Above all, dress “nicely” and be visually appealing.
Be confident, but don’t draw attention to yourself.
Be nice, be pleasant, all the time. Boys don't like "moody" girls.
Never, never do anything anyone could interpret as slutty or scandalous.
Any of this sound familiar? I’d be shocked if you’d never heard any of this advice before.
I want to use this topic to introduce you to one of my favourite underrated sites on the net - The Prelinger Archives – there is hours and hours of fascinating (largely hilarious) footage to be found within it’s poorly coded shell. It’s part of the broader Internet Archive, a project that is attempting to archive as much media as possible in one location, presumably for future generations. The Prelinger Archives are specifically “educational” films that date from the early 30’s to the early 70’s, and cover an astonishing variety of topics. There is one that shows an actual unsimulated birth that I am particularly fond of (it’s called “Sudden Birth!” and the birth sure is sudden) but the one I want to talk about today is simply titled. “Are You Popular?” Because all the material on the Prelinger Archives is public domain (or creative commons licensed) a lot of the videos have been copied over to YouTube and the likes. However I'm going to link you to the original source because I think it's an awesome project. Before we go on with our discussion of teenage popularity through the ages, take five minutes or so to sit down and let this gem soak right in.
This film opens with the dramatic narration that is very typical of these educational films, and the overly serious tone cracks me up every time. “Popularity,” the narrator booms. “What is it made of? Let’s watch and see what makes people like one person, and not another.” Interestingly, there is very little advice on what makes boys or girls likeable to friends of the same gender – almost all the advice given specifically revolves around dating. This emphasis is still quite evident in modern magazines like Dolly, the Australian equivalent of Seventeen Magazine. In the issue I picked up, of approximately 6,500 words devoted to advice on social interactions, 2,640 were about dating and a measly 950 were about friendship. So what we're REALLY talking about when we talk about teenage popularity is why boys like one girl, and not another.
|Guess which one this is? Look at that lipstick! And that|
headband! It's OBVIOUSLY the tramp.
|Look at those soft, subtle features and demure blouse! This must |
be the Good Girl.
10 Steps to Getting a Boyfriend" article.
So, no short skirts because they are "obvious" ie. bad. Wearing makeup is good, necessary even, but only the kind where he can't TELL you're wearing makeup, because if you look like you've put makeup on, you're once again being "obvious". These snippets of advice all feel like a repeated mantra of "look like everyone else" to me. Wear what the other girls wear. Wear what we show you in magazines. That's the "right" thing to wear. And let's face it girls, how you look is the most important thing about you!
I expected this kind of "appearance is everything" mantra from a film of this era. The joys of being attractive are touched on in just about every film Coronet ever made. I was surprised to note that this emphasis on appearance is still just as prevalent in modern media. Flicking through the paper edition of Dolly I noted that out of 160 pages, 70 were specifically devoted to either advice or advertorial encouraging the readers to look attractive. Given that 20 of the remaining 90 pages were posters, this is not a great percentage.
The emphasis on appearance in both this film and the modern media I looked at also comes with an implied threat, should you choose to disregard their advice.There is a definite overtone that if you wear short skirts, or too much makeup, or are too "obvious", or "park in cars" that all you deserve are the "wrong" boys, the ones who will snigger at you behind your back, or worse. Jenny's behavior is condemned in the film as making the boys she sees "feel less important", and this is apparently justification enough for them to be total assholes to her. Dolly's suggestion that you will get a "classier guy" with the right sort of attractiveness implies that if you end up in a relationship with an asshole, you can really only blame yourself for looking like a tramp. What a wonderful idea to have kept up for so long! I'm sure it's done young women everywhere no end of good.
Honestly, I could spend all day pulling apart the advice in this film, and in modern magazines, but I'd probably give myself an aneurism from excessive sarcasm. There is some actual honest to goodness useful advice in this film - calling a girl at the last minute to make plans is ALWAYS a crappy idea, and does indeed make her feel like a last resort. But there is one line in the later part of the film that jumps out at me every time I watch it. Good Girl Caroline and her Good Boy Beau Wally are heading out for a Good Kids Date, and her mother suggests they come home after their date for home made brownies and milk. The narrator remarks, "Caroline and her mother have found one way a girl can repay a boy for entertaining her. A bite to eat at her house will save him money." The word that jumps out at me here is "repay" - I don't care for the idea that you owe someone anything just because they went on a date with you, but it's something that I know I heard a lot as a teenager. I remember my mother drilling into my head that I didn't owe a boy anything, no matter what we were doing, and that if I wanted to stop I should stop, but unfortunately she was one voice against a sea of anecdata collected from my friends. It took me a long time to realise she had actually been right all along, and I could have saved myself a lot of icky situations if I'd just listened to her in the first place. But I heard the idea that I owed boys repayment for their attention SO often from my peers - you can't leave him with "blue balls", you can't be a "tease", you can't "lead him on."
It's easy to dismiss films like "Are You Popular?", and the magazines that form it's modern equivalent as irrelevant, something to simply be ignored or laughed at. But I wasn't that interested in mainstream media as a teenager, and I know it still seeped through to me, so I can only imagine how it affected girls more interested in being normal than I was. The things we hear when our brains are soft and squishy with hormones and oh-so-malleable stick with us. Well, they certainly did for me anyway.
I didn't have an awesome time as a teenager - I was perpetually "outside", a nerdy loser weirdo who would die rather than admit how much she desperately wanted to be popular. I read magazines like Dolly every now and then to see if I could actually figure out how this popularity thing worked, and was always crushed when I realised I had none of the tools needed to be the kind of girl the magazines said people liked. I wonder how different I would have been if I had been exposed to different messages. I wonder if I would be more confident in the way I dress, and if I would find it easier to be daring and risk drawing attention with my fashion choices. Would I have taken less crap from boys I dated earlier on if I didn't feel like I owed them something for their attention? Would I have been more insistent that no, I really do not feel like this right now, thank you. I like to think I would have. I like to think it would have taken me less time to struggle out of my shell if I hadn't been so firmly squished into it as a teenager. Maybe I'm wrong - maybe I would have turned out exactly the same no matter what. But observing how little the advice given to teenage girls has changed in 70 years, I'm starting to wonder if we will ever find out what girls who DON'T grow up with this bullshit even look like.