Drawing examples from hundreds of popular and lesser-known youth-themed films, Timothy Shary here offers a comprehensive examination of the representation of teenagers in American cinema in the 1980s and 1990s.
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When teenagers began hanging out at the mall in the early 1980s, the movies followed. Multiplex theaters offered teens a wide array of perspectives on the coming-of-age experience, as well as an escape into the alternative worlds of science fiction and horror. Youth films remained a popular and profitable genre through the 1990s, offering teens a place to reflect on their evolving identities from adolescence to adulthood while simultaneously shaping and maintaining those identities.
Drawing examples from hundreds of popular and lesser-known youth-themed films, Timothy Shary here offers a comprehensive examination of the representation of teenagers in American cinema in the 1980s and 1990s. He focuses on five subgenres—school, delinquency, horror, science, and romance/sexuality—to explore how they represent teens and their concerns, how these representations change over time, and how youth movies both mirror and shape societal expectations and fears about teen identities and roles. He concludes that while some teen films continue to exploit various notions of youth sexuality and violence, most teen films of the past generation have shown an increasing diversity of adolescent experiences and have been sympathetic to the particular challenges that teens face.
- Foreword by David Considine
- Chapter 1. Introduction: The Cinematic Image of Youth
- Social Representation and Genre Analysis
- The Study of Youth, In and Out of Movies
- Chapter 2. Youth in School: Academics and Attitude
- Trends in the Subgenre
- Delinquents and Their Avenues of Anger
- Resisting Rebels
- The Labor of Being Popular
- The Sensitive Athlete
- Chapter 3. Delinquent Youth: Having Fun, On the Loose, In Trouble
- Trends in the Subgenre
- Delinquent Styles
- Deviant Dancing
- Natural Encounters
- Patriotic Purpose
- Tough Girls
- The African American Crime Drama
- Chapter 4. The Youth Horror Film: Slashers and the Supernatural
- Historical Context of the Youth Horror Subgenre
- Trends in the Subgenre
- Research on the Youth Horror Film
- Styles of the Youth Horror Film
- The Slasher/Stalker Film
- Supernatural Movies
- Chapter 5. Youth and Science: Technology, Computers, Games
- The Three Dimensions
- Simple Science
- Games and Computers
- Chapter 6. Youth in Love and Having Sex
- Contexts and Trends
- Patterns and Images
- Youth in Love
- Youth Having Sex
- Chapter 7. Conclusion: Youth Cinema at the Millennium
- Appendix A. Filmography of Youth Films, 1980-2001
- Appendix B. Subjective Superlative Lists
In any study of contemporary popular culture, the field of subjects changes so quickly, and often so comprehensively, that authors are stymied in making claims about "current" trends and themes. I have certainly found this to be the case with studying teen cinema for the past decade, as each revision of this project involved substantial changes not only to the films cited, but to the claims made about patterns in the movie industry, youth styles, and the films' overall significance.
As this book goes to press at the end of 2001, another wave of fascinating films about youth is bringing further changes—and complexity—to the representation of teenagers in American media. Save the Last Dance and The Princess Diaries have had a surprisingly wide appeal, and freshly provocative features like Ghost World, Donnie Darko, L.I.E., and Our Song are still gaining notoriety in more limited release. Perhaps the surest sign of a revived teen cinema is the appearance of nostalgic homages, such as Wet Hot American Summer and Not Another Teen Movie.
Alas, just as I have been unable to give thorough analytic attention to some of the great teen films mentioned herein, I can only bring glancing coverage to many of the new youth genre products that are currently changing the cultural landscape. While I have incorporated the newest relevant films whenever possible, this study is primarily focused on the period from 1980 to 1999. The teen films of the early twenty-first century will undoubtedly continue to be quite intriguing, and will certainly be worthy of further coverage in other studies, if not also a future edition of this book. I invite correspondence from readers who may wish to participate in such endeavors, and who have ideas on how the current volume may be improved.
American cinema in the late twentieth century revealed a curious and often inconsistent cultural fascination with stories about and images of young people. Various film trends catering to young audiences had emerged over past generations, but movies in the last 20 years of the century appeared almost fixated on capturing certain youth styles and promoting certain perspectives on the celebration (or really, survival) of adolescence. Many arguments persist as to why teenagers have been targeted by Hollywood: youth have disposable incomes that they enjoy spending on entertainment; today's children become the consumptive parents of tomorrow; filmmakers engage in the vicarious experiences of their own lost youth. All of these points are valid, yet this book argues not as much for the reasons behind youth representation as for the issues and trends that representation engenders. As evidenced by the latest massive outpouring of American youth films in the late 1990s, and the parallel production of teen-oriented television shows, magazines, and multimedia outlets, as well as the attention paid to youth attitudes and behaviors in the wake of various scandals, crimes, and accomplishments, the imaging of contemporary youth has become indicative of our deepest social and personal concerns.
Consider, for instance, Todd Solondz's 1996 film Welcome to the Dollhouse. As we approach the bittersweet climax, the awkward adolescent heroine, Dawn Weiner (Heather Mattazaro), is preparing to declare her unrequited romantic longings to an older boy at a party. Dressed in a colorful but garish outfit, Dawn gazes at her crush until she decides that this is her moment: she stands holding her breath, fists clenched, mustering up all her strength to take this plunge, looking as if she could explode. In this one image, Solondz evokes the very intensity that is the nature of growing up, for Dawn is not only confronting her tormented affection for an older boy, she is facing the inevitable conflict of becoming an adult.
All dramas thrive on conflict, and the process of maturing is a natural conflict familiar to everyone by their teenage years. While many filmgoers freely participate in screen fantasies about the possibilities of life as a secret agent or of saving a loved one from the clutches of death, most of our lives are filled with less spectacular phenomena, such as how we come to be accepted by society, discover romance, have sex, gain employment, make moral decisions, and learn about the world and who we are in it. These are the phenomena that most of us first encounter in our adolescence, and how we handle them largely determines how we live the rest of our lives. The gravity of adolescence thus makes for compelling drama, even if many of us would rather forget those trying years. Understanding how we learn and grow in our youth is integral to understanding who we become as adults.
Since the 1950s the American cinema, with varying interests, has been relying on people under 30 to pay for movies about their daily dramas and fantasies. However, there has not always been a prolific output of coming-of-age stories by Hollywood, and the themes of youth films have changed considerably since the days of young Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish in the early 1900s. One of the telling dilemmas of youth films since cinema began is that while they address young people they are not produced by young people, for children and teens are effectively restricted from the commercial filmmaking process. Thus, screen images of youth have always been traditionally filtered through adult perspectives. Virtually all feature films ever made about youth have been produced by filmmakers over 20, even though many are now produced by filmmakers under 30, and most recent youth films have become as complex and sophisticated as adult dramas, no longer content to showcase the trite frivolity of beach parties or the overwrought warfare of urban gangs and schools. Since the early 1980s a number of distinct subgenres and character types within the genre of "youth/teen/young adult" films have emerged and have offered richly provocative images that question the changing concepts of youth in America. The specific number of these categories is arguable, and surely too large to detail in one volume, so I offer here an analysis of five subgenres—containing 18 of the most significant youth film styles and movie roles—to demonstrate the changing nature of teen representation in American media during the past generation.
Young people have always been a concern in American film history, both in terms of their images on screen and their reception of films as an audience. In the earliest days of cinema there did not exist a distinct youth genre, nor for that matter much of an agreed social sense of what constituted youth. Children in the early twentieth century often left school by the age of 14 to begin jobs (only 6.4 percent of young Americans completed high school in 1900) and many were married and having children by 18, a condition that kept the state of "youth" limited to just a few years between childhood and adulthood.3 The reception of movies at that time was also affected by social fears about their corruptive potential, especially regarding their influence on children. Many early-1900s moral guardians preached about the dangers of exposing children to typically adult-oriented dramas, and rather than make films that specifically catered to a young audience, the fledgling movie industry tended to side with concerns over propriety.4 By the 1920s, Hollywood formed the Hays Office and began formal evaluations and restrictions on the moral content of American films, and despite a choice few popular films that featured young characters of the time—Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms (1919), Mary Pickford in Pollyanna (1920), Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921), Baby Peggy in Captain January (1924)—the industry took a clear position on youth films by the 1930s: children were either preadolescent (such as Shirley Temple or the kids in Our Gang) or were developed into early adulthood (such as in the Andy Hardy series starring Mickey Rooney or the old-before-their-time Dead End Kids). In either case, young people certainly did not have on-screen discussions about otherwise typical developmental issues like sexuality, drug or alcohol use, or family dysfunction.
The notable youth films that followed in the years after the Great Depression tended to be optimistic and endearing fables starring the likes of Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and Rooney, but these films were still directed at and most often seen by an adult audience, or by a family audience consisting of both parents and children. Hollywood studios promoted these small troupes of young stars (also including Frankie Darro, Bonita Granville, Freddie Batholomew, Dickie Moore, and Joyce Reynolds) who came to represent the contemporary ideals, if not the realistic conditions, of youth. Then with the resolution of World War II, a distinct population in America began to emerge: teenagers. Gradually the age between childhood and adulthood came to be codified, debated, celebrated, and perhaps most significantly, elongated. More young people stayed in school, and with the arrival of postwar prosperity, more began attending college. Other factors contributed to the burgeoning presence of the teenager in the 1950s: the greater availability of automobiles, which allowed youth to travel and thus achieve a certain independence; the recovering economy, which gave many teens extra money for entertainment outside the home; the popular reception of rock and roll music, which clearly flew in the face of previous standards; and the influence of television, which, while giving all Americans a new common entertainment medium, also kept more adults at home. In terms of the U.S. film industry, two landmark legal cases set the stage for the eventual proliferation of young adult fare. The "Paramount case" was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1948; soon thereafter began the process by which major movie studios divested their holdings in theaters, giving rise to more small independent studios that would take advantage of their increased theatrical access by catering to niche audiences like teenagers. Then the important so-called miracle decision by the Court in 1952 brought certain First Amendment protections to films, thereby opening the door for depictions of a wider range of moral issues on-screen; this development attracted young people to theaters where they could view more "adult" dramas than were available on television.
However, Hollywood studios did not suddenly bank on hedonistic teen roles in the 1950s: their process of introducing the postwar teenager was careful if not apprehensive, as they gradually exploited the ephebiphobia—fear of teenagers—that was seeping into popular culture and politics. After a few notable "clean teen" performances in the 1940s by Jeanne Crain (Margie, 1946), Jane Powell (A Date with Judy, 1948), and Elizabeth Taylor (Little Women, 1949), the archetypal '50s teen performer was embodied in James Dean, whose performance in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is probably the most influential demonstration of pure teen angst in American cinema. Marlon Brando had already showcased the young rebel image in The Wild One (1953), but Dean's affected demeanor was more enduring. Hollywood then continued to mold other performers into troubled youth, as in the milder but still afflicted roles of Natalie Wood (in Rebel Without a Cause, Marjorie Morningstar , and West Side Story ), John Saxon (in Rock, Pretty Baby , The Unguarded Moment , and The Restless Years ), and Brandon De Wilde (in Blue Denim , All Fall Down , and Hud ).
Perhaps a more notable trend than the emergence of these new young performers was the film industry's fresh confrontation with the conditions of youth. Rebel showcased the high school outcast who couldn't fit in (while also considering alcoholism, family dynamics, basic crime, and in more concealed terms, homosexuality); Blackboard Jungle (1955) dramatized the potentially violent conditions of urban high schools and tangentially introduced rock music to American cinema, giving rise to the teen "rock movie" that would become a subgenre thereafter; and Peyton Place (1957) and Splendor in the Grass (1961) demonstrated the supposed dangers of teenage sexuality. Each of these films dealt with issues important to young adults, but now that Hollywood was finally making films about the difficulty of being young, a reactionary movement began, as usual in the film industry, in binary form: films were made that avoided or toned down the dilemmas of youth for the sake of celebrating its carefree aspects, or films were made to further exploit and enflame the dangers of teen delinquency and decadence. In other words, good kids were divided from bad kids. Thus appeared a wave of inane beach films in the '60s (many featuring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello after their well-attended Beach Party in 1963) as well as the popular Gidget series (starting in 1959), alongside a lesser-seen but nonetheless visible output of youth exploitation films, a genre that emerged as early as 1936 with Reefer Madness and was carried on by City Across the River in 1949 and sustained in such productions as Teenage Devil Dolls (1952), Teenage Crime Wave (1955), High School Confidential! (1958), This Rebel Breed (1960), Teenage Strangler (1964), and The Wild Angels (1966). As my study shows, this reactive and divisive pattern of the movie industry is a trend that persists to this day.
By the early 1970s, after the implementation of the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings system (in 1968) and the national suffrage of 18-year-olds (in 1971), not to mention the young ages at which boys were being drafted to fight in Vietnam, American youth began to have a different sense of their identity than that which had been provided for them in so many of the happier, hipper '60s films. The dark and more rebellious aspects of youth that had emerged in the '50s teen films continued in counterculture productions like Wild in the Streets (1968), Easy Rider (1969), R.P.M., and The Strawberry Statement (1970). As was the case with films of the previous generation, most of these movies were not about adolescents but rather young adults, just leaving high school or in college. In fact, Hollywood virtually abandoned its practice of promoting teenage performers in the '60s and certainly had very few to account for in the '70s (the three prominent exceptions being Jodie Foster, Tatum O'Neal, and Robby Benson).
After the dearth of teen stars and films in the 1970s, Hollywood could have maintained its lower output of youth films in the 1980s, but instead the industry concentrated more on young adult dramas than ever before. The most likely factor contributing to this was the emergence of another icon of youth independence, the shopping mall. The mall became a scene of teen congregation where arcades and food courts replaced the pool halls and soda fountains of the past. Furthermore, since the '70s, following the dramatic decline of American movie theaters, Hollywood had come to rely on the centralization of multiple theaters in large retail centers to increase the number of screen venues and to offer moviegoers greater variety and convenience. Thus the multiplex was born. With the relocation of most movie theaters into or near shopping malls in the 1980s, the need to cater to the young audiences who frequented those malls became apparent to Hollywood, and those audiences formed the first generation of multiplex moviegoers.
The clearest result of the multiplex movement was a voluminous outpouring of films directed to and featuring teens, but in order to avoid a stagnating homogenization of the teen genre, Hollywood revised its '50s formula by intensifying the narrative range of youth films through placing teenage characters in previously established genres with more dramatic impact (gory horror, dance musicals, sex comedies), and as a result, a new variety of character types grew out of this generic expansion. Given the categorical choices offered by the multiplex theater, teens in the '80s were then able to go to the mall and select the particular youth movie experience that most appealed to them, and Hollywood tried to keep up with changing teen interests and styles to ensure ongoing profits. This led to constantly evolving efforts by the film industry to maintain the youth market through further generic expansions and revisions; more significantly for the audience, teens were then exposed to a wider range of characters and situations that directly addressed their current social conditions, even if many of the films that did so clearly had puerile provocation as their motive. Unlike the '50s when screen teens were steered down relatively rigid, righteous paths, the '80s teens encountered a complexity of moral choices and personal options on which the multiplex movies thrived. This gave teenage movie audiences at the end of the twentieth century a greater sense of presence in popular media, a deeper potential to be influenced by the films they saw, and a wider range of options from which they could construct and compare their sense of self.
The late '70s suggested the teen trends to come, as the popularity of such films as Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978) with John Travolta—both of which combined music, sex (or the repression thereof), and style—created a segue to the more dynamic stories that young audiences would soon demand. A handful of other films truly inaugurated new cycles: two 1978 American films, the low-budget sensation Halloween and the college farce Animal House, as well as two unassuming Canadian films, Meatballs (1979) and Porky's (1981). These were the starting guns of the new youth subgenres of the '80s. Animal House, Meatballs, and Porky's were raucous comedies featuring goofy and/or hormonal youth pursuing pleasure at college, summer camp, and a '50s-era high school, respectively, and their successes spawned numerous imitations over the next few years that featured desperate variations on this storyline (with such suggestive titles as Goin' All the Way , The Last American Virgin , Losin' It, Getting It On, and The First Turn-On [all 1983], Screwballs, Joy of Sex, and The Wild Life [all 1984]). The new abundance of teen sexuality on screen also coincided with an increasing awareness that the age of first intercourse was dropping for American youth, and the few earlier films that solemnly featured teens losing their virginity—for example, Rich Kids (1979), The Blue Lagoon (1980), Endless Love (1981)—faded into the new appeal of carnal comedies about the plight of sexual pursuits. At the same time, Halloween and similar films like Friday the 13th (1980) and Slumber Party Massacre (1982) were capitalizing on the reactionary aspect of teen sexuality, slaughtering wholesale those youth who deigned to cross the threshold of sexual awareness, even though these films usually hinged on a major suspension of realism. The early '80s then marked the beginning of a new era in American youth movie production with the release of numerous popular teen horror films in 1981 and the release of Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982, the first commercially successful hybrid of the contemporary sex, school, and delinquency elements.
Between 1980 and 1985, there were six major approaches to youth cinema offered by Hollywood, most revised from past trends in the genre: the horror film, the science film, the sex comedy, the romantic melodrama, the juvenile delinquent drama, and the school picture that often borrowed generic elements from the rest. Of these approaches, the horror film tended to offer the highest grosses (literally and figuratively) and often showed the least knowledge of true youth conditions. These films were a runaway success in the early '80s and may in many ways be responsible for bringing a new image of youth to American cinema, however incomplete that image was. Within the youth horror subgenre, graphic depictions of sex and violence had come to be expected, and such previous taboos as the depiction of "underage" nudity were broached. The '80s youth horror subgenre depicted teens not only as sexually active but as morally culpable for their explorations of sexuality, paying with their lives for their indiscretions. The youth horror film—especially in its "slasher" and "supernatural" varieties that I explore in Chapter 4—has brought attention to teen sexuality and morality, and other issues, by the most dramatic means possible.
The science film represents the smallest subgenre but I will argue that its inclusion is nonetheless crucial to understanding the industrial treatment of adult and youth difference. The youth science film had early stirrings in E.T. (1982) but came into its own in 1983 with WarGames and then continued with further nuclear-era projects like Real Genius (1985) and The Manhattan Project (1986). Youth science films then went into a clear decline as the Cold War came to a close, and even films featuring youth using computers and video games (Arcade in 1993, Evolver in 1995) were primarily relegated to smaller studios by the end of the '80s, suggesting that Hollywood was aware of changing cultural conditions for youth using technologies of power but chose not to celebrate this liberatory potential. Considering the very vocal debates around children's increasing access to technology, the continuing lack of films about the topic may signal a certain repression.
The sex comedy and romantic melodrama are companions, for despite the often gratuitous content of many of these films, they all consider the trial by fire that is the discovery of young lust and love. All youth love films can be categorized by identifying the obstacle to the protagonists' romance (class, race, age, distance), but in this study I focus on the obstacle most commonly portrayed since Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: familial conflict. Throughout the early '80s, the depiction of teens' sexual pursuits was primarily ribald and explicit, as in Private School and Risky Business (1983), but by the mid-'80s a distinct shift took place toward more serious and sensitive representations of teen relationships, particularly in the films of John Hughes, such as Pretty in Pink (1986). The stakes of young romantic and sexual practice grew higher in the era of AIDS, and by the mid-'90s, films about youth having sex portrayed a greater diversity of issues that sometimes accompany these practices, as with the three topics I address here: virginity, pregnancy, and homosexuality.
The output of juvenile delinquent dramas has been the most voluminous of youth films, although their attention to contemporary realism is much debated, since they offer a rich appreciation for the aggressive expressions that teens most crave and parents most fear. A clear range of immorality can be studied across this subgenre, from the harmless mischief that youth enact in daily life—such examples as Ferris Beuller's Day Off (1986), Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead (1991) and Snow Day (2000)—to the life-threatening criminality of teen thugs in films like Class of 1984 (1982), China Girl (1987), Kids (1995), and American History X (1998). I look at five specific delinquent styles that represent this spectrum, starting with movies about "deviant dancing" and concluding with the African American crime drama of the early '90s, a successful and influential trend that brought a distinct sense of harsh tension to youth films but nonetheless faded in the mid-'90s.
School films are probably the most foundational subgenre of youth films, yet they often consider teenage identities quite separately from other subgenres. In most school films, the educational setting becomes an index for youth issues, featuring a variety of youth culture styles and types, as best represented by The Breakfast Club in 1985. Five character roles played out in that film—the nerd, the jock, the rebel, the popular girl, and the delinquent—are the roles most commonly seen in all school films, and my study examines the impulse of smart students to transform, the impact of delinquents on school order, the threat of conformity to rebels, the sensitive depiction of athletes, and the effects of popularity on teen girls. The cycles in school films are thus best revealed through tracing the characters that embody those cycles, from the nerdly outcast of Lucas (1986) to the tormented clique queens of Heathers (1989) and the jock heroes of Varsity Blues (1999).
These subgenres remained in place throughout the end of twentieth century American cinema, and with the ironic exception of the now-dormant science film, they still form the frame in which youth films are made and marketed in the early twenty-first century, even as a number of the particular styles within the subgenres fade or change. Looking back, after a boom in the early '80s, the output of successful American youth films began to decline by the late '80s, as the "Brat Pack" of popular teen stars in the mid-'80s began taking adult roles and Hollywood moved away from the limited market of teen stories. Many little-seen youth films did continue to be made at this time, and while many were quite good, most were by small studios and thus had restricted releases. With the exception of a few notable films focusing on African American teens in criminal settings, this marginalizing effect continued until the mid-'90s, when Hollywood began to cultivate a refreshed interest in youth films, partially due to the recycling pattern of most film genres, but also in an effort to lure youth back to theaters and away from the proliferation of cable-TV channels and new teen-oriented Internet sites.
By the mid-'90s, the latest expansion of youth movie production emerged, especially in the wake of highly successful and/or provocative youth films such as Clueless, Kids, Dangerous Minds (all 1995), William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, Scream, and Girls Town (all 1996). The new Hollywood strategy worked: by 1997, the national teenager-demographic tracking organization Teen Research Unlimited announced that teens labeled "going to the movies" the most popular "in" activity, ahead of (in descending order) using the Internet, dating, partying, sports, and shopping. In fact, just as they saved Hollywood profits in the early '80s, youth movies of the late '90s offered a much-needed boost to a previously sluggish film industry, with relatively low-budget productions such as Can't Hardly Wait, The Faculty (both 1998), Never Been Kissed, She's All That, and Varsity Blues (all 1999) all yielding tidy revenues—not to mention the hugely budgeted and overwhelmingly successful Titanic (1997), a film that owed much of its profit to a youth audience captivated by the film's teen romance. Various media outlets began covering the escalating interest in teen culture, which was apparent not only at the multiplex but in television shows such as Party of Five, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 7th Heaven, Moesha, and the relatively huge hit Dawson's Creek (developed by Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson), and which thus had a synergistic effect in increasing the output of teen roles in the cinema. The youth population at the end of the century was clearly witness to a new wave of films that catered to their interests and explored their images, and these films were and will continue to be undoubtedly influenced by and built upon the evolution of cinematic youth representations in previous generations.
The rich and compelling history of films about youth informs us of more than the changing social conditions and perceptions of young people; it gives us a special appreciation for how successive generations have endured the conflicts of claiming identity and seeking recognition for their actions. This endurance was seen most visibly in the post-World War II teen films as young people restively entered the Cold War era their parents created, and then again in the '60s counterculture films, and most recently at the turn of the millennium as youth face a future that will be far more fast-paced and removed from the traditions and mores of their parents' generation. This study examines American youth films in the last two decades of the twentieth century to determine how recent generations of young people have been represented in American cinema and what that representation tells us about the various phenomena that constitute the contemporary coming-of-age process. Through this examination I demonstrate not only that youth films comprise a legitimate genre worthy of study on their own terms, but that they are imbued with a unique cultural significance: they question our evolving identities from youth to adulthood while simultaneously shaping and maintaining those identities.
Social Representation and Genre Analysis
This is a work of film criticism. I have viewed and analyzed hundreds of films that compose my primary texts of analysis, and my main analytical method uses genre analysis to study social representation. Social approaches to film studies seek an understanding of cinema based on group and individual representations in (and/or reactions to) films—for example, how films portray a given population or their conditions—under the tacit assumption that films are both aesthetic and cultural documents produced by an industry whose aim is to appeal to (often larger) populations who will find the films worth seeing. Genre analysis considers patterns, motifs, and trends across a spectrum of films that share a commonality, usually subject matter and theme (such as science fiction, melodrama, Westerns), and further explores how the elements of a genre are manifested and change over time. My study considers how American films about teenagers have utilized different techniques and stories to represent young people within a codified system that delineates certain subgenres and character types within the "youth film" genre. Unlike other genres that are based on subject matter, the youth genre is based on the ages of the films' characters, and thus the thematic concerns of its subgenres can be seen as more directly connected to specific notions of different youth behaviors and styles.
Pioneering cinematic image studies include Molly Haskell's examination of women in film, From Reverence to Rape (1974), Thomas Cripps's examination of African Americans in film, Slow Fade to Black (1977), and Siegfried Kracauer's seminal investigation of German film and society, From Caligari to Hitler (1957). To this list we could also add many other studies, including those of Native Americans (The Only Good Indian, Ralph Friar and Natasha Friar, 1972), Jews (The Jewish Image in American Film, Lester Friedman, 1987), and the disabled (Cinema of Isolation, Martin Norden, 1994). The authors of these studies employ various approaches to their investigations, all of which are built upon the belief that films are cultural artifacts revealing much about not only the people who are depicted in them but also those who make and view them. These approaches can be primarily interpretive, utilizing a subjective understanding of the films and the population in question, or more quantitative, attempting an objective "content analysis" to reveal various features of the films.
I study the images of youth in American cinema by combining both of these approaches. I feel that in any social study of cinema one cannot and should not rely solely upon quantitative and statistical information, and an "objective" study of a medium as personal and social as film would not be effective in such matters as attitude, nuance, and style. However, I also feel that relying solely upon inferential readings of films is equally problematic, for such a study can become so subjective as to be indifferent to other perspectives. I therefore aim to understand the subtleties and possible interpretations of youth films while also exploring the social and industrial contexts of the films' productions; I try to identify and analyze the "image" of youth with as much information as possible about what inspired and manifested that image and how that image developed over time. I do not study the reception of youth images, and I leave such a study to those who can pursue thorough audience research. Rather, my study expands upon the work done by scholars whose analyses of the images of youth have provided a helpful foundation.
Genre analysis has been developed more recently than social analysis methods. While many critics observed the social influence of movies on viewers from the earliest days of cinema, serious genre examinations did not proceed until after World War II. Paul Willemen (1983) describes the two functions that genre theory was then designed to fulfill: (1) "to challenge and displace the dominant notions of cinema installed and defended on the basis of the assumed excellence of the 'taste' of a few journalists and reviewers, appealing to the 'age-old canons and principles' of Art in general," and (2) "in the wake of the realisation that any form of artistic production is a rule-bound activity firmly embedded in social history, [genre theory] set about discovering the structures which underpinned groups of films and gave them their social grounding." Thus, as genre theories were staked out, many scholars argued alternately for political, aesthetic, social, and industrial methods for studying genres.
Theoretical studies of genre appeared, such as Robin Wood's "Ideology, Genre, Auteur" (1977), in which Wood claimed that genre films are "different strategies for dealing with the same ideological tensions." Rick Altman's ambitious "A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre" (1984) proposed studying genre by combining the semantic view of genre study ("definitions that depend on a list of common traits, attitudes, characters, shots, locations, sets, and the like") with the syntactic (". . . definitions that play up instead certain constitutive relationships between undesignated and variable place-holders"), an approach that he has since revised and expanded in his recent Film/Genre (1999). Practical methods of studying genre were offered in Thomas Schatz's Hollywood Genres (1981) and Stuart Kaminsky's American Film Genres (1985), while specific generic approaches were also hotly debated (e.g., Paul Schrader's take on film noir, Jim Kitses's study of the Western, Jane Feuer's and Rick Altman's books on Hollywood musicals).
Some writers insisted upon parameters for describing "genre films," such as how one could claim that certain movies were indeed gangster films, or Westerns, or melodramas (Kaminsky called for a limited scope and definition to genre, in films with clearly defined constants). However, an early critic of this concern, Andrew Tudor, in 1973 pointed to the "empiricist dilemma" of arbitrary definitions and post hoc descriptors that are often used to describe a genre, by which a genre is defined "on the basis of analyzing a body of films that cannot possibly be said to be [a certain genre] until after the analysis." Tudor sees two solutions to this dilemma: first, to "classify films according to a priori criteria depending on the critical purpose," or second, more commonly and more preferably, to "lean on a common cultural consensus as to what constitutes [a certain genre] and then go on to analyze it in detail." Still other writers remained grounded in the broader theories of genre, such as Steve Neale's contention in "Questions of Genre" (1990) that genres represent social and industrial psychological conditions indicative of alternating dominant forces, although using such a model demands an exhaustive and impractical study of a myriad of discourses in order to be sound and is ultimately as interpretive as other text-based approaches.
Genre criticism shares an important role with social criticism in revealing to scholars the complex tastes and trends of filmmakers and audiences. Schatz argues in Hollywood Genres that audiences "write" genres within limited contexts, describing to the film industry what films should be made based on what films they go to see. Schatz thus claimed that "a genre represents a range of expression for filmmakers and a range of experience for viewers." I believe this is a helpful way of considering genre, although the ranges of which Schatz speaks can be wide and difficult to define. In the case of the present study, I consider the image of the American youth population within certain ranges of experience that youth are afforded, such as school, relationships, and delinquency. These experiences are essentially what define the more precise "subgenres" within the social genre of youth films.
In terms of defining and analyzing the youth genre, both of Tudor's solutions to the empiricist dilemma can be employed: first, temporarily set aside cultural context in the definition of the genre by simply maintaining a defined and consistent limit on the genre (see "youth" described below). Then, in addressing the cultural context, be explicitly aware of the fallibility of generalizing that remains an inherent danger in observing the characteristics of a genre and then extrapolating from those characteristics to make comparisons to social conditions. Since my study argues primarily from the point at which images of youth are produced—the texts of the films—and not their reception within a historical reality of youth, nor their stylistic components (e.g., lighting techniques, editing patterns, use of sound), I can only offer interpretive arguments about the social milieu as well as about the industrial and narrative range of films themselves. While any study that deals with representation must necessarily consider the context of said representation, my study only applies recent historical and statistical information about youth as it is relevant to certain arguments. Conditions of education, employment, and lifestyle among young people are too complex to analyze within the scope of this study, although the representation of certain youth trends or practices in films against the historical or statistical "reality" of youth conditions is considered.
One of the most conspicuous problems of genre analysis over the past generation has been the assumption by most scholars that a genre's characteristics and development can be discerned by studying only the most popular and "successful" examples of a genre or else a random sample of its offerings. Obviously this approach presents a number of dilemmas: how the determination of "importance" is made for the sample selected, what is lost in the films not studied, and how claims about the genre may not apply to every film that can be argued to fit the genre's code. In the dissertation that was the source of this book, I insisted upon a generic methodology in which all of the available films within a genre, and its respective subgenres, are addressed, since this is the only way to ensure complete knowledge of a genre. Nonetheless, a few problems with my approach arose as I wrote the dissertation and revised it into the current volume: many films that may fit within the youth genre are not available for viewing; the restrictions of space do not allow for lengthy commentary on the many films in question; some films that are only partially germane to issues of youth representation may not contribute to an examination of youth subgenres as a whole.
The first problem cannot be avoided—there are simply many films that are so obscure as to be inaccessible, and a scholar is left with the faulty option of making comments on a few films based on plot descriptions; thus, I only offer analyses of the relevant films I have been able to carefully view. The second problem is unfortunate, since it demands that some valuation be placed on films and styles that do warrant more extensive commentary, while others are given shorter coverage or omitted altogether. This and the third problem are indicative of the inevitably judgmental nature of generic definition: I must determine which films are most representative and which address youth issues "significantly," as well as how they operate within the various youth subgenres. I argue that most youth films fall into one of five subgenres, but not all portray youth in such a way that lends deeper insight to the patterns and operations of the subgenres. In selecting the films that are the most germane to my argument and in focusing on the subgeneric categories that are most revealing of youth film trends, I have had to eliminate a number of wonderful films and important issues for the sheer sake of concentration and demonstration. I thus apologize at the start for the absence of numerous teen classics that you may otherwise find endearing, and which I can almost certainly promise have found or will find thorough coverage in other sources.
The difficulty of this type of genre approach has been examined by Janet Staiger (1997) in her analysis of the "purity hypothesis" in genre study, for she claims that "Hollywood films have never been 'pure'—that is, easily arranged into categories. All that has been pure has been sincere attempts to find order among variety." She does, however, go on to say that these sincere attempts are in the service of understanding larger structural and representational patterns in film history, while questioning why scholars such as Tudor can point out the inconsistencies of genre study and then essentially pass over them in excessively precise efforts to study genre films. Thus, to this day an agreement within the field on how to conduct genre studies has yet to be reached, as is evident by the number of current texts that continue to debate the issue, although I proceed through a comprehensive analysis that expands upon the most complex and visible examples of the youth genre's output.
That films about youth actually compose a genre has only recently been identified in film studies. After the pioneering work of David Considine and a few other authors in the 1980s, two genre catalogs offered codifications for the youth genre. In his massive compendium Films by Genre: 775 Categories, Styles, Trends, and Movements Defined, with a Filmography for Each (1993), Daniel Lopez identifies the "Teen Movie," which has also been called the "'Juve' Movie," "Teenage Movie," "Teenpic," and "Youth Picture," although he places undue emphasis on the exploitative nature of many films since the 1950s that have featured teenagers. He then divides the Teen Movie into subgenres, while cross-listing other relevant genres such as the "Exploitation Film," the "Juvenile Delinquency Film," the "Motorcycle Movie," the "Rock Film," and the "Youth Film." Of Teen Movie subgenres, Lopez offers the division of "Beach Films," "High School Films," "Teen-Violence Films," and "Teen Comedies"—which he distinguishes from "Teen Sex Comedies."
His further distinction of the "Youth Film" appears to be a matter of historically specific semantics, since he only cites examples from 1967 to 1972 and claims that these films "highlighted the concerns of young people querying the Establishment, society and its values," as if films before or since this time frame had failed to do so as well. Such a dubious category exposes the difficulty of finding accurate descriptors for generic styles and movements, since Lopez would have done better to label the Vietnam-era films to which he was referring by their thematic concerns, calling them perhaps "Anti-Establishment Films," or placing them in a temporal subgenre such as the "Vietnam-Era Youth Film." Lopez's attempt to define and divide films about youth is still significant, for he locates Teen Movies as a genre unto itself, and sees the necessity of making subgeneric distinctions.
In 1995 the Library of Congress commissioned its Motion Picture/Broadcasting/Recorded Sound Division to study the cataloging of films by types, and by 1997 the group produced The Moving Image Genre-Form Guide, which relies on the work of archival sources (such as the Film Literature Index and The American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films) to construct a descriptive structure for the various genres and forms of film. This guide locates one comprehensive genre it labels "Youth," which comprises "fictional work portraying aspects of the trajectory through adolescence, including high school years, peer pressure, first love, beach parties, and initial attempts at adulthood, along with strains in the relationship with family." The emphasis in these films is on teenage characters, and the guide thus subsumes the distinction of "Teen" films within this category, moving films about characters aged 12 and younger to "Children," and films set in a collegiate environment to "College." These are essentially the same distinctions that I make (although I do include 12-year-old characters) in delimiting the genre that is the youth film.
As Janet Staiger and other authors have continued to argue, many films do not easily conform to manufactured categories: some films may simply not fit into a clear (sub)generic classification, or may cross over so many themes and styles as to defy any single (sub)generic location. This is a dilemma of which I am keenly aware, and I attempt to address it by always foregrounding the existence of youth cinema as a genre itself, which has a relatively reliable denotative frame—that is, films in which youth appear. Then within that frame, I allow for much categorical interplay and cross-generic influence. Yet because not even all "films in which youth appear" can properly be identified as youth cinema (usually because the young characters are secondary to adult leads), the larger generic frame under which I work is still sensitively constructed. This is a dilemma that I do not feel disrupts the process of examining how youth have been represented in cinema because so many youth images are still being studied; yet from a methodological standpoint, it does bear reminding, if only to argue that describing a truly reliable, consistent, internally and externally integrated model of genre study by social types may be an impossible goal. I believe that this book employs the paradigm that is best suited to the study of cinematic social representation through generic analysis, however incomplete and arguable it may remain.
What delimits youth in this context? For the purposes of my study, I consider the youth population to be between the ages of 12 and 20. This represents a range of years that includes the actual teen years as well as the traditionally recognized entrance into adolescence (or at least in the United States, the beginning of middle school, or junior high school), as well as late adolescence and entry into the post-high school world. (This is the same age range that David Considine analyzed in his work on adolescents in film, beginning with his dissertation and culminating in his book The Cinema of Adolescence. It is also the same age range used by Mark Thomas McGee and R. J. Robertson in their study of juvenile delinquency in movies, The J.D. Films.) However, I do not analyze films that are about characters in college (who tend to be between 18 and 24 years old) except for the rare cases where clearly defined adolescents attend college in the story. This is not to say that college-age characters are not youthful, but since the college genre has itself already been extensively covered in other studies, and further, because the ages of college characters are often vague and are usually implied as the "early 20s," and most of all, because the majority of college films do not concern the same issues about youth as do teen and high school films, analyzing these films would detract from the primary focus of my study on teen representation. Therefore, the chapters on horror, science, delinquency, and love and sex consider films about characters aged 12 to 20, while the chapter on school covers characters in junior high or high school (generally 12 to 18 years old). Using this subgeneric format allows for a clear demonstration of the diverse and yet confined images of youth that Hollywood produces.
I further delimit my study by concentrating on feature-length films, although I do consider many straight-to-video movies that achieved recognition outside of theatrical release. I do not examine films that, despite the presence of young performers or their appeal to young audiences, are not about the youth experience. As Thomas Doherty and other critics have argued, Hollywood "juvenilized" its films after World War II to such an extent that virtually all movies can be said to appeal to youth. Thus, given the comprehensive reach of what can be labeled "youth" films, I am not only concentrating on those films that are relevant to the dominant subgenres of youth cinema since 1980, but I am omitting films that only tangentially or incidentally depict youth. A filmography of all youth films from 1980 to 2001 (many of which are excluded from the present study) is included as Appendix A; this list is provided in the hope that a complete analysis of all youth films may someday be conducted.
Assembling the filmography for this study proved to be an arduous task. Many of the so-called indexes of genres are incomplete or, as is the case with many generic categories, based on ambiguous or subjective judgments of what constitutes relevant films in the "youth" genre. I conducted numerous cross-referenced searches, generating an initial list of roughly 1,500 films, which I then began to narrow by consulting plot descriptions. This was by far the most reliable and complete method for compiling the filmography, which rounded out at just over 1,000 films, of which I was able to view and analyze about 420 examples. I believe this is the most complete filmography of youth films from 1980 to 2001 that can be assembled.
I have read what I believe to be all of the relevant literature on youth films since 1980, as well as numerous published reviews on each film in the study. While I integrate these writings into my analyses, I do not believe that it is necessary or appropriate to focus on any specific authors' theoretical arguments about youth films, youth culture, or film reception in general. My approach is meant to be pluralistic and inclusive, considering as many pertinent perspectives about these films as possible. For instance, many commercial developments at the end of the twentieth century—multiplex theaters, the availability of films on video, trends in youth fashion—not only have affected the output of youth films but also have changed the representations of youth within films. I thus also consider how certain financial conditions of the filmmaking practice have factored into the social and generic aspects of youth images in cinema.
A note on terminology: I use the label "youth films" to refer to the entire universe of films made about young people. While I often label this population as "young adults," I will occasionally divide "teens" from "20-somethings" when such a distinction is demanded. "Adolescence" is an ambiguous term that can be applied to youth before the age of 12 and after 20, so I reserve use of the term when I specifically discuss the social or biological process of entering adulthood and leaving childhood.
The Study of Youth, In and Out of Movies
A study of cinema and youth offers an interesting historical parallel: motion pictures were invented in the 1890s and "youth" as an area of academic research emerged less than 20 years later in 1904, when social psychologist G. Stanley Hall wrote his pathbreaking two-volume tome Adolescence: Its Psychology, and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education, which may be credited as the beginning of youth studies. That the proliferation of cinema and the founding of youth studies coincide within the same historical generation may not be indicative of a cause-and-effect relationship; however, the relationship between cinema and youth is significant. The twentieth century produced a series of "moral panics" around young people and social behavior, and the cinema—both as a gathering place and as a site of influence—has been a perennial source of those panics.
Of course children and teenagers existed before the twentieth century began, but the social perception of the preadult population was considerably different before the early 1900s, and certainly before the Industrial Revolution. Many girls and boys left school at preteen ages in the nineteenth century and started families soon thereafter, often entering the labor force in their early teen years or younger. As the modern era took hold, certain researchers like Hall (and later Havighurst, Piaget, Winnicott, Erikson, and Anna Freud) began recognizing a distinct age of specialized development between childhood and adulthood that had been initially described through characteristics of sexual development and was then later examined as a more complex sociopsychological manifestation of cultural and internal conflict. This age of development was adolescence, and its study by researchers (including Keniston, who even divided adolescence from youth) and its acceptance by society during the progressing twentieth century resulted in a new notion of youth, if only to distinguish a crucial transitional period during the teen years between childhood and adulthood.
Until the 1960s the study of youth remained largely a discipline within the behavioral sciences as researchers studied the changing attitudes and "pathologies" of youth during the various cycles of twentieth-century life. Then in the '60s, certain global political events brought about a visible change in the activities of young people, not the least of which were the escalating war in Southeast Asia and the student revolts in France in 1968. During this same decade Philippe Aries wrote the next paradigmatic study of youth, shifting attention away from behavior and toward history in Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (1962).
Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, the new research on youth history was taken up by the growing field of cultural studies, which eagerly considered how the youth uprisings of that era could be representative of previously repressed or diffused class, gender, and race conflicts. First appeared the work of James Coleman in his 1961 book, The Adolescent Society: The Social Life of the Teenager and Its Impact on Education, after which British scholars in the 1970s, among them Stuart Hall, Angela McRobbie, and Dick Hebdige, studied patterns of resistance and revolt within what was now called "youth culture." By the 1980s, as the Reagan/Thatcher era brought about a series of new moral panics based on the vision of the New Right, the trend in youth research shifted back toward studies of youth "pathologies" (e.g., teen pregnancy, unemployment, crime) within a cultural studies method. One of the first such studies was Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears (1983), in which Geoffrey Pearson claimed that essentially the same moral accusations about youth had been recycled for the past 150 years. One of the more notable later studies in this vein was The Road to Romance and Ruin: Teen Films and Youth Culture (1992), in which Jon Lewis relied much upon the observations and opinions of Hebdige and Hall as he studied various teen "vices" in recent cinema. The influence of British cultural studies remains evident in more recent youth studies, such as Teenagers: An American History (1996), by Grace Palladino, which studies the emergence of the American teenage population in terms of its institutional identification through the rise of high schools in the early twentieth century, and its economic identification through the greater consumptive capacities that teenagers developed in the years after World War II. Regardless of how youth studies have focused on deviance and development (psychology) and/or resistance and economics (politics), one aspect of youth studies has been undoubtedly clear since the 1980s: youth culture is not homogeneous.
The 1980s became a time of distinct change in youth studies as the trajectories of sociology, history, and cultural studies merged over concerns about refreshed conservative attitudes that were largely vilifying youth. These concerns were legitimate given conditions of the time; however, these conditions were not necessarily being visibly addressed in the American cinema at this time. Most Hollywood films about youth in the 1980s relied upon formulas that exploited youth issues, especially sexual development, while gradually revealing an increasing tension and confusion about the role of contemporary youth. By the early '90s, in the wake of the Reagan and Thatcher years and the patriotic swell of the Persian Gulf War, teens in American films had been entirely reconfigured, if not often extinguished, as increasing emphasis fell on portraits of the post-teen "20-something" generation in movies after Slacker in 1991 (examples include Singles in 1992 and Reality Bites in 1994). Popular studies of youth thus shifted their attention: in July 1990, Time magazine published an extensive and influential article entitled "Proceeding with Caution," which debuted the skeptical "20-something generation"; over the next few years more magazines followed suit (including dueling cover stories in Atlantic Monthly and The New Republic at the end of 1992) with studies of young adults now labeled "Generation X" after Douglas Coupland's eponymous 1991 novel. "Youth" by the mid-'90s thus covered a wider age range than ever before, spanning the first year of postelementary education (the age of 12) to the first few years after college (or, considering that the majority of young people do not complete college, at least the mid-20s).
"Generation Multiplex represents an important contribution to our understanding of the relationship between youth and the mass media, in this case movies. From both a personal and a professional perspective, I welcome this work which builds on themes and issues I addressed in The Cinema of Adolescence in 1985."
—from the Foreword