Fear of the American Teenager

Essential Question

What made the teenager a source of anxiety during the 1950s?

Overview

After World War II, America experienced unparalleled growth and prosperity.  The children born during the early years of the postwar “baby boom” were becoming teenagers by the late 1950s.  Because of the burgeoning economy, many middle-class teens had more leisure time and more spending power than previous generations of young people.  As examined in the Birth of American Teenager lesson, teenagers of the 1950s began exerting a growing influence on American life and commerce.  But the rapid rise of this growing demographic also unleashed a wave of anxiety among adults.  It was a fear both real and imagined. The number of crimes committed by teenagers was, in fact, rising throughout the nation.  But there was also a level of intense anxiety that seemed unwarranted concerning the new power of the emerging teen demographic.  Teenagers seemed to be challenging the social fabric of America.  Many questioned, and even blamed, movies, comic books, and Rock and Roll for its influence on the rising misbehavior of youth.

According to a lengthy report on juvenile delinquency in the 1955 Saturday Evening Post, crime committed by teenagers increased by a drastic 45% between 1950 and 1955.  There were more extreme cases of teenage violence as well, like that of Charlie Starkweather, a white teenager from a working class family in Lincoln, Nebraska.  When Starkweather went on a two-month murder spree in 1958, killing eleven people in the Midwest, his gruesome actions challenged the notion that teenage crime was relegated to poor, urban areas.  Starkweather, and the sensibility that he embodied, seemed to ignite fear among Americans everywhere.  In a public opinion poll referenced by the United States Children’s Bureau in 1960, juvenile delinquency ranked third behind national defense and world peace as the American public’s greatest concern.  As the journalist Bill Davis wrote in a 1957 issue of Colliers magazine, “Never in our 180-year history has the United States been so aware of – or so confused about – our teenagers.”

The release of the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle tapped into this general fear and anxiety.  The movie included the first instance of Rock and Roll being used in a Hollywood feature film with “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets.  The opening credits rolled to Bill Haley’s voice calling out “1, 2, 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock rock,” all punctuated by heavy drums.  Although the track features a familiar foundation of Country swing, it is steeped in Rhythm and Blues.  Midway though the song, kicking and careening out of the chorus, is a frenetic and now famous electric guitar solo that seems to shake the very bars of the song, igniting and exciting the listener.  This was Rock and Roll.  And blasting through the speakers of the movie theaters, it was Rock and Roll the way it was intended to be heard: loudly.  Teenagers took to the aisles of the movie theaters dancing.  The film was banned in some Southern cities like Atlanta and Memphis.  It is rumored that a few theaters even the opening credits without sound.

It was clear that some believed music and movies marketed towards teenagers were a direct threat to the moral fiber of society, challenging the strength of the family unit.  As one staff writer for the Vancouver Sun wrote in 1957 when Elvis was slated to perform in his town, “If any daughter of mine broke out of the woodshed tonight to see Elvis Presley … I’d kick her teeth in.”  This was the tense backdrop that colored the reception of early Rock and Roll.

Who was responsible for this rise in lawlessness and how could the “wild” teenagers be tamed?  There was a consensus that something had to be done.  In 1954, the Senate created a special subcommittee on juvenile delinquency.  The subcommittee held hearings to investigate the effects of “crime and horror” comic books on the psychology and misbehavior of youth.  In addition to comic books, it was the subcommittee’s intention to study the influence of music, movies, and other media upon teenagers as well.

This lesson will investigate the role of the media, its influence on young people, and the growing anxiety about teenagers’ newfound independence in the 1950s.  Students will explore primary source materials related to movies, music, and comic books that impacted teenage culture.  Learning about the 1954 Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, students will read and form opinions on actual congressional testimony.  Additional resources will include the trailer for Blackboard Jungle and a 1956 performance of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent.”

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Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The term “juvenile delinquency” and its prominence in 1950s American culture
    • U.S. government efforts to curb juvenile delinquency in the 1950s and the resulting Senate subcommittee hearings
    • Growing concerns among adults in the 1950s that Rock and Roll was challenging the existing social order
    • The influence of the popular 1955 film Blackboard Jungle
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Analyze and interpret primary source documents, including congressional testimony, newspaper articles, and 1950s comic book covers and movie trailers
    • Make connections between society’s attitude toward teenagers in the 1950s and today