In and Out

Since Rebel Without a Cause was released in 1955, films aimed at teens have been an extremely popular and profitable genre both within Hollywood and on the world stage. These films are fun and easy to digest, but their real box-office strength is playing to the empathies of millions of teenagers. Characters are created so that audiences might see themselves on-screen; they deal with the same problems, have the same sort of friends, and, audiences are made to hope, they can resolve problems and succeed in just the same way. But in aiming teen films at teens, film-makers must be, at least in part and perhaps unconsciously, aiming to instruct their audiences in the proper way to “do” teenagerhood. Film-making always has a secondary goal of imparting knowledge, but the unique qualities of a teenaged audience, foremost its self-uncertainty and desire to find a proper and mature self, makes that educational agenda all the more important for critical review. In examining teen films, we find that they share a great many of the same lessons across the board, even across generational and ideological divides. These lessons range from the common-sense (“violence never wins”) to the mixed and confusing (“good- hearted sabotage always wins”) These lessons are also very often based in gender typing and education: boys act like this, girls act like this; and even when not directly addressing gender issues, teen films push prejudices which are deeply associated with gender assumptions and role-taking in the intuitive mind. We can only conclude that there are other factors at play in the thematically unified conception of these films than the personal biases of the film-makers–there are definitely hegemonic subtexts at work. It is the goal of this essay to identify some of those educational devices and the main themes that they attempt to impress upon the audiences of teen films.

It would be helpful at this point to make some clear definitions of the concepts we will be discussing. Firstly, I will often refer to “teens” and “boys” or “girls.” These terms mean the same thing. I choose not to call the singular genders of “teen” “young men” and “young women” because the adult threshold of growth is something that for both the characters and audiences of teen films is still a goal to work toward. In my view, these people are still children; to apply an adult label to them would destroy the reason that teen films have to exist.

As well, I will use some terms of my own invention. Perhaps the most confusing is the idea of the teen’s “internal/external self,” which refers to the two major anxieties of teendom: the questions of “who am I?” and “where do I fit into society?” The characters in teen films struggle with both problems separately, and it is only by coming to terms with both that they can make the transformation into adults. I will also talk about “power structures,” which are especially important in the self-contained fiefdoms of teendom. These power structures can refer to those teen-only hierarchies or (especially in the case of Heathers) the outside, “adult” hierarchies which drive our entire society. These two forms of power structures often mirror each other in teen films.

Teen films construct teenagerhood as the intersection and interaction of three factors: conflicts and confusion of the internal/external self; the power structures which exert pressure upon those selves; and the construction of teendom as the most powerful formative experience in one’s life. To deconstruct this phenomenon, I have selected three teen films, each from a different era and school of film-making thought, to illustrate the universality of these themes in all teen films. These films, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Heathers, and American Graffiti each focus on a different aspect of the teen-film thematic triad, but also depend heavily on the assumptions of the triad’s other two elements.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a film all about the uncertainty which exists for teenagers in the internal/external selves. The characters find themselves at confusing times and places in their lives: unable to hold jobs, or looking for love in the wrong places, or presenting a false image.

Bradley (Judge Reinhold), for example, is perhaps the most “normal” of the characters who suffers from a teenage self-confusion. He’s an average boy with a job at a burger bar and a steady girlfriend–that is, until he tests her patience for the last time. When she leaves him, Bradley becomes destructive both by destroying his social capital (getting fired from his prestigious burger flipping job) and debasing his self-esteem to the point where he must use self-guided affirmations to maintain his grip on his own confusion. Bradley later has two epiphanies, one internal and one external: during a sexual fantasy, he imagines himself in a position of control, and more importantly, wearing a powerful suit. It’s in Bradley’s fantasy that he allows himself to regain control of his internal self-doubts, which is the catalyst for his final act of externally self-affirming rebellion at the end of the film, when he shirks the responsibilities of his menial job to drive off into the sunset. That Bradley’s self-esteem was set in motion by a newfound control of his sex drive is extremely significant to the development of his character; conquering his biologically determined confusion is his rite of passage into adulthood.

Meanwhile, Fast Times at Ridgemont High also entertains two entirely different characters. Mike (Robert Romanus) and Lisa (Amanda Wyss) are two gendered sides of the same coin, both their social group’s know-it-all sophisticates. Lisa insists she has a 25-year-old fiancee on the other side of the country, while Mike runs a one-man bookie operation and claims he can scalp any tickets for any concert at any time. Both characters are suffering from teenage confusion, although they hide it better than others. They have all the external capital they need right now, but their internal selves are fearing the moment when their carefully constructed house of cards will collapse. Eventually when the collapse does occur it shatters both characters, both internally and externally, and they are no closer to adulthood for it.

With a brief overview and understanding of how the internal and external selves affect the characters within teen films, we can now turn to the other half of the main teenage balancing act: the survival and growth necessary within (from the teen’s point of view) oppressive power structures. And from the teen’s point of view, he or she is oppressed, being caught in a double-bind of inaction: acting out how one feels is a breach of the traditional authority structure, and to comply is to be chastised as a nerd by one’s peers. And this is where the pressing structures of both the teen and adult hierarchies intersect. Heathers, by Michael Lehmann, is such a study of the way power is used within the territorial vacuum of teendom. Veronica (Winona Ryder) and JD (Christian Slater), two almost-in members of the highschool cool clique, essentially devise a plan to kill the kids at school who hold more power than themselves, but both characters have differing reasons for doing so. Veronica is fed up with the clique’s iron fisted despotism in the lunch room, while her boyfriend JD simply lusts for social power. Veronica and JD soon find out that every time they orchestrate the murder of a lunchroom monarch, another quickly takes the vacant spot and resumes the unfair reign. At the same time, a secondary motivation is forming within Veronica and JD: the uncaring authority of the older generation. As both characters are struggling for a better way of life within the “teen sphere,” the parents and school administrators around them exert pressure that neither can cope with.

In this way, both Veronica and JD are pushed toward one of two extremes, either a fundamentally disruptive break from every cultural moray (as JD chooses), or powerless complacency (as Veronica chooses.) When Veronica goes back to her original social position, she tries to reconnect with high-school’s lower class–the nerds–she is still branded as a popular girl; another double-bind.

Veronica and JD’s navigations of their interior/exterior confusions are significant in the face of their destructive relationship and the horror they create around them. Structural pressures exacerbate these problems, and at the same time restrict those characters’ freedom to solve their problems. The lesson, then, is that when compounded with urgent pressures of society, the road to adulthood is further complicated for teen characters.

The third part of the teen film’s educational agenda is that which sustains the strong myth of the teen experience. Teen films cultivate an air of wonder and nostalgia; wonder for peer-aged audiences, who are in awe of these characters’ incredible lives, and nostalgia for older audiences, who are aware of the missed opportunities in their own teenage pasts. Perhaps the most effective western mythmaking teen film is American Graffiti, George Lucas’ star-packed early directorial effort. The film centers on the night before a group of high-school pals break up and go their separate ways after their last summer together before college. We get to know the boys and their girlfriends, crushes, acquaintances, rivals and perhaps most importantly, cars, as we rapidly switch between their personal narratives about the best (or worst) night that ever was.

The most striking feature of American Graffiti is its soundtrack, a collection of music which, as Quentin Tarantino would later learn the secret to, perfectly represents Lucas’ expressed time and place, not just in the concrete world, but the confused emotional world of his character’s internal and external selves. The key is that the film takes place at the most critical time in nostalgic memory, the last summer before the teenager’s metamorphosis is complete. As film critic David Schumway put it, “this time is a last moment of freedom from the responsibilities of adulthood.” And so the resonance of the soundtrack is that much more powerful for those looking back (or forward) to that specific moment in time.

Music, however, is not the sole reason that American Graffiti can claim that it builds a strong sense of nostalgia. Even putting away the romance inherent in the film, expressed toward a certain period of time and social situation, it is a dislocation from the film’s specific temporality and an intimacy with the character’s personal sense of time which adds the extra weight of expectation to the characters’ lives. John (Paul LeMat), one of the many main characters, is a burn-out who has been “cruising the strip” for the five years it’s been since he left high-school. He constantly refers to times that the other protagonists don’t know or don’t remember, and refuses to move on with his life. Or consider the bookish Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), who can’t make up his mind on whether or not he’ll really leave tomorrow–he’s not sure he’s ready to set the rest of his life into motion.

In the end, it’s the intermingling of these major factors that give teen films their special effectiveness and intimacy with their audience. These films speak to the pressures and anxieties of each new generation, and their understanding is universal. Through the conflicts of the internal/external, the reflection of the power structures we are trained to live within, and the reinforcement of these times and experiences as perhaps the most important formative and pivotal in our lives, teen films are not just devices of social training for boys and girls; they can be devices of powerful nostalgia as well.

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