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Rebels Without a Cause? Adolescents and Their Antiheroes

Rebels Without a Cause? Adolescents and Their Antiheroes

Adolescents of every generation reject their parents' icons as they seek out and empower their own. These icons fall along a continuum, from mainstream hero figures--usually tolerable to parents and the adult generation, such as Kelly Clarkson, Beyoncé, and Usher--to the antiheroes at the other end, such as Marilyn Manson, Courtney Love, Eminem, Dennis Rodman, and perhaps even fictional video game characters such as Hitman and the protagonist CJ in Grand Theft Auto. These antiheroes seem deliberately provocative, assailing almost every social convention of the adult generation, and parents often fear they are leading youth astray.1 Indeed, identification with some youth subcultures (eg, goth) may be associated with increased risk of self-harm.2

Yet every generation repeats this pattern, elevating their own rebel leaders while dismissing their parents' icons. All along the spectrum, icons resonate with important themes inherent to adolescent development and provide clinical opportunities to engage both adolescents struggling with individuation and parents seeking skills to facilitate this process despite feeling stymied by their adolescents.

Whether Eminem in the 2000s, Marilyn Manson in the 1990s, Alice Cooper in the 1970s, or Elvis Presley or James Dean in the 1950s, antiheroes possess similar characteristics (Table 1), and these characteristics amplify important developmental challenges faced by the adolescent. Moreover, these antiheroes challenge the adolescent's parents, who are contending with their own developmental hurdles imposed by the adolescent's separation/individuation process.

Separation and identification

The appeal of antiheroes coincides with 2 intertwined developmental tasks that are important in adolescence. First, adolescents must separate enough from parents to identify their own interests and to construct an identity. Second, adolescents must be able to connect to other peers as they separate from parents. This is not a linear process, and the adolescent intermittently rejects and then approaches parents for support during times when the adolescent experiences a failure or is ostracized by his or her peer group. The adolescent may be harsh and critical of his parents at one moment, fearing dependency and making an effort to separate, yet expect parents to be compassionate the next moment, when the adolescent feels shunned or neglected by even a subgroup of peers.

The phenomenon of adolescent antihero admiration can thus be viewed as a developmentally important part of an adolescent's psychological growth toward individuation. Inclusion of temporary identifications, even with outrageous figures, by adolescents is part of their process of deriving a cohesive sense of self.3 Adolescents who struggle with feelings of alienation may be more prone to try on an antihero identity among their explorations. Even this phase may ultimately strengthen their final identity, since adolescents may distill antihero traits to manage their own fears of being outcast as they strive for autonomy.

Both heroes and antiheroes may provide an identity way station, facilitating separation from parents and offering the adolescent identifiable means (clothes, music, specific interests) to be recognized by like-minded others, which helps adolescents identify potential peer connections. In the effort to connect with similar peers, and to distance from dissimilar peers, adolescents exaggerate differences among peer groups, including their musical preferences.4 However, the personas tried on by the adolescent often wear poorly and may be abandoned relatively quickly, particularly if they do not lead to useful connections to peers.

The appeal of antiheroes

Antiheroes may particularly appeal to adolescents who, sensitive to their own flaws, see the antihero as similarly flawed and shunned by adults. These adolescents also hope to find the ability to flourish without depending on adults. Few have suggested that the appeal of Alice Cooper, Courtney Love, or Marilyn Manson was primarily based on their vocal abilities. What antiheroes do possess, beyond outrageous behavior, are uniqueness, creativity, and cour-age, which predominate over traits such as perfect pitch or physical strength. In addition, they may help adolescents view their own flaws as acceptable or even heroic badges of honor.


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