Bodgies, Widgies, 'moral panic' and the rise of the Teen-Age

Michael Harcourt

I teach in a large, co-educational, urban high school in downtown Wellington, New Zealand. I am heavily involved in the history teaching community at local and national levels and recently co-edited a book on developing New Zealand students’ historical thinking. I am particularly interested in applying a geographic dimension to my history lessons. I am also very interested in indigenous ways of knowing the past and the implications of these for me as a descendent of Wellington’s first European settlers who arrived in 1840.

I recently developed a new social history topic on the history of teenagers. It had a special focus on a "moral panic" that took place in New Zealand in the 1950s over the alleged rise of teenage delinquency, most revealed by groups of teenagers known as the Bodgies (boys) and Widgies (girls).  These young people wore Edwardian clothes, enjoyed listening to rock and roll, drank milk shakes at milk bars and were said to be highly promiscuous and violent. In 1954 a famous document colloquially known as the “Mazengarb Report” was commissioned by the government investigating the situation, linking the cause of the 'crisis' to comics, Hollywood, movies, single mothers, poor parenting and various other factors.

The key assessment task I was working with for this topic required that students understand competing historical perspectives of people at the time of an historical event. Once I had defined  my historical event as "the moral panic of the 1950s" and my two key historical actors of Mabel Howard (New Zealand's first woman cabinet minister) and Oswald Mazengarb (lawyer and primary author of the famous 1954 Mazengarb Report into teenage delinquency) I was ready to go. One small problem; this was not a topic I had ever heard of teachers doing before and I had little idea about what sources I could use. But it was this scarcity of sources that resulted in some of the best historical thinking I have seen students demonstrate. A key objective of mine was for the class to experience the way in which historical argument is often more subtle, conciliatory and less polarising than a debate. To achieve this I provided groups of students with about 18 cards, each with a fragment of information relating to Oswald Mazengarb. These fragments included statements such as:

  • Mazengarb  was married and had three daughters. He was a devoted father and chairman of the board for governors of Queen Margaret’s College.
  • Mazengarb: “Don’t you think the happiest sort of home is the one where the child comes running in the front door and says “Mum, what’s for dinner tonight?””
  • Mazengarb “worshipped” Winston Churchill

The first question students had to answer was "What attitudes did Oswald Mazengarb hold toward teenagers and society?" The tactile nature of dealing with lots of cards and the limited amount of information on each, emphasised the sense that the question was a puzzle to be solved. In small groups, students gradually started to connect ideas and information, make inferences, grapple with contradictions and make tentative speculations. However, it wasn't until we moved into a circle and started a whole class conversation that the seemingly simple and 'low-level' question about Mazengarb's attitudes became decidedly complex. For a short time, the class was in that creative zone of knowledge construction where the egotistic desire to be right or seem intelligent was lost.

Another key question of the unit was "Why did Mabel Howard, a minister of the Crown, dance with "Rock n roller" Johnny Devlin?" For this question it was slightly easier to locate more extensive and varied sources. Working with cartoons, photographs, newspaper clips, You Tube clips, and historians' work, students made a judgement on the extent to which they agreed with  five possible explanations to the question (see image for the explanations). Students placed a red counter on each scale and then shared their findings with the class. Once again, the discussions were very productive. Sometimes they were more combative as students genuinely interpreted the sources differently, at other times they were much more tentative and exploratory.

The best end-of-topic essays were outstanding examples of historical perspective. Of course, the examples described above were only a fraction of the class work completed for the topic and many students  brought in wider knowledge of the Cold War, New Zealand's economic and social situation of the 1950s as well as the learning that had come from arguing about the more immediate contexts of Oswald Mazengarb and Mabel Howard.

But so what? Why does it matter to learn about moral panics and attitudes toward teenagers in the 1950s? Despite a successful series of lessons, I was still left with some misgivings. Is the historical thinking itself the purpose or does historical thinking need to be for a purpose? I want my students to be able to use their historical understanding to negotiate their present, consider possible futures and work toward their desired ones. At one stage of the unit I invited an academic who specialized in media representation of youth and moral panics to come and talk to students and we also looked at Stanley Cohen’s criteria of a moral panic which could potentially be used by students to recognise future ones. However, transferring the learning from one context to another is very difficult and certainly requires a lot of practice.

Interestingly, in the last few weeks, teenage “delinquency” and the Mazengarb Report have been in the New Zealand news media a lot. A group of New Zealand teenage boys have been accused of getting young women drunk, raping them and showing off about it on Facebook. Quite apart from the vile nature of these boys’ behaviour and the devastating impact on their victims, the event has been described by one commentator as like a grenade into New Zealand society. Debate has raged for weeks over why and how this happened, the pervasiveness of rape culture, the inadequacy of the police response to the victims, the responsibility of parents, sex education, New Zealand’s drinking culture, the misogyny of many commentators and the meaning of freedom of speech, and, the latest turn, identity politics. What is interesting for me though is how this contemporary event has led some media to draw parallels to the moral panic of the 1950s and the Mazengarb Report. Next time I teach this topic I think I will be in a much stronger position to draw on these parallels and have more targeted discussions about how the history of teenagers and moral panics might inform us about very real contemporary issues.