Inseparable Companions: American
Youth and Moral Panics
February 8, 2012
Other People’s Property (1951)
• Don’t worry about biographical details
• Look for broad pronouncements about chronology, motivation, change
(sometimes they’ll stick out at the beginning of a paragraph, but not
– “To watchdogs of American esteem in the early post-Victorian years, the
earthy and raucous pages of the Sunday funnies threatened to devalue the
US’ emerging status as a civilized world power” (12).
– “Superman spoke directly to survivors of the Depression: he was an immigrant
(from another planet) himself, and he embodied the Roosevelt-era ideal of
power employed for the public good” (30).
– “Nearly all young people—boys and girls, loners, athletes, scholars, and
debutantes—read comic books, and most of their parents did not” (37).
– “Within a year of Pearl Harbor, the American press was probing the effects of
the war on home-front families, and reports of uncaged young animals tearing
up their neighborhoods began appearing in newspapers and magazines
around the country” (83).
• What is a “moral panic”?
• Moral panics and youth: a special relationship
• MPs and youth in the US: the 1920s and the
Genealogy of “Moral Panic”
• Term coined by sociologist Stanley Cohen, 1972
• Characteristics, per Cohen…universal in all “societies”;
mass media is involved in representation and
exacerbates panic; outcomes are various
• Later additions to theory: Stuart Hall et al believed that
the state was often also involved for its own ends
(control of immigrant, black communities)
• OTOH, Underdown et al believed that some threats
could be real, and sociologists shouldn’t assume that
people are being manipulated
Moral Panics and Youth
• Made worse by belief in “tabula rasa”
• Emphasis on society’s supposed decadence,
• Conservative or liberal? Strange bedfellows
• Often, the media panics about the media
• Particular significance of race and class
John Held, Jr.: “Insatiable Neckers”
1920s: Parental Objections/Underlying
• Short skirts! Insatiable necking! Smoking! Disrespect!
• James Truslow Adams: “Here in these United States in
this post-war period, realizing that all is not right with
our world, we have found the scapegoat which permits
us to go about our business with a free mind. The
name on its collar is ‘The Younger Generation…’” (Fass,
• Parents were: Sad about the War. Nervous about
technological change. Confused about possibilities for
more leisure. Conflicted about the evident failure of
Looking Ahead to the Postwar Period:
Moral Panics/Underlying Causes
• Mass media brainwashes kids! Fathers are losing
authority! Kids pay more attention to their peers
than their parents! Kids are sinking to lowest
possible cultural level!
• Parents were: Afraid of robotic conformity
(demonstrable effectiveness of propaganda in
WWII/advertising). Nervous about wartime
breakdown of gender boundaries. Guilty about
the war/the bomb. Uneasy with class mobility.
• “1964: Mods and Rockers Jailed After Seaside Riots.” BBC, “On This Day,” May 18;
• Cohen, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (MacGibbon
and Kee, 1972)
• Fass, Paula. The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s (Oxford UP, 1977)
• Hall, Stuart, et al. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (1978)
• Gilbert, James. A Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s
(Oxford UP, 1986)
• Hunt, Arnold. “’Moral Panic’ and Moral Language in the Media.” The British Journal of Sociology,
vol 48, no 4 (December 1997), 629-648.
• Page, Ellen Welles. “A Flapper’s Appeal to Parents.” Outlook, December 6, 1922, p. 607. (Accessed
at http://faculty.pittstate.edu/~knichols/flapperappeal.html, 2/7/12)
• Underdown, David. Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660
(Clarendon Press, 1985)
• “What Makes Sneaker Collecting a Subculture?”, SHB:SneakerHeadBlog, May 12, 2011;
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