Bouncing Off the Walls: Playing with Teen Identity

Off and on, over the next few weeks, I am going to be showcasing work produced last term for my Media Theory and Methods graduate prosem at MIT. In the class, we spend a good deal of time exploring how various theorists and critics situate themselves in relation to the cultural objects and processes they study. This issue surfaces especially in relation to ethnographic research but also matters when dealing with a range of critical practices, especially those which emerge from feminist or minority perspectives. I ask students to write one paper which forces them to tap into their own autobiographical experiences as they seek to theorize some larger aspect of contemporary culture. The results never cease to amaze me: this is the most personally engaged writing these students generate all year and each brings something fresh to my own understanding of popular media.

This year, there was a strong emphasis on educational issues — a biproduct of the work we have been doing through the New Media Literacies Project and the Education Arcade. Many of the students returned to moments in their life when they were learning how to become cultural participants, media makers, curators, or critics of popular media.

Bouncing Off the Walls: Playing with Teen Identity

by Hillary Kolos

If you’ve ever had the chance to observe a teenager use the web, it’s likely one of their browser windows was open to their Myspace or Facebook profile. Teens are constantly updating and customizing their profiles online, adding photos and songs, and posting to each other’s virtual “walls.” While this could be interpreted as just playing around, these activities can also be a means for teens to construct and experiment with their identity. In particular, it can be a space for exploring one’s gender identification and sexuality.

Gerry Bloustein proposed this view in her work on teen girls use of video to create personal representations. She notes:

“On the surface such attempts at representation…seemed like ‘just play’ but under closer scrutiny we can see specific strategies–‘the human seriousness of play’– providing insights into the way gendered subjectivity is performed.” (Bloustein, 165)

Serious play for teens is not necessarily something new to the digital age. Adolescence is often considered a time when rules are relaxed and young people can experiment with who they are or want to be. As new technology emerges though, some chose to blame it for distracting youth from what they see as the more important things in life, like education, physical fitness, or family relations. But teens’ playful activities, while fun, can often have the deeper purpose of identity construction, which may not be apparent to those who view play always as meaningless.

As a teen, my arena for play was primarily my bedroom. I remember once ripping out a black and white Calvin Klein ad from the latest issue of Vogue. In it, a young woman-not an All-American beauty, but striking in appearance-sat on the ground with her legs tucked under her. Her head was shaved and her face pierced. She wore just a black bra, a jean skirt and black tights. Most would not have read too much into this picture at all, but to me it represented a way of being, both in its content and form, that I wanted to emulate-down to earth, edgy, and beautiful.

At the time, I was a 14-year-old wannabe skater chick, living with my mom, dad, and brother in suburban Northern Virginia. Earlier, when I was 10, I had asked my parents to please take down the 1970’s nursery-themed wallpaper on my walls and paint them pink. While my parents are very loving people, they aren’t the quickest at finishing projects. So four years later (just enough time for me to outgrow my wall color preferences) I finally had a fully-painted pink room-and I totally hated it.

Tastes change, especially when you’re a teen trying on new identities, but there was no way I could ask my parents to change the color of my walls again. Instead, I began a playful experiment: I decided to hang the Calvin Klein ad on my wall. From a young age I loved fashion. As a teen, I had several subscriptions to fashion magazines, including Vogue, Elle, Bazaar, Allure, and W. What if I used their pages to cover up the pink that was just so not me anymore? I’d start in the uppermost-left corner and work my way around the room. Sure there’d be some pink poking through, but eventually I’d be free from that oppressive color. I was over my pre-teen days of loving unicorns and Top 40. I wanted to make myself into a new kind of girl – pretty and cool, but different.

I began my experiment right before the Internet boom in the mid-90’s. Email and AOL chat rooms were all the rage, but there was nothing like the social networking sites and new media tools that teenagers have today to express themselves. Using websites as their “walls,” teenagers today construct identities using collages of photos, music, and text online. Sites like Flickr, blip.fm, and YouTube make it simple to gather media of all kinds under profiles which stand for who you want to be on the web. My teen years were similarly saturated with media. In my case it was cable TV, pop radio, and glossy magazine, but my options for organizing and presenting the bits of media I wanted to represent who I was were limited. I made my outlet my bedroom walls.

Selection

Teenagers’ bedrooms are usually the only physical space they have all to themselves. I wanted anyone who walked into my room to know immediately the style I liked, the bands I thought were cool, and the boys I thought were hot. Not the deepest stuff, I know, but it was important to me then. My room was my identity lab. On my walls, I could play with how I wanted to be perceived by others, combining images to create something bigger than any single picture could depict.

My curatorial process didn’t have any strict guidelines. In general, the pictures were of women. (Though a cute, male model made it in every once in a while.) I was picky about what I added and it took me about a year to fill up just one wall. While the clothes in each image were an important aspect, there was often something else about the photo that made it special enough to hang-an interesting use of color, a unique composition, or a model whose appearance broke with convention.

My selection pool was limited to the mainstream magazines my mother would buy for me. Though I wanted to portray myself as on the edge of the mainstream, I had very little access to alternative media. I lived about an hour from Washington, DC where a sizable independent movement was occurring in the local music scene. While I heard about this from friends at high school, my parents’ strict curfew and exaggerated view of crime in the city prevented me from being a part of it. Instead, I spent time in my room creating my vision of the world I wanted to occupy. Using images from mass media, I created a collection of the most creative and attractive images I found and presented them on my walls.

Audience

But who exactly was I presenting this collection to? Who was my audience? I grew up in a neighborhood with few girls my age. My brother spent his time running a muck with a band of boys who lived down the street, while I busied myself inside with crafts, reading, and TV. Later in my adolescence, I attended a magnet high school that was 35 miles from my house, a distance great enough to prevent most friends from visiting me. The only people then who saw my room were my parents and the one local friend I had named Wendy. (She too had her walls covered in magazine pictures, but had more of a metal theme going.)

My mother was the person who saw my room the most. While I didn’t realize it at the time, she was most likely my primary audience. She hated it when I started to hang pictures on the wall. She prided herself on having a neat house and thought the pictures made my room look cluttered and trashy. Starting around the age of 12 on, I, like most teen girls, had an antagonistic relationship with my mother. Nothing too drastic, just a constant misalignment of taste. At the time, I felt like the biggest problem was that she didn’t understand me. I begged her to watch the TV show, My So-Called Life, with me because I strongly identified with the teenage main character, Angela, and her experiences. I thought maybe by watching the show my mother would understand me.

My mom never watched the show with me, and we rarely talked about things like fashion, music, or boys. She did however come into my room constantly to talk to me about other things or to clean. Since my mom and I didn’t talk much about my interests, I had to force them on her visually. What better way to show your mother what you’re into than to Scotch tape it to the walls of her house?

I was also my own audience. I stopped attending Catholic school around eighth grade, which is about the same time I started watching MTV. My worldview basically exploded wide open at that point. For the first time in my life, I saw that I could construct an identity with the clothes I wore and the music I listened to. Also my identity didn’t have to be static, I could play with the possibilities. I was initially intrigued by grunge music… then indie rock… then techno… then punk and ska… then hardcore. For me, high school was a playground for trying on different alternative identities.

The fashion ads I put on my wall became an amalgam of styles, but, in reality, I could never afford the clothes in the ads. Instead, I began to shop in thrift stores and create my own mix of styles influenced by the ads. I had limited resources, both in terms of money and selection at the thrift stores, which forced me to be more creative with my outfits. My high school peers were very tolerant of different looks and I took the opportunity to experiment with my style.

Performance

Many are concerned with the images that fashion ads portray and their impact on young women, especially in terms of body image. The mid-nineties could possibly have been the height of this fear, as “heroin chic” ruled and a super-thin Kate Moss was on every other page of fashion magazines. I was lucky to be naturally tall and thin and thankfully escaped the desire to radically transform my body to match the fashion world’s runway standards.

Instead, what I tried to emulate was the femininity in the photos. As edgy as some of the ads I hung on my wall were, they always possessed a sense of femininity and sexuality. Whether it was showing some skin or a wearing a flowing pant suit the women in the ads rarely represented traditionally masculine qualities. As I ventured into my teens years, I became less interested in being one of the boys and more interested in what it meant to be a woman.

I wanted a safe way to explore femininity so I tested the waters by dressing up and taking pictures. I did this solely in my room with my friend, Wendy, and it quickly became one of our favorite activities, better than our other options of wandering around Wal-mart or hanging out at Denny’s. We’d pull together some of the more extraordinary thrift store items, put on a ridiculous amount of make-up, and do our hair in a way we’d never be seen with in public. As I looked back at pictures we took, I saw a variety of styles that we explored. Sometimes we went for goth with dark lips and black clothes. Other times we obviously had the Spice Girls in mind with uber-glam makeup and fancy dresses. No matter what the genre though, the clothes we chose were always tighter and more sparkly than the torn jeans and baggy t-shirts we wore to school.

These photo shoots were our way to perform and practice what it meant to us to be a woman. The images on my walls and those that we had seen on MTV served as a starting point. We then translated elements from them into our photos of ourselves working with what we had available to us in my room. One picture we took stood out to me. In it, I have made myself up to look like one of the pictures on my wall-one where the model is dressed in a kimono-like dress with her lips painted like a geisha. In our picture, I sit in a wicker chair with the ad hanging just over my shoulder, which, as I remember, was unintentional. My lips are painted similarly and I am sitting like the model (my dress and hair are way off). While I knew next to nothing about what a geisha was historically, I had a strong desire to perform the look of the ad. I wanted to see myself with those same lips, in the same position. I wanted to see if I could look like that kind of woman.

As a teen, I used many resources to play with new identities. Fashion ads served as inspiration. My walls were a place to exhibit them. I did also, on occasion, leave my room where I had other experiences that helped shape the woman I am today. But having a space of my own to play and then reflect was very important to my process of identity formation. What seemed like goofing off at the time was actually a process of exploring who I thought I was at the time, as well as who I thought I should be.

My experience in my room is one of countless examples of how teens use their available resources to explore potential identities through play. This kind of play can happen in private, but often young people use media to capture their experiments and share them with others. In this way, they can gauge reactions and refine their performances. I used my walls to reach a limited audience, but today teens can easily reach millions of people online and receive feedback instantly on how they represent themselves. It will be interesting to see the new possibilities, as well as the new concerns, that emerge as teens use new resources to play with their identities online.

Bloustien, Gerry. “‘Ceci N’est Pas Une Jeune Fille': Videocams, Representation, and Othering in the Worlds of Teenage Girls.” Hop on pop: the politics and pleasures of popular culture. Ed. Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson, and Jane Shattuc. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 162-185.

Hillary Kolos completed a BFA at Tisch School of the Arts, NYU and worked in after-school programs, including one at the School of the Future, where she co-taught a high school filmmaking class. After graduating from college in 2002, she worked at a not-for-profit production company that produces documentaries on current issues in education for PBS. Seeking more experience in the classroom, she then worked as a media educator in New York City schools. She currently works as a media mentor for Adobe, advising teachers on how to incorporate media into their curricula. She was inspired to return to graduate school after reading the white paper produced by Project NML for the MacArthur Foundation. She has been working with NML this year around the classroom testing and refinement of our Teacher’s Strategy Guide, “Reading in a Participatory Culture.” She is currently developing a thesis centering on the gaming cultures of MIT, the notion of “geek mastery,” and the gender dynamics of technical expertise. In the future, she hopes to work as a consultant to help teachers incorporate new media literacy skills into their classrooms.

Comments

  1. Hillary, this is a brilliant analysis of your use of space to engage in identity play. It’s interesting your personal physical space–your body, and the limits (because of curfews and other rules) to where it could go–enabled you to engage creatively with what surrounded you. I wonder how you might have used the walls of your room differently had you had a broader audience, and I wonder what similarities and differences there are between your experience and that of teens who have access to a wide audience that can watch their identity play in action.

    You are a smart writer who knows how to turn a phrase: “While I knew next to nothing about what a geisha was historically, I had a strong desire to perform the look of the ad. I wanted to see myself with those same lips, in the same position. I wanted to see if I could look like that kind of woman.” I can’t wait to read more of your work as you continue to explore the gender dynamics of geek culture.

  2. a great update to A Room of One’s Own!

    It’s nice to see an analysis of how it is not just the having of a room, but the customizing of that room that allows for identity play in a safe space, to be shared with others at will. The parallels between interior spaces and identity are really great.

  3. Hillary Kolos says:

    Thanks to everyone for the comments. I just want to make one addendum. While I poke fun at some of parents’ foibles in this piece, I have to also say how grateful I am that they gave me room (no pun intended) to explore who I was or wanted to be as a teen. My parents and I get along wonderfully, now that I am no longer an angsty teen. I hope that parents who read this post will recognize the benefits of letting their kids play with their identity offline, as well as online, like my own parents did. Thanks Mom and Dad!