it’s just the age, the age where nothing fits

We are all youth obsessed. Film, fashion, advertising - they all want to cash in on the energy of youth. But what is it that makes the tumultuous transition of a teenager into an adult so fascinating?

by Felicity Kinsella
Sep 1 2015, 9:30pm

"You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets," says a psychiatrist to Cecilia Lisbon in The Virgin Suicides, to which she replies, "Obviously Doctor, you've never been a 13-year-old girl." Being young can be excruciating. Nothing really matters and everything really matters -- 'nothing' being whether it's too late to change your career path now, or how much money you've got in the bank or whether you should lower your standards because your romance bounce rate is 90 percent. 'Everything' being how the hell you're going to fit in and find your place in the world.

When you're a teenager, you'll probably be the most emotional, irrational, passionate, obsessive, depressive, bored and excitable you'll ever be in your life (at least all at once), but being grown up isn't half as fun as growing up. Larry Clark, director of Kids, the ultimate picture of teenagehood (if a slightly more extreme, Clockwork Orange-esque version) told i-D in a 2008 interview, "It's the time when many people have a lot more freedom than they will ever have, where you're basically being taken care of, and you have all this free time to explore, and have fun." When you eventually do grow up, you realize that that's the only time you'll ever have the luxury to just hang out at skate parks, be in a band, and do stupid things like pierce your own ears with a very much unsterilized safety pin.

As Steve Carrell puts it in Little Miss Sunshine, "High school - those are your prime suffering years. You don't get better suffering than that." Picture your 11-year-old self next to your 18-year-old self. You changed. I'm in the early half of my twenties now and I'm almost certain that I'll stay pretty much the same throughout this whole decade, but the things one has to endure in those seven years of secondary school are like nothing else.

For a few people, high school is easy, like riding a bike. For most, the bike is on fire and everything is on fire and you're in hell. In 1993, Dazed and Confused heartthrob Randall "Pink" Floyd expresses a sentiment that is still felt pretty much universally by teenagers today: "If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself."

If you were a loner in middle school, then you were either fine with also being a loner in high school, or you saw it as your chance to reinvent yourself as the confident, funny, potential you. If you were popular in middle school, then high school was a gamble as to whether you could keep your status in check. If it worked out, then great, you won at school. If it didn't, then the next few years were a misanthropic descent into emo. That's when the real insecurities, isolation and vulnerability of adolescence set in. Bear in mind that this is being written by someone for whom neither option worked out. My not so sweet sixteenth year of living was spent sitting in the dark watching old River Phoenix interviews, listening to Nirvana and feeling every word.

Then comes a series of firsts, the kind that as well as getting you into a lot of trouble, will open up a whole new world to you. There's your first kiss, the first time you smoke a cigarette, the first time you discover alcohol, the first time you discover real alcohol, and the first time you have sex. In 1983, Larry Clark published a photo series called Teenage Lust. I won't go into whether his chronicles of kids shooting up heroin or having underage sex are creepy or not -- you can read up and use your own moral barometer to measure that. But the series perfectly depicts the overwhelming hunger of teenage sexuality. Picture Lux Lisbon on the roof, doing what Peaches later articulated in her song Fuck the Pain Away. It's fueled by a devastating curiosity that is met with excitement and embarrassment in equal measure. Losing your virginity becomes a matter of any how-any way urgency, not only due to your own craving but also due to, come on now, peer pressure. Once just one of your friends has lost it, the race is on, which means if you were deflowered by your first love, consider yourself lucky. For the majority, it was an awkward scramble to get it over with before school was out.

Then there's love. The first time you fall in it, it's all about passion and fireworks and the fact that you'd bleed for each other. It's only when you fall in love again that you realize the first was mild infatuation. When we spoke to actress Emily Browning last year, she summed up the phases of young love like so: "I've been in a relationship for two years and this feels like the only time I've been in love… Now I feel like love is when the person you're with really wants you to be the best version of yourself and you want the same for them and you can sit at home watching True Detective together for five hours and be disgusting together." Sweet.

The clichéd benchmarks of coming of age are played out time and again on screen, but how can you measure what that even means? It's far too simplistic to pin it down to one thing like falling in love, losing your virginity or getting your driving license. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Sam Waterston says, "It's called wisdom. It comes to us suddenly. We realize the difference between what's real and deep and lasting versus the superficial payoff of the moment." I think that, whether it comes to you suddenly, or sinks in slowly over the years, the realisation that being yourself is the only thing that you can be for any long period of time, and the only thing you should be, is the real measure of coming of age.

This generation may be doing it younger, as social media takes over, and for every kid today who measures their social success in thumbs ups and likes, there's one who is wise beyond their years. For teenagers like Malala Yousafzai, Willow Smith and Tavi Gevinson, who are so aware of the issues that need to be fought, that wisdom seems to be arriving sooner, and that's not a bad thing.

Whatever you do, at whatever time in your life, you come of age. No matter how many rules they make you follow, "you gotta keep livin' man, L-I-V-I-N", and remember [blows smoke ring and pokes a finger through it], "don't let it die a virgin!" 

coming of age
the coming of age issue