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First Person

Why am I suddenly obsessing over crushes I had as a teenager?

Bingeing YA romances ‘Heartstopper’ and ‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’ sent Emma Firth down the rabbit hole of her own adolescent longing. She speaks to ‘Honey & Spice’ author Bolu Babalola and podcast host Margaret Cabourn-Smith about the unshakeable power of our soppy teen infatuations

Monday 01 August 2022 06:30 BST
I’d imagine the conversations I would have given the opportunity. The outfit(s) I would wear. The type of person I would be.
I’d imagine the conversations I would have given the opportunity. The outfit(s) I would wear. The type of person I would be. (Disney)

John Cusack in Say Anything. Seth Cohen. The sort-of-famous musician who wrote songs for a very famous Hollywood movie that one time. Heath Ledger. Heather Graham in Austin Powers. Philosophy teacher. The Beast before he turned into The Prince. Pacey Witter. Jack Dawson. The boy on the No 12 bus. Bill Pullman in While You Were Sleeping. William Thatcher. Marty McFly. Jess Mariano. The art student who never spoke to anyone.

Above is a – by no means exhaustive – list of some objects of my teenage affections. (“A lot of range here, Em…” according to one friend.) “Objects” being the operative word. This was an indulgence fully facilitated by the distance between the self and the subject.

I’ve become re-obsessed of late with these soppy little infatuations that carried such monumental weight during adolescence. Ones that inspired me to imagine the conversations I would have, given the opportunity – blissfully ignorant to the impossibility of meeting someone who only exists in televisual form, and to the fact that their mercurial presence alone would render me mute. I’d imagine how my mouth would part in a way that would make them both want and need to kiss me in the middle of a sentence. The outfits I would wear. The type of person I would be. It’s been a while since I’ve given much headspace to these crushes. Only recently – while bingeing on two vastly popular YA romance screen adaptations, Jenny Han’s The Summer I Turned Pretty and Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper – have those feelings come flooding back with force. Suddenly, I have slipped. Tripped. Fallen down the rabbit hole. I am 16 again.

This youthful rite of passage is powerfully explored in actor Margaret Cabourn-Smith’s new podcast series, Crushed, with guests from Dolly Alderton to Sara Pascoe tracing the joys and horrors of unrequited love. “I was thinking, ‘What are you an expert in?’” Cabourn-Smith tells me. “I feel like my life has been a long stream of crushes that I have learnt things from. I had an idea for a memoir called ‘Everyone I’ve Never Slept With’, because I feel like that says more about me. It was just always so intense...”

Often, if one says the C-word aloud, it is likely to be downplayed by an audience as a frivolous, overly saccharine thing. Futile. Lacking the fertile ground needed to reach the pearly gates of real romantic wisdom. Pfft, come on. For anyone who has experienced this – which I’m assuming is anyone reading this – especially during those formative years, it’s like being stuck on the same record. The song keeps playing over and over again. There’s a level of irony when you listen back to Jennifer Paige’s late 1990s hit “Crush”. She repeatedly sings that one line – “It’s just... a little crush...” – almost willing it to be remotely true. “It’s funny because she sounds broken,” Cabourn-Smith concurs, laughing. “I think that’s the point. In my teenage diaries I was aware it was sort of ridiculous, but there was no getting away from how [the people I fancied] affected absolutely everything I did.”

It’s a specific kind of desire. All-consuming. Your vision doesn’t feel damaged, not really; just ever changed. If anything you are more focused, and fiercely arrogant in your surety. I smile at one scene in The Summer I Turned Pretty when our protagonist Belly – on the cusp of turning 16 – confirms her attachment to her childhood best friend and long-time crush: “You’re the only boy I’ve ever thought about. My whole life, it’s always been you.” That statement is just so goddamn pure. Irresistibly sweet, and sincere, and tormented at the same time. It’s always been you.

Singing only to you: Usher at the Soul Train Awards in 2004 (Getty)

For Bolu Babalola, Romcomoisseur™  and author of this summer’s most buzzed-about romance novel Honey & Spice, cult teenage romcoms such as 10 Things I Hate About You were a direct source of inspiration for her book. “Those were the romcoms I grew up watching and loving,” she says. “I am 31, but what’s so great about watching or reading teen romances is [they’re about] real emotions – just heightened. It clarifies emotions for us and helps us to see them in a distilled form.” So much of romance, she adds, “isn’t just about jumping into kissing someone, but the yearning and the connection that builds”. Even if that yearning is built on a fantasy image, or an idea of someone, it still bleeds into our reality in some shape or form. It pushes our own story forward.

Usher was my main pop-star crush when I was around 13-14 years old,” Babalola says. “For me, the Confessions album is pivotal in my development and understanding of my sexuality. It wasn’t just about looks. It was his charisma. His smile. When he’s looking at you, it feels like he’s really looking at you, and that taps into something deeper. We want to be seen, engaged with. Even my TV crushes, even if it was about a superficial part of their personality, still say something about what I desired and wanted in a relationship.”

The rapture of romance while coming of age can be potent. Unbruised by previous heartache. It’s like you’re a blank canvas, the brushstrokes of pain and pleasure both unfamiliar and dazzling. Every gaze, every touch, every almost-kiss can be felt with an almost crippling intensity.

It’s why I so readily devour those scenes in books, and films, and on TV, where the younger generation high-key crush. That moment in The Summer I Turned Pretty when someone walks into a room and it feels like every motion is exquisitely slow and you can hear the hum of Haim playing: “I’m alone in my head / But I wish you were in my bed / Can’t get a read on myself...” Or in one overwhelmingly sentimental scene in 10 Things..., when Julia Stiles recites poetry with see-through subtext in an English class – through actual tears – without fear of being perceived as “unhinged”. It’s heartening to watch these characters who are untouched by the dampening of experience that makes us less open to humiliating ourselves. It’s a radical space to inhabit, if you think about it. Hyped on hope.

I’ve long reasoned with being a romantic, and it’s always bothered me that the word goes hand in hand with being “hopeless”. As if it’s something distinctly unreasonable, to be swiftly diminished. Believing that all is not lost? It’s a tall order. And while I know there are sceptics who will disagree with me, I don’t think we should ever squash that soft part of ourselves that it’s all too easy simply to bury. Today even more so, in an age when we are just one scroll away from becoming embittered by messages telling us the world is going to s***.

Christopher Briney as Conrad and Lola Tung as Belly in Prime Video’s ‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’ (Dana Hawley/Prime Video)

No. Romance is a sweeter pill to swallow, one that can add intrigue to lives otherwise paved with never-ending responsibility. Quite frankly, we are all long due a romance renaissance. As Gloria Steinem once said: “Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities.”

Maybe, in the end, this is why crushes endure across a lifetime. They’re almost entirely fuelled by a deep pang of curiosity. “I just think if it gives me a thrill, what’s wrong with that?” Cabourn-Smith says. “I’m just getting my kicks and staying in touch with my teenage self. I think the best way to ‘feel young’ is to keep the connection with the young person you were, however embarrassing they were, and however different you are now.” To remember, she says, “what it was like to have all those new feelings”.

They say you never forget your first crush. Your first love. Your first deep cut. And yet, this still seems far too narrow a lens. Because it’s not just about the person you’re remembering in that moment but, crucially, a past version of yourself. Fumbling around. Trying on different identities. When long summer days were ablaze with discovery, sounds, styles, sexual awakenings. To paraphrase Belly, it’s always been about you.

‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’ and ‘Heartstopper’ are streaming now on Prime Video and Netflix respectively

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