Notes on the film ‘Teenage’

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by Adam T. Miller

* This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

In “Redescribing ‘Religion and …’ Film: Teaching the Insider/Outsider Problem,” Russell McCutcheon writes: “What makes a particular film a candidate for [religious studies] courses … is usually limited to whether it addresses such grand issues as suffering and evil or such supposedly enduring human values as forgiveness and love.” But if our classes are about “cultivating historical, cultural analysis of complex human behaviors and institutions,” not uncritically reproducing the understanding of religion our students often already have, then perhaps we ought to choose films more suited to our ends.

It is with this suggestion in mind that I bring to the table for consideration Teenage, a film ostensibly having very little to do with the study of religion. Using archival footage and diaries of youngsters living in the United States, England, and Germany between the late nineteenth century and the years immediately following the conclusion of World War II, the 2013 film documents the birth of the teenager. Watch the trailer below:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8bNqD9YhkM]

Although the film could probably be used to raise a few different sets of questions, I’d like to focus on how it might help students in introductory classes begin to think critically about the categories we employ.

Using an example seemingly inconsequential relative to the seemingly ever-serious topic of religion, the film introduces social constructionism and the genealogical method–it traces the development of the category “teenager” (thereby implying that teenagers [as we conceive them today] have not existed in all times and places), and shows how the category has connotations unique and directly related to its development.

“But,” the objection goes, “haven’t there always been people whose bodies have revolved around the sun thirteen to nineteen times (or, if you fancy a longer view of adolescence and young-adulthood, twelve [or so] to twenty-five [or so] times)?” Sure there have. But people with this level of solar-systemic experience–not all of them, of course–were only recently afforded the rights, privileges, and responsibilities (or lack thereof) we today associate with being a teenager. Prior to this gradual bestowal, children became adults as soon as they were able to work. There was no in-between stage characterized by voluntary/optional work, increased (albeit still limited) self-determination, and surplus time for leisure and “self-discovery”. Conceptualized in this way, we can’t sensibly talk about teenagers in contexts prior to the industrial revolution (not to mention some contemporary contexts). But if we take the word and give it a new, limited sense for the purposes of conversation and/or analysis (e.g., if we restrict our usage of the term to refer to people whose bodies have revolved around a certain number of times), such silence is no longer necessary.

Like the category “teenager,” the category “religion” has a traceable history, and it carries connotations today unique and directly related to its development. As Jonathan Z. Smith notes in “Religion, Religions, Religious,” the etymology of the word “religion” is complex, but it gradually came to be employed by Euro-Americans (often in colonial contexts) to describe “human thought and action, most frequently in terms of belief and norms of behavior.” In other words, the word became an anthropological category. And, as Craig Martin writes in the second chapter of A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion, “[t]he categories we use are almost always directly related to our human interests.” Discussing the human interests that lead to the advent of teenagers as we know them (e.g., the desire to do away with child labor) could be a useful entry point to a discussion of the same with regard to religion. And though perhaps a bit meandering, loosening up the meaning of “teenager” may help students to understand why it is important to begin with theories and definitions when studying religion.

On a related note, the way in which the film seems to disregard empirical differences among its subjects (whose situations and identifications, both self-imposed and otherwise, vary drastically in some instances) in favor of an abstracted essence is reminiscent of the way in which some religious studies scholars (not to mention most students, at least initially) think about religion. The following words from the film’s website illustrate this suppression of difference: “Whether in America, England, or Germany, whether party-crazed Flappers or hip Swing Kids, zealous Nazi Youth or frenzied Sub-Debs, it didn’t matter – this was a new idea of how people come of age. They were all ‘Teenagers.'” The fact that the swing kids defined themselves in direct opposition to the Hitler youth, for example, is inconsequential–or, so the film suggests. But is it really? Can these differences be so easily brushed aside? Regardless of where one lands with regard to this particular question, I think working through it–in conjunction with the first chapter of A Critical Introduction–could open up avenues for discussion about how colloquial uses of words like “religion” group together dissimilar things and not everyone is in agreement about what should count as “religion”–the end goal again being to get students to see the need for up-front talk of theory and definition.

* This post also appear on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy blog.

Adam Miller researches Indian Mahayana Buddhist literature and history, particularly (at least at the moment) past-life stories and expand to include South Asian Buddhism more generally, early/medieval Chinese Buddhism, Swami Vivekananda, and Theory and Method in the Study of Religion. He received his training at the University of Missouri (MA 2013) and Western Illinois University (BA 2011), and is currently working on a PhD at the University of Chicago.

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