Thirteen — Adolescent Development Depicted in a Contemporary Film
Home life, family dynamics, and Tracy’s relationship with her mom, dad, brother, her mom’s boyfriend.
“How many times are you going to let him fuck you over,” Tracy yells at her mom after finding her mom’s boyfriend’s clothes in the dryer. “His clothes should not be in your laundry,” Tracy shouts, in an apparent mood swing brought on by her hatred for her mom’s boyfriend; it’s a mood swing because moments before Tracy and her friend and mentor Evie were strutting around in their new tight pants and sexy tops, being frisky, and flirtatious. Mom is busy doing a customer’s hair in the kitchen (mom is a hairstylist who works at home), and Tracy makes a big fuss over those boyfriend clothes.
The home life is pretty seamy and unsophisticated, which helps explain why Tracy is so easily swept up by the raunchy, bad-girl stature of Evie. When mom finishes doing the dye job on a customer’s hair, she says to the customer that if the customer “gets laid” because of the quality of the hair, then mom should get a bonus for the blonde hair dye job. Mom sneaks cigarettes in her room, and shows the audience that she really doesn’t have the tools to be a good mother in the traditional sense.
The father is virtually a non-functioning partner in the raising of his daughter, asking his daughter “to cut me some slack” when he has been asked to take Tracy for a few days by her mom. Even in the opening launching of a conversation with his daughter he interrupts his dialog to take a phone call. Clearly his daughter knows he doesn’t care very much about her situation or her life. The brother is an impressionable teen, who is both curious about his sister and unable to do anything to help her.
Puberty and Self-Esteem: In Steinberg’s book (41), he discusses at great length the changes an adolescent goes through when puberty arrives. “Going through puberty may lead to modest declines in self-esteem among adolescent girls … ” It seems that prior to meeting Evie, Tracy indeed had a bit of a self-esteem problem, but it appeared to also be related to the peer group pressure Tracy feels at junior high school.
” … Puberty may be a potential stressor (41) that has temporary adverse psychological consequences for girls, but only when it is coupled with other changes that necessitate adjustment,” Steinberg asserts. The changes in this case are the feelings that Tracy experiences in junior high school as she sees the beautiful girls, like Evie, and how cool they dress, how sexy they look, compared with herself, a rather “plain Jane” by any measure. The beautiful girls look over at her not with contempt, but with arrogance and a kind of teen age pity, that says, “we look so much hotter than you do girl, you ought to be ashamed.”
The pretty girls even laugh at Tracy’s plain style of dress. It makes Tracy feel very uncomfortable, which ties into Steinberg’s view that puberty itself doesn’t cause the psychological stress on its own, but rather when it is coupled with the lack of self-esteem created by the juxtaposition of her own image as a cute girl in boring, old fashioned clothes, contrasted with the gorgeous girls in provocative, revealing clothing.
The audience sees Tracy, early in the film, throwing away some of her clothes, and tossing her teddy bears off the bed. It may be symbolism on the part of the director to show Tracy is shedding her childhood image, even rebelling against her childhood, but it is also possibly a ramification of her dissatisfaction with her life, her family, her place in her peer group.
Puberty and Mood Swings: ” … Studies indicate (41) that rapid increases in many hormones associated with puberty — such as … estrogen and various adrenal androgens — especially when the increases take place very early in adolescence, may be associated with increased irritability, impulsivity, aggression (in boys), and depression (in girls).” This description of hormonal changes in the body during puberty can be witnessed during the part of the film right after Evie gives Tracy a cell phone number and asks Tracy to call her after school.
The audience sees Tracy jumping for joy, like she’d won the lottery or her team had won the Super Bowl, in anticipation of hanging out with Evie. Evie, the teenage goddess, the hottest girl in school, the girl all other girls want to look like (a figure like a movie star and lips and eyes that drip with sexuality), has agreed to invite naive little Tracy into the world of sex, drugs, boys, fast-lane living, shop-lifting, and teenage fun and excitement that is serendipitous, spontaneous, and also reckless.
And then, a bit later in the film, when Tracy gets home and tries to call Evie, the call cannot be completed. “I’m sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed … ” the taped operator message is heard. After calling again, Tracy gets the same message, and kicks the trash bucket in the kitchen in a rage. This is a classic mood swing, not just of a spoiled brat who didn’t get her way, but of a teenage girl going through a dramatic biological transition (puberty) and also going into a social and peer-group transition.
In Steinberg’s research (44), he notes that “most researchers agree that the impact of hormonal change on mood and behavior in adolescence is greatly influenced by environmental factors.” The environmental factor in Tracy’s world is her peer group and her change from one peer group (the ordinary girls she used to hang out with) to a peer group led by Evie. Evie’s group is coveted by Tracy (and also the film shows the sexy, splashy advertising on the downtown streets that entices young girls to covet those fashions, cosmetics, and styles, which mesmerizes Tracy), because Evie is one of prettier girls, the more popular girls, the girls who are wanted by boys, girls who act older and do adult things like smoking and drugs and having sex and stealing from department stores.
As for Tracy, her adolescent mood swings, on page 44 of Steinberg’s book, tend to “parallel [her] changes in activities.” When mom asks why Tracy is throwing away some of her old clothes, Tracy blurts out, in a quick-tempered mood swing, “I need new clothes. I’m stupid! Hello!” The “change of activities” means Tracy is now running with some hot girls and hanging out in places where boys can see and be scene, the mall.
Puberty and Family Relations: It’s already very clear that Tracy’s family is dysfunctional, and does not offer her anything that would help a teenage girl be lifted up out of the psychological depths that puberty plunges her into from time to time. On page 45, Steinberg alludes to studies which show that “… As youngsters mature from childhood toward the middle of puberty, distance between them and their parents increases, and conflict intensifies, especially between the adolescent and his or her mother … ”
This is very clear as the audience views the ongoing and growing conflict between Tracy and her mother. As the film progresses, more and more it is obvious that there is zero communication between Tracy and her mother. Tracy lies constantly to cover for the inappropriate activities she engages in with Evie, and when Tracy’s mother tries to get serious, or impart motherly guidance, Tracy becomes agitated and her mood turns to rage and belligerence.
PSYCHOSOCIAL PROBLEMS: When the film opens, the audience sees Tracy and Evie slapping each other so viciously they bleed from the mouth. This is a foreshadowing technique for what will happen later, as Tracy continues her habit of cutting herself, a “self-destructive behavior.” When Evie slides out the window of Tracy’s bedroom to go and have sex with a boy, Tracy then takes a scissors and cuts herself in the wrist deeply. It would seem that she is depressed already, by the confusion in her life and the speed of her social changes with Evie; but it could also be at this point that she wants to have sex too, wants to grow up so to speak and be as “mature” as Evie by having her own sexual experiences.
The desire to cut her own self could also be a result of depression that Tracy is experiencing, partly from puberty, and partly from her dysfunctional family setting. In Steinberg’s section, “Depression and Suicide,” he point out (511) that it is “not normal for adolescents to feel a prolonged or intense sense of hopelessness or frustration.” Young people who do indeed experience “prolonged or intense” feelings of being frustrated (by family) and having hopelessness surrounding them, “are likely to be psychologically depressed and in need of professional help.”
It would seem that the deep cut Tracy inflicted on herself is a cry for help, but her mother doesn’t even seem to be aware of the pain her child is causing herself. “In its mild form, depression is probably the most common psychological disturbance among adolescents,” Steinberg writes (511). Sadness alone, he continues, is not a cause for deep depression; in fact (512), “more than half of all adolescents occasionally feel sad and hopeless,” and over a third of adolescents believe they “having nothing to look forward to.”
But meantime, while only 3% of adolescents meet the definition of “clinical depression,” 15% of American tenth-graders “attempted suicide in 1987” (513). Was Tracy’s deep self-administered cut a prelude to a later attempt at suicide? Not in this case, because the movie doesn’t end that way, but on page 514, Steinberg writes that suicides “are rarely impulsive reactions to immediate distress,” such as a break-up with a boyfriend or a fight with a parent. Suicides are usually attempted by adolescents who have attempted (perhaps in several ways on several occasions) to reach out for help from friends and family, but have not received the help they sought; and hence, went the whole way by attempting to kill themselves.
An additional psychosocial behavior that the audience sees in Tracy includes risk-taking (she steals from a woman on the street, and then by stealing becomes something of a “hero” to her new peer group by helping them spend the money stolen from the purse). She also goes to class late, and gives a flippant answer to the teacher when asked why she was late (this is a risk because she could be punished by the school, which would lead to her mom finding out about her behavior).
Also, Tracy indulges in using drugs and alcohol, at the insistence of Evie of course, but it is another example of psychosocial (and anti-social) behavior that Tracy is led into without even a second or protest or dialogue with Evie as to whether or not doing drugs is a good idea.
On a night when her mom and mom’s boyfriend took Tracy and Evie to the movies, an attempt to actually do something together as a family, Tracy winds up taking a strong drug (PCP? “Angel dust”? Crystal Meth?) and freaking out in a store prior to returning home and attacking her brother. Her brother has seen her out on the streets, with a body piercing in her belly button and a very revealing outfit, and he knows the crowd she is hanging out with and what drugs she is using. So when they arrive home, the brother threatens to tell mom about what Tracy is really up to, and a fight ensues. Tracy attacks her brother with a broom stick.
Next, Tracy’s mom explodes within the context of the existing sibling battle, and the words spoken are truly ugly, bitter, and indicate that Tracy’s drug use has actually made a bad situation even worse. Mom has been unable to handle Tracy up until this point, and now the whole family is caught up in emotions nobody seems to understand and certainly nobody is capable of finding a solution, either.
At that point, mom says she will not cook for her daughter again, fearing that her daughter is not eating in order to stay ultra-thin.
Tracy’s mom is so upset and angry she tears a box of cereal open and spreads it out on the kitchen floor. Then she proceeds to tear up the floor covering in a wild rage which was brought on by the violent and uncontrollable behavior shown by her daughter minutes before. All the frustration of not being able to deal with her daughter apparently came out in that scene — brought on by Tracy’s wild behavior and use of drugs.
A bit of humor is shared with the audience after mom tears up the floor, and her boyfriend and son walk into the kitchen to see what the noise was about. “I told you we needed a new floor,” mom states.
The boyfriend, while apparently not a very strong individual, does bring some sense of stability to the family at these moments of high emotion, albeit when he goes into Tracy’s bedroom to remove a dog and a child from Tracy’s bed, she calls him a “fucking coke-head.” That is a statement which rings with irony as moments later, following the scene where mom’s boyfriend strips mom for a shower, Evie and Tracy are snorting coke themselves.
SEXUALITY: When Evie leads Tracy into having her first sexual intercourse encounter, the scene leading up to it is interesting and illustrates deviance. First, the two girls are jumping up and down like it’s Christmas morning and there are 1,000 expensive gifts under the tree to open. The excitement and glee is child-like, which is interesting because the act Tracy is about to engage in (sexual intercourse) is not something children should do.
Meanwhile, Evie wants to know (as the boy has called on the phone and is coming over to Evie’s guardian’s house to make out) if Tracy has ever kissed. The question leads to a situation where Evie is lying on the floor and Tracy is on top of her French kissing her aggressively. These moments in Tracy’s young life are the direct result of PEER PRESSURE brought on by her principal role model, Evie.
As for AUTONOMY (functioning independently), Tracy has very little going for her. She has gone father than mere conformity to peer pressure, in fact, she is totally susceptible to Evie’s whims, and is led into and through nearly every situation by Evie. Tracy’s behavioral autonomy is non-existent, because she does not have the capacity to make independent decisions and follow through.
IDENTITY: For Tracy, she certainly had identity issues, brought on by the dynamics mentioned previously in this paper. And according to Erickson’s Theoretical Framework of Identity, an individual moves through eight psychosocial crises, and each of these crises defines “an age” or a “stage” of that person’s life and times. These eight crises are just a “normative” (inevitable) part of live and living into older age.
On page 307, Steinberg discusses Erickson’s “identity vs. identity diffusion” — which is the process and explanation of what comes before adolescence and what comes after adolescence. How well a person emerges from the crisis of “identity vs. identity diffusion” depends upon how that individual “has resolved the previous crises of childhood.”
In the case of Tracy, childhood was not very stable, given that her mom got a divorce and her family life seemed to be in some turmoil most of the time; so, she did not have, as Steinberg writes that an adolescent should have, “a healthy sense of trust, autonomy, initiative, and industry … ”
Prior to adolescence, Steinberg paraphrases Erickson as postulating, the identity of the child is like “patches of fabric that have not been sewn together.” After adolescence though, the patches should then “be woven into a patchwork quilt” that is “unique to the individual.” The process whereby the patches are united into a quilt is at the center of Erickson’s fifth psychosocial crises, identity vs. identity diffusion. The young person must be able to make a series of “ever-narrowing selections of personal, occupational, sexual and ideological commitments,” Erickson asserts.
And in each of these, audiences paying close attention to Tracy’s behavior and confusion can see, Tracy has not narrowed down selections, but rather, is just plunging forward into a freefall that takes her wherever it will take her. While Erickson (through Steinberg) believes that the “maturation and social forces (307) that converge at adolescence force young people to reflect on their place in society, on the ways that others view them, and on their options for the future.”
For Tracy, she has not the least bit of interest on how people see her (not even her old reliable friends which she abandoned for Evie), nor on what her place is in society.
“The other people with whom the young person interacts serve as a mirror that reflects back to the adolescent information about who she or she is and who he or she ought to be.” If Evie is that mirror, then Tracy must see someone she both likes and hates, as eventually, Evie betrays Tracy, after using Tracy for a place to live, for a partner to cover for her, for some semblance (albeit dysfunctional) of a family. The adolescent “forges an identity,” Erickson writes, “but at the same time society identifies the adolescent.” Tracy is certainly identified by her teachers, her friends, her family, as a girl who is out of control and has no way to stop her freefall except to continue falling into the abyss of inappropriate, psychosocial behaviors. Her academic ACHIEVEMENT is not viable; in fact she cares little about school, and is too stoned to attend class.
COGNITIVE TRANSITIONS: An adolescent should be thinking about things (69) in a “multidimensional fashion,” according to Steinberg. That is because as a child, one things about one aspect at a time; however, in Tracy’s maladjusted state, she is not likely doing much multidimensional thinking at all — her mind is set on one thing at a time, and those things are relating to her own immediate hedonism.
CONCLUSION: Tracy’s future development can only become a positive thing if strong male and female role models come into her life. The Steinberg material has laid out all the key points that play into the normal development — and hence, on the other hand, play into abnormal development — of adolescents. Tracy is in deep trouble, but still has some native intelligence (albeit little common sense) that could pull her out of the mess she’s in. It’s appropriate that the film ends with Tracy on a merry-go-round, screaming. That is what her life has been, going around in circles, crying, screaming for help. If she does get help, the kind she most needs (besides human compassion) is to learn how to make informed decisions (COGNITIVE TRANSITIONS), and be able to consider what her choices will mean in terms of consequences for her life.
Steinberg, Laurence. (1996). Adolescence. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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