Coming of Age in a Material World: Juvenile Delinquency and Adolescent Angst


Debra Lynn Stephens and Ronald Paul Hill (1994) ,"Coming of Age in a Material World: Juvenile Delinquency and Adolescent Angst", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 572-575.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 572-575


Debra Lynn Stephens, Villanova University

Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University


The transition from childhood to adulthood is a major rite of passage in all cultures, one that involves a significant change in status and role behaviors (Wright 1991). In many cultures, adolescents develop new identities by emulating adult behavior. In America, however, youths "have difficulty finding a preordained place in the social unit (Lipsitz 1977, p. 5). Instead of providing a clear path into adulthood, our culture supplies adolescents with a long period of emphasis on self-definition, with expectations of "open choice" and with the possibility of social mobility.

While most individuals are able to confront this challenge and construct the self as a positive, functioning adult member of the community, there are many in our society who fail to move successfully into adult roles, and end up engaging in antisocial or criminal behaviors. According to Lipsitz (1977), one possible explanation is that delinquent youths bear the additional burdens of geographic mobility and/or lack of opportunity because of their poverty and lack of education. Thus, violent and illegal acts become a way of gaining revenge against a society that is, in effect, a prison for these youths. For example, stealing may be viewed as an alternative preferable to employment at a low level service job that provides limited opportunities for advancement or higher income (National Commission on Youth 1980).

The purpose of this paper is to compare the portrayal of juvenile delinquents by film makers with consumer research findings about such youths (Hill 1992). The research findings suggest that delinquents lack positive role models, and live in a violent and unsupportive world. Thus, they prefer to "live for today" by acquiring money and possessions, typically by unlawful means. Their usage and disposition of these material goods demonstrate the importance of wealth as a status maker in their communities. Together, the films selected for this study represent a historical portrayal of these types of troubled youthCmiddle-class youths lacking any competent and empathic adult guidance (Rebel Without A Cause), disadvantaged white youths who are propelled into juvenile delinquency by circumstances beyond their control (The Outsiders), and inner-city blacks who must struggle just to stay alive (Boyz N The Hood). Below, each film will be discussed and its portrayal of juvenile delinquents is compared with the consumer research findings.

Rebel Without A Cause

This film was directed by Nicholas Ray and starred James Dean as the proverbial "good kid gone bad." Jim sees his father as ineffectual and weak, and his mother as a domineering "bitch." Arrested on drunk and disorderly charges, Jim confronts his parents when they come to the police station to secure his release:

Father, flustered, explaining to police officer: "We just moved here, y'understand, and th-the kid hasn't got any friends, y'understand, and we moved into a-"

Jim, shouting to be heard above his father: "Tell the man why we moved here, Dad."

Father: "Will you hold it?"

Jim (low and bitter): "You can't protect me."

This dialogue poignantly expresses the relationship "dance" Jim and his father are stuck in: that of a father who, while he loves his son, feels unwilling or unable to offer the boy any guidance; and a son who, while he loves his father, does not respect him and feels compelled to punish him for his incompetence as a parent.

Thus, Jim, like the youths in the Hill study, lacks a strong father figure to turn to for guidance and to emulate. The other two protagonists in Rebel also lack effective fathers: Judy's father is cold and rejecting, while John's (Plato's) is absent. Unlike the real delinquents, however, none of the protagonists has an especially warm, loving mother. Indeed, Plato's mother is hardly there for him: he declares at one point in the film that she took the money that had been earmarked for his psychotherapy, and used it to pay for her trip to Hawaii.

The initial dialogue between Jim and his father at the police station goes on to illustrate the most striking difference between the youths in Rebel and those interviewed by Hill: the former neither suffer material deprivation, nor do they seem to value material goods.

Father (on the defensive): "Do you mind if I try [to protect you]? Do you have to slam the door in my face? I'm trying to get to him what happened. Don't I buy you everything you want? A bicycle, you got a bicycle, a car..."

Jim (sarcastically): "You buy me many things, you've bought me many things."

Father (pleading): "Not just things, we give you love and affection, don't we?"

Jim's comments indicate that he sees material possessions as poor substitutes indeed for the parental empathy and guidance he so desperately needs. The real juveniles, in contrast, equate money and what it can buy with power and freedom from the harsh, impoverished environment in which they are struggling to surviveCpsychologically as well as physically.

Jim, Judy, and Plato appear to be suffering from "love deprivation" at least as much as the delinquents in the Hill study. The deprivation experienced by the film protagonists is eloquently conveyed in the following dialogue, which occurs when Plato, pretending to be a real estate agent, "shows" an abandoned mansion to Jim and Judy, who are pretending to be typical upper middle-class newlyweds:

Jim: "You see, we're newlyweds..."

Judy: "Yes! Oh no, there's just one thing. What aboutC"

Plato: "Children? Right this way.... You see, we really don't encourage them. They're so noisy and troublesome. Don't you agree?"

Judy: "Oh, yes, yes, and so terribly annoying when they cry. Oh, yes, I don't know what to do when they cry, do you, Dear?"

Jim: "Drown them, like puppies!"

John (leading the other two to an empty swimming pool): "As you see, the nursery's far away from the rest of the house.... You'll find that this is a wonderful arrangement. They can carry on and you'll never even notice. In fact, if you lock them in, you'll never have to see them again!"

Judy: "Much less talk to them!"

Jim: "Talk to them? Nobody talks to children!"

Judy: "No, they just tell them."

As for school and community support for the Rebel youths, it appears that the protagonists have given up on adults, viewing them either with contempt (as Jim sees his father) or with despair, as evidenced in Plato's comment to the juvenile counselor at the police station, where he has been brought for shooting some puppies: "Nobody can help me." It is clear that for these adolescents, good intentions on an adult's part do not cut it. In the Hill study, there is far more evidence that support is simply not forthcoming from schools and community. While both film and reality portray a lack of subjectively perceived adult support, in the film, adults try to help and fail, but in reality the adult community displays massive indifferenceCor inertiaCwhen it comes to helping troubled youths find their way.

Like the real delinquents, those in Rebel turn to each other for support and guidance. And, like the real juveniles, the price of belonging to a peer group is to engage in high-risk behaviorsCfor the former, stealing, selling drugs, and fighting, and for the latter, fighting and "chickie runs": to gain acceptance by his peers in a new town, Jim is forced to participate in a contest in which two youths drive their cars toward a bluff, and the one who jumps out of his car first is a chicken. While no one enjoys these contests, as Jim's opponent puts it, "We've got to do somethin.'" This youth dies in his attempt to outlast Jim in a chickie run.

But peers in Rebels (also like those in the real world, according to Hill's study), do provide one another with emotional and physical support, to the best of their ability. For example, in the jail scene referred to above, Jim observes Plato and his guardian (the housekeeper) in an exchange, and attempts to help, though Plato is a stranger to him:

Plato's guardian, concerned: "You shiverin', John, are you cold?"

Plato continues to sit with his head bowed.

Jim takes off his jacket and offers it to Plato: "Want my jacketCwant my jacket? It's warm..."

Plato's guardian takes the jacket and attempts to place it on Plato's shoulders, but he shakes his head, almost imperceptibly, so she gives it back to Jim.

At the film's conclusion, when Plato, wielding a loaded gun, breaks into a building seeking refuge from the police pursuing him, Jim and Judy go after him, and the ensuing dialogue reflects the trust that Plato now feels for Jim:

Jim: "Are you cold? Here (offering Plato his jacket), it's warm. Here's my jacketCit's warm."

Plato: "Can I keep it?"

Jim: "Well, what do you think?"

Plato puts on the jacket, wrapping himself in it.

In the ensuing gun battle between Plato and the police, Plato tragically dies. Before Plato's body is taken away on a stretcher, Jim, weeping, stoops over his lost friend and zips up the jacket, murmuring to himself, "He's always cold."

The Outsiders

This film was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starred several members of the Hollywood "brat pack," including Patrick Swazy and Rob Lowe. In contrast to the adults in Rebel Without a Cause, those in The Outsiders are not even well-intentioned but ineffectualCin fact, the only adults shown are trigger-happy policemen and parents who are too busy fighting with each other to even notice whether their son is home or not. This dearth of adult support seems even more extreme than that for the juveniles in the Hill study.

The protagonists in The Outsiders are "greasers"Cworking-class youths who both hate and envy the "soces"Ctheir upper middle-class cohorts. The difference in status becomes abundantly clear in a scene in which two greasersCJohnny and Pony BoyCare saying good bye to the two "soc" girls they've just met at a drive-in movie:

Sherry (to Pony Boy): "If I see you in school and I don't say Hi, please don't take it personal, ok?"

Pony Boy: "Yeah, I know."

Sherry: "ReallyCyou're a nice boy an' everything, butC"

Pony Boy: "It's ok."

The greasers, trapped by their social and economic circumstances, forced to defend a title and a way of life that they find repugnant, resemble the real juveniles in their reverence for material possessions, as the following dialogue poignantly illustrates:

(In this scene, Johnny and Pony Boy are sitting before a fire they've built for warmth in a vacant lot, talking about the group of soces they've just had a run-in with.)

Johnny (with admiration and longing): "Man, that was a tough car, huhCMustangs, they're tough."

Pony Boy (bitterly): "Big-time soces, all right. It's always the same."

Johnny (starts to cry): "I can't take much more of this. I-I-I'll kill myself or somethin'."

Pony Boy (goes to Johnny and puts an arm around his shoulders): "Johnny, c'mon, you don't want to kill yourself..."

Johnny (with an edge of desperation): "I've gotta do somethin'. Seems like it must be someplace without greasers, socesCmust be someplace just plain ordinary peopleCjust people..."

Like the real juveniles, the outsiders try to give one another support and guidance not available elsewhere, as we see later on in the scene in the lot:

Johnny (to Pony Boy): "You better get home, all right? I'm gonna stay all night out here. Who'd care, anyway?"

Pony Boy: "All right. If you get cold, come on over to my house."

Later in the film, it becomes necessary for Johnny and Pony Boy to hide from the police, because Johnny has killed a soc who was trying to drown Pony Boy. They go to their friend Dally for guidance, and he instructs them to hop a freight to an abandoned church, and provides them with a gun. After their first night at the church, Johnny goes shopping for provisions, returning with a surprise for Pony Boy:

Johnny (taking items from bag): "...a loaf of bread, a week's supply of baloney here, peanut butterC"

Pony Boy (peeks into the bag and retrieves a paperback book): "Gone With the Wind! Johnny, how'd you know I always wanted Gone With the Wind?"

Johnny: "I remembered you sayin' somethin' about it an' you went to see that movie, remember? Thought maybe you could read it out loud, help kill time."

Pony Boy (places a hand on Johnny's shoulder): "Thanks a lot, Johnny."

Later in the course of events, Johnny and Pony Boy display true heroism when they are on an outing with Dally, who has come to check on them in their hide-out. The two fugitives see a church going up in flames, find out from the adults outside it that a number of small children are still trapped inside, and go in after them. Johnny is severely burned, and is lying in the hospital when the following scene takes place:

(Pony Boy and his friend Two-Bit are out walking when they are accosted by a group of soces, one of whom wants to talk to Pony Boy out of earshot of the others.)

Randy: "I couldn't tell this to anyone else. My friends would think I's off my rocker or somethin'. Y'know that friend of yours, the one that got burned, he might die?"

Pony Boy: "Yeah..."

Randy (referring to a "rumble" that will be held that nightCa regularly scheduled fight between the greasers and soces): "TonightCpeople get hurt in rumbles, maybe even killed, right? (begins to cry noiselessly) You can't win, you know that, don't cha? Doesn't matter if you whip us tonight, you'll still be where you were before, at the bottom. And we'll still be the lucky ones, at the top, with all the breaks. Doesn't matter, greasers'll still be greasers, and soces'll still be soces. Doesn't matter. (pulls himself together) Anyway, thanks, greaser."

Randy begins walking back to his friends, but turns back toward Pony Boy: "Hey, I didn't mean that, I meant 'thanks, kid.' "

Pony Boy: "Been nice talkin' to you, Randy. My name's Pony Boy."

Ironically, Randy's manner perpetuates the very injustices he appears to abhor. And to his way of thinking, even heroism cannot change a greaser's social status; he sees no possibility of change.

But Johnny, who dies in the end, leaving Pony Boy a note stuck between the pages of their copy of Gone With the Wind, has a very different vision:

Pony BoyC I asked the nurse to give you this book so you could finish it. It was worth saving those little kids. Their lives are worth more than mine. They have more to live for. Tell Dally I think it's worth it....There's still a lot of good in the world. Tell Dally, I don't think he knows.

The note never reaches Pony Boy; he is killed by police while trying to help Dally escape from the scene of a robbery he has committed in his despair and rage over Johnny's death. This tragic irony, we wouldCand do, on occasionCsee played out by today's troubled, trapped youths.

Boyz 'N the Hood

This film, directed by John Singleton, looks at the inertia and impotence of black youths in South Central Los Angeles. Like The Outsiders, these adolescents face a day-to-day environment devoid of any form of family or community support, and they must negotiate their way through a violent network of armed gang members, drug dealers, and trigger-happy police. The hero of the film, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr., stands in stark contrast to the typical juvenile, for he is employed, eschews drugs, respects his girlfriend, and listens to his father.

Trey, the hero, is fortunate enough to have a strong, wise, and loving father;

"You know, Trey, you may think I'm bein' hard on you right now. But I'm not. What I'm doin' is I'm tryin' to teach you how to be responsible. It's like your little friends across the street, they don't have anybody to show them how to do that, they don't. You gonna see how they end up, too."

And after an attempted break-in, Trey and his father have the following conversation about black-on-black violence:

Father: "Somebody must've been prayin' for that fool, 'cause I swear I aimed right for his head."

Trey: "You shoulda blew it off."

Father: "Don't say that. Don't say that. Just woulda been contributin' to killin' another brother."

The black policeman who comes out to their house to get an account of the crime expresses a very different view:

"Y'know, it's too bad you didn't get'm. Be one less nigger out on the streets we'd have to worry about."

Trey's "little friends across the street" are as deprived of love and guidance as Trey is enriched with it. The message that Ricky, Chris, and Doughboy get from their mother, who is raising them alone, is very clear:

"You ain't shit, you don't do shit, and you ain't gonna amount to shit."

The fact that Trey has a strong father figure sets him apart from the juveniles in the Hill study. While his friends resemble the latter in that their fathers are absent, their mother is hardly the loving but permissive type described by Hill as typical of the delinquents' mothers.

As for support from the community and the schools, there is none in evidence. The only school scene in the film gives eloquent evidence that the schools offer these youths nothing relevant or helpful. In this scene, Trey's (white) teacher holds forth about the first Thanksgiving to a group of youngsters who are growing up in a war zone, and some of whom have seen their own siblings or parents murdered. The film closely parallels the reality in this respect; it is all too easy to understand why inner-city youths are dropping out of school in droves.

In Boyz, we see little about the importance of material possessions in acquiring status. What becomes poignantly obvious early on, though, is that stealing is the only way in which many of the youths depicted can obtain anything of their own. In one instance, Trey and his father return from a fishing outing just in time to see Ricky led away in handcuffs because he was caught stealing from a local retailer. Ironically, during their outing, Trey and his father had discussed the importance of asking rather than stealing. It is safe to assume that his friends' mother never engaged her sons in such a discussion about right and wrong, respect and disrespect.

Trey's father is clearly a stronger influence on Trey than are his peers. But Ricky is torn between the lifestyles of his brothers, one of whom has been partially paralyzed by a bullet, and a desire to make something of himself. He has his first child when he is 16 or so; the child crawls into the livingroom while a recruiter for the USC football team sits talking with Ricky about what he would like to major in in college. A few months later, Ricky and Trey are walking home from a local market, when Ricky is gunned down by two youths who were angry about something he had said to them. It is Ricky's single-minded attention to finding out which number is on his lottery ticket that prevents his noticing his pursuers closing in on him.

Trey's father makes sense of this violence in a way that makes us as marketers feel every bit as guilty as those who pull the trigger:

Speaking of crack, he says: "It wasn't a problem till it was in Iowa, and it showed up on Wall Street, where there are hardly any black people....Why is it that there's a gun shop on almost every corner in this community? For the same reason that there's a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves."

This film and the Hill study give us a clear message that many of us do not wish to hear: what is happening in our inner cities is everyone's problemCand we owe it to ourselves, our communities, and our children to get busy searching for solutions.


Hill, Ronald Paul (1992), "Transition in Turmoil: When Becoming an Adult Involves Criminal Behavior," in Advances in Consumer Research, John Sherry and Brian Sternthal, eds. Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 399-401.

Lipsitz, Joan (1977), Growing Up Forgotten, Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

National Commission on Youth (1980), The Transition of Youth to Adulthood: A Bridge Too Long, Boulder, Westview Press.

Wright, Newell D. (1991), "The Role of Consumption in the Transition from Pre-Adult to Adult," working paper, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.



Debra Lynn Stephens, Villanova University
Ronald Paul Hill, Villanova University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21 | 1994

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