By Kerensa Cadenas
Teenage culture and the media associated with it have become mainstream entertainment for adults and teens alike. It’s not completely embarrassing anymore to admit to your CW addiction. Shows like My So-Called Life and Freaks & Geeks are television canon. Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” is a collective summer anthem. Film franchises like Twilight and The Hunger Games make millions from audiences of diverse age groups. NPR just released its Top 100 YA Novels of All Time. And unfortunate international best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fan-fiction.
But just about 50 years ago, teen culture didn’t exist. However, with the emergence of new types of American mass media—television and rock & roll—coupled with post-war prosperity and the rise of the suburbs and nuclear families, advertisers discovered a new and lucrative audience: the adolescent.
Today, teen television is an ingrained part of our media landscape. It’s interesting to think that, before the emergence of specifically commoditized teen culture, there wasn’t much programming primarily geared to teens at all. At least at first. Bands like The Beatles and films like Splendor in the Grass and Rebel Without a Cause can be pinpointed as arrival markers of teen culture in the U.S. But the origins of teenage television as we know it are a bit more difficult to figure out.
Shows like Leave it to Beaver (1957-63), The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66), and other family sitcoms were marketed to teens but focused on the entire family. However, by end of many of these shows’ run, the focus was heavily skewed on the teen characters. But from the late 1950s to the mid 1960s, a handful of shows stood out as being specifically teen-focused, including The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Gidget, and Never Too Young.
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis aired from 1959-1963. Based on Max Schulman’s collection of essays under the same name, the plot revolves around a teenage everyboy, Dobie Gillis (Dwayne Hickman), with raging hormones. Dobie’s goals are to attain popularity and money—and to bag any chick who will take him. His best friends become entangled in his schemes to achieve those ends. The pilot is arguably a bunch of sexist garbage—I knew I was in for a treat when the title sequence rolled, parading Gillis’s many ladies to the theme song singing “Dobie wants a gal to call his own.” But from Dobie Gillis, with its sitcom format, emerged many of the tropes we see today in teen shows. It fits the teen sitcom plot arc to a T—boy wants girl, boy commits to screwball scheme to get girl, scheme backfires and boy goes back to square one. Dobie also introduces the “stoner sidekick” with his BFF, Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver, later known as Gilligan). In this case, Maynard is known in code as the “beatnik” character. He’s flighty, listens to his portable radio in class, has a semblance of facial hair, and is clearly stoned out of his mind. In the pilot, we are also introduced to Dobie’s love interest, Thalia, a money and looks obsessed girl who won’t date Dobie because he’s not stacking enough paper for her (or apparently her family’s) liking. Dobie Gillis cracked the top 30 in Nielsen ratings, spawning a spinoff pilot, a TV movie, and even a comic book series.
While Dobie Gillis focused on the girl-crazy teen boy, Gidget gave us the boy-crazy teen girl. Gidget, based on the 1959 movie with Sandra Dee, aired one season from 1965-1966, with Sally Field now in the title role. The audience follows Gidget’s life in California, living with her widowed UCLA English professor father and dealing with her annoying older, married sister while getting into trouble with her best friend, Larue. We get the teen girl perspective right away in the pilot when Gidget tells the audience she fell in love with two things that summer: Jeff (aka “Moondoggie”) and surfing. Gidget narrates the action of the story—so we experience everything from her perspective, a narrative trick that many contemporary teen shows utilize. The interesting thing about Gidget is how feminist she is. For example, when Gidget and Jeff are discussing the future of their relationship when he goes back to college in the fall, Gidget decides she wants to date other people. In a phone conversation with Larue, Gidget explains her position on the matter: “And going steady might be fine for him at his age. But it just doesn’t seem right that I should sit around for the whole year and DIE on the vine.”
Sex is also discussed openly, unlike the thinly veiled, hormone laden innuendos of Dobie Gillis (or a cutaway kiss in Never Too Young), but it is wrapped in a shroud of slut-shaming by Gidget’s sister, Anne. After reading a diary entry Gidget has fabricated about “sinking into nothingness” to make her life seem more interesting, Anne assumes that Gidget has lost her morals and quickly tells their father about it. Of course as in any sitcom, this miscommunication is quickly rectified—but not before insinuating that Gidget and her father rattle Anne by joking that Gidget is pregnant. Due to low ratings, Gidget was canceled in 1966, but aired in syndication and spawned two television movies.
Unlike Dobie Gillis and Gidget, Never Too Young (1965-66) was a drama. Like so many generic teen dramas, it features a good looking cast with no memorable standouts. With stars culled from earlier hits like Lassie (Tommy Rettig) and Leave it to Beaver (Tony Dow), Never Too Young follows a group of friends living in Malibu, CA who all hang out at Alfy’s (David Watson) beach hangout, The High Dive. While most of the characters blend together, all of our favorite teen stock characters are there: the rich bitch, the dreamy ditz, the nerdy (but actually hot) bookworm chick, the jock who wants more, and the sleazy foreign guy who likes to mansplain. And the most important stock character (and a personal favorite): the stranger who rides into town/working class guy from the wrong side of the tracks, Chet (Dow). In this iteration, Chet lives in his van and wants to spend his days surfing. After hitting it off with Joy (Jaclyn Carmichael), Chet tells her he’s a mechanic and when he perceives her looking at his oil stained hands in the wrong way, Chet goes on a class-based rant to the very wealthy Joy. Just like in Gidget, this minor argument is quickly resolved when Joy apologizes (despite never saying a word to have provoked Chet’s rant) and he offers to drive her home. Never Too Young also features the teen hangout spot which presages the likes of The Max, The Peach Pit, and The Bronze—the only place where anything happens and where a new band plays every week. Due to low ratings, Never Too Young was canceled after a season and was replaced by another soap opera, Dark Shadows (which enjoyed a somewhat longer run).
None of these shows did exceptionally well ratings-wise. Gidget and Never Too Young each only lasted a season while Dobie Gillis lasted a surprising four seasons. I think at the time when these shows were marketed, the teen audience hadn’t yet been established and as a result these shows had a hard time finding footing in the television landscape. Gidget certainly feels the most modern and interesting in terms of content. But collectively, these three shows all began the origins of teen television as we now experience it, beginning and exploring the tropes we are now inundated with. Despite the differences between sitcom and drama formats, teen television expands those genre rules by blending them both—and adding a huge heaping of melodrama and angst.
Next month, I’ll be looking at an episode from The Partridge Family, exploring its correlation to contemporary teen television and always with a feminist lens.
Kerensa Cadenas is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She writes for Women and Hollywood and you can find her other published writing at her website. She tweets a lot of feelings about Breaking Bad and Gossip Girl, enjoys cocktails on patios and feminist theory. She listened to One Direction exclusively while writing this.