“Senior Year” Refreshes, ASH Chokes

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I have never met a “typical teenager.” Sullen, alienated, immature, impulsive, rebellious, obnoxious, immortality-deluded, high-risk? I’ve encountered as many grownups (me, for example) who fit those stereotypes. Decades of research likewise show the “typical teenager” is a figment of adult prejudice.

Try finding a “typical teenager” among the 15 Fairfax (Los Angeles) High School teens profiled in Senior Year, documentarist David Zeiger’s series now running on PBS. Students’ astonishing individualities overwhelm age, race and cultural molds.

A Filipino boy, popular with peers even though “I’m the biggest queer,” tries out for cheerleading and ROTC. A Korean student’s award-winning speech agonizes over whether violent beatings by her traditional mother are worse than speaking out on such family-shaming secrets (“shamed” mom praises her daughter’s speech). A Latino-Italian couple vow to stop having sex to sanctify their Catholic relationship, adding dramatic exchanges to crises with volatile parents. An alienated black girl, speech slurred after an accident, is cheered by students for running for prom queen. A white student on Ritalin is her own brand of hard-core Christian. A studiously antisocial Russian Jew is enmeshed in emotional male-female friendships.

We alternately admire the parent or counselor coping with an impossible kid, then applaud the teen negotiating disarrayed parents and clueless advisors. Kids lamenting missing fathers are the multicultural commonality. Senior Year’s teens constantly surprise: rebounding from failure, skeptical in success, framing their futures amid their families’ and community’s wrenching transitions.

Senior Year peddles no message. Yet it forms a devastating critique of the myth of typical, one-size-fits-all adolescence – a myth, unfortunately, underlying popular youth policy.

Just when it seems America’s panic against youth can’t get more ridiculous, the antismoking lobby Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) announces a crusade to restrict anyone under 15 from movies that depict smoking. If ASH’s scheme succeeds (as does almost any shackle-teens idiocy that doesn’t require grownups to behave better), a 14-year-old would require adult chaperoning to see Sherlock Holmes, the Marx Brothers, Hepburn and Bogart. Eighteen of the American Film Institute’s top 20 classics would become R-rated.

Punishing youths is politically easier than forcefully pursuing antismoking lobbies’ laudable goal of punishing Hollywood for taking tobacco industry product-placement bribes.

The University of California’s Stanton Glantz, normally a voice of sanity, endorsed ASH’s misdirected foolishness. The campaign rests on a British Medical Journal study claiming 9- to 15-year-olds who report watching the most cinematic smoking are six times more likely to try smoking than those exposed to the least. That scary finding largely vanished when the researchers controlled for obvious confounds (i.e., 15-year-olds have seen more movies than have 9-year-olds). Considering more relevant factors would obliterate the conclusion altogether. The study authors admit their tentative findings don’t prove smoky movies produce smoking youth. Perhaps youths who smoke simply watch more movies.

Even at face value, the BMJ study reported seven in 10 youths who see the heaviest-smoking movies never try cigarettes. But lobbies pushing restrictions on all youth for the sins of a few don’t appreciate individuality; left-right culture nannies like the Family Research Council, ASH, and Center for Science in the Public Interest would banish all youths from media portraying alcopops, caffeine, fat people, thin people and Wite-Out if some flimsy study alleged marginal benefit.

(Funny, though, despite decades of solid research showing adult smoking devastates children’s health and promotes youth smoking, none of these save-the-children groups have advocated banning adult smoking around kids. Health lobbies won’t stand up for babies choking on parents’ tobacco fumes, but they’re rabid to rescue teens from Casablanca and Duck Soup.) American youth policy is both tyrannical and laughable because it fails to grasp that teenagers are individuals, not lab rats for crusaders’ fatuous policy gimmicks. There are no standard cure-alls to manage teenagers because there are no standard teenagers. If Senior Year’s students can face ambiguity, complexity and contradiction in their lives for which no simplistic panaceas exist, why can’t supposedly mature adults do the same?

Mike Males, sociology instructor at U.C. Santa Cruz, posts writings, statistics, and research at http://home.earthlink.net/~mmales .