Institutional Scholarship

Dance Floor Democracy: American Bandstand and the Formation of a Youth Body Politic

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dc.contributor.advisor Friedman, Andrew, 1974- Wolfman-Arent, Avi 2010-08-11T13:20:57Z 2010-08-11T13:20:57Z 2010
dc.description.abstract At the end of World War II, America's youth looked with palpable vigor toward the prospect of a peaceful and prosperous future. Buttressed by an air of cautious optimism, America's young people seemed to embody a broader spirit of national renewal. It was in this context of abundance and forward-looking confidence that advertisers first used the term teenager to describe the nation's youths. Through the concept of a teenager advertisers sought to isolate and pursue a group of young consumers made exponentially more powerful by the rising income of their parents. And as the term began to circulate more commonly, Americans engaged in a cultural debate over what exactly the term meant. In this decisive historical moment I detect a major shift in how teenagers defined themselves. Intended as a way to describe the middle step between childhood and the domestic roles of homemaker or breadwinner, the teenager initially fit neatly into a postwar liberal consensus that held the nuclear family unit as its societal keystone. Despite these intentions, however, teenagers began to reformulate and subvert the term's meaning. In the fifteen years after World War II, teenagers increasingly understood themselves and youth culture as something verifiably separate and outside the nuclear family unit. I examine this shift in teenage identity by looking closely at the rock 'n' roll dance show American Bandstand, one of the most influential youth-oriented television programs in broadcasting history. The show first aired in 1952 on WFIL-TV, Philadelphia's local ABC affiliate. Originally known simply as Bandstand, the local installment reinforced a nuclear notion of the teenager. Over time this notion evolved, and changes in the show's format, presentation, and content reflected larger changes in teenage culture. In 1957 the show entered national syndication, and in the following six years American Bandstand developed into a primary outlet for non-nuclear expressions of youth identity. Through American Bandstand I capture a generation pledging their allegiance to the age-restricted domain of adolescence. This generational sense of belonging dulled the prohibitions of an identity based on whiteness, or suburbanness or normative familial roles. This is not to say that the teenager eradicated any of the nefarious "isms" associated with such exclusionary identities, but it did necessarily expose the teenager to certain marginalized groups and lifestyles. It was through the identity of teenager that adolescents on American Bandstand listened to rock 'n' roll music or performed various suggestive dance moves. When young people entered the realm of teenager, they necessarily stepped outside the nuclear family unit and its postwar liberal consensus. And what began as a cultural departure in the late 1950s grew increasingly political as the 1960s began. This union of age transformed into a feeling that the young people understood their world in ways that their adult counterparts did not, and that those same youth had a mission to parlay that vision into action. It was the beginnings of what I call the youth body politic and the teenager was its primary precondition. Before there could be a teenage body politic there had to exist some group that saw itself as separate and bounded by age and age only. As such, the story of American Bandstand is the prehistory of youth politicization.
dc.description.sponsorship Haverford College. Department of History
dc.language.iso eng
dc.subject.lcsh American Bandstand (Television program)
dc.subject.lcsh Youth -- United States -- Social life and customs -- 20th century
dc.subject.lcsh Youth -- United States -- Political activity -- History -- 20th century
dc.title Dance Floor Democracy: American Bandstand and the Formation of a Youth Body Politic
dc.type Thesis
dc.rights.access Open Access
dc.description.award The History Department Senior Thesis Prize

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