Culture Editorial: The Adolescent Man-Child in Art

Marty McFly, the fresh-faced hero of Back to the Future, is the quintessential gawky movie teen. The familiar frustrations of being 17 and in love and pursued across the space-time continuum by Libyan terrorists are adeptly captured by the film’s star actor, Michael J Fox. At the time, he was 29 years old. He does a decent enough job, but other attempts by adult actors to channel the teen zeitgeist are less successful. Speak to anyone who was watching TV in the early 1980s and watch their eyes glaze over as they recall with horror the cheesy mugging of 29-year old Henry Winkler as teen heartthrob ‘Fonzie’ in Happy Days

By and large, though, I can overlook the elasticity of these casting decisions. Real resentment only sets in when I watch cringingly inaccurate depictions of the teen experience. I’m sure I am not alone in feeling a deep-seated resentment, bordering on pathological hatred, toward Holden Caulfield.

The snotty teenage brat around whom J.D. Salinger based The Catcher in the Rye is deeply irksome and mind-blowingly self-involved, and I hate him and I wish he was dead. The themes of teenage angst and alienation, which supposedly make the novella such a draw to the young adult audience, only serve to make my skin crawl. Holden Caulfield is supposed to be an icon for teenage rebellion- in reality, he is an icon for pseudo-existential teenage whingeing.

But then I am a snotty teenage brat myself, and would be the first to concede that I am deeply irksome and mind-blowingly self-involved. Occasionally I even dabble in a little pseudo-existentialism. Perhaps the reason I abhor Holden’s constant self-loathing is because it strikes a little too close to home. Adult critics can read the book and glance back with a knowing wince at the petty tribulations and earnest anguish of their teenage years, while my own notebooks full of heartfelt doggerel with titles like “Late-Night Poem To My Future Wife” and “Thoughts For A Girl I Saw On The Train” are a painfully recent memory.

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Maybe the problem is not with the adults constructing insufferably self-indulgent teen characters, but with my inability to look past the manifold embarrassments of my own youth and young manhood.