The Original Riot Grrrls: How Female Teens Invented Youth Culture

International Day of the Girl is a day to raise awareness of and celebrate the creative and critical achievements of young women around the world. Inventing youth culture is one of those achievements we have young women to thank for. And they did it with an ankle sock.

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The teenager was a construction not of a consumer culture and marketers, but the subcultural resistance of the wartime female youth branded in the media as ‘bobby soxers’. As the New York Times explained in an early 1944 article entitled ‘What is a Bobby Sock?’, ‘the purchaser and her motives change an innocent pair of anklets into a sociological problem’.

It seems strange today to think that an ankle sock could cause so much fuss, but has much really changed in seventy years? From Miley’s ‘twerk girls’ to the online outrage of and at Beliebers and Directioners, young female fans continue to be the subject of simultaneous moral panic and patronizing scorn. The misogynistic critical backlashes against young women’s media tastes, the despicable online attacks on young feminists like Emma Watson, and the perennial absence of female musicians from critics top 10 lists and ‘serious’ festivals like Glastonbury, highlight the lasting need to shout about girl cultures both past and present.

Despite her centrality to wartime political and societal debates and her historical significance in defining post-war culture, the bobby soxer has largely been written out of histories of youth. From classic youth culture and moral panic theories to the nostalgic musings of contemporary music critics and journalists, the continued emphasis on working class masculinity has muscled out the compelling herstories of youth subcultures.

The bobby soxer, and the teen culture she created, is a specifically wartime phenomenon resultant of the new financial, social, sexual and creative freedoms created by World War Two. Many young women left home and relocated to vibrant cities like New York to take up employment in the war industries; younger girls had more freedom from parental supervision because their mothers were working too. Entertainment centres like Times Square responded to this new demand by opening around the clock. The bobby soxers were the key market for these extended opportunities for freedom and fun.

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From mid-1943 onwards, newspaper and magazine reports on Frank Sinatra’s rise on Broadway stressed the unique rituals and style of his bobby sock wearing female fans. Sinatra’s major breakthrough came with his engagement, from 30 December 1942 onwards, as support to Benny Goodman at the Paramount Theatre on Times Square. While the media had characterized teenage girls as dedicated fans of big band leaders such as Goodman since the mid-1930s, Sinatra’s arrival at the Paramount was seen to herald a new era in fandom.

By late-1943 the New York press almost exclusively referred to Sinatra’s young female followers as ‘bobby soxers’ or the ‘bobby sox brigade’, often raising concerns that their Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 14.04.31undisciplined consumption of swing music and fashion might encourage transgression in other areas of their lives. The wearing of the short bobby sock was characterised as a form of subcultural ‘bricolage’, the appropriation and subversive use of a commodity as a mode of resistance, identification and communication between those within the subculture. Other subcultural appropriations included the wearing of oversized men’s shirts and overalls which, whilst acceptable as part of the productive war work of mothers and older sisters, was seen as a dangerous challenge to gender boundaries within the realm of leisure.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 14.04.41These media concerns were reflected in the municipal strategies employed to tackle the problem of Times Square’s bobby soxers. From late-1943 on, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia increased police numbers to facilitate around-the-clock patrols of the area, introduced a 9pm curfew for teenagers in Times Square, and demanded the immediate closure of any dance halls admitting girls under 16.

Despite such escalating controls, Sinatra’s return engagement at the Paramount on 12 October 1944 led to the sensationally described ‘Columbus Day Riot’, which happened 70 years ago tomorrow. As the New York Times reported, ‘25,000 crooner fans, most of them early teen-age girls clad-in bobby socks and sweaters’, blocked Times Square when fans inside the Paramount refused to leave. The most serious fallout of the riot was traffic congestion and a few broken windows, but the highly visible nature of the incident provoked the media and Board of Education to demand an intensification of police and court powers. It also brought New York’s bobby soxer to national and international attention, defining the teenager as simultaneously social problem and ideal consumer market.

This pattern of sensationalized media reports sensitizing the public and legislators to a threat that demands new and escalated controls, fits the classic moral panic model as defined by Stanley Cohen following the clashes he witnessed between mods and rockers in Clacton in the summer of 1964.

The ultimate solution to the bobby soxer problem was commercial rather than legislative however. As the bobby soxer trend spread nationally in late-1944, companies like Coca Cola and emergent teen fashion brands like Teen-Timers collaborated with federal government and local authorities to channel female youth’s energies into spaces where supervised leisure and regulated consumption converged. An institutionalization of leisure was coordinated through a nationwide network of ‘teen canteens’ which offered ‘wholesome’ entertainment (dancing, ping pong, jukebox) within ‘clean’ and regulated spaces with age restrictions, adult chaperones, and soft drinks rather than alcohol.

As with any youth culture, once adults get involved and your style becomes available in department stores it becomes less exciting and youth start to look elsewhere for rebellion and fun. But before James Dean, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Teddy Boys came along to set the masculine agenda for youth rebellion, teenage girls started a riot with just socks and oversized shirts.

Dr Tim Snelson is a Lecturer in Media History at the University of East Anglia, UK. His forthcoming book, Phantom Ladies: Hollywood Horror and the Home Front (Rutgers: 2014), explains how shifts in women’s cinema-going habits resultant of WWII encouraged Hollywood to change its film production practices. He has also published articles on gender and contemporary media, youth (sub)cultures and film, and cult cinema and its audiences.

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