I decided to write my mini extended essay on the issue of the portrayal of American upper middle class teenagers in cinema, because it is personally relevant to me, it provides insights about teens' lives and how teens deal with issues, and I enjoy watching teen movies. Recently, I watched a film from a series of very popular teen movies that portrayed teens as vampires and wolves and I wondered to myself if the way teens are portrayed on the silver screen has been the same over the past few decades, the 80's, the 90's and the 00's. And if the way teens are portrayed in the movies is an accurate portrayal of upper middle class teen's actual lives in America.
The number of teen movies, a key demographic for movie makers, is very large, so I first had to narrow my choices. I decided to focus on three movies from each decade, but I also recognized that I could not just select any three teen movies. I wanted to select teen movies that in some way portrayed teen life in those years. I used a list of the 50 most popular teen movies of all time to select some of the most popular teen movies of these decades with the thought that the popularity of these movies, primarily with the teen audiences, would indicate that the movies actually "spoke" to teens. I chose the following movies:
1980's: The Breakfast Club (1985), Risky Business (1983), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
1990's: Never Been Kissed (1999), American Pie (1999) and Clueless (1995)
2000's: Mean Girls (2004), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Superbad (2007)
The areas I will examine in terms of teen lifestyle are: parent-teen relationships, peer relationships, romantic relationships (sexuality and romantic love), and coming of age (issues of identity and overall maturity). The analysis focuses on the continuity and change in the depiction of these issues over the three decades of movies.
The Portrayal of Parent- Teen relationships across the decades
Parents play a vital role in a teenager's life and should be portrayed in teen films. The 80's through the three films showed uninvolved or uninterested parents in regards to their teenager, in matters outside of school. In the Breakfast Club all of the five teenagers had parents that only cared about grades, sports, money or didn't care at all. Teenagers in the 80's also put an effort to separate from his/her parents. In Risky Business (1983) a teenage boy has a weekend free from his overbearing parents. When his parents go out of town we see Tom Cruise's character, Joel, partying, smoking, driving his dad's Porsche, courting a hooker named Lana and fighting with her pimp. In this movie both of Joel's parents are presented as the overly demanding type. In the five minute encounter between Joel and his parents at the beginning of the movie we hear his mother tell him to retake the SATs over again because his scores weren't high enough. Then his father scolds him for touching his stereo but not putting it back exactly as it was before, followed by the familiar phrase, "My house, my rules." In the end, Joel triumphs and gets into Princeton but through his own ingenuity and not by following the path imposed by his parents. He did it by taking control of his own life, rejecting their values, and taking some risks
The 90's portrayed observant parents that were willing to help, but awkward in their interactions. American Pie (1999), the most successful teen movie of the 90's portrayed parents as either very lenient or completely unaware of their son Jim's activities (he has sex in his bedroom while they are downstairs). His father understands that his son is interested in sex, but is very awkward in his ways to advise him. In the 00's movies portrayed mixed parenting styles such as, the caring and involved parents or the laissez affaire parents. In Mean Girls Cady's parents were caring and involved in her life, but Regina's mom was more "hip" and let the girls do what they pleased. In Superbad (2007) and Napoleon Dynamite(2004) parents were not existent and uninvolved. So from the 80's to 00's all three decades showed that teenagers have attitudes and values different from their parents. However, the parental traits that they despised have changed from rigid, conservative, authoritarianism, to ignorant, irresponsible and awkward. In addition, the nature of the struggle has evolved from an external struggle for power to a more internal intellectual journey for the adolescent to accept their parents' flaws, to offer forgiveness and to realize that they are not destined to follow in their footsteps.
The teenagers concern with their peers is a theme in found in most teen movies. Regularly presented is the adolescent's desire to expose the flawed nature of the high school clique system and to discover the meaning of true friendship. In some movies the basis for popularity is never explicitly presented, it is just noted that some youth are popular, others are not, and that cruelty, and conflict accompany these differences in status. In the Breakfast Club (1985) we see that status divisions are superficial and painful, not only to the unpopular but to the popular kids as well. They resolve in the end to see each other as more than their one dimensional profiles (princess, criminal, basket case, jock and brain). In Never Been Kissed (1999) we see how an undercover reporter rejects her initial friends for popularity but then later realize that popularity is unimportant and that it is better off to be friends that accept her for who she is. The same theme is found in Mean Girls (2004) (with Cady's character) and in Napoleon Dynamite (2004). In Napoleon Dynamite (2004), the antagonist Napoleon is uninterested in popularity but instead lives by doing what he wants to do. He befriends a Mexican immigrant named Pedro and helps him run for Class president, in doing so he becomes popular. So in the 00's friendship will beat popularity any day.
Romantic Relationships and Sexual Activity
An interesting theme in teen films is the preoccupation with sex (losing one's virginity in particular) and the presentation of romantic relationships as being much more than sex. Youth in the films watched appear to simultaneously obsess about sex and yet reject it as being all important.
Losing one's virginity is perhaps one of the most consistent ideas in teen movies, one that clearly transcends time. One of the central themes in American Pie (1999) is the drive for teenage boys to have sex. However, it isn't always the boys that work so hard to lose their virginity. In Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) Stacy the young and inexperienced teenage girl becomes so preoccupied with losing her virginity that she dates several guys and ends up getting an abortion. While sex did not play a major role in some movies such as The Breakfast Club (1985), Never Been Kissed (1999) and Napoleon Dynamite (2004) most movies repeatedly emphasized the importance of sex and the appropriateness of sex for teenagers:
"You are 15 years old, What are you waiting for?" (Fast Times at Ridgemont High 1982)
"You are a woman, you are ready for sex!" (American Pie 1999)
While many movies offered shallow or even silly stereotypes of hormone ridden teenagers, most displayed the more substantive, tender side of teenage love. It appears that American Pie (1999), is known for its crude and immature portrayal of adolescent sexuality (e.g. a teenage boy has sex with an apple pie because his friends described female genitalia as being like warm apple pie). However, even this movie has a few reasonable moments where the boys, who were in a race to lose their virginity, realize that sex isn't as important as they made it out to be. They also come to understand the importance of honesty, discretion, and true feelings in not only a relationship but sexual activity as well. In general, whether sex is presented or not, characters repeatedly emphasize the importance of finding a love interest that is based on real compatibility and commitment. This theme is also found in Clueless (1995) and Never Been Kissed (1999)
Coming of Age (issues of identity and overall maturity)
In all movies teens struggle with challenges that often symbolize the leap to maturity.
However, the most notable change in the coming of age theme is the sense of accomplishment.
In earlier films the challenge presented is usually met with the implication that an important step toward adulthood had been taken. However, in more recent films there is considerably less clarity in whether the teenager made a transition from adolescent to adult. In some cases it was made clear that the transition to adulthood had not occurred but rather concludes with the question, "What's the hurry?" In these instances the realization is that adulthood shouldn't be forced at such a young age. Here we see indications of the extension of adolescence and social acceptance of delayed maturity.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) displays a mixture of the pursuit of adult status combined with the message that it is perhaps an unrealistic and hard to achieve goal for teenagers.
In Fast Times, the teenagers repeatedly try to be adults and engage in what they consider to be adult behaviors. Brad works hard to have responsibility at a fast food restaurant because he wants to feel grown up. Stacy wants to have sex so she can be a "woman". Throughout the film we see youth struggling to be adults even though their efforts are presented as misguided and in some cases silly. In the end they come to some decisions about themselves. Most become successful (e.g. Brad becomes assistant manager when he foils a stick up). In addition, Stacy proclaims in the end, "I finally figured it out!" as she relays that she doesn't want just sex but a more meaningful romantic relationship. While the youth display a sense of accomplishment the way their efforts are presented, and even the title, "Fast Times" suggest that maybe these teens are trying to grow up too fast. This perspective becomes the normal view of adolescence presented in the movies from the 1990s on.
In American Pie (1999) two youth agonize over how to answer the college entrance exam question
"What is your most emotionally significant moment?" The girl says "How am I supposed to know what my most emotionally significant moment is? I have no idea what I want to doâ€¦Thank
God, I thought I was the only one." In another scene in American Pie the boys acknowledge their confusion about what they want and where they are going. One boy says, "I don't know what I'm doing", but the movie ends happily as they all agree they aren't supposed to know.
They say, "You can't plan everything" and then they toast to "right now" and "the next step".
Plots regularly talked about how you can't control things, can't plan, things never work out the way you expect so why bother? The youth try to embrace this venture into the unknown and tie it into their decision to pass on identity closure. They don't know who they are but that is all right.
On a Side Note:
The portrayal of drug usage such as alcohol, marijuana and tobacco. In the 80's there seemed to be common casual use of alcohol and tobacco in every type of setting but marijuana use was uncommon or experimental. In the Breakfast Club (1985) the teens smoked the weed that the "criminal" had brought, for the other teens, this was their first time. They used weed as a way to relax and bond but it was obvious that they don't usually encounter weed. The use of tobacco could really be noted as common in these films also. In Risky Business (1983) almost all characters smoked cigarettes occasionally. In the 90's the use of alcohol and tobacco stayed casual but marijuana transformed from a experimental drug to a more widely used recreational drug. This can be seen in Clueless (1995) during one of the house party scenes where the main character Cher casually smokes a marijuana cigarette offered by a classmate. The 00's portrayed many changes in drug use, alcohol became much harder to obtain and tobacco use turned unpopular, however marijuana use is still prevalent. In Superbad (2007) the antagonists have to resort to using fake identification and stealing to acquire alcohol for a friend's party.
Another commonality that I noted in these teen movies across the decades, are topics that they did not deal with. These include topics such as violence, suicide and death, teen pregnancy and parenthood, drug addiction, financial difficulties and other serious situations. These films deal with well-off upper middle class teens with plenty of opportunities, limited by their own insecurities.