It was fifth grade, on the playground by the swing sets, when a friend of mine with the lovely name Petrina handed me a Baby-Sitter’s Club book. We were in our last year of Catholic school in upstate New York, and at that point in my life, I was a guy’s guy. I played sports, I got in fights, and I liked (though never won the hearts of) the best-looking girls. I even hated my parentally mandated piano lessons so much that I boorishly refused to practice until my mom threw up her hands and let me quit. I was a true sparkplug of prepubescent masculinity.
But there was one thing that set me apart and made some of the other boys look at me sideways with suspicion: My insatiable reading habit. When you love to read as much as I did, there’s no way to hide it. Study period came around, and as the other boys tapped their feet restlessly and glanced longingly out the window, the call of the book in my backpack was overpowering. Nobody cared about appearances more than me, but I still couldn’t resist. I was an odd, reading duck.
At that point, I was a year away from the start of my fixation with adult spy and detective fiction—I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud in my life than when I finished and understood Clear and Present Danger in sixth grade—and my book choices revolved around series designed for young males. I was a hardcore devotee of “The Hardy Boys” for instance, and I would read anything written by the sports author Matt Christopher. So when Petrina pressed the Baby-Sitter’s Club book into my hands on the playground, I felt a flurry of butterflies beat their wings against my stomach. I was starved for experience, and I was intrigued by what secrets and foreign customs might be found inside a “girl’s book.” As a fellow reader, Petrina and I shared a natural affinity, and she had convinced me over the preceding week to give it a shot. “You’ll really like it!” she said. Still, I was hesitant. Would this nullify my masculinity? Would it be the start of a slippery slope that led me being some kind of sissy, like the kid who did figure skating? Lord knows people were already asking enough questions based on the fact that I always had my nose in a book; did I need to add fuel to the fire?
But I took it home—she took one of my Hardy Boys with her as part of the exchange, I think, and I also think she never read it—and sat on my bed, contemplating the cover. Like those times in study periods, I knew I was powerless to the book’s seduction. Resistance was futile. So I propped myself up on two pillows, opened to the first page, and dove into the latest drama of the Baby-Sitter’s Club as the fall sky outside the window turned from dusk to darkness. I don’t remember the title of the book, or the plot, or any of the character’s names. What I do remember was the thrilling, guilty feeling of discovering a new and strange subculture. I’m sure I have my issues with understanding the opposite gender today, but back then I was truly in the dark, and reading this book was like shining a flashlight in a pitch-black museum and revealing untold treasures in the cone of light. I could have been reading the diary of the most desirable girl in school. This was a key to a door that had always been locked.
I finished the book around midnight, and when it was over, I felt enlightened and corrupted and guilty. I knew I would need another fix. A couple days later, I contacted my dealer Petrina, and she brought me a second installment. But that was the end—the second time is never as good as the first, and when I started to understand the formulas and motivations, I quit. After all, it wasn’t my subject matter. I liked mysteries and sports. I was, unmistakably, a dude. The girl fiction part of my life was over, and if I ever felt like I needed another shot of it, I compromised and read a Boxcar Children book, which balanced the feminine and the masculine and added a dash of mystery.
But that first titillating night, with all the mixed feelings and excitement, came back to my mind recently when I stumbled on a show called The Inbetweeners on Netflix Instant. Unlike The Baby-Sitter’s Club experience, The Inbetweeners follows a subculture to which I once belonged—teenagers. It’s a British show about four young outcasts in a comprehensive school, and the subject matter is typical—they’re worrying about their futures, trying to be popular, and, most of all, trying to get laid. But if the narrative is ordinary, the writing is atypically sharp. It made me laugh out loud at least a few times per episode, and that’s something I didn’t expect from a comedy clearly directed at young men. Will McKenzie, the main character played by Simon Bird, is endowed with a neurotic disposition reminiscent of Woody Allen, and the romantic stammering habits native to other sexually deficient British characters like Tim Canterbury from The Office.
But while I stand by the comedy chops of The Inbetweeners, there’s no doubt that it retains the moments of vulgarity, homophobia and immaturity that expressly indicate a male target audience between ages 11 and 19. I am now 29, and married, and well beyond what anyone might call the throes of youth. Watching this show, like reading a girl’s book on an autumn night, felt very, very voyeuristic. And a little pathetic. “Why are you watching this?” I asked myself. “You should be watching something artistic, or at least age-appropriate. You still have not seen the film Casablanca, and yet you just watched four episodes of The Inbetweeners consecutively.”
In the end, though, I hid behind the moments of brilliant comedy. The strong dialogue was my shield, justification for being the old guy at a high school party. It was all about the laughs. I’m here on a lark! It worked, too—it made feel better.
Unfortunately, that was out the window when I began watching Skins, a drama exploring the lives and hardships and triumphs of, yet again, British high school kids. (Apparently MTV made an American version, which I’ve never seen and which I heard was bad.) The key word in that description is “drama.” Because once the comedy element was removed, I had no excuse for indulging in stories about the capers of teenagers. Forget the merit of the show; my viewing habits were now pathetic without qualification. The worst part of watching Skins, as I sat enthralled on my couch, was the stray thought that if these kids knew me, they’d think I was lame. That was followed by involuntary disappointment, because man, wouldn’t it be great if they thought I was cool? And then, third, the awful realization—I’m actually concerned with how I might be perceived by fictional British teenagers. As a television spectator, that was a low point.
When most people talk about “guilty pleasure,” the “guilty” part of the formulation is included just for style. They don’t actually feel guilt afterward. I did. I felt very guilty, and it felt like fifth grade all over again, but perhaps a bit worse. It’s easy to explain why I was fascinated with the hidden lives of girls back then, but why am I compelled by the lives of teenagers today, just a few months shy of 30? Is it some kind of yearning for youth, even though I’m fairly sure my life is better now than it ever was back then? Is it a desire for the extremity of feeling I knew back then, which was intense and painful and unlike anything I’ll experience again?
Whatever the case, I had to admit that I still retained some lingering artistic curiosity about the lives of young people. And maybe it’s not all bad; maybe I can become a billionaire like J.K. Rowling by exploiting that curiosity. Or maybe not; either way, I solemnly vow not to become the sad father who attempts to hang out with his kids’ social group against their will. For I have seen that man, and I have despised that man, and that man is not me. I will be an embarrassing dad, mind you, but for reasons all my own.