Tribeca Film Festival 2013: Director Matt Wolf On the Evolution of the American Teenager

ByMatt Wolf

Editor's Note: Matt Wolf is the director of Teenage, a movie premiering at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. This week, PolicyMic will profile one director every day and introduce you to his/her amazing film. Culture editor Elena Sheppard will be covering the festival live. Stay tuned for our coverage.

I got involved in a youth movement when I was 14 years old. I came out that year in an article I published in my school’s underground newspaper, The Subterranean Crusader. My essay ignited intense debate, and I used the controversy to create a gay-straight alliance club. At our first meeting, hundreds of students showed up to discuss homophobia.

Meanwhile, an older activist asked me to help start a non-profit organization called the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. We were empowering other young people from the Bay Area to become activists in their schools and their communities. Eventually we got our state representatives to change the non-discrimination policies in California schools to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Ten years later, I was living in New York as a documentary filmmaker. I read a book called Teenage by Jon Savage, and I was intrigued by its premise — teenagers didn’t always exist, and they were invented in the early 20th century. I was so inspired by the ideas and hidden histories in the book that I decided to adapt it into a film.

As I was working on Teenage, I started to see the intense parallels between the experiences of youth during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, and my own turbulent years as a teenage gay activist. Young people during the early 20th century faced incredible oppression from their parents, governments, and the police. They were struggling for the most basic forms of recognition, and they wanted to be treated like equals.

In the beginning of this film there were no teenagers. At the turn of the century you were either a child or you went to work as an adult. But when child labor ended, a new second stage of life emerged, and adults and young people struggled to define it. At first “adolescents” were seen as a problem, and they were called Hooligans or Juvenile Delinquents by the police. They were regimented and sent to war first as doughboys in WWI, then later as young GIs or Hitler Youth during WWII. Their outlet was partying, and adolescents created their own unique music, fashion, and dances as Bright Young Things in 1920s England, or as Jitterbugs who loved Swing in 1930s America. By the end of World War II, youth were becoming powerful consumers, shaping global popular culture as Sub Debs.

They were part of the war effort, earning their own money, and they wanted to be treated like equals. A few weeks before the atomic bomb dropped, youth received a new name and an identity that had been percolating for years — they were Teenagers. The term was coined in the New York Times in an article called “A Teen-age Bill of Rights.” 

While absorbing this fascinating history I discovered some universal themes that are still relevant today. Young people always represent the future because they’ll quite literally live in it. It’s why adults project their hopes and fears onto young people, and it’s why they try so hard to control them. Whether it’s Boxcar Children in the Great Depression or today’s millenials facing unprecedented unemployment, young people force society to ask: What kind of world are we going to live in? Is there anything we can do about it?

Adults often forget what it feels like to be a teenager, and they think this generation is apolitical, apathetic, or more lost than any that came before them. They often dismiss “teenage rebellion” as an emotional right of passage. But I think history proves that teenagers’ unrest leads to real social change.

When you’re an adult, you’re set in your ways, burdened by financial and familial responsibilities, and more content to accept the world that you live in. Teenagers question ideas, they invent new forms of expression. Adults should pay attention because teenagers are busy re-imagining the future.

For more information on Teenage check out the film online