I remember the first time someone called me a “bright young thing.” I was an intern, seeking more stable employment, and one of my bosses (a great guy, whom I like and respect tremendously) said he’d poke around his network to see if anyone had an opening for a bright young thing like me. I felt flattered—at first. But the phrase also foregrounded the power differential between us, an older man and a younger woman. The effect was almost similar to that of being “politely” catcalled—I felt not like a serious writer, but like a luminous flibbertigibbet, an enchanting yet trivial object to be passed around the grown-up table.
There’s a whole category of designations like this. They aren’t exactly negs. As often as not, they seem to be meant sincerely as compliments. But using them can enforce a hierarchy that subtly undermines the recipient of the praise in ways that pertain to youth and, often, gender. Bright young thing. Whip-smart. A real firecracker. These are descriptions full of evanescence—a flash in the pan, a crack of the whip, a dazzle of light—and of a condescending visual appreciation that feels beside the point. They are hard to parse, harder to formulate a coherent emotional response to. While a part of me luxuriated in the image of myself as a lissome creature ribbon-dancing through journalism, another part wanted to respond to the bright young thing comment by roaring HULK SMASH while overturning a desk.
The phrase “bright young thing” used to be associated with members of a specific 1920s social scene in London. The tabloid press attached it to a crew of bohemian socialites who flung themselves into drinking, drugs, orgies, and lavish parties in the wake of World War I. They were the English version of flappers, a merry, extravagant, and anarchic circle animated by art and fashion and enabled by inherited wealth. Famous BYTs included the authors Patrick Balfour, Edith Sitwell, Anthony Powell, and Oliver Messel; the photographer Cecil Beaton; the singer Noël Coward; and the poet John Betjeman. Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 novel Vile Bodies chronicled their exploits; adapted for the screen in 2003, his narrative was retitled (less scathingly) Bright Young Things. D.J. Taylor’s 2007 history Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age also looked back at this period, a glamorous burst of mayhem sandwiched between the first mechanized global war and modernity’s deepest financial depression.
But some things had been bright and young even prior to the Roaring ’20s. In his 1869 novel Lorna Doone, R.D. Blackmore set the approving-yet-patronizing precedent for bright young female things: “Mr. Faggus gave his mare a wink,” he wrote, “and she walked demurely after him, a bright young thing, flowing over with life, yet dropping her soul to a higher one, and led by love to anything, as the manner is of females, when they know what is best for them.” Or try this line from “Laura Philippine,” a late short story from D.H. Lawrence: “I say to mother: show me somebody happy, then! And she shows me some guy, or some bright young thing, and gets mad when I say: see the pretty monkey!” In both instances the BYT is vivid, graceful, but ornamental, without real authority or depth. G.K. Chesterton makes the judgment more explicit in his essay “The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic.” “If the bright young thing cannot be asked to tolerate her grandmother,” he asks, “why should the grandmother or mother have tolerated the bright young thing at a period of her life when she was by no means bright?” The radiance of Chesterton’s BYT is a fleeting, secondary state, less relevant than her apparent selfishness, her ingratitude. From the 19th century up through the ’20s, the “bright young thing” designation connoted naiveté and superficiality as much as charisma or promise.
The prevalence of the phrase, which increased sharply into the ’30s, dove during the ’40s and ’50s and gradually began to climb again in the mid-’60s. Today you find BYTs, shorn of negative associations by a youth-worshipping entrepreneurial culture, in cheesy how-to-succeed-in-business manuals. (“BYTs are easy to spot—they are passionate about who they are and what they do…they have enquiring minds about all sorts of activities and they invariably irritate those around them who celebrate, in their own bland fashion, mediocrity, the status quo, and being average.”) A slightly different (gendered) version of the BYT appears in sexy English page-turners: “Emily is a graduate; a bright young thing. She has no ties, no responsibilities, and no commitments. … When her flatmate Lucy suggested joining the escort agency, Emily had laughed and made some crack about it being the biggest ex-art student cliché.” (Surprise! Emily joins the escort agency.) Like Michael Jackson’s “pretty young thing” (PYT), this BYT emits traces of erotic allure, maybe because she is a T, a thing, an object for consumption. Victoria’s Secret even has a “bright young thing” lingerie line for teenage girls.
Then there’s firecracker. You want to be called a firecracker, I think? If you’re a woman, it means that the speaker approves of you. He (it’s usually a he) finds you feisty, energetic, opinionated, and honest. You also may be on the petite side, like a compact paper cylinder packed with explosives. The point is, it’s cute when you yell! (Meanwhile, if you’re a man and someone calls you a firecracker, you are either the singer Miguel or John Fletcher, the Human Firecracker, who over years of performances has lit more than 600,000 fireworks off his body.) Likewise, while plenty of men have been described as “whip-smart”—including Andrew Sullivan, a “whip-smart voice of reason in the racket that is the blogosphere,” George Clooney, and the all-guy band OK Go—the word is more frequently attached to members of the second sex: Ellen Page, Gail Collins, Elizabeth Warren, Rachel Maddow, modern moms, a wise-cracking dominatrix, Lisbeth Salander. This gender imbalance may have something to do with Liz Phair’s 1994 album Whip-Smart, which gave the adjective a lasting feminine shine. But it may also relate to how the compliment, while not backhanded exactly, suggests a level of inexperience or unrealized potential that is absent from more masculine terms like wunderkind. Watch out for the wunderkind: He’s a genius, and he’ll eat your lunch. The whip-smart new hire seems a little less threatening—unproven and rough around the edges. If wunderkind implies you should bow down, then whip-smart says “don’t count her out just yet.” She may not look like much, but perhaps she’ll prove to be more than the latest bright young thing.