So Young, So Bad (1950) opens with a scream. The camera pulls in to the front door of a two story brick Colonial, which erupts violently as Loretta Wilson bursts through the door and past the garden, swings over a wrought-iron fence, and plants herself in the drivers seat of a work truck. Another young girl follows her into the cab of the truck, and Loretta fumbles turning over the engine. The camera frames her legs, exposed above the knee in a pencil skirt as she slams her foot against the pedal. The two drive off, leaving in their wake a frantic crowd. The camera drags behind the truck as it turns a corner and reveals a signpost that reads, “Elmview Corrective School for Girls”. The cut jumps to a police station interior, where dispatch is issuing a warning for two runaway girls aged 16. Three paddy wagons peel out from the exterior, sirens blaring. This hyperactive opening sets the scene for the rest of the film, as it takes us retroactively through the runaways’ stay at Elmview.
So Young, So Bad, directed by Bernard Vorhaus in 1950, throws its focus on the abusive disciplinarian methodology of Elmview Corrective School for Girls, a fictional school whose social injustices border on enslavement. As a tenacious new-hire, Dr. Jason, steps in to save the school through his more humane psychiatric approaches, he becomes enamored with the wayward teens and attempts to save them from a life of continued crime. The films focus is institutional reform, and as Dr. Jason conducts psychoanalytic sessions with each troubled teen, the blame is squarely placed upon poor parenting or abandoned childhoods. Blatantly absent from the film is any discussion of the criminal behavior that placed the girls in the reformatory in the first place, nor the conditions of state violence that mandate juvenile enslavement in the name of “reform” or “correction”.
In the 1950s, more than sixty films were produced with a narrative of juvenile delinquency1. With titles like Blackboard Jungle, Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, and So Young, So Bad, the films usually painted a portrait of attractive, suburban white teens engaged in some mild form of rebellion. As the narrative protagonists, typically their criminal tendencies are shallow and the films trace their predilection for delinquent behaviors to the supposed social short-comings of their past, be they familial disputes or poor (monetarily & morally) upbringing. The juvenile delinquency films of this era are less a commentary on the improper moral compasses of youth than an accusation against the disbanding of the nuclear family. The focus seems to be an enforcement of “national cultural uniformity/conformity heavily motivated by Christian morality and the dread of racial (and class) mixing”2.
As the girls in So Young, So Bad go through Dr. Jason’s rehabilitation programs, they are increasingly motivated by a suburban family ideal to replace their troubled pasts3. Anne Francis, a stunning blonde starlet who, at the time of filming, was barely a legal adult at age nineteen, plays Loretta Wilson, the film’s central bad girl. Anne Francis’ hyper sexualized femininity appears to be her only crime in So Young, So Bad. During the course of the film, and after special attention from Dr. Jason, she transforms, craving the suburban family home… wishing to wed Dr. Jason and reclaim her abandoned baby.
News media is responsible for the most transparent rhetoric of a juvenile delinquency “contagion” in the 1950s. Newsweek and The New York Times ran articles with sensational headlines like “Our Vicious Young Hoodlums”, “Who the Teen Killers Are”, “The Kids Grow Worse”, “Why the Young Kill”, and “Playing with Dynamite”5. These articles fanned public hysteria, reporting the spread of juvenile delinquency beyond borders previously policed by race, space and class. Colin Dayan, in “Legal Slaves and Civil Bodies” examines the rhetorical effects of criminality coded as contagion, “the diseased body must be extirpated from civil society; and once removed, the convict became the visible record of the sacrifice upon which civilization maintained itself.”6 As middle class white suburban teens began to be the subject of sensationalized news reports, the public reacted with hysterics to the perceived “spread” of criminalized youth.
A 1953 article in Newsweek titled “All Our Children” reported, “Authorities agree that juvenile criminality is spreading. Frequently it crosses the tracks from the wrong side to the right side”7. The report encodes juvenile criminality as contagious, racialized and spatial, locating a dubious “wrong side” in opposition to the right side on the other side of the tracks. This lackadaisical reporting also conceals the source of its information, naming instead, generalized “authorities”. Although FBI reports recorded “skyrocketing numbers of arrests of those under 18 years throughout the 1950s”8, these statistics were based on the voluntary reports of arrest numbers and neighborhood crimes volunteered by members of the police department and average citizens9. Problematic statistics and rhetorical jargon such as the Newsweek report served as part of the precarious scaffolding upon which juvenile justice was constructed.
In 1938, the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act was passed “with the essential purpose of keeping juveniles apart from adult criminals”10, and was amended in 1948 to incorporate new federal agencies in the policing of adolescents. Prior to the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act, persons under the age of 14 were presumed incapable of criminal intent and were thus not considered for legal punishment. During the ten-year period following the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act, policies for juvenile detention were based upon discipline and punishment for crimes committed. Barnosky, in his article for Polity, describes the methodology of juvenile reprimand after the reform in 1948 as a turn toward rehabilitation11. He credits this to the creation of the first national strategic attempt to control juvenile delinquency, the efforts of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. The Senate Subcommittee, rather than investigating effects of juvenile delinquency in individuals or the effects of incarceration in adolescents, instead entwined itself in popular culture on a witch-hunt to locate the source of criminal behavior. Formed in 1953, the Senate Subcommittee pigeonholed comic books and celluloid as prime producers of violent behaviors in adolescents, eventually forcing defense testimony from leading figures in cultural industries (including a testimonial from Ronald Reagan). Despite their moral crusade, the Subcommittee eventually ruled to allow cultural producers to self-regulate content on the basis of morality.
Between the efforts of moral policing through news media, film and legal outlets, a restrictive category was formed: the juvenile delinquent.
Not quite adults, juvenile delinquents are legally barred from the civil rights afforded to adults, based on arbitrary age distinctions. Thus, although their crimes incur parallel punishment to crimes committed by those over the age of eighteen, juvenile offenders are not given the same distinction of limited, though beneficial, legal rights as adult offenders. Colin Dayan, in “Legal Slaves and Civil Bodies” examines the notion of depleted personhood through avenues of law. Although specifically speaking to the condition of the “freed” slave in the eighteenth century, the parallels between the two conditions are clear: “…we begin to see how the law, invoking the double condition of the unborn and the undead, can eject certain beings from the circle of citizenry, even while offering the promise of beneficent protection.” Juveniles, not able to fully benefit from the civil rights afforded to full personhood, live in this legal liminality of the unborn and the undead. Rejected from the realm of the adult offender, and relegated to the space of undone personhood, the juvenile delinquent’s legal status is malleable, and therefore subject to inconsistency in representation.
Rather than being granted individual personhood, it can be said that juvenile delinquents are merely afforded a slice of the civil rights of their parents. Indeed, Parental Accountability Laws12 can impose fines, or defer responsibility for juvenile offenses to legal guardians. Films like So Young, So Bad expose troubled childhoods as a direct influence on juvenile criminality, citing single parent households and abusive parentage. The tagline for the film, “What Made Them This Way!”, questions their subjective formation, implying a lack in parentage. Further entrenching the nuclear family as the preeminent mode of familial relations, criminality is culturally embedded into those homes that do not follow the nuclear structure.
The reason for Loretta Wilson’s containment at Elmview Corrective School for girls is never fully revealed. However, the film repeatedly mentions her unwanted pregnancy and subsequent adoption. An unwed mother who has abandoned her child, and a sexually charged, attractive young blonde, Loretta Wilson’s explicit criminality remains seamlessly unnamed and irrelevant in light of her implicitly criminalized identity13. According to Dayan, “inmates are not warehoused because of their crime, but for their ‘nature,’ which makes them ‘institutional risks.’”14 This transgression from the nuclear structure codes Loretta Wilson’s identity as criminal.
The women in So Young, So Bad have been stripped of their criminalized identities, and rebuilt in a manner that fits the constructed norm of civilized society. The Elmview Corrective School for Girls is a factory where criminalized identities can be “fixed”, “rehabilitated”, “reformed” or “corrected”, such that they may rejoin society. Reform replaces previous “corrective” modes of discipline and punishment, resulting in an even more intrusive form of radical transformation as controlled subjectivity. Returning to Barnosky’s claim for rehabilitative juvenile justice in the 1950s, we can clearly trace the development of the “juvenile delinquent” as a victimized subject category requiring reformation.
So Young, So Bad concludes with the narration of Dr. Jason: “Well, the depot train is due in again. That means a new batch of problems. Most of our old girls are ready for the outside, Loretta, Jane. Jackie still needs a little time here, but she’s making real progress.”16 Loretta Wilson, properly reformed with a pressed, white peter-pan collar on her sensibly demure dress, appeals a tearful goodbye to Dr. Jason as she boards a bus. On her way to begin her new life and reclaim her child, Wilson waves teary-eyed through the window at the group of girls who have not yet been saved.
Although the move from discipline to reform seems a milestone in the handling of juvenile delinquency, it belies obvious problems in the creation of juvenile delinquent subjectivities. The Elmview Corrective School for Girls functions as a fictional murder factory, one where self-authored identities enter, die through reformation, and exit as reborn, redefined and reformed agents of the state. I might side with the Senate Subcommittee here, in that, by promoting reformation through films like So Young, So Bad , juvenile corrective institutions have become a symbol of deliverance, although their methods remain deeply flawed and constitute the creation of dangerous subject categories. Ultimately, coding juvenile justice institutions as redemptive sites capable of reform antithetically produces subjects capable of juvenile criminality.
1Barnosky, Jason, “The Violent Years: Responses to Juvenile Crime in the 1950s”, Polity vol. 38, no.3 (July 2006)
2Barnosky, Jason, “The Violent Years: Responses to Juvenile Crime in the 1950s”, Polity vol. 38, no.3 (July 2006)
3Barnosky, Jason, “The Violent Years: Responses to Juvenile Crime in the 1950s”, Polity vol. 38, no.3 (July 2006)
4 Barnosky, p. 318
5 Barnosky, p. 318
6 Colin (Joan) Dayan, “Legal Slaves and Civil Bodies”, Nepantla: Views from South, vol. 2, issue 1, 2001, 3-39.
7 “All Our Children”, Newsweek, November 9, 1953, 28-30. (Found from Barnosky, “The Violent Years”)
8 Barnosky, p.320
9 Barnosky, p.320
11 Barnosky, Jason, “The Violent Years: Responses to Juvenile Crime in the 1950s”, Polity vol. 38, no.3 (July 2006). Barnosky claims that the efforts toward rehabilitation change in 1961 with the passage of the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act, and digresses further in the 1970s as juvenile delinquency falls deeper buried in bureaucracy in the hands of the federal government. So Young, So Bad and films like Blackboard Jungle take the system to task, lobbying for reform via psychoanalytic methods.
12 “California’s law imposing criminal parental responsibility is one of the most stringent in the Nation. Enacted in 1988 as part of the Street Terrorism and Prevention Act, the law amended the State’s CDM law by making it a crime when parents or guardians do not ‘ exercise reasonable care, supervision, protection, and control’ over their children.” http://www.ojjdp.gov/pubs/reform/ch2_d.html#71
13 The first two “plot keywords” for So Young, So Bad on IMDB are “Unwed Mother” and “Tension” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042982/)
14 Colin (Joan) Dayan, “Legal Slaves and Civil Bodies”, Nepantla: Views from South, vol. 2, issue 1, 2001, p. 22
15 Eva Hayward, “Lessons from a Starfish”, Queering the Non/Human, Ashgate, 2008.
16 So Young, So Bad dir. Bernard Vorhaus, United Artists, 1950.