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Education & Development

The secret history of teenage bedrooms

Updated Wednesday 17th January 2018

In this transcript from Thinking Allowed, Laurie Taylor and guests discuss the role of the teenage bedroom across history - with a little help from The Beach Boys. 

A teenager's bedroom - actually, a twentysomething's bedroom, but you get the idea Creative commons image Icon Eric Molina under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license

In My Room, co-written by Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys [is] a song depicting the teenager’s bedroom as a safe haven, the place where they could lock out all their worries and fears. But there’s another, another less positive angle.

Well that little ditty is described as the iconic song about teen bedrooms in a new historical study of that very phenomenon called Get Out of My Room! Its author is Jason Reid, who lectures in History at Ryerson University in Toronto, from where he now joins me, while here in the studio I have Sian Lincoln, who’s Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Liverpool John Moores University.

Jason, going over to you first in Toronto, that Beach Boys song would you agree that it’s captured many of the themes in your book and what in a way almost was the appropriateness of the fact that Brian Wilson was the co-writer?

Jason Reid:
For sure, Brian Wilson, as anyone who’s familiar with his memoires knows, has had a pretty eventful life and the bedroom kind of figures into that because first of all you can tell he had a very close relationship with his own room and it was basically a musical studio for him when he was growing up, his father allowed him to turn it into a rehearsal space but his father is also a bit of a tyrant. In Wilson’s memoirs there’s some pretty brutal stories about Brian being treated shabbily by his father, including physical abuse, so you get the sense that when he writes that it’s like a safe haven for him he really means it.

But of course when you flip forward to the ‘70s Wilson had a bit of a notorious nervous breakdown where he spent a good 10 years, this is when he’s an adult mind you, but spent a good 10 years just in his room watching TV, eating junk food and snorting cocaine. So his own experiences in that song kind of captured the contradictory nature…

Laurie Taylor:
The two functions – the positive and the negative versions of staying in one’s room. I think you first became interested in the subject of teen bedrooms as a result of a shock that you had, it was such a lovely story this, while in your second year at university. I think your parents had moved into a new house, hadn’t they, and they created a new bedroom for you to go back to, perhaps you could describe the moment when you actually arrived home and saw what they’d arranged for you.

Jason Reid:
Well it was – I had spent – my previous bedroom was – I’d been in that same house for probably about seven or eight years and I returned to this new house, I didn’t have a chance to see it because I was at university when the move happened and it was basically I returned to a guest room. It was down in the basement, which I truly appreciated – I always wanted a basement bedroom when I was an actual teenager – but there was no home electronics in there, my Metallica and Iron Maiden posters were all gone.

Laurie Taylor:
What had taken their place?

Jason Reid:
Well there was a framed portrait of my father when he was in his twenties, black and white portrait of him and his friends from like probably 1962-63, a caricature of me and my brother that was drawn by an artist at Marineland, again something that I would never hang up on my own wall because I’d be embarrassed by it. And the only piece of home electronics in there was an alarm clock and my mother had her collection of quilts in there. So it was – I returned to a guest room…

Laurie Taylor:
I think you even lost the place where you might have stashed some of your secret goods or your contraband goods, I think that was missing wasn’t it…

Jason Reid:
That is correct, that is correct, there was no place to hide any…

Laurie Taylor:
Well you convey here a very strong sense of the way in which that bedroom was used. Let’s me just bring you in here Sian, I mean you’ve researched youth culture and private space in the United Kingdom, to what extent do the young people in your study regard their bedrooms or speak about their bedrooms as extensions of themselves, the idea this is me, this is where I am?

Sian Lincoln:
Yeah I mean I think Jason’s sort of example of arriving back to his home and seeing that his room has quite significantly changed does sort of highlight some of the key uses of bedrooms by young people. Of course the bedroom is one of the first spaces that they have any control over, one of the first spaces that they can call their own, even if their bedrooms are shared often young people do find a way of actually marking out that space and being able to use the resources that they have available to them to say this is me, this is my corner of the room, this is my space sort of within the house. It’s one of the first spaces in terms of what – of who people – who young people can actually let into the room, one of the first spaces that they can regulate…

Laurie Taylor:
Some people – I read about once – that people even have doorbells on their rooms before people can get in or signs – Keep out.

Sian Lincoln:
Yeah absolutely, and this is a very kind of physical marker of kind of marking out that this is your space. And certainly in my research, which comes from a more ethnographic background, a number of my participants did use those sorts of things. So literally doorbells on the front of their bedroom doors that their parents had to ring before they entered it.

Laurie Taylor:
Now of course coming back to you Jason, this is a developmental history that you’ve written, so we need to have a little bit of historical perspective. I mean obviously in the past many people in America and elsewhere were living in cramped overcrowded dwellings where there was little notion of privacy and the idea of a separate bedroom for young people actually emerged almost, I think in your book you explain, before the concept of the teenager. Tell me about when the idea of the separate bedroom did begin to appear and why.

Jason Reid:
Well I would suggest that it came about the antebellum era – 1820s, 1830s, 1840s – and I think there’s several reasons why it came about but the major reason, I think, is it kind of represented a shift in the American economy. This is when – this is a period when America sort of transitioned away from an agrarian economy towards a more modern capitalist economy featuring industry and commerce. So the separate bedroom idea was definitely the product of the middle class that emerged as a result of this shift.

Laurie Taylor:
And it’s linked to – obviously to smaller families presumably because I mean if you’re having seven people, an average of seven people, you can hardly have separate bedrooms for everybody. I mean you’re talking about the average family I think declining to a 1900 average of about three and a half per – children per family?

Jason Reid:
That is correct and it just makes sense, if you’ve got less children you’ve got way more space in your home. Plus I would also point out that the practice of taking in borders and having live-in servants declined by the late 19th, early 20th Century, so there was even less people in the home. Plus this is the rise of the nuclear family as well when grandpa and grandma weren’t necessarily living in the same house as their grand kids.

Laurie Taylor:
And concomitant with these structural changes you’re talking about there’s also the sort of the ideological sense that this is a good thing. I’ve got here a reading, these are the words of O F Fowler, who was a phrenologist and a social reformer, who’s arguing – this is back in 1854 – in favour of young people having separate bedrooms.

Where two or three children occupy the same room neither feel their personal responsibility to keep it in order and hence grow up habituated to slatternly disorder. Whereas if each had a room all alone to themselves they would be [indistinct words] to keep it in perfect order, would feel personally responsible for it’s appearance, would feel ashamed of its disarrangement, would often find themselves alone for writing or meditation but especially will feel a perfect satisfaction of the home element.

Now of course what is going on here, I mean O F Fowler isn’t talking about the opportunity for young people to put up their Metallica posters, I mean he’s talking much more about – almost – isn’t there a religious sense here of the values that can come from people having a separate room?

Jason Reid:
Well for sure and they’re very middle class values too – self-discipline, property accumulation. That’s a pretty funny quote though because if any parent who has struggled with their teenagers, the messiness of their teenager’s room, knows that Fowler’s claims that it would lead them to maintain the room in an orderly manner probably didn’t work out so well in many instances. But it’s definitely – you see that the teen bedroom is kind of portrayed as a reflection of what the middle class hopes their children turns out to be. And of course the realities are always a bit muddier than that but these are ideals anyway that people could strive for.

Laurie Taylor:
And you interestingly say that what impels or promotes this idea of this separate room, apart from those sort of ideas, is also the notion that really almost social science and psychology begins to talk about the necessity really of children getting away from adult surveillance and control – almost an argument, almost a democratic argument for a separate space for teenagers.

Jason Reid:
Yeah and it’s – this actually goes back to the early 19th Century as well. The evangelicals that fully embrace this concept in many respects agreed with the social scientists later on that made these type of arguments, they’re both arguing for personal autonomy. In the evangelicals’ case they also argued that the separate bedroom would allow for a one-to-one relationship with God. But the social scientists that came about they’re putting old wine in new bottles in many respects but they gave it more of a scientific sheen, that was where their authority came from to pursue these objectives involving separate bedrooms.

Laurie Taylor:
And I suppose interesting Freudian ideas as well of getting the boys away from mummy, as well.

Jason Reid:
Exactly.

Laurie Taylor:
Let me turn to you Sian. This growth in the teen bedroom culture, would you link it to the idea of the rise of the concept of adolescence as part of – almost a new invented name for part of the life cycle?

Sian Lincoln:
Yes absolutely, I mean I think that’s a really sort of critical idea that certainly unites Jason’s work and my more sort of contemporary work. And the sort of recognition of adolescence and teenage as sort of social categories in their own right, that this is a different period in your life, it’s not about being a child, it’s not about being an adult.

It’s a very turbulent period in a young person’s life, when they’re having to work through new emotions, physical changes, new friendships, numerous transitions, it’s probably one of the most turbulent periods in one’s life and so the idea that they ought to have a space where they can have time to work through some of these changes.

Laurie Taylor:
So you can argue in a way for separate space because you’ve now got a separate category called the adolescent, adolescence therefore needed a separate space.

Sian Lincoln:
Absolutely and also if you think about post-war context as well when we start to see the rise of the teen market when popular cultural products are being made specifically for teenagers, particularly in relation to music and to magazines – rock’n’roll music, for example, this was something that was very alien to these teenagers’ parents.

So in many ways those resources were feeding into what we now understand as bedroom culture – listening to this weird music, reading these strange magazines that weren’t accessible to them in the context of their or in the confines of their bedrooms.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean in recent – I mean sociologists like Angela McRobbie have criticised some of the subcultural studies of the ‘70s because they didn’t really look at girls’ culture. I mean you want in a way that perhaps they we relooking outside, they weren’t paying enough attention, you’d want to say, to what was going on at home, to the bedroom.

Sian Lincoln:
Yeah absolutely, McRobbie and Garber’s account is really seminal inasmuch as it’s getting us to think about the why girls were not appearing in discourses about youth culture, about young people in public spaces and one of their arguments was that that was because young women were primarily living out their cultural lives in the domestic sphere, their bedrooms were about training up to be wives and mothers, they had domestic responsibilities, they didn’t necessarily have the freedoms of their male counterparts. And of course bedroom spaces were not easily accessible to…

Laurie Taylor:
To researchers…

Sian Lincoln:
To researchers – absolutely.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean they couldn’t see. Jason, coming back to you, we’re talking about, as it were, adolescence, we’re talking about teenagers becoming a consumer entity in their own right as the teen bedroom culture reaches its zenith. Just describe this movement towards, as it were, and its relation in a way, to the growth in electronics because that was critical, we’ve already had a reference to the radio, but the way in which these elements came together.

Jason Reid:
Well there’s a few ways it actually came together involving home electronics and I would argue that the biggest factor would be in how rooms were decorated. And in the early – well 19th Century and the early 20th Century rooms were decorated – well the expertise that came out assumed that the rooms were being decorated by parents, mainly mothers. But then you see the shift around the ‘30s and ‘40s and especially into the post-war years where the right to decorate a room entirely shifted towards teenagers. And this was definitely a reflection of their increased buying power. And in terms of electronics you see before World War II most of the radios, phonographs, they were big, clunky and there were very expensive so chances are if a family had one it was going to be in the parlour and it would be used by the entire family. But after World War II with the rise of transistor technology these radios and phonographs they became smaller and cheaper and they could either be purchased by teens or they could easily be purchased by their parents. And their ideal for being fit into the teen bedroom of course then you have the rise of televisions, computers, gaming consoles etc.

Laurie Taylor:
What is interesting about this stage we meet where you talk about taking people out of their bedroom now as a punishment rather than sending them to their bedroom is that during the 19th Century there were some concerns expressed about the dangers of leaving people in separate rooms but now I mean the availability of all these electronic devices you would want to say, Sian, creates their own risks, when parents do become concerned about what is happening in these rooms now, much as they did in the 19th Century although there were other fears then.

Sian Lincoln:
Yeah absolutely, I mean I think sort of the ‘80s and ‘90s were a really interesting period in the UK in relation to bedroom culture because there were increasing fears about risk of the streets and public spaces and so on. A number of youth clubs closed down, there were fewer public spaces for young people to hang out in. And with the increase in the entertainment media market in terms of what was available – so televisions were becoming cheaper, stereo systems, games consoles and so on – this is the sort of technology that parents were then buying up to create a mediated bedroom or a media centre, as Jason refers to it in his book.

Laurie Taylor:
So I mean in a way Jason we’re back to the thing, aren’t we again, about the Beach Boys, the idea that it was their place, that it could be of loneliness but they’re also places of security – very quick answer, we’ve only a few seconds.

Jason Reid:
Well this is – I found this throughout my entire research is that one of the arguments that was always made about the teen bedroom is that you could use it to contain your children in the home. They might be allowed to do things that they wouldn’t have been allowed to do generations earlier but at least they were doing it in the home.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay and there we must stop, thank you.

This discussion was originally broadcast on Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4 on 15th March 2017. You can listen to the full programme online.

 

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