On Monday, many Minnesota students start the school year. The back-to-school season often means a return to stories about students’ lives. When the subject is teen girls, the framing of these stories — by both the media and society — often follows a familiar pattern. In fact, the pattern is at least a century old, according to a provocative new book, “From the Dance Hall to Facebook: Teen Girls, Mass Media, and Moral Panic in the United States, 1905-2010.”
The book examines five flash points — dance halls from 1905 to 1928, a spike in track and field and other “sports of strife” from 1920 to 1940, the late ’50s Elvis Presley pop-culture phenomenon, the counterculture of punk rock from 1976 to 1986, and the rise of social media from 2004 to 2010. Analyzing the societal response and media coverage, the book argues that recycled narratives about teen girls have depicted the cohort in a “gendered, exaggerated crisis that depends on certain journalistic devices, and in many cases, the advocacy of experts and authorities whose personal agenda (whether rooted in religion, ethics, politics, economics, personal duty, or occupation) relies on the preservation of the crisis or its elevation to panic.”
The authority figures wagging fingers (or “moral entrepreneurs”) were originally social progressives, the book’s author, Shayla Thiel-Stern, said in an interview. Stern, an associate professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Minnesota, added that “they were people who took it upon themselves to ‘better society.’ ”
In some cases, they used the press. In others, they were used by the press. “They sold papers, but on the other hand got their message out,” Thiel-Stern said.
Many of the accounts in papers, and later other media, of yesteryears’ teen girls can now sound hysterical (and funny).
Dance halls, for instance, where working-class girls and young women went to have fun, were often deemed “evil.” And active athletics “should not make them [teen girls] appear masculine, nor should it risk their ability to reproduce in the future.”
As for pop music, Elvis’ female fans rocked postwar conventions of femininity, and punk rock shocked society, particularly when teen girls took part (or dressed the part).
Patriarchy and class structure undergirded each era, Thiel-Stern said.
Much of the debate always has been about what society considers “appropriately feminine” — even though those standards have shifted dramatically. Female Olympians, for instance, are now idolized and idealized, not identified as unfeminine.
And the undercurrent of class structure that shaped the debate over dance halls wouldn’t work now, as social class is more amorphous (at least outwardly).
And even though a century ago there wasn’t even widespread acknowledgment of “teenagers” as passing through a distinct phase of life, Thiel-Stern said that constructs considering teen girls are consistent.
“Even though so much is so different, so much is the same,” she said. “The policing of femininity, the trope of ‘the victim vs. whore,’ and even ways that journalists express narratives, a lot of that’s the same. That was surprising to me.”
But given the Web’s ubiquity, it is not surprising that in some ways the narrative is different — even evolving.
Sure, there are still “alarmist stories,” Thiel-Stern said. But tech-savvy parents often turn to the Internet itself for more insight into social media’s impact.
And because social media allows users to not only consume but create content, teen girls can better tell their own stories instead of always having their experience chronicled by others — including the moral entrepreneurs, who have lost clout in today’s unfiltered era.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t criticism, of course. But in a twist, much of it comes not from well-intentioned moral arbiters, but from fellow social-media users, who can be even less forgiving about feminine expression.
Despite being published by the University of Massachusetts Press, “From the Dance Hall to Facebook” is far from ivory-tower stuff. And neither is Thiel-Stern. She’s the mother of two, and like all parents has her own concerns about raising kids in the digital era, where dangers genuinely exist. Her advice to parents, who are particularly focused on their kids as school starts, is to participate in social media in order to truly understand it.
While she hopes society is headed for a “cultural digital forgiveness,” Thiel-Stern acknowledges that it’s not there yet. So she thinks it’s important to talk to kids about their digital footprint, which unlike a night at the dance hall, a race around the track, or an Elvis or Sex Pistols concert, is permanent, not ephemeral.
But just as she hopes society and the news media reframe the conversation, parents should, too.
“For me, this is a conversation about civility and ethics as much as anything,” Thiel-Stern said. “I would love to see the policing move more from content to policing ethics and usage.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. on Friday on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.