The Signs & Meanings of Adolescence
by Marcel Danesi,
A Journey into the Transformation of Self
by Grant McCracken,
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by Glenn Sumi
WHEN ACADEMICS WRITE about popular culture, it's like Pavarotti singing country and western. Something, almost always, is missing.
True, academics can apply their erudition and finely tuned aesthetic to seemingly lightweight subjects like rock music,
television, and fashion. But their approach can also be obvious, pedantic, and bone-creakingly boring, draining all life out of these sexy topics. Too often their forays into pop culture feel like intellectual midlife crises -- misguided attempts to appear "cool" and "bookish" simultaneously.
That's certainly the case with two recent books, one on the semiotics of adolescence, the other on the cultural significance of hair. While both subjects sound fascinating, the way they're treated is disappointing.
In Cool: The Signs and Meanings of Adolescence, the semiotics professor Marcel Danesi takes on the ever-fascinating world of the contemporary teenager. It's a world of music, parties, cliques, clothes, and smoking -- all of which Danesi describes in detail. Danesi's main problem, however, is his belief that by listing every aspect of teenagerhood he can explain a cultural phenomenon. Taken together, his lists -- on how teens talk, how they dress, how they hold cigarettes, and what sort of music they I listen to -- result in a mere catalogue of traits.
Apart from listing these traits of teenagerhood, Danesi has little to say. We might expect historical analysis and context from a scholar, but Danesi is curiously unthorough. His statement that J. D. Salinger was "the first writer to portray the newly fashioned teenage persona in fiction" does little to explain how the phenomenon of the modern teenager emerged. What social forces were at play? Did the post-war baby boom have anything to do with it? Such questions are unanswered in Danesi's selective "History of Teenagerhood."
If Danesi has a thesis in the book (and one can argue that he doesn't), it's that most teens pick up their behaviour through something he calls "signifying osmosis," or interaction with their peers. This is a valid point, and it contrasts with the popular belief that much of teen behaviour is overly influenced by the media. But it's material for a conversation, an article, or an essay -- not a book.
Danesi's most original point emerges at the end, almost casually tossed in. On the last two pages, he describes the "extended adolescence that has besieged Western society from the fifties onward, inhibiting the development of a mature society." Now that's an interesting idea, one that would warrant a book.
There are some glaring omissions. Near the end, Danesi casually lets slip that during his research he "was a witness several times to instances of mobbing behaviour and gang warfare between teen cliques that truly alarmed and unsettled me." Excuse me? Isn't gang warfare an important enough "sign" to be explored in a book on the signs and meanings of adolescence? Later we are told -- again just pages before the end -- that "the suicide rate among teens has tripled since 1950," a bald statement that cries out for some sort of further analysis.
Elsewhere, Danesi fails to mention the prevalence of anorexia nervosa among adolescent females, even though there's a large section in the book on body image. (Incidentally, Danesi seems more concerned with studying male teens than female teens.) And although the author rightly states that adolescent males are "particularly sensitive to accusations of homosexuality," little attempt is made to understand why this is so. Despite its subtitle, the book's major weakness is the presence of too many signs and too few meanings.
It's almost too easy for reviewers to criticize diffuse academic language. However, in Danesi's case, attention to prose style seems in order. If a writer takes on a popular theme like adolescence, continually making references to pop icons like Madonna and Michael Jackson, one expects the book to be, at minimum, readable. But Danesi's prose clunks along gracelessly. He constructs acronyms and pseudo-scientific terms (for example, CCLP, or "clique-coded language programming") that are simply mind-numbing. It's painful, especially in retrospect, to read of the author's optimism in the book's opening pages:
[This book] is intended not only for semioticians as a documentation of a specific form of social semiosis, but also for parents, educators, and teenagers themselves. It is hoped that my depiction of teenage behaviour in the pages that follow wilt help the latter to Step Outside of the symbology that they have acquired through their social ambience, and, perhaps, to come to a better understanding of who they really are.
It's simply naive to think that teenagers, with their lively lexicon of slang, will want to put down their Nintendo joysticks to read prose like this.
While the subject of hair makes an appearance in Danesi's study of adolescents, it's the focal point of Grant McCracken's refreshing, funny, yet exhausting book Big Hair: A Journey into the Transformation of Self.
McCracken, an anthropologist and curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, begins with a valid point:
... from an academic point of view, [hair is] terra incognita. Social scientists have ignored it almost completely. Despite the fact that hair is one of the great preoccupations of contemporary life, that we North Americans spend sixteen
billion dollars a year on it, that people will drive two hundred miles through a snowstorm to see their hairdressers,
no one has really bothered to look at it.
If nothing else, McCracken's book fills a need. His attitude toward his subject is refreshing, too. Rather than researching a field from "the safety and comfort of an armchair," like most scholars, he actually talks to people -- mostly women (because men aren't interested, or aren't willing to talk about their interest, in hair) and hairdressers. The results of his interviews are found in the book -- scattered in chatty sections on hairstyles, hair colour, and makeovers.
On one level, Big Hair is a pleasure to read. The reader can dip in anywhere and be immediately entertained. It's fascinating to discover that Mia Farrow once paid $5,000 for a haircut from Vidal Sassoon, a man (we discover) who revolutionized hair. It's a hoot perusing the "periodic table of blondness," where McCracken quite amazingly points out the different shades of blond and what each type signifies. Throughout the book, I found myself saying "Yes" continually, nodding in agreement to almost all of McCracken's points, even the most seemingly esoteric. When McCracken writes that "[brunettes] are not capsized by the meanings of their hair colour; the message never gets obscured by the medium," it's hard to disagree.
But while the book has problems, including some glaring omissions -- McCracken doesn't mention ethnicity, nor does he deal with hair in a full historical context -- its main defect is its chatty, gossipy tone. Reading the book is like reading a stack of fashion magazines in one sitting. After a while, the immediate joy at the slick surfaces, the beauty advice, the true-life disaster stories and the stunning successes, begins to thin out, like split ends. You begin to think, "Is that all there is'?"