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Moral Panics


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Moral Panics

  1. 1. Inseparable Companions: American Youth and Moral Panics February 8, 2012
  2. 2. Other People’s Property (1951) • v=OpCIE1gHrzY&feature=related
  3. 3. Reading Hajdu • 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 always): – “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).
  4. 4. This Lecture • What is a “moral panic”? • Moral panics and youth: a special relationship • MPs and youth in the US: the 1920s and the 1950s
  5. 5. 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
  6. 6. Mods v. Rockers
  7. 7. Moral Panics and Youth • Made worse by belief in “tabula rasa” • Emphasis on society’s supposed decadence, declension • Conservative or liberal? Strange bedfellows • Often, the media panics about the media • Particular significance of race and class
  8. 8. Adam Walsh, 6, kidnapped in Florida, 1981
  9. 9. Moral Panics of the 20s
  10. 10. John Held, Jr.: “Insatiable Neckers” (early 1920s)
  11. 11. 1920s: Parental Objections/Underlying Anxieties • Short skirts! Insatiable necking! Smoking! Disrespect! Amorality! • 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, 17) • Parents were: Sad about the War. Nervous about technological change. Confused about possibilities for more leisure. Conflicted about the evident failure of Prohibition.
  12. 12. Brando in “The Wild One,” 1953
  13. 13. 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.
  14. 14. References • “1964: Mods and Rockers Jailed After Seaside Riots.” BBC, “On This Day,” May 18; (accessed 2/7/12) • 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, 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; (accessed 2/7/12)