A young woman in the house helps the once idealistic parent to see the error in assuming that people are basically good and rationally calculating, in crediting articulated motives and best-case plans, in expecting order out of social engineering and good fruit from good intentions. The neoconservative, as has been said, is a liberal with a teenage daughter.
Instead of getting wiser when their daughters reach that age, the two mothers in the new Fox sitcom I Hate My Teenage Daughter flounder and complain and beg for their daughters’ approval. Themselves awkward and unpopular as youths, they give their daughters whatever they want, only to discover that their offspring have turned into entitled, smart-mouthed brats. Though complicit in the girls’ condition, they will not help them out of it, instead simultaneously encouraging them and resenting them. The sitcom has been panned by critics for being too predictable—we all hate our teenage daughters, so where are the fresh laughs in that?
The Mean Girl has long been a stock character, but these mothers don’t respond the way previous mothers would have. Parents perennially lament the hardship of raising a child buffeted by peers, hormones, advertising, controlled substances, pop culture, the insistent trilling of Pied Piper electronics, and her own weak will. The new show (and the culture it represents) gives sanction for teenage girls to behave abominably and for parents to admit—however impotently—to hating them for it.
Released in 2007, the same year the final volume of Harry Potter appeared, Neal Shusterman’s best-selling novel Unwind entered another booming segment of the young adult (or “YA”) literary market: stories of teens battling the ordinary challenges of identity, responsibility, and romance but in a futuristic dystopia. Unwind is set in America after the “Heartland Wars,” a domestic bloodletting over abortion. Pro-life and pro-choice forces make peace by banning the procedure but allowing parents to get rid of unwanted children, “Unwinds,” between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. These teens are surgically divided into useful tissues and components, though they technically remain alive and somewhat conscious of themselves in the bodies where they are redistributed. Unwinds rail against injustice, against their parents’ arbitrary power and obtuseness. Beyond that, the characters behave rather conventionally, sorting themselves in peer groups, standing down bullies, and finding love in the ruins.
The book addresses many aspects of the current bioethical debate, from the harvesting of body parts to the uncertain provenance of donor organs to the exploitation of undesired children by state and market. The book’s linkage of unwinding to abortion is a little forced, but the linkage does put the point forcefully. Abortion pronounces to a nascent human life that someone does not want her to be, wants her to be unwound.
If anything, the book underplays the horror of unwinding: At just the moment when children may seem unlovely and maddeningly difficult to their parents—just the targeted readership for the book—their parents have a community-approved way to eliminate them. Unwinding tells a specific child that his parents do not want him to be. Perhaps parents wanted a child but not that particular one. Or perhaps they wanted a child but did not like how theirs turned out. The problem is not resources or timing or uncertainty; the problem is you. The parents have invested too much for too little return and wish to cut their losses. They are done. What if, the young reader might muse, what if my parents could get rid of me? Mustn’t they sometimes want to?
In Shusterman’s futuristic America, children must rise to a standard of achievement in order to warrant parents’ continued care. That continued care can be costly for parents to give. This premise has its parallels even today. The care teenagers need costs their parents more—not primarily in money but in time, energy, and most of all emotional investment—than most of us want to give. It is easier to give up and let the lowest common strains of youth culture take over. It is easier to let them be unwound in our culture’s particular ways. Culturally approved jokes about hating our teenage children strike at the dignity of children and the self-giving requirements of parenthood, and make giving up much easier.
Our world looks far from the kind of place parents wish for the girl they launch into it. Teenage sons may be very difficult in their own right, but it is not by accident that the neocon quip tags daughters for peculiar parental concern. Despite decades of kids’ toys and schooling teaching boys and girls alike that they can grow up to be anything they want as long as they remain tolerant and safe, what teen girls get pitched is a steady stream of fashion trends, diet tips, boyfriend tricks, and celebrity advice. Teen might not be quite the right word here, as girls are directed to that market segment long before they turn thirteen.
Safeguards that other ages placed on their teenage daughters may seem extreme to us—chaperones, bans against night walking, bathing dresses, fast track to the convent—but those ages took with gravity the temptations and disasters to which girls are vulnerable. As girls adopt from magazines and television the attitudes and sexual sensibilities that allow them to survive among peers, parents aware of the dangers to their daughters may feel as though the beloved daughter has become spokesperson for the opposing team, right there in their midst.
The pretense of powerlessness allows shows like I Hate My Teenage Daughter to milk misbehavior for laughs. But parents are not powerless. We might look forward to the day when young women have developed the strength and resilience to meet whatever life brings. (My choice for a YA novel on the teen years would be titled Skip.) Meanwhile, parents have all kinds of skills and tools to help children and adjust their behavior: education and example, use of money and time, love and prayer. They owe it to their children to use them well. They might embrace The Book of Common Prayer’s petitions for parents to be given “calm strength and patient wisdom” and entreaty for young persons, “God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world: Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world.”
Fretting about hating daughters, all while paying for the blandishments that please and endanger them, cheats children of the protection parents ought to, are called to, provide. Treating adolescence as an unavoidable period of misbehavior, and making acceptable the public response of disgusted acquiescence, is bad for everyone, but especially for the children themselves.
In Unwind, the option to undo one’s children is available only in their teenage years. Sensitive to the concerns of young people, Shusterman seems to miss how this scenario might intrigue adults. These years are much bewailed by mothers and fathers but suffered through because they love the child, already have too much at stake, and hope the rough time can be gotten through. Imagine if it did not have to be gotten through. Imagine if parents could feel social sanction for escaping teen problems by throwing over their teens. Cultural productions like I Hate My Teenage Daughter suggest they already have it.
Agnes R. Howard is assistant professor of history at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.