I think the first time I realized Frank Sinatra had been a teen idol was when I watched old Looney Tunes and things that made fun of him. This was before Ol’ Blue Eyes, before the Rat Pack, before his serious acting career. This was when he was a skinny guy from New Jersey that girls inexplicably swooned over. We’re talking the early ’40s here. The disdain wasn’t helped by the fact that he turned twenty-six just days after Pearl Harbor and didn’t enlist, mind (officially, he was 4-F for a perforated eardrum; Army records apparently indicate some psychiatric issues), but there were plenty of men who didn’t enlist who weren’t so routinely caricatured in cartoons.
It’s the bobby soxers, you see. Being the idol of teenage girls pretty well ensures that you will be a joke to the rest of society. It’s only when other demographics—including just teenage boys—discover you that you turn out to have been talented all along. We forget this, I think, when we look at Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio—well, I could keep listing. Heck, Franz Lizst, if you go back far enough. Who ironically I probably also know best from Looney Tunes, as one of their token Important Classical Composers.
Don’t get me wrong; sometimes, teenage girls have garbage taste. I seem to have ducked most of the worst of the obsessions of my own generation, but I’m certainly not going to excuse them all in myself. Let she who never had a crush on Uncle Jesse cast the first stone. On the other hand, there appears to be an implicit assumption that everything teenage girls like must be bad. Okay, Kirk Cameron. But women my age were also the ones who first became aware of DiCaprio. If you are going to blame teenage girls for Jared Leto, you should also give them credit for Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Oh, I’m sure most people don’t think of either of the latter as having been teen idols, but they both were. They’re about ten years apart in age, meaning that I’m slightly too old to have had a teen crush on Joseph Gordon-Levitt but exactly the right age to have had Jared Leto aimed at me. I think it took me until about 2012 to stop referring to the one as Tommy and the other as Jordan Catalano. Heck, Heath Ledger was in a movie with Gordon-Levitt where they were both supposed to be safe possible crushes for teenage girls—boys who would have their best interests at heart.
Even when teenage girls’ popular media is bad, too, it feels as though it isn’t criticized for what’s really bad about it. Twilight, for example. I’ve read the first book. It’s all I could get through. And, yes, the writing is not great. The sparkling thing is silly. There are no wolves on the Olympic Peninsula, and that’s just the start of the errors about the area in the book. However, none of that really deserves the hate that the books get. What does deserve the hate doesn’t get mentioned. We are, after all, talking about a series where a much-older man (he may look enough like a teenager to register in high school, and doing that is creepy enough, but he’s supposed to be a hundred or so years old) climbs into a teenage girl’s bedroom at night to watch her sleep. Later, their infant daughter will be impressed at birth on her mother’s old suitor. These are Not Okay, but, sure, let’s complain about the sparkles.
Then again, for my generation, it was V.C. Andrews. Who only wrote seven books herself, but has had them churned out under her name ever since. My goodness but those books are not good. I’ve reread a few—mostly the ones actually by her, too—and they’re all shades of problematic, starting of course with the incest. We devoured them when I was a kid, and the first time they went through my social circle was when I was in fourth grade. We’re talking about four-hundred-page books about abuse and rape and incest and all kinds of things. Were they good for us? Who even knows? But none of us wanted to emulate them; we wanted the shock of the forbidden. For a lot of us, I suspect we had to hide them from parents who wouldn’t have approved of the sex scenes even if they’d been between respectable married people who weren’t brother and sister.
I’ll admit, then, that I’m probably bothered for nothing about the toxicity of Twilight. Teenage girls have been romanticizing a hasty marriage followed by teen suicide for quite some time, too, and that’s considered one of the greatest plays ever written. I would note that the version that was popular with teenage girls when it came out is frequently dismissed regardless of its merits, though. In fact, I’ve heard it accused of making up dialogue, which it manifestly didn’t do.
Possibly, the day will come when Romeo + Juliet is reevaluated for what it is, a version that takes Shakespeare’s language and shows us how he himself told period stories—set in his own time, with cultural and temporal markers that fit with his audiences, not his characters. (Why, hello, striking clock in Julius Caesar!) I suspect that’s going to take until Leonardo DiCaprio is old enough to be what Robert Redford became—someone who’s been around for so long that people forget that teenage girls had swooned over him. By that point, I’ll have been making the argument almost my entire adult life. After all, he’s only two years older than I am.
Want to see me write that argument? I’ve got a level on my Patreon where you can tell me what do do!