The fear of youth may be nothing new, with scientists reckoning it as starting out back when the idea of ‘teenager’ began to develop.  But comic books have rarely responded to a cultural issue so profoundly as in the person of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel…

The Fear of Youth

The fear of youth is nothing new.  As a concept, the idea of ‘teenager’ didn’t really exist until the 1920s, and had been mostly driven by the emergence of the automobile – increasing freedom gave youths freedom from parents, particularly as regards courtship, which became ‘dating’.  This combined with the growing social impact of high-school education to create a whole new sub-culture in society.  And with any change in sub-culture there must always be a reaction of fear.    By 1954, Newsweek Magazine had a cover, “Let’s Face It: Our Teenagers Are Out Of Control.”  (Take a step back and remember: that may have been your generation, your parents’ generation, or even your grandparents’ generation.)

In the UK, the rise of ephebiphobia (the fear of youth) is usually linked by academics to the James Bulger killing.  James Bulger was a two-year-old boy who was murdered in 1993 by two young boys, and a sense of moral panic gripped the nation.  Teenagers would never be seen as trustworthy again, and – as many journals have discussed – whenever a group of teenagers are seen in the street together, they are suspected of being up to no good.

In case you have exactly that mindset, and are wondering why I’m writing this article, let me give you an example from a few years ago: I was part of one such a group, making our way through town to go see a movie, and I remember seeing people look at us with distrust.  Because there were more than five of us – indeed, there were about fifteen – it was clear people weren’t comfortable.  But were we really a threat?  Well, given that we were the members of the Christian Union out on a social, I rather hope not.  All passers-by saw were a group of teenagers, but there was a lot more to our grouping than just that, and that ‘lot more’ was rather more important in defining us than our age.

Mike Males of the Los Angeles Times has written many important articles against the fear of youths.

““In the ‘60s,” LA Police Chief Bernard C Parks told LA Youth, “rarely did we see violent crime” by teens.  Today “there is significant youth violence”.  Not surprisingly polls show adults fear that youth violence is up, that youths commit half of all violent crimes and that most schools are vulnerable to mass shootings.  One-third fear personal victimisation by youths…

Contrary to Parks’ claims, LA law-enforcement records show youth rape, murder and felony arrest rates today are well below their 1960s levels, when juveniles committed a far high proportion of serious crime.  Five times more “ordinary” (“white”) youths were arrested for murder every year in the 1970s than in 1999 or 2000.  The FBI’s 2000 Uniform Crime report estimates youths commit just 5% of the nation’s homicides, the lowest proportion on record.”

Mike Males, LA Times

In other words – fear and reality don’t coexist.  As Mike Males observes, any anecdote can be used to argue there are grounds for fear of youths.  But every time a middle-aged man kills someone, there isn’t a moral panic about middle-aged males.

If you want to study more into the topic, I recommend checking out The Free Child Project.

Ms. Marvel’s Response to the Fear of Youth

Now here’s the thing: Kamala Khan, otherwise known as Ms. Marvel, is a direct confrontation of the fear of youth.  In Kamala Khan we have a teenager in the mould of Spider-Man, a youth who’s struggling to work out what it means to be a hero.  And she is good.  Through the lens of Ms. Marvel, writer G. Willow Wilson has given us all a teenage super-hero to believe in and relate to, and in so doing she has performed a brilliant service.

(Incidentally, I have high hopes that Marvel Studios’ next films will begin to challenge exactly the same point; they’re choosing to take Spider-Man back to his roots in their film franchise, and explore Peter Parker as the teenager at high school.)

But not content with addressing this fear indirectly, G. Willow Wilson has confronted it head-on.  First of all, the teenage hero bears the real name Kamala, which comes from the word for ‘perfection’.  And Ms. Marvel stories include a strong emphasis on choosing not to be afraid full-stop.

Ms. Marvel good dog

Wilson tightens her focus in #8, explicitly discussing the question of ‘fear of youth’ in one of Kamala’s classes.

Ms. Marvel on Society 1

Initially, it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene, but it’s tremendously powerful.  In this one moment we see Kamala’s answer to the fear of youth; if you give up on the next generation, then you give up on the future.

By #10, we’re confronted with a horrible question: what would happen if kids believed the stuff we spout about the next generation?  Wilson’s first villain for Ms. Marvel is the Inventor, and he’s nothing more than a parrot, echoing the lies of society.  He talks kids into becoming human batteries for his machines, and here’s how:

Kids are Parasites

And, again, Kamala gives her response:

Just because they're old

Ms. Marvel stands with her generation, an icon, insisting that there is hope for the future, that those who fear are wrong, and that “just because they’re old doesn’t make them right”.  She challenges that it is the present generation of adults who messed up the economy and the environment, and it is the teenagers of today who will have to deal with that.  So who’s so antisocial now?

When the Inventor makes his grand entrance, there’s another telling scene:

The Inventor gets Creepier

Wilson’s inventor is echoing the lies society has told children “since the moment they were born”.

Ultimately, Ms. Marvel’s optimism drives a change, in a brilliant scene where she confronts the teenagers with the hope of their future.

Ms. Marvel the optimist 1

Ms. Marvel the Optimist 2

G. Willow Wilson’s character stands in direct counter to society’s fear of youth. And, incidentally, the comic is a record-seller – and one of few comics performing better digitally than physically. My personal view is that this means it’s selling mostly to the next generation of comic-book readers.

It’s selling to the kids.

And it’s confronting the fear and hatred with hope and optimism, giving a statement about how their generation can contribute something of very real value.

That’s a message I’m happy for them to hear.

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