others who have left themselves behind. I think some of your anger comes from confusion. You followed the recipe carefully, step by step, yet your cake has sunk. You picked all the ingredients from social media and magazines and older, purring womens’ Top Tips. You mixed the batter with attitude, smiles, pouts and selfies and baked it in the cake mould of Teenage Dreams. But it doesn’t taste right. It’s supposed to be light and fluffy and free! It’s supposed to feel like secret, youthful memories and summer sun. But it doesn’t. And you can’t go back because you’ve already committed to the social sign up. So it ends with loud, tearful arguments with your parents for things you don’t really believe in or want. It ends with anger, brewed from insecurity and pretence, that is unleashed with sharp attitude against the adults of the world. You’re lonely. You’re not happy. But you can’t pick up your old self, the one collecting dust underneath your bed beside your old toys.
So when I revisit the lyrics and rewatch the movies, I find my pity for you deepening. You, trapped in your supposed freedom. The irony is strong. And unlike the girl in that Netflix original, unlike Hala, and all the other dark-skinned third-culture kids, I’m not jealous.
Coming of age has become so shallow in certain cultures. Traditional ceremonies intended to celebrate wisdom, maturity, graceful aging, development, and blooming masculinity/femininity are replaced by rites of passage such as drinking until you can no longer stand or a ‘first’ i.e. meaningless sexual interaction. Expectations for teenagers nowadays are set stupidly low, so they’re left in a strange child-adult limbo reserved for wild escapades that may or may not leave behind mediocre memories. This narrative feeds perfectly into the agenda of adults who wish to disregard young people who voice concerns on their future, politics, the environment, human rights or anything else of importance.
Teenagers have died leading armies and on the frontlines of activist movements, and have died after choking on their vomit while sniffing glue and in gang rivalries.
Teenagers have published books and written letters to heads of state, and have also graffitied wheelie bins.
Teenagers have written symphonies and crafted masterpieces, and have gotten piercings and tattoos.
Teenagers have started businesses and charities, designed revolutionary technology and made groundbreaking scientific discoveries. And teenagers have ended up in hospitals after incredibly hot-blooded, bone-headed stunts to impress the opposite gender.
Whether the above comparisons are all scenarios of false dichotomy isn’t exactly the point. The hypothesis is, weighing up historical averages, it might seem that modern teenagers are falling short. But to be fair, not an incredible amount is expected of them…
So play ‘Tongue-Tied’ by Grouplove or ‘We’re Alright’ by Supergrass while you read this one - for added sarcasm, if you’d like. And to set aside propriety for a moment: screw modern Western conventions of youth culture. It’s a scam.
Written from the sidelines.