Thursday, 29 August 2013

An Open Letter to Teenagers...

Hello Friends.

I don't know much about marketing, beyond the fact that cartoon bear families need toilet paper all the goddamn time. But I do something about the idea of demographics. Demographics indicate how products, services, entertainment, hell lifestyles, are marketed. Advertisers believe that tweens, teenagers, and young adults are the biggest demographic worth marketing towards because they have the most disposable income. Not the most as in highest income, but the most disposable--meaning they typically don't have the same shelter/food/family expenses that their parents do and are more likely to shell out for non-essentials like movie tickets, iTunes downloads, and an caffeine drink made of Monsters. Consequently, the old white dudes who run advertising companies (I'm sure there are a few young non-white non-dudes in the mix, but let's be real) think teens are the cash cows worth milking and the pop culture that is produced is, to some degree, catered to that audience.

As I see it, problems arise because that audience (youth, teenagers, and young adults) is misunderstood, underestimated, and ultimately short-changed by a culture that supposedly reflects them. Not only that, but adults like me who haven't been teenagers in ten years or more consume this junk just as readily, but we aren't the ones that suffer. My contemporaries and I can dismiss Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus' MTV performance as laughably derivative, or shockingly racist, or ludicrously camp. But how many teenagers saw those three ear piercing minutes as legitimately provocative, sexually liberating, or even aspirational?

Do I insult the intelligence of teenagers now, as I write this, for thinking that they're impressionable while I'm impervious? I know that's not true. I don't care about One Direction, for instance, but that guy Miguel? Jumpin' pumpkins! I'm buying what that guy's selling. I saw him on Saturday Night Live a few months ago and got so excited that Jon paused the TV and insisted that I "relax a little bit." But I was a teen myself once, and while I mostly remember putting off homework and getting erections, there are things about supposed "teenage culture" that I knew then were wholly inaccurate. I'd like to address those issues now.

Dream: Speak to the teens.

Goal: Unachievable. I am occasionally really fortunate to do projects with young people. I used to get acting gigs that were for and with children and I write plays for high school kids that they do in festivals sometimes. I have friends who do this far more successfully than I do and I think it's because there's a fundamental element to their work that speaks directly to teenagers. I can give teens funny lines to say, and work with children without being a terror or accidentally stepping on their little feet, but in terms of connecting with them, I always feel a bit like Joey Nickels. However, maybe some enterprising teenager will stumble upon this entry (for the sake of keyword search results: skateboarding, planking, Selena Gomez, #YOLO, Proactiv, Monster Energy) and listen to what I have to say.

Plan: Write an open letter.

Dear Teenagers,

Young teens, take a look at your life, you're a lot like I was. No, that's stupid, let's start again. Hi. Thanks for reading. I know it's obnoxious when people presume they know anything about you, and that because you fall within a certain age bracket, assumptions can be made about your life, your problems, your dreams. I'm going to try not to do that here.

What I want to talk about is what we, the rest of the world, foist upon you. About how we sentimentalize the time in our lives that you're currently experiencing, and how we always, always get it wrong. About how, even though I know you're smarter, more experienced, just better than I think you are, I still worry.

First thing: sex. You know sex is way different IRL than you've seen it portrayed right? And you know that sex is amazing and fantastic and feels great, except for when it's not any of those things? Here's what you've probably heard about sex already, but could use reiterating: the sexiest thing in the world is explicit, uncensored, vocal consent. I'm not saying teenagers are a bunch of perpetrators and victims, abusers and abused. What I'm saying is that Blurred Lines is bullshit. Have some of, all, or none of the sexual activity that you want, but do it on your terms. Guys, you know what's even hotter than touching a girl's body? Getting express permission to do it. I'm serious. Picture the girl you have a crush on, then picture her saying, "(Name), hold me closer." Goddamn! Right? Isn't that way more appealing than "accidentally" grazing someone's breast in the hallway? Also, it falls to you to be just as transparent with the ladies. Be clear about your desires and your limits. Too embarrassed to talk it out beforehand? You probably shouldn't be doing it. And girls, I know you must be so sick of hearing that girls aren't or shouldn't be interested in sex, but that doesn't mean you have to go beyond your own comfort level just to prove a point. It's safe to assume that a lot of teenagers are horny, that doesn't mean y'all should be screwing each other if you're not ready for it. Finally, everybody lies about their sex lives to other people, from their teenage years to their golden years, so there's no point in comparing yourself to anyone else in that department. Set your own standards and make your own choices and for God's sake, don't send each other pictures of your junk.

Secondly, music. Movies. Television. Books. I'm sorry so much of it is garbage, but please know that it is garbage. Comic book movies and Tosh.0 and Justin Bieber is popcorn. There's nothing wrong with popcorn, it hits the spot sometimes, but there are gourmet meals of entertainment just waiting for your consumption. I'm not saying you should dispose of the disposable, but maybe start taking the time to find what really moves you. I remember seeing a Woody Allen movie as a teenager and thinking, "All these people do is talk to each other and walk around! Everyone just talked for two hours! Nothing happened!" but it was FASCINATING to me. I didn't know movies could be that. Look, you're on the computer all ready, just do a little bit of digging and find that thing that pings in your brain.

Bullying. I really want to know the truth of the matter here, teens. I don't think we're getting the whole picture of what it means to bully and to be bullied. Is it as bad as they say? Is it worse? I don't buy the black and white way the issue is so often portrayed. That school is full of vile popular kids and victimized wallflowers. It can't be that simple. If I woke up in a reverse-Tom-Hanks-in-Big scenario tomorrow, suddenly in the body of a teenager, the first thing I would do is go to a high school and really look for bullying. I'm not saying I never saw kids pick on other kids when I was a teenager, but if instances of bullying happened like I read in newspapers now, instances of physical and psychological torment, insidious threats and name-calling, I guess I was just too stupid to realize it. Educate us, teenagers. We really want to know what the deal is because we want to help.

Friends. If you're in high school, a lot of people are going to tell you that these are the best years of your life. That was not my experience. But I do know I made friends in those years that changed how I saw the world. The cool thing about discovering yourself as a teenager is that you get to discover and appreciate other people in turn. Same goes for family. Let them in as much as you can, and you'll realize the people that love you really are well-intentioned, and can really help you when you need them, and you will.

Have you ever heard the idea that babies and the very old know special things about the world that the rest of us don't? Babies have just emerged from the spirit world, we'll call it, and the very old are about to re-enter it, and so they are blessed with a kind of innate knowledge that the rest of us aren't privy to? I really think there's a similar phenomenon with you teenagers. For all the hormones and drama, you have fierce emotion and genuine feeling that the rest of us too easily dismiss. For all your forgotten homework, there's a powerful intelligence that flies out the window somewhere in our twenties. Maybe instead of projecting our fantasies of youth onto you guys, watching crap like the MTV Awards and making proclamations about a morally corrupt generation, and worrying about the kind of world you will inherit, we should be looking to you, the teenagers, for help. It's vitally important that we understand you if we're ever going to understand ourselves.

Your friend,


  1. Also on this topic, a blog post by a blogger who actually both reminds me a lot of you and is also coming from a way different cultural space--the post is called "Put a Wizard in your Party" (spoiler alert, it's a metaphor):

    Your thoughts here remind me of his, and of Dar Williams' not-famous-enough song called "Teenagers, Kick Our Butts." Google it. It's awesome

    1. That piece was awesome, and I loved the song! Thanks for reading, and for recommending!