The end of delinquency

By the end of the 1950s, the juvenile delinquency film was pretty much dead. Of course, there have been countless films since that time which portray young people involved in anti-social behaviour or criminal acts of various kinds. From Easy Rider (1969), through The Outsiders (1983) and Kids (1995), and on to American Honey (2016), it’s easy to think of examples. But it makes little sense to think of these as JD films. ‘Juvenile delinquency’ represented a particular way of framing the apparent ‘problem’ of youth crime that was especially characteristic of the 1950s. Within a fairly short period, it had become almost a cliché.

Indeed, shortly afterwards, the whole debate about juvenile delinquency was famously parodied in the 1961 film of West Side Story (directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins). In the song ‘Gee Officer Krupke’, members of the Jets gang satirise the various explanations of delinquency, and many of the solutions proposed by the justice system, psychologists and social workers. Are delinquents ‘sociologically sick’ or just ‘psychologically disturbed’? Are they ‘depraved on account they are deprived’? Is juvenile delinquency a ‘social disease’? And does it need to be treated by psychoanalysts or by the police? On one level, West Side Story might be seen as another film about juvenile delinquency; yet the most significant social problem it brings into focus is not so much about youth (or inter-generational conflict), but about race (in the ethnic rivalry between the two gangs). And of course, like its original text Romeo and Juliet, it is primarily a love story, for which social tensions and divisions serve primarily as narrative obstacles to romantic fulfillment.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the JD films were a key part of the wider social debate about juvenile delinquency. They helped to construct and frame the problem in particular ways, and to debate potential explanations and solutions for it. Yet in doing so, they were also compromised, both by the movie industry’s attempts to reach the teenage audience, which would be vital for its future survival, and by its need to protect itself from public criticism. The industry actively courted controversy, not least because controversy is always good for box office; yet it also sought to reassure adult audiences of its responsibility and respectability. It is these tensions that account for the contradictions within and between the films I have discussed.

By the beginning of the 1960s, several developments had rendered these dilemmas redundant, or at least replaced them with new ones. It wasn’t that youth crime had somehow disappeared. Rather, the massive explosion of a commercially driven youth culture, followed in the mid-1960s by a more explicitly political youth-led counter culture, made the ‘problem’ of juvenile delinquency pale into insignificance, or at least seem quaintly old-fashioned. These developments, and their cultural consequences, will be addressed in future essays on Growing Up Modern.


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