Rebels with a Cause: Creativity and the Teen Drama

Curator's Note

Rebels have a long tradition in teen narratives. However, in the contemporary teen drama, yesterday’s rebel without a cause has become an obsolete relic. This symbol of an alienated youth uncertain of its future has given way to rebels that know exactly what they want and how to get it. Faced with the genre’s perennial juxtaposition of “the haves and the have-nots” (Veronica Mars), the rebel with a cause does not simply defy society, s/he defies society creatively and succeeds because of this. Even though teen dramas lavishly depict rich people in trendy clothes, they simultaneously contain an alternative culture deeply critical of this glitzy mainstream. And they use exactly this anti-mainstream sentiment for their education in creativity.

My clip features selections that highlight several central aspects of this phenomenon, starting with the kind of clichéd teenage rebel whose routine isn’t taken seriously anymore. In contrast to this, we see Seth Cohen, The O.C.’s aspiring comic book artist, the hyperarticulate digital native Veronica Mars, and the young writer Dan Humphrey, Gossip Girl’s newcomer to the Upper East Side from hip Dumbo. Their respective aesthetic projects are visually and narratively connected to their status as outsiders. They vilify the decadent consumption of their surroundings, are irreverent, non-conformist, and dare to think outside the box.

Through the creative rebel, contemporary teen dramas educate their audiences in how to succeed in a creative meritocracy that rewards those who use their alternative stance to produce and consume new, alternative, and highly aestheticized thoughts and products. Within this framework, deviant behavior is not portrayed as being detrimental to your professional future anymore, but rather the opposite. It emerges as the prerequisite for success in the professional world through aesthetic expression of the individual subject and his or her innate creative faculties. In the logic of these shows, the outsider becomes hegemonic and creativity is a crucial economic and cultural competence for the post-industrial American economy.



Florian, I think your formulation of the rebel as this new brand of creativity or cultural force is really interesting. You note that these outsiders vilify the decadent consumption that surrounds them, but with a character like Seth Cohen, he comes from a very privileged background (as opposed to Ryan) or Dan Humphrey's outsider status evolves into an insider/outsider status over seasons of GG and his many relationships with both Serena and Blair (and in many ways, this insider status is what Dan seems to yearn for). And Veronica moves in and out of luxury through her relationships with both Logan and Duncan, before ditching both of them and heading to college. Anyway, I think for all the shows you note class and class mobility (like the Humphries family) are very much front and center. But this kind of outsider status, still seems (like Jim Stark) only available to TV's disillusioned white characters. I guess I am wondering if indeed these programs extend the "creative meritocracy" to all characters? Or just their white protagonists? I was curious if you could say more about how you see race (all the examples you note are white), class, and gender function in terms of championing a certain brand of outsider-ness as productive. It seems too (though perhaps not), that the outsider qualities you note are in fact very American dream in terms of the industriousness and individuality and triumphing against odds ...

Phoebe, thank you for your comment, with which I totally agree. In fact, I think that approaching the phenomenon along the lines you've outlined can help us to understand (at least parts of) the cultural work performed by these shows. I am not aware of any non-white character who is portrayed in this manner, at least not a main character. We see hints of this in Wallace Fennel, but that is about the only recurring character I can come up with at the moment. I also think that it is hardly a coincidence that Veronica Mars was a boy in Rob Thomas' original idea for a novel. Superficially, her active, independent behavior might cross traditional gender lines as much as Seth’s slightly effeminate behavior, but in the end both characters hardly question traditional gender roles. And even though I would claim that Veronica Mars’s treatment of the Mars and Fennel families approaches economic struggles much more adequately than Gossip Girl with the Humphreys (which for me borders on satire), it is indeed far from portraying actual economic problems or realities. But this might already be part of the answer. The creative meritocracy I identify in these shows is symbolically open to a diverse group of people, and the figure of the non-conformist rebel is central to the construction of this imaginary. But in the end, if we take a closer look, it is restricted to those that have the cultural AND economic capital to actually received the education that enables them to become the creative workers they aspire to be. And seemingly, these shows continue to depict this group as fundamentally white, male, and middle to upper class.

Thank you for that really thoughtful reply!! Again, really interesting stuff ... I agree too re. the Humphries vs. V Mars, which I do think explores class issues (and even sometimes racial prejudice and systemic inequalities) in a rather interesting way, especially I think in Season 1. Also, I didn't know Veronica was originally supposed to be a boy, which is also really interesting.

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