As I was surfing my way through the dearth of summer television choices one Saturday evening not long ago, I came upon an old black and white Lawrence Welk program that had been taped in the 1960s. A wholesome-looking young couple was dancing and singing a love song about how nice it was to be holding each other close, feeling safe and cherished, while they danced. And, for some reason, that song took me right back to the late 1940s and early 1950s when I was a daydreaming, romantic teenager myself.
I suppose I was like most other young girls at the time– even though my time was twenty years before that particular Lawrence Welk program was first aired– and I wanted to believe that, somewhere in my not-too-distant future, I’d find myself dancing with my very own more-or-less-perfect boyfriend in just such a romantic scenario. And that thought led me to considering just how much the film and record industries have influenced our beliefs and expectations about ourselves and our reality.
As girls, we had been told by Hollywood and RCA that we were pretty and perky. That our mothers were supportive and trusting and encouraged us to have a happy social life while adhering to the strictest standards of lady-like behavior. Our fathers were protective and proud of our brains and accomplishments and encouraged a certain measure of independence while still doling out allowances and paying for cashmere sweaters and slumber parties. They even trusted us with the family car to go to the beach with a half dozen friends on summer afternoons (mixed company, of course, but nobody was too serious).
The reality, of course, was that we shaved our legs in secret, smuggled our makeup out with our homework and put it on in the girls’ restroom at school, and borrowed the sweaters from friends. Our mothers didn’t dish out hotdogs and ice cream sodas to swarms of teenagers after school, and our fathers frowned and growled and chased the boys away if they lingered more than two minutes on the front porch after bringing us home. There were no weekend parties in the garage, and if none of our friends owned cars, we walked everywhere.
The movies told us that smart girls played hard-to-get, that boys were shy and tongue-tied around girls they really liked, and that they would eventually do something outrageously romantic to melt your resistance and win your heart. They would treat you like a princess and defend your honor to the death, sacrifice their dreams, if necessary, to make you happy.
In real life, girls generally stalked boys they considered heart-throbs, asked their best friends to ask their brothers to find out if Mr. Dreamboat liked her just a little, or thought she was pretty, or had a date for the school dance. The boys tended to prefer to go stag and pick up a girl to walk home with at the end of the evening, hoping to get a little snuggle, at least, out of gratitude. It was rare that he ever followed up on his promise to phone the next day, or run into her at the drugstore after school sometime soon.
Movie parents often invited the boyfriend to go along on the family vacation to the lake, where there was a beach populated by hordes of wholesome teenagers who played guitars and volleyball, and sang songs around driftwood fires at night. Actual parents were more likely to keep the destination a secret so they could smuggle their unwilling daughters away from the untrustworthy boys who were in pursuit of their precious darlings. And they studiously avoided the sort of resorts where the younger generation tended to congregate– often choosing the same week and location as the boss and his manipulative wife had chosen to take their two dorky sons.
The movies promised us travel, adventures, intriguing summer jobs that opened doors to exciting careers, fascinating new ideas, fabulous new friends, glamour, romance, and quite often even the revelation of an unexpected and totally unsuspected talent or interest that would change our lives and put us on the path to unbelievable wealth, fame and success. In actuality, clerking in the notions department at the dime store got us nothing more than minimum wage, close scrutiny from an assistant manager who was never pleased with anything we did, and unwelcome advances from the sleazy guy who worked in housewares. In spite of what the movies tell us, the best thing about being a teenager is that you outgrow it. Hang in there.