Salinger, ‘Mean Girls,’ and the Trouble with Fragmented Marketing

mean-girlsJ.D. Salinger wrote in a Harper’s Magazine contributor’s note in 1946: “I almost always write about very young people.”

Last night, I re-watched Mean Girls, one of those great high school movies whose recommendation to an unsuspecting acquaintance often comes with an immediate defense: “No, really, it’s seriously good. It’s not just a silly teen movie.” Clueless usually gets this treatment, too, as well as Say Anything … and the John Hughes ’80s oeuvre.

Given that we recognize Salinger as one of our greatest writers — and rightfully so — why do we denigrate the teen movie and TV genre so readily? Why are we always feeling defensive about our love for 10 Things I Hate About You or Gossip Girl?

In some ways, it’s for the same reasons we often don’t take female-centric books, films, and TV shows seriously. Anyone who isn’t in power is seen as frivolous, not dealing with the important, real problems of the world. Never mind that it’s because society won’t let them. Of course, we have better reasons to leave teens out of our world-problem summits than we do to exclude women. But the result in pop culture is the same: We marginalize works about groups as only for those groups, and thus as lesser. Teen shows and movies are only for teens whose brains haven’t fully developed yet; we forget that we all deal with a lot of the same issues we dealt with as teenagers, the only difference being that we’re expected to act like we’re doing once we’re over 21. Shows and movies about women are only for girls, so “real men” can never learn what it’s like to be a woman by being caught watching these works. Shows and movies about people of color are only for people of color, so whites can never learn what it’s like to be them.

A lot of the problem comes from the way Hollywood markets, especially these days, when their “quadrants” (young, old, male, female) have become more important to them than ever — despite the obvious failure of that system. But a lot of it comes from inside us, too.

What if we consumed every show, movie, and book as if it were made by a white adult man? Which is to say: What if we evaluated every piece on its merits instead of assuming something about a 16-year-old girl, a 30-year-old women’s magazine editor, or a 25-year-old black man had nothing to say to us?

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