Moral Panics

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Inseparable Companions: American Youth and Moral Panics February 8, 2012

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Page 1: Moral Panics

Inseparable Companions: American Youth and Moral Panics

February 8, 2012

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Other People’s Property (1951)


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Reading Hajdu • Don’t worry about biographical details • Look for broad pronouncements about chronology, motivation, change

(sometimes they’ll stick out at the beginning of a paragraph, but not always): – “To watchdogs of American esteem in the early post-Victorian years, the

earthy and raucous pages of the Sunday funnies threatened to devalue the US’ emerging status as a civilized world power” (12).

– “Superman spoke directly to survivors of the Depression: he was an immigrant (from another planet) himself, and he embodied the Roosevelt-era ideal of power employed for the public good” (30).

– “Nearly all young people—boys and girls, loners, athletes, scholars, and debutantes—read comic books, and most of their parents did not” (37).

– “Within a year of Pearl Harbor, the American press was probing the effects of the war on home-front families, and reports of uncaged young animals tearing up their neighborhoods began appearing in newspapers and magazines around the country” (83).

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This Lecture

• What is a “moral panic”? • Moral panics and youth: a special relationship• MPs and youth in the US: the 1920s and the


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Genealogy of “Moral Panic”

• Term coined by sociologist Stanley Cohen, 1972 • Characteristics, per Cohen…universal in all “societies”;

mass media is involved in representation and exacerbates panic; outcomes are various

• Later additions to theory: Stuart Hall et al believed that the state was often also involved for its own ends (control of immigrant, black communities)

• OTOH, Underdown et al believed that some threats could be real, and sociologists shouldn’t assume that people are being manipulated

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Mods v. Rockers

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Moral Panics and Youth

• Made worse by belief in “tabula rasa” • Emphasis on society’s supposed decadence,

declension• Conservative or liberal? Strange bedfellows• Often, the media panics about the media • Particular significance of race and class

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Adam Walsh, 6, kidnapped in Florida, 1981

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Moral Panics of the 20s

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John Held, Jr.: “Insatiable Neckers” (early 1920s)

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1920s: Parental Objections/Underlying Anxieties

• Short skirts! Insatiable necking! Smoking! Disrespect! Amorality!

• James Truslow Adams: “Here in these United States in this post-war period, realizing that all is not right with our world, we have found the scapegoat which permits us to go about our business with a free mind. The name on its collar is ‘The Younger Generation…’” (Fass, 17)

• Parents were: Sad about the War. Nervous about technological change. Confused about possibilities for more leisure. Conflicted about the evident failure of Prohibition.

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Brando in “The Wild One,” 1953

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Looking Ahead to the Postwar Period: Moral Panics/Underlying Causes

• Mass media brainwashes kids! Fathers are losing authority! Kids pay more attention to their peers than their parents! Kids are sinking to lowest possible cultural level!

• Parents were: Afraid of robotic conformity (demonstrable effectiveness of propaganda in WWII/advertising). Nervous about wartime breakdown of gender boundaries. Guilty about the war/the bomb. Uneasy with class mobility.

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References• “1964: Mods and Rockers Jailed After Seaside Riots.” BBC, “On This Day,” May 18; (accessed 2/7/12)

• Cohen, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (MacGibbon and Kee, 1972)

• Fass, Paula. The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s (Oxford UP, 1977)• Hall, Stuart, et al. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (1978) • Gilbert, James. A Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s

(Oxford UP, 1986) • Hunt, Arnold. “’Moral Panic’ and Moral Language in the Media.” The British Journal of Sociology,

vol 48, no 4 (December 1997), 629-648.• Page, Ellen Welles. “A Flapper’s Appeal to Parents.” Outlook, December 6, 1922, p. 607. (Accessed

at, 2/7/12) • Underdown, David. Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660

(Clarendon Press, 1985)• “What Makes Sneaker Collecting a Subculture?”, SHB:SneakerHeadBlog, May 12, 2011; (accessed 2/7/12)