Teenage Wasteland: Moral Panic and Adolescent Sexuality in the Age of Steubenville

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Yeah, she could drag me
over the rainbow,
send me away
Down by the river
I shot my baby
Down by the river,
Dead, oh, shot her dead.

- Neil Young, “Down by the River,” from Everybody Know This is Nowhere

In 1969, Canadian Neil Young released Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.  Containing “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Cinnamon Girl,” the album received largely positive reviews initially, but in recent years, critics have lined up anew to praise its virtues. “Everybody Knows was a sort of big bang for Young, a dense moment of creative explosion that saw possibilities expanding in every direction,” wrote music critic Mark Richardson in late 2009.   While many critics chose to focus on Young’s taught minimalist guitar style and the blistering sounds coming from his then new backing band Crazy Horse, fewer reflected on the lyrics of one its most iconic songs: “Down by the River.”  Indeed, even Young himself has offered different explanations for the song’s meaning, in one moment attesting that it functioned as a metaphor for a relationship unable to continually up emotional heights until exploding; in other instances Young described the song as a straight forward murderous tale of love gone wrong.

Admittedly, the song’s protagonist does express a certain regret. “It’s so hard for me, staying here all alone, when you could be taking me for a ride,” he pines.  Take my hand and I’ll take yours he tells his “baby”, “This much madness, is too much sorrow.  It’s impossible to make it today.”  Yet, for all its Romeo and Juliet dual suicide imagery, only one of them ends up dead.  Clearly, Young’s narrator is unreliable and like most murderers, displays no real empathy for his victim.  His only regret, based on his own selfish desires.   Nor does he have any attributable age, but in the current youth driven media era, one might imagine an unstable young man more comfortable with physical violence than emotional intimacy.

The troubled sexuality of young men and women have long occupied our collective thoughts from the progressive era to today.  Over the past 25 years especially, the sex lives of teenagers on television – even the ever chaste Donna (Tori Spelling) on Beverly Hills 90210 surrendered her virginity never mind more recent and more explicit examples like Gossip Girl- have been front and center.  Britney Spears’s 1990s Catholic girl school outfits and Ralph Lauren’s creepy faux child molester advertising campaign to today’s Courtney Stodden’s disturbing Lolita persona and Justin Bebier’s sexual exploits, moral panic regarding adolescent sexuality has been at the forefront of culture

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The Steubenville rape case, discussed smartly by ToM’s Lauren McIvor Thompson in April, serves as our endpoint.  Observers rightly scolded leaders in the declining rust belt town for not intervening in what has become the litmus test for social media’s conscience and adolescent criminality.   Steubenville teens soon occupied center stage in media critiques.  Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media confirmed the fecklessness of today’s youth: more than just willingly looking the other way as popular athletes manhandled a clearly intoxicated and unconscious young woman, several posted videos and pictures on the internet.  Some even attacked the victim via social media throwing around terms like slut and whore in defense of the convicted.  Many observers took the opportunity to use the incident as proof of millennial narcissism and amorality.  Of course, others noted that social media helped to ferret out the crime and pressure public officials to investigate, though the arrest of Deric Lostutter, one of the hackers responsible for shedding light on the crime, on June 7 and subsequent charges that threaten to place him in jail for much longer than the convicted rapists raises a whole new set of troubling questions about Steubenville and its aftermath. Still, social media and the internet played a role in both perpetuating the crime and eventually, punishing the criminals.

For all the controversy that followed the case, it seemed as if many people saw the event as a reflection of a new malady plaguing American youth: amoral misogyny.  Narcissistic millenials overloaded with social media simply lacked empathy.  Steubenville, along with stories of cyber bullying and the like that have proliferated in recent years, revealed the dark side of Facebook confirming the arguments of critics.

Undoubtedly, Steubenville forces us to collectively engage real questions about teenage sexuality, social media, and misogyny in modern America. Yet if one looks back at two controversial films, River’s Edge (1987) and Kids (1995), you’ll find very similar issues at the center of these movies: the dark heart of adolescence.  Both were made well before the explosion of social media, thereby suggesting millenials are nothing more than reflections of our younger selves with better technology, but many of the same problems dealing with sexual and emotional maturation.

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River’s Edge heshers Keanu and Crispin

Released theatrically in 1987 about 25 years before events in Steubenville, River’s Edge, some critics argued, represented everything wrong with American youth.  Based on a similar 1981 incident in Northern California, the film follows a group of heshers led more or less by speed freak/future meth head Layne (played with eerie abandon by Crispin Glover).  The movie opens with a young boy dropping his sister’s doll into a river, while downstream, Samson aka “John” Toilet (Daniel Roebeck) stares blankly over the murdered corpse of his dead girlfriend.

From the outset, bored alienation defines the lives of these decidedly lower middle and working class kids. Layne leads several others including Matt (played by a pre-Bill and Ted Keanu Reaves), Clarissa (Say Anything’s Ione Skye), and a handful of others in hiding the crime, demanding a cooky Stalinist loyalty to John despite the fact that they were all friends with his now deceased girlfriend Jamie (Danyi Deats) and that John himself seems almost bored with it all.

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Throughout the film, several characters admit that the murder filled them neither with rage nor sadness.  At one point, Clarissa admits to crying during the movie Brian’s Song but shedding not a tear for Jamie. “You’d figure I’d at least be able to cry for someone I hung around with.” “Times have changed,” noted film blogger, Emanuel Levy, “and TV melodramas exert greater effect on their viewers than reality.”  One could argue these kind of explanations mirror those lobbed at Steubenville youth in 2013, replacing melodrama with social media. Unsurprisingly, in the film, parents are largely absent and when present exude a sullen hopelessness.  Even those that do care, like one teacher who hits the usual talking points about Vietnam and the anti-war movement appears to be a joke, at least to the students he hopes to reach.

River’s Edge director Tim Hunter broke from dominant 1980s tropes about the vitality and promise of youth, emphasizing adolescence as “a bleak, aimless coming of age, a time of boredom, stupor, and waste,” as Levy points out.  Roger Ebert put it even more simply: “Its portrait of these adolescents is an exercise in despair.” A soundtrack awash in speed metal – Slayer contributes multiple tracks, while hardcore brutalists Agent Orange add another as do speed metal stalwarts Fates Warning – reinforces the outsider status of Layne and the others.  Needless to say, these bands provide the kind of bleak, brutalized soundtrack that matches the grey depression of people’s lives in the film.  Not exactly Hair the musical.

For Layne, the murder offers an opportunity to circle the wagons and confirm everyone’s tribal identification.  Keeping the murder secret has become a group activity, requiring loyalty that Matt simply can’t deliver.  Troubled by Jamie’s death, Matt eventually informs the police but the movie hardly depicts him as some hero. When asked about his feelings about the murder, Matt confesses much like Clarissa to feeling “nothing.”

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Even the town psychopath Feck (played admirably by Dennis Hopper in a role that Ebert described as performed “with sweat and the whites of his eyes”) eventually finds this generation’s lack of empathy too much to handle. Feck too had murdered his woman years ago and now spent his time with an inflatable sex doll, yet he expresses regret over his actions, even asking John if he had loved Jamie.  “She was O.K,” he tells a soon to be enraged Dennis Hopper who simply can’t process this kind of blankness.

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“When the [original] story of the dead girl first appeared in the papers, it seemed like a freak show, an aberration,” reflected Ebert in the closing lines of his 1987 review of the film. “River’s Edge sets it in an ordinary town and makes it seem like just what the op-ed philosophers said: an emblem of breakdown . . . [It’s] not a film I will forget very soon.”  Even without social media, American youth it would seem have long lacked empathy or the ability to experience events from the perspective of others.

A very different movie, Kids appeared in theaters eight years later.  Instead of a metal edged small town on the banks of some muddy river, director Larry Clark follows Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) and his crew of multiracial New York City skateboarders as they traverse the city in search of dope, fights, and sex. A self described “virgin surgeon,” Telly spends most of the movie chasing seriously underage girls (even for him).  Written by Harmony Korine, who directed and wrote the recent Spring Breakers, Clark and Korine depict this collection of New York teens in ways not too dissimilar from those in Rivers Edge.   Again a general lack of empathy throbs through the film, though Telly’s obsession with sex, Ebert noted, at least meant he cared about something.  If Samson in River’s Edge exulted in how he “felt alive” after killing Jamie, Telly revels in seducing young virgins even as one of his former conquests Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) discovers he has given her AIDS.  Adults occupy marginal spaces in the story.  In both films, drugs and alcohol take center stage.

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Kids (1995)

To be fair, unlike River’s Edge which could claim an actual event as its source, some critics believed Kids to be little more than the a middle aged man channeling the most nihilistic version of modern day adolescence possible. “Grown-up viewers of Kids have wondered if its portrait of nihilistic youth — mean-spirited boys who pursue very young girls, only to discard them later with contempt –,” noted New York Times journalist Trip Gabriel in 1995,  “is representative of teen-agers today, or a lurid exaggeration.”  Clark’s previous photographic work, Tulsa (1971) and Teenage Lust (1983) focused intensely on young people, drugs, and sex.  Directors like Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) , Francis Ford Coppola (Rumble Fish), and Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy) cribbed from him.  Understandably, some have taken Clark to task for these earlier works.  Exploitative and prurient, they argue, Tulsa and Teenage Lust amplify the worst aspects of young adulthood: the sleazy underbelly.

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Two of Clark’s more “innocent” photos from Tulsa

Both River’s Edge and Kids elicited a fair amount of controversy with their release but in very different ways.  Teens in River’s Edge feel little and empathize less and many observers used the movie as a symbol for the collapse of American culture and citizenship.  Kids, on the other hand, endured accusations of sensationalism.  More than a few critics, as noted, believed Clark to be little more than an opportunist who could skillfully exploit image and narrative in ways that failed to truly reflect reality.

Unlike the perpetrators in Steubenville, Layne, Matt, and Clarissa in Rivers Edge populate the marginal spaces in high school.  Adorned in black thrash metal tshirts, smoking pot, and knocking back twelve packs, the heshers of River’s Edge might actually relieve some parents who might whisper to themselves, “not my Johnny.” Kids too focused on a very specific and then still controversial subculture of skateboarding.  Steubenville revealed that perhaps Clark’s alleged exaggerations proved more accurate than initially thought, while also demonstrating that teenage tribalism exists equally among the jocks and “normal kids” as it does reckless skateboarders or outcast heshers.

“Millennials appear to be close to their parents because they communicate so frequently (calling, texting, emailing), but these technologies only create a sense of security and closeness,” noted Karen Leick in a recent article for Avidly. “In fact, Millennials are simply much more adept at deceiving their parents than Generation X ever could ever hope to be.”  Technology may have eased parents’ fears about their children’s well being, but it failed to give them better control or even real knowledge about sons and daughters’ whereabouts.   Here one might point to an analogy between Leick’s example and the social media that perpetuated the Steubenville crime but also helped to see it to prosecution. Facebook, and Twitter do create communities, but they suffer from the same problems as any other.  The fact is adolescence has always been mean and narcissistic, but now we don’t have to make movies to capture it.  Tragically, we can download it on Youtube.

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