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The Teddy Boy as Scapegoat

The earliest of these youth cults to appear, in
1954 in certain working-class districts of London, were the so-called
Teddy Boys. These first teenagers were visible not only on account of
their outrageous ‘Edwardian’ costumes but also their delinquent and
sometimes violent behaviour. They were proud of belonging to the
English working class, and reacted aggressively to the influx of West
Indians during the 1950s, whom they saw as a threat to their already
disintegrating working-class communities. History has largely written the
Teddy Boys off as thuggish ‘Little Englanders’ (i. e. racist bigots). In this
paper, however, I attempt to show how the negative image of the Teddy
Boys was largely constructed by adult society which, confronting the
teenager phenomonen for the first time, sought to marginalise or even
eradicate what it saw as a threat to civic order. Adult society (through
such powerful organs as the police and judiciary, the press and cinematic
media, and the education system), achieved this largely through creating a
‘moral panic’ among the population and scapegoating the Teddy Boys.
This repressive response, however, demonstrates less about the Teddy
The Teddy Boy as Scapegoat 263
Doshisha Studies in Language and Culture 1-2 : pp. 263 – 291. 1998
Doshisha Society for the Study of Language and Culture © Robert J. CROSS
Boys per se than it does about the traumatised collective psyche of postimperial
Britain during the 1950s.
1. Youthquake
‘Whaddya rebellin’ against, Johnny?’
‘Wha’ya got?’
Johnny in The Wild One
The young always have the same problem—
how to rebel and conform at the same time.
They have now solved this by defying their
parents and copying one another.
Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant
After six years of grim austerity, the years 1951-61 marked a period of
unprecedented affluence in Britain (Bognador/Skidelsky 1970; Lewis 1978:
9-41). This was particularly so during the Macmillan years, when the Prime
Minister informed a surprised population that they had “never had it so
good” (Sked/Cook 1990: 138-59). Citing some telling statistics, the cultural
historian Robert Hewison notes that
Between October 1951 and October 1963 wages were estimated to
have risen by 72 per cent, prices by 45 per cent. There was full
employment, and the availability and consumption of pleasurable
possessions such as cars, washing machines, record players and
television sets testified to the expansion of the ‘affluent society’.
264 Robert J. CROSS
(Hewison 1987: 6)
It is a commonplace of history that the most visible recipients of this
economic dividend were the adolescent children of the generation that had
fought in the Second World War. Already between 1945 and 1950 the
average real wage of youth had increased at twice the rate of adults (Bourke
1994: 46). This trend continued during the 1950s, paving the way for that
high-point of adolescent consumerism, the Swinging Sixties. It was amid
such economic prosperity that the “teenager”—initially a working-class
phenomenon—was born (Marwick 1991: 91-3; Lewis 1978: 141-2).
Comparing his own adolescence with what he was witnessing in the 1950s,
the novelist Colin MacInnes put his finger right on the major defining point
of difference:
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