A few months after Brett Kavanaugh graduated from Georgetown Prep, a school that some now view as a late 20th century caldron of moneyed degeneracy, in 1983, “Risky Business” opened to become one of the 10 highest grossing movies of the year and an iconic entry in the library of American adolescent comedy.
In the film, Tom Cruise’s character is admitted to Princeton despite an entirely middling academic record when he impresses his interviewer by turning his parents’ nicely appointed suburban colonial into a brothel while they are away. More clearly than any other film of its period, “Risky Business,” hinges the privileging of male mediocrity on the exploitation of female disadvantage.
The nomination of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and the accusations of long ago sexual violence — which he denies — that could derail it, have occasioned many of us to re-evaluate our own high-school experiences. Our traumas and lapsed memories, our silences or complicities, as compared to the current youth culture, to find confirmation that we have evolved.
[Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday about her allegations against Judge Kavanaugh. Follow our live coverage.]
What has actually changed? At the level of popular expression, we are unlikely to make movies like “Risky Business” anymore or turn over yearbook pages to the self-regard of boys who perversely want us to know all the ways they enjoyed themselves.
Our popular entertainments for teenagers have become more overtly scrutinizing. For example, there is the series “13 Reasons Why,” in which a dead girl recounts the miseries that led to her suicide, including witnessing a drunk girl getting raped at a house party by a friend of the boyfriend they shared.
So much about high-school life today looks very different than it did in the 1980s, or even from a decade ago. Last spring, the ninth grade daughter of a friend told me, for example, that she could think of only two people in her New York City private high-school class of approximately 80, who identified as straight. Most considered themselves Q, for questioning. They did not want to be confined.
This sweeping shift to an embrace of fluidity — which extends beyond the coasts to the existence of gender-neutral bathrooms in public schools in Missouri — masks ruptures in the new aura of enlightenment. “There is this rhetoric that everyone is so woke,” said Anthony Charuvastra, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, in Manhattan. “And then this older pattern of male entitlement presents itself.”
He continued, “gender roles are much slower to change. In my entire history of clinical practice, I have never had an experience with an adolescent boy who has come to me and said, ‘how do I make sure, that I don’t go over the line?’ That’s my small sample size, obviously, but young women are constantly walking this razor’s edge trying to seem desirable and maintain their safety — either their reputational safety or their physical safety. They are less likely to blame themselves, now, when something goes wrong, but they bump into this power asymmetry around sexual expectations and drinking and they are really confused.”
Last year, Bustle, a digital magazine for young women, published a list of the most essential young-adult books about sexual assault — there were 13. Where boys have been told that their misbehaviors will be rewarded, girls have been reminded over and over that they are imperiled by virtue of being alive.
What has remained largely constant, in fact, what still follows a direct throughline from the universe of Georgetown Prep in 1983, despite parental delusions to the contrary, are the drinking practices of teenagers growing up surrounded by affluence and outsize expectations.
The calendars Judge Kavanaugh turned over this week clearly illustrate the yin-yang of upper-middle class adolescent existence, the tension between the ambition to achieve and the pursuit of assisted release: there is “Beach Week,’’ and the party at Richie’s and then back-to-back interviews at Brown and Yale and football and more football and basketball and the party at Anne’s and the beach with Donny.
Nationally, alcohol and drug use among 12 to 17 year olds has been declining for years. In December the National Institute of Drug Abuse reported that daily alcohol use and binge drinking fell significantly for all grades from 2012 to 2017. But there are a few gaps in this narrative.
Since the 1990s, Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University has been studying patterns of substance abuse across socioeconomic groups. Early in her career, she discovered, almost by accident, that children from well-off families were essentially worse off than those from poor households in terms of substance abuse, anxiety and depression. Over the years, she has replicated those findings again and again. And other international studies, specifically one conducted in Norway, have come to similar conclusions.
The world of pre-gaming and beer bongs has gone on unabated, Dr. Luthar has observed, even as the paradigm of absentee parenting that distinguished a previous era has been replaced by the model of precision surveillance. Popularity, she also found still adheres to he who can chug the most.
These patterns are not easily outgrown. Rates of addiction among 26 year olds from affluent areas are two to three times higher than national norms, Dr. Luthar said.
The crisis of sexual assault in high schools and on college campuses remains, as it was 35 years ago, to a great extent a crisis of alcohol. The kegs, the fifths of bourbons, the vodka and Gatorade are nearly always there at the top of the story.
A few months ago, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation produced a report on adolescent wellness that listed the “extreme pressure to succeed or outdo everyone else,’’ prevalent in places where the fortunate congregate — the kind of pressure it said that can lead to overwhelming stress and alcohol addiction — as one of the six greatest threats to healthy adolescent development alongside poverty, homophobia and racism.
On Thursday, Judge Kavanaugh is expected to tell the Senate Judiciary Committee that his high school drinking left him with many regrets.