This article has been corrected since it was published in the print magazine.
In case you haven’t noticed, millions of girls are in the midst of a cultural insurrection. Armed with the pocket money that has made them a powerful consumer force since the 1920s, girls have set their communal sights on a particular kind of entertainment, and when they find it, they transform it into a commercial phenomenon that leaves even the creators and marketers of that entertainment dumbfounded. What do these girls—with such different backgrounds and aspirations, foreign to one another in so many respects—demand right now? The old story, the one they were forced to abandon for a while, but will be denied no longer: the Boyfriend Story.
They find it in High School Musical and in the Twilight series; in the music of Taylor Swift, and even in Glee, which goes to the greatest lengths to prove itself a convention-defying, diversity-championing instrument of the Now, but which only proves, episode after episode, that the reason many teenyboppers and gay boys form such fast friendships is that their hearts are in the same place: in the gossamer-wrapped quest for true and perfect love. Rachel may have two daddies, but when she crushes hard on her dreamy chorus teacher and expresses it in a duet of “Endless Love” with him—and when an equally besotted guidance teacher airs her own feelings for the man in the form of “I Could Have Danced All Night”—well, when that happens, we are definitely back in Kansas. Taylor Swift’s songbook, filled with lyrics composed by the enchantingly shy 19-year-old, might have been written for Doris Day. One of her biggest hits is about unreturned love for a boy who has fallen not just for the wrong girl, but for the wrong kind of girl—a Veronica, not a Betty; a Ginger, not a Mary Ann:
She wears high heels, I wear sneakers;
She’s cheer captain, and I’m on the bleachers.
As for High School Musical, you have to chew through four solid hours of the trilogy—and an imagined year and a half of the main players’ secondary education—before the star-crossed lovers even share a kiss. It is supposed to be a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, but in the 400-year-old original, the main characters take only four days (and, theatrically, three and half hours, tops) to fornicate, initiate a murder spree, run away from home, break their parents’ hearts, secretly marry, and then off themselves. Compared with High School Musical, Romeo and Juliet is a Tarantino spectacular.
Why are so many teenage girls so interested in the kind of super-reactionary love stories that would have been perfectly at home during the Eisenhower administration? The answer lies—as does the answer to so much teenage behavior—in the mores and values of the generation (no, of the decade) immediately preceding their own. This tiny unit of time is always at the heart of what adolescents do, because as much as each group imagines itself to be carving new territory out of nothing more than its own inspired creativity, the youngsters don’t have enough experience to make anything new—or even to recognize what might be clichéd. All they know is the world they began to take notice of when they turned 12 or 13; all they can imagine doing to put their mark on that world is to either advance or retreat along the lines that were already drawn for them.
Even Woodstock is an example of kids getting together to do the next, precisely logical thing based on exactly what came just before them. The most transgressive moment on Yasgar’s farm wasn’t the moment when Country Joe got the kids to scream “Fuck the war” (while the Army choppers bombed them with blankets, water, food, and flowers). It was when Sha Na Na took the stage in gold jumpsuits and confused everyone by playing “At the Hop.” Sha Na Na understood what the freaks didn’t: that they all were already being usurped, that youth is a river that can’t be stopped, and that right in the middle of Woodstock, the next new thing was already struggling to be born. Music is the prow of popular culture, and Hollywood follows as fast as it can. Only four years after the orgy in the New York mud bath, George Lucas gave the next crop of kids American Graffiti, and the youngest once again turned. What else could have followed Woodstock—the total embrace of free love, and everything good and (especially for girls) bad that came with it—other than a full embrace of the supposedly most sexually boring and intellectually repressed time and place of the 20th century, 1950s America?
What might we expect as the next thing for today’s girls? They just spent the better part of a decade being hectored—via the post-porn, Internet-driven world—toward a self-concept centering on the expectation that the very most they could or should expect from a boy is a hookup. We didn’t particularly stand in the way of that culture; we left the girls alone with it, sat idly by while they pulled it into their brains through their ubiquitous earbuds and their endless Facebook photo albums and text messages. We said, more or less, “Do your best.” And then we gave them iTunes gift cards and Wi-Fi connections in their bedrooms, and we warned them about dangerous online trends only after those trends had become so passé that we could learn about them on Dateline. And now the girls have had enough. We’ve sunk pretty low, culturally speaking, when we’ve left it to the 14- and 15-year-old girls of the nation to make one of the last, great stands for human dignity. But they’re making it, by God.
A book that can help us understand the world that girls are trying to destroy—or least escape—is the novel Testimony by Anita Shreve, the events of which resemble a notorious incident that took place in the ancient world all the way back in 2005.* The location was Milton Academy, outside Boston, and the incident in question was a sex party, one that involved five boys and one girl in a locker room. Understanding the exact nature of what transpired would require the combined talents of Caligula, Atticus Finch, and Naomi Wolf. On a less teleological level, suffice it to say that the encounter was brief, was (in practical terms, if not in legal ones) consensual, involved oral sex, and seemed to suggest—both to the administrators of Milton and then to the millions of other adults who followed the story once it became national news—that the end of the world was at hand.
The Milton incident had been addressed in a nonfiction work with the unlovely title Restless Virgins, written by two young women, Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley, who had themselves graduated from Milton only six and seven years earlier, respectively, and who were so shocked by the particular incident—and by the subsequent revelation that it represented a new pattern of behavior at their alma mater—that they spent two years conducting interviews with a number of Milton students on the periphery of the event, including several members of the ice-hockey team.* Their book shed little light on what had really taken place, however, in part because of the narrow focus that its authors adopted. Still young themselves, they centered their attention almost entirely on the perspectives of the students, as though by plumbing the narcissistic reaches of the pubescent mind, one might discover anything beyond the faintest echo of the larger forces that shape adolescent behavior. Furthermore, the kids whom they endlessly interviewed seem to have been eager to spin some wild yarns for their two attractive adult inquisitors. Even if all of the stories in Restless Virgins are true—a supposition that requires you to believe it was common practice for a typical Milton girl to have group sex with an audience watching—their cumulative effect is neither illuminating nor even terribly interesting. Shreve’s novel is a different matter.
Written by a bona fide grown-up (the author turned 63 last fall), Testimony gives us not just the lurid description of what a teen sex party looks like, but also an exploration of the ways that extremely casual sex can shape and even define an adolescent’s emotional life. One-night stands may be perfectly enjoyable exercises for two consenting adults, but teenagers aren’t adults; in many respects, they are closer to their childhoods than to the adult lives they will eventually lead. Their understanding of affection and friendship, and most of all their innocent belief, so carefully nurtured by parents and teachers, that the world rewards kindness and fairness, that there is always someone in authority to appeal to if you are being treated cruelly or not included in something—all of these forces are very much at play in their minds as they begin their sexual lives.