Angst? Can you buy it at the mall?

Teen anguish based on opposition to adults has been replaced by a celebration of teenage emancipation

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Clueless is an American film about wealthy Beverly Hills teen culture. Hollyoaks is a British soap opera about slightly less wealthy Chester teen culture. Both appeared in the last few days and both will be, in their different ways, hits. Almost anything aimed with sufficient accuracy at teenagers is likely to be a paying proposition, they represent such an absurdly soft market for any material that shows some awareness of their intense tribalisms.

If only at the level of disposable income, fictional Chester and fictional Beverly Hills are worlds apart. The LA kids are dressed in Alaia and Dior; those in Chester wear Next or lower. The cars in LA are showroom fresh; those in Chester carefully nursed old bangers. Beverly Hills life revolves around an education system that has become little more than a dating agency; in Chester, there is a shadowy work and college life to add a little convincing daytime depth to the pubs and discos. The one-parent figure in Clueless is a super-rich lawyer; the so far only parent in Hollyoaks seems to be some kind of club owner and is played by none other than the pre-cambrian rocker Alvin Stardust - he is, in other words, no more than a prototype for today's fully fledged teen.

But what, overwhelmingly, the two have in common is that they both start from the assumption that there is a discrete, autonomous realm that is teen culture. In Hollyoaks, Alvin apart, there is scarcely an adult to be seen who is not a policeman, an ambulanceman or part of a dull, uninterestingly dressed and definitely unsexy crowd. In Clueless the social demands of teen society are accepted as absolute. For example, "the makeover" that transforms a dowdy new girl on the block into a fully integrated sex-bomb is a profound rite of passage, an initiation into a way of life that is seen as the only alternative. Not to be in the right clothes, not to be dating the right boy, is to lack a viable identity.

What is extraordinary about these strangely weightless, floating worlds is how incredibly formalised and autonomous they are. This teen culture is utterly different from that of 10 or 20 years ago. Then, being a teenager was about rebellion, about a struggle for recognition. The parents would always be in the background to stop you going to the party, to disapprove of your clothes. And, in a wider sense, society was always there to threaten you with the straitjacket of conformity. Being a teenager was an effort.

But now teen culture is seen as being at peace with itself. Of course you can go to the party, naturally your clothes matter. In part this is simply a function of affluence. In Clueless every brat has a mobile phone and a car, and even in humble Chester money is not an issue. Indeed, consumption is the air these people breathe - both in Chester and LA the teens live the life of "mallrats", the kids who hang out in shopping malls, conducting their dating dramas against a background of total material availability. Cost is no longer a limitation on going places and doing things.

But, more important, there is this newly acceptable glorification of the teenage years as the most supremely lived and felt phase of life. Teenage sex is no longer a preparation for anything, it is an end in itself. Equally, teenage crises are about self-definition as teenagers, not as pre-adults.

As a result, the connection of the teen world to any other has vanished. The old teen-anguish mode was based on the assumption of opposition to an adult realm, and required a political and social agenda. Now there is only a celebration of teenage emancipation. The heroine of Clueless dismisses one excessively serious coeval because he is into the environment and "complaint rock" - music is about dancing, emphatically not about alienation or the hard rain that is a'goin to fall.

Hollyoaks, a largely moronic product, reveals the depressing side of this phenomenon. Phil Redmond, its fortyish creator, has dived headfirst into the teenage years and bought the entire package without a trace of irony or real involvement. Each of his characters is what the Spanish sociologist Ortega y Gasset once identified as Mass Man. They arrive in the present unencumbered by history or awareness. They accept the cars, guitars and computers as simply there. As Ortega said of Mass Man, they cannot distinguish the artificial from the natural because they are unaware of the centuries of human effort required to produce the artefacts with which they are surrounded. They accept the present as they accept their teenage years, as autonomous, disconnected, simply available for consumption.

Redmond and his writers do not notice this because to do so might be to burst the teen bubble. They can establish no critical or comic distance from their world because they are so desperately afraid of alarming their target audience. Clearly, the one thing they cannot rely on from the British teenager is self-awareness, only the need for an endlessly idealising, approving mirror.

Clueless is in a different class. Where the soap is knowingly exploitative, the film is knowingly humane and very funny. The whole joke of the heroine's progress is that her hermetically sealed teen world does not work, it is constantly rubbing up against other worlds, other values. She is an idiot made sympathetic by the fact that we know her teen dream, her ritualised idiocy, must end.

And yet the weird, formalised fecundity of the teen world is still accepted for what it is. One supremely sophisticated joke involves an over-serious outside teenager attributing the words "To thine own self be true" to Hamlet. To general amazement Cher, the heroine, points out that the line belonged to Polonius - she knows because she saw the Mel Gibson movie. Redmond could never manage such a fine two-way joke because he does not understand - maybe does not want to understand - the deeper, stranger tension of disconnection and reconnection that is the real world of the teenager.

What the makers of Clueless know is that the very formality of the teenage world is what undermines its apparent autonomy. It is no accident that its plot is derived from Jane Austen's Emma, just as it is no accident that the current TV serialisation of Pride and Prejudice is proving hugely popular with teenage girls. Austen's ritualised and enclosed world has much in common with that of the contemporary teenager. Both require a strict system of controls to avoid the anarchy of mere impulse.

On the evidence of Clueless, Americans are still capable, despite everything, of believing this system leads outwards to some kind of maturity. On the evidence of Hollyoaks the British believe nothing at all except that the world is as it is and all that happens to teenagers is they lose their looks.

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