- Too Good to Be True: The Fall of the Ideal Youth, from Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
In 1904, G. Stanley Hall published Adolescence, a massive, two-volume study of adolescent psychology that would prove to be enormously influential and would help to set the tone for how adolescence would be discussed in psychology, literature, and popular culture for over a century. Hall established adolescence as a time of “natural” emotional turmoil and, consequently, of danger. Looking back, many contemporary scholars of sociology and literature see Hall’s fearful picture of the dangers of adolescence as a construction meant to justify adult control (see Baxter; Offer and Offer; Lesko; Males; Graff). Kent Baxter notes that Hall offers hope as well as fear in his construction of two kinds of youth: “the squeaky-clean ‘ideal’ adolescent, who is controlled and controllable, and will enable the human race to attain a type of moral perfection,” and the “‘real’ adolescent (as much a construction as the ideal) who represents a kind of cultural anxiety of the physical and sexual threat the adolescent can become if left to his or her own devices” (12). As a result of Hall’s “normalization” of a tumultuous adolescence, however, the controllable, “squeaky-clean” adolescent was viewed with increasing suspicion by the middle of the twentieth century and was suspected of harbouring latent psychopathology (see Offer and Offer). Within half a century of Hall’s publication, the qualities of ideal and dangerous adolescents flip: ideal adolescents actually behave in a disturbed fashion, while seemingly well-adjusted youth are understood to be courting danger later in life.
A comparison of seemingly ideal characters in adolescent novels from two periods—the first decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first—helps to illuminate how and why these desires and fears for youth shift. In Kate Douglas [End Page 33] Wiggin’s 1903 novel Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Rebecca represents the ideal youth common before Hall’s publication and the subsequent spread of anxiety about the psychological health of adolescents. Ann Brashares’s Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and its sequels, published from 2001 to 2007, reflect a distinct change in thinking, given the books’ focus on a potentially ideal teen, Bridget, who is undermined and written off as too good to be truly authentic. In these examples, it is not only apparent that the conception of the ideal shifts, but it is also evident that the “squeaky-clean” ideal adolescents are in fact the ones who are less controllable and more dangerous to the existing social order. Both texts contain “real” adolescents who represent more potentially disruptive qualities of youth, but it is these lesser, more mundane characters who create much less havoc than Rebecca and Bridget manage to do in spite of their shining promise.
Many texts would have served to illuminate the changes in perceptions of ideal youth. I have chosen Wiggin’s and Brashares’s texts because, in addition to featuring comparably irrepressible female characters, they achieved enough notable success and popularity in their respective time periods to indicate that the main characters have resonated with a wide reading audience.1 Furthermore, both authors participated in contemporary cultural conversations about the roles, problems, and progress of youth, Wiggin as an educator and Brashares as a popular author. The texts by both authors incorporate and respond to popularized “expert” fears and assumptions about youth. In each case, I examine the literary work or works against a background of texts by the medical, psychological, and sociological professionals that helped to shape the public’s images of “real” adolescents of the given period. In turn, the literary texts both incorporate those assumptions and question them by offering popular images of equally but differently disruptive “ideal” adolescents.
In this paper, I trace the ways that scientific and literary writers attempt to cast the irrepressible ideal adolescent under suspicion and bring her under control. I focus on four commonly discussed concerns about adolescents: adult-adolescent boundaries, mental health, innocence, and socio-economic status. Gender is an equally important concern in the construction of adolescence, and to this end...