Thursday, June 15, 2017

March of Time: Teen-Age Girls - 1945

The March of Time short subject Teen-Age Girls (1945) is a window on a societal ripple in postwar America that is, unusually, both dated and prescient.  The documentary examines the emergence of teens as a new and important demographic, particularly females in this case, with a lighthearted and even amused attitude, but with a curious reservation—perhaps not unlike the way a parent first notices that a child isn’t a child anymore.

This is our final post in this series about how Hollywood depicted children during World War II.  The March of Time apparently felt, and perhaps not wrongly, that the dawn of the Teen-Age was as likely to be as influential a force in American society as the nuclear age.  The narrator begins:

Of all the phenomena in wartime life in the United States, one of the most fascinating and mysterious…has been the emergence of the teenage girl in her own right.

This was not something Hollywood evidently considered earlier in the war, when the worldwide emergency seemed to put children’s needs secondary and yet led to a future where teens would dominate the culture and even the economy.

In almost a spoof of an anthropological study, a group of sociologists and psychiatrists sits around a conference table while a teenage girl narrates her world for them in an authoritative interview.  We are shown scenes of empowered bobbysoxers in sweater sets and pearls, rolled up jeans and oversized white Oxford shirts, loafers and lipstick, and she tells them about her tribe.  The narrator concurs:

Where once teenagers were without group identity, lingering diffidently in the uncertain period between childhood and womanhood, today they constitute one of the most highly individualized and acutely noticeable groups in the nation.

Acutely noticeable perhaps, but individualized?  The teen girl authority emphasizes just the opposite—an almost authoritarian attitude of fitting in.

If a girl doesn’t dress right, the way everyone else is dressing, she’s just out…You want them to think I’m different or something?

They want their own rooms, their pinups, their pin money.  There is also a rather proud and defiant desire to not be, or even appear to be, intellectual.  

We don’t have time to read newspapers much.

When the teen authority announces that her tribe thinks about serious and important things, and even discusses them in a radio talk show with other teens, we are seen a circle of them around a microphone discussing whether they should go steady with just one boy, or more. 

They gather at slumber parties and like it when boys catcall at the windows.  Despite this,

We’re not in a hurry to grow up—get all serious and morbid like older people.

The documentary notes that the music and fashion industries were already starting to pay attention to this new demographic, though it would be another decade before the cultural and economic scales would tip irrevocably to young adults.  Perhaps their elders were rendered meek, fatigued and demoralized by what they had endured during the war years to the point of not being able to keep their teen girls from hogging the phone.  What the enemy didn’t get out of them, their own American teens finished them off.

However, the complaining and impertinent squeak from the girls would be child’s play indeed compared to the revolt by the next generation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which would in turn be considered mild compared to today’s cell phone zombies whose interaction when pulled away from their texting is frequently one of rude disdain minus the revolution.  Did their evolution begin with the bobbysoxers in their sweater sets and “keep out” signs on their bedrooms?  

The kids with latchkeys on strings around their necks, coming home to an empty house because the folks were at the war plant and big brother was in the Marines became, in their twenties in the 1950s, the Silent Generation.  If they were conformists and uninvolved politically, nevertheless their buying power would change American society, though after their first declaration of independence in 1945, they appeared to lose steam.  Feminism would come to their daughters before it came to them.  Would Hollywood ever really pay attention to them?  In the late 1950s and early 1960s they would be parodied as company men and housewives, (indeed, unlike their Rosie the Riveter mothers, this generation might have been the first where most of them did not work outside the home, or become involved in a home business) consumers of washers, dryers, and tranquilizers.  The flower power generation’s revolt was geared at World War II era parents, so the Silent Generation even missed the prominence of being defied.

How ironic, to form the vanguard of this new dynamic force in society—the teenager—to be “acutely noticeable” as teens in 1945 and yet to fly under radar for decades to come.  March of Time’s Teen-Age Girls was released this day, June 15, 1945.  The war in Europe had ended, but there was still fighting in the Pacific.  A pause at the beginning of the last summer of the war brought a reflection on what the postwar world would be—and a brief thought to the teens among us who had collected scrap for the war effort, and wrote to servicemen, and wanted, somehow, to matter.

This is the end of our series on Hollywood’s depiction of children during World War II.  Previous posts in this series are:

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Caftan Woman said...

To quote Linda Seton from Holida: "We're all grand at seventeen. It's after that the sickness sets in."

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I love that movie. Philip Barry's work is filled with more quotable dialogue than probably any other playwright. Well, except Shakespeare, of course.

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