How’s this for being a high-achieving teen? When Maya Van Wagenen was in eighth grade and wanted to be popular, she followed instructions she found in a 1950s teen-advice book, Betty Cornell’s Glamour Guide for Teens, and kept a diary of her progress. The strategy worked, and in June her YA memoir, based on that diary, was acquired by Dutton Children’s Books; the book, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for the Modern Geek, is due out next April. Then, early this week, Deadline broke the news that DreamWorks had optioned the forthcoming book and the ’50s book she used as a guide, making Van Wagenen, now 15, ”the youngest non-actor to ever make a feature deal at DreamWorks.”
So Van Wagenen is now: popular in school, a soon-to-be-published author and signed to a movie deal. A list of accomplishments that — once your average adult gets over feeling like he or she hasn’t made good enough use of those extra years — makes it easy to feel good for the teenager, especially given what information is out there about the book and author.
Publicity materials for the book and movie emphasize that, while some of the advice sounds ridiculous (to always wear white gloves, for example), the real message Van Wagenen learned from the book and her own personal social experiment was a deeper one. When her book was acquired, the publisher noted that it was “an important story about friendship and self-confidence that every teen — and adult — needs to read.”
In an excerpt from the book, Van Wagenen seems self-deprecating and humble, with a sharp sense of humor. Deadline‘s description of the project notes that the Betty Cornell book’s ultimate advice was about “being open and honest, and kind” and that paying attention to the social niceties of her school taught Van Wagenen that everyone, no matter how popular, had similar insecurities. Though Popular isn’t out yet, it seems likely that the book and movie will both have modern feel-good conclusions.
Which is good—considering the risks to teenage girls of taking 1950s-style advice without a modern filter.
As Regan Rhea writes in the study Teen Obsession: Competing Images of Adolescents in American Culture, 1945-1963, the ’50s were something of a unique moment in teen culture. High-schoolers were the subject of much societal hand-wringing, which contributed to a hitherto unseen level of scrutiny about whether a teen looked “right.” Though Betty Cornell advocated for individuality—”You can no more become a slave to crowd customs than you can be attractive in your own right if you pattern yourself after a movie star. If you are going to amount to a row of beans in this world, you have to start by setting up your own standards and sticking to them,” she writes, in a passage excerpted by Rhea—that was only possible to a certain degree.
As explained by Elissa Schappell, author of the novel Blueprints for Building Better Girls and a collector of etiquette books (and a one-time owner of a copy of the Glamour Guide for Teens), these vintage advice books don’t have much of the be-yourself ethos that is more common today. They are full of rules that must be followed, and, as Schappell puts it in the reader’s guide to her novel, “For women, who pay a much larger price for not conforming to the rules society lays down, the stakes are high.”
Of course, the idea that conforming helps a high-schooler become popular isn’t exactly news now, and it wasn’t then either. And much of Cornell’s advice about how to best conform is in the harmless-to-good range. Her diet advice is about moderation (“If you are sensible, you’ll share a soda with your date once in a while, but you won’t ask for another and another and another”), though she does recommend broiled calf’s liver as a healthy dinner, and her tips on hairstyles are the kind of stuff you still find in teen magazines (oval face = anything works). There’s nothing wrong with good posture, not wearing too much make-up or even getting rid of your own blackheads.
But the source book isn’t all warm lessons about confidence. Considering that the Glamour Guide also contains messages like “beautiful hair is about the most important thing a girl has” it’s hard to imagine that a reader who didn’t already have confidence that there were at least a few more important things about her than her hair would benefit much from an in-depth read. It’s also worth noting that, according to news reports from the time, Cornell’s own personal teen make-over was focused on weight-loss, when she went from being a plus-side juniors model to being nearly 5-foot-9 and weighing only 90 pounds. (Her waist circumference was 19.5 inches in 1947, though her much-recommended girdle probably helped with that.) At a time when tween-girl self-esteem is so endangered that the New York City government launches a PSA campaign to boost their confidence, there’s a fine line between wholesome, helpful hints and must-be-perfect-girl pressure.
Even the book’s original author knows that not all of her vintage advice is suitable for the aspiring popular girls of today. Asked by the New York Post whether she thought her advice was still applicable today, Cornell (who’s now 86 and who met her young protegée during the course of Van Wagenen’s experiment) replied: “Some of it, but not all, because so many things have changed.’’
Maya Van Wagenen seems smart enough and self-aware enough to know what she was doing and to sort out which advice should be taken seriously and which should be just for the sake of the social experiment. A book and movie deal don’t happen by accident, after all — and in the end, that book and movie may help bring Cornell’s advice up to date, so other girls don’t have to try to fit in with a vision of perfection that’s a half-century old.