Hello Cinema guys and dolls! You may have noticed a new category today: essays! Part of the reason I started this blog was to have a proper place for the cinema studies essays I wrote in college. I plan on posting an essay a month and each one will be themed. Since september usually marks the time when everyone heads back to school I thought Teens On Screen, a paper covering “youth films” specifically the works of John Hughes would be perfect. Enjoy!
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The fascination with teenage misfits, rebels and outcasts is one that is familiar to cinema. Often portrayed as Caucasian middle class youth residing in the suburbs, Hollywood has subjected audiences to the plight of the American teenager for several years now. With films like Mean Girls, Heathers, and Clueless to television shows such as Glee, and Skins (UK) teenage angst is here to stay. Dennis Lim‚Äôs New York Times article entitled ‚ÄúCreating an Adolescence for the Ages‚ÄĚ states ‚ÄúThe teenage misfit has been a central figure in youth movies since James Dean, who sparked an outbreak of juvenile delinquency amid a wave of films that regarded teenagers mainly as a minority group or a social problem.‚ÄĚ Teenagers are more often than not criticized for everything they already are: Immature, inexperienced and hormonal. Yet these qualities are essential for the growing pains that permeate throughout the ever-popular coming of age genre and are what make teenagers in both youth films and reality so unique.
One director who has embraced the issues associated with adolescence perhaps more than any other and continues to influence the genre today is the late John Hughes. With classic films such as Ferris Bueller‚Äôs Day Off, Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, one can argue that Hughes himself started the genre of the Teen Film, or at least perfected it. The films of John Hughes would set the standard for many ‚Äúyouth films‚ÄĚ of today. The dialogue is witty and memorable, begging to be quoted for years to come and the film itself is often the first time a new star or Hollywood darling appears on screen. ‚ÄúJohn Hughes’s underdog fables, among them the ’80s classics ”The Breakfast Club” and ”Pretty in Pink,” marked a turning point by exploring the inner lives of teenagers, emphasizing class and social hierarchies and promoting a buoyant everyone’s-an-outsider ethos‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ(Lim). This ethos is still apparent in the youth films of today as well as those that appeared after early Hughes films. One such film set the set the stage for teen angst in the eighties was Sixteen Candles.
Marking John Hughes directorial debut and starring Molly Ringwald (who would become a Hughes favorite) Sixteen Candles is the story of Samantha ‚ÄúSam‚ÄĚ Baker who has just turned sixteen years of age. Her ‚Äúsweet sixteenth‚ÄĚ is anything but as she struggles to survive the challenging and ultimately embarrassing day. The beauty of Sixteen Candles and films that would later star a group of young actors commonly known as the ‚ÄúBrat Pack‚ÄĚ is the reliability. As states in the book ‚ÄúYou Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation‚ÄĚ by Susannah Gora, Sixteen Candles ‚Äúwould set Hughes apart, in an age when other filmmakers were quick to portray teens as vapid, horny, pimpled caricatures‚Ä¶(10).‚ÄĚ Unlike the slasher films of the eighties that did just that, Hughes would present the adolescent experience as a three-dimensional one and not overlook the pain, embarrassment, and melodrama that follows. ‚ÄúTo a large degree screen teenagers have always embodied the romance of the outsider‚ÄĚ (Lim 7) and Hughes would soon became the voice of a generation who desperately needed one, most certainly one as loud and prominent as Hughes would become. Famed film critic Roger Ebert would later describe the director as ‚Äúthe philosopher of adolescence‚ÄĚ (Gora 10).
Perhaps this is because Hughes himself was a bit of an outcast during his high school years as Gora points out, ‚ÄúHughes is often portrayed as having been an outsider in high school. There‚Äôs some truth to that-he certainly was different from anyone else in his school, and he wasn‚Äôt part of the truly popular crowd- (13).‚ÄĚ Surviving high school and being apart of or wanting a way into the ‚Äúin crowd‚ÄĚ has become an essential genre convention for youth films. In the two thousand and four film Mean Girls one of the characters draws a diagram for the main character Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) who is new to the high school. The drawing explains where everyone sits in the cafeteria, but what it really does is show the new girl the social hierarchy established by her peers. The popular girls, jocks, geeks and weirdos are all social groups existing within a larger one inharmoniously. Through separation and labels Cady and other teens in films with similar scenes are able to make a crucial choice‚Ä¶ beat them or join in.
Changing oneself to fit into a group is another teen film trope that is apparent in many movies. A perfect example of a youth film that breaks the invisible walls of high school social groups is the nineteen eighty-five John Hughes film entitled The Breakfast Club. Once again featuring Molly Ringwald and the ‚ÄúBrat Pack‚ÄĚ The breakfast club is a coming of age tale about five teenagers all representing different stereotypes, are forced to spend a morning together in detention. It is there that the ‚Äújock‚ÄĚ, the ‚Äúnerd‚ÄĚ, the ‚Äúbasket case‚ÄĚ, the ‚Äúpopular girl‚ÄĚ and the ‚Äúrebel‚ÄĚ interact for the first and perhaps the last time. In a good teen film the characters, setting and dialogue should reflect the settings, personalities and vernacular of the youth during that time but it should also display the issues. Ned Tanen comments on the film by stating ‚ÄúWhen those kids are being dropped off that day at detention in The Breakfast Club, you get right to what this movie was about, and what this generation was about: middle-class suburban kids trying to keep it together‚ÄĚ (Gora 67).
Hughes acknowledged the problems that teenagers faced on a daily basis and showed that even though many did not come from a place of poverty their lives were not perfect. As the film progresses the group moves upstairs and out of boredom begin to reveal their secrets to one another. In one memorable scene Claire, the popular girl, displays her special talent to the others, which consists of being able to apply lipstick without her hands. Everyone delights in her skill except Bender, representing the rebel. He mocks her in his monologue stating, ‚ÄúMy image of you is totally blown.‚ÄĚ before divulging his turbulent home life. As tensions continue to rise the jock asks in dismay if they are doomed to become like their parents to which the ‚Äúbasket case‚ÄĚ says its inevitable.
Gora points out in her book that teens of the eighties were in essence a generation struggling with identity and belonging. ‚ÄúThe 1960s and ‚Äė70s teenagers changed the world-and all the 1980s teens had to do was live in it‚ÄĚ (66). This struggle for identity and need for acceptance may explain why fitting in is still such a huge part of the teenage experience. As stated before separation and labels grouped teens together and kept the social hierarchy of high school society in tact. Roz Kaveney, author of Teen Dreams: Reading Teen Film from Heathers to Veronica Mars claims ‚ÄúHughes placed class firmly if crudely on the agenda in all of these films‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ(29). Near the end of the breakfast club the ‚Äúpopular girl‚ÄĚ gives the ‚Äúbasket case‚ÄĚ a make over, an ‚Äúentirely superficial and entirely reductive‚ÄĚ act according to Kaveney (22). In the teen scene looking better often times equals social acceptance.
Character after character the audience learns that a pretty face masks an ugly heart and that heart often rests within the popular girl. She seems to have everything; the perfect car, skin and hair, boyfriend and friends who will answer to every call and supply every need. If you defy her she will make your life a living hell, if you befriend her watch your back. There are countless youth films that feature the pretty yet manipulative leader of the pack who every girl wanted to be. In many films the unpopular girl idolizes the popular one and dreams of having the seemingly perfect life she does. It is then that the otherwise invisible girl realizes that she must not try to beat them, but join them. It is here the full transformation makeover is cued. The ‚Äúmakeover‚ÄĚ has become so much of a staple in these films that they are almost expected.¬†The superficial act of ‚Äúmaking over‚ÄĚ the pretty but plain girl becomes a visual crossing over for the protagonist representing her change and assimilation. If teenagers during this time and arguably today struggle so much with identity, why not assume the identity of someone else? We have seen in short stories and other works mainly in the science fiction genre, what happens when individuality is lost. It is quite a stretch to compare a high school clique to the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers but in some cases they function the same way.
In Hughes next film Pretty in Pink, class and identity are two very important themes. In the film Ringwald plays Andie, a poor girl who sets her sights on Blane, a good-looking rich kid or ‚ÄúRichie‚ÄĚ. Because of Andie‚Äôs social status she is very self-conscious and even embarrassed of where she comes from. Kaveney comments on identity and status by pointing out the character that really has something to loose, surprisingly it is not poor Andie but ‚ÄúRichie‚ÄĚ Blane. ‚ÄúBlane is genuinely attracted to Andie and has genuine feelings for her, but he has not the strength to persist in the relationship when he is threatened with social death by Steff and their clique‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ (32). By sacrificing his own happiness to not risk social suicide speaks volumes about what his priorities are.
Andie on the other hand comes to represent individuality, staying true to herself and style throughout the film. ‚ÄúAndie becomes the embodiment of grace under pressure‚ÄĚ (Bernstein 77) and in many ways she has to be. Pretty in Pink comes to a climax when Andie prepares for the one event that will forever be remembered by a teen, and make or break you in a night. That event is the prom. Due to her social background and class Andie cannot afford a fancy prom dress so she uses her friends and resources to make her own, solidifying her non conformity and uniqueness. Her dress becomes ‚Äú‚Ä¶less a garment than a statement: a cool, pink, fuck you, a sexy suit of armor deflecting the stares and sneers she knows will come her way when she walks into prom‚Ä¶alone!‚ÄĚ (Bernstein 77).
In some ways we can learn from characters like Andie and the other Hughes girls as well as guys. The cultural impact that they made by living out their lives onscreen changed the way teenagers were viewed by society and forced adults of the generation to wake up and pay attention. The affects of films like Pretty in Pink, and The Breakfast Club live on today in both film and television, creating a post Hughes high school homage.
Bernstein, Jonathan. ‚Ä™Pretty In Pink: ‚Ä™The Golden Age of Teenage Movies. New York: St. Martin‚Äôs Griffin, 1997.
Gora, Susannah. ‚Ä™You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: ‚Ä™The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation.
New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.
Kaveney, Roz. Teen Dreams: Reading Teen Film and Television from ‘Heathers’ to ‘Veronica Mars’ New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2006.
Lim, Dennis. “Creating An Adolescence For The Ages.” New York Times (2011):¬†OmniFile Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson). Web. 22 May 2012.
Mean Girls. Dir. Mark Walters. Perf. Lindsay Lohan, Jonathan Bennett, and Rachael McAdams. Paramount Pictures, 2004. Film.
Pretty in Pink. Dir. John Hughes. Perf. Molly Ringwald, Jon Cryer, and Harry Dean Stanton. Paramount Pictures, 1986. Film.
Sixteen Candles. Dir. John Hughes. Perf. Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall and Justin Henry. Universal Pictures, 1984. Film.
The Breakfast Club. Dir. John Hughes. Perf. Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, and Judd Nelson. Universal Studios, 1985. Film.
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Phew! You made it to the end of six pages worth of work, thanks for sticking it out! This paper was written in 2012 and has not been altered, that way you and I can see my writing grow and progress. If this format doesn’t work, is too long or needs more pictures to break up the text please let me know. I would love to hear what you think!