The teen film dates back to the 1950s, with films like The Wild One (1953), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Blackboard Jungle (1955).1 The 1950s was an era of economic prosperity in the United States. “American teen-agers have emerged as a big-time consumer in the U.S. economy,” noted a 1959 issue of LIFE magazine. “They are multiplying in numbers. They spend more and have more spent on them. And they have minds of their own about what they want.”
According to Thomas Patrick Doherty in Teenagers and Teenpics, this attention from big business helped to solidify ‘teenagers’ as a subculture within society.2 Although they were not strictly teen films, Rebel without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle proved that teenagers were a lucrative audience.3 Hollywood responded with a number of successful teen films includingJailhouse Rock (1957) which featured Elvis Presley and Gidget (1959).
Teen films experienced a renaissance in the 1980s with the release of films like The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). In Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen, Timothy Shary ties the resurgence of teen movies in the 1980s to the development of shopping malls across the United States: “With the relocation of most movie theatres 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.”4This resurgence of teen films, like the development of the genre itself, can be linked to filmmakers tapping into this lucrative market.
THE FILMS OF JOHN HUGHES
John Hughes—who made Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off andPretty in Pink—is one of the most celebrated and recognised directors to work in this genre. As Timothy Shary notes in Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen: “Hughes may not have represented all varieties of teen experience, and he did not eliminate the negative and simplistic depictions of teens that would mar some future films. He simply made films about young people on their level, appreciating their experiences rather than exploiting them. The best teen films since then have done the same.”5
“The man’s gift as a screenwriter was monumental,” wrote Matt Dentler after the filmmaker’s death in 2009. “It wasn’t just about capturing the zeitgeist of modern teenagers in films like The Breakfast Club or Pretty In Pink, it was also about the way his writing was just do damn sharp. So smart, so funny. And, without his influence, the face of modern Hollywood cinema would be entirely different. I’m convinced that without John Hughes, we would have no Kevin Smith, Judd Apatow, Todd Phillips, or Wes Anderson. Plus, I’d argue that TV shows such as Seinfeld, The Simpsons, or The Office could not have succeeded without the road paved by his legacy.”
“John Hughes wrote some of the great outsider characters of all time,” said Judd Apatow, the director of Drillbit Taylor. “It’s pretty ridiculous to hear people talk about the movies we’ve been doing, with outrageous humor and sweetness all combined, as if they were an original idea. I mean, it was all there first in John Hughes’ films. Whether it’s Freaks and Geeks or Superbad, the whole idea of having outsiders as the lead characters, that all started with Hughes.”6
“He touched a generation,” filmmaker Kevin Smith told the LA Times. “If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be doing what I do. Basically my stuff is just John Hughes films with four-letter words.”7
Click on the images below to check out the films of John Hughes. How many have you seen?
THE CONVENTIONS OF TEEN FILMS
Teen films, which focus on the lives of adolescents, often deal with themes of rebellion, friendship, love and rites-of-passage. They explore what it means to be on the cusp of adulthood. They’re about and for teenagers. Although other countries have produced teen films, it is a genre that very much developed in North America. Teen films often feature characters based on American stereotypes, such as cheerleaders.8
STEREOTYPES IN TEEN FILMS
In The Breakfast Club, John Hughes deconstructs the well-established stereotypes of this genre. At the end of the film, writing a letter to the tyrannical Mr Vernon, Andrew Clark writes: “We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong…but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain and an athlete and a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Does that answer your question?” One of the reasons that Mean Girls is such an engaging film, is the fact that it makes fun of these well-established stereotypes. As Janis shows the main character around, she points out some of the cliques that exist at their school: ”You got your freshmen, ROTC guys, preps, J.V. jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, varsity jocks, unfriendly black hotties, girls who eat their feelings, girls who don’t eat anything, desperate wannabes, burnouts, sexually active band geeks, the greatest people you will ever meet, and the worst. Beware of plastics.”
Although self-centered, back stabbing bimbos have long been a feature of teen films, it was Mean Girls(2004) that established the label ‘plastics’ to describe these superficial and vain characters. “They’re teen royalty,” says Damien from Mean Girls. “If North Shore was US Weekly, they’d always be on the cover.
In The Breakfast Club, John Bender is the brooding and rebellious loner from an abusive family who finds himself in detention after setting off a fire alarm. He has an hostile relationship with the vice principal Mr Vernon, antagonising him at every opportunity. In 10 Things I Hate About You, Heath Ledger plays a violent loner who reputably “lit a state trooper on fire” and “sold his own liver on the black market for a new set of speakers.”
In The Breakfast Club, John Bender (Judd Nelson) aptly sums up this stereotype when he says all you need to be a jock is “a lobotomy and some tights.” The Jock—who is usually arrogant and intimidating—is often the antagonist in teen films. “Here’s one of the great anomalies of the decade,” wrote Jonathan Bernstein in the book Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies. “What could be more inspiring, desirable and downright American than the prospect of young men and women engaged in the act of healthy competition?”9
Nerds are socially awkward outcasts. The bottom of the high school pecking order, they’re ragged on by jocks, bimbos, rebels and gym teachers. The fact that they’re smart and get good grades doesn’t protect them. As a consequence, you’re most likely to find these characters spending their time in the library or chess club or engaging in some other activity in which their encyclopaedic knowledge of Star Trekand computer programming will be embraced.
PARENTS AND TEACHERS
Teen films often focus on the generational gap between teenagers, their parents and their teachers. Parents and teachers are often portrayed as out-of-touch and unfair, they don’t understand what teenagers are going through. “Parents were tyrannical in their expectations. They were criminals in their neglect. They were simpleminded. They were devious,” writes Jonathan Bernstein in Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies. “They were archaic in their remove from modern times. They were pathetic in their attempts to acclimate themselves to the new age. In short, they were across-the-board unqualified to shepherd their offspring through the choppy waters of the teen years.”10
Because they focus on the lives of teenagers, teen films are often set in schools and their protagonists must negotiate this complex world of social cliques, detention, parties and dances.
Early teen films, such as Rock Around the Clock, Jailhouse Rock and Gidget, prominently featured rock’n’roll music which was becoming incredibly popular with teenagers. As Catherine Driscoll notes in Teen Film: A Critical Introduction: “1950s teen film as a whole produced a new relationship between teen film and popular music that has continued to be crucial.”11 In the 1980s, director John Hughes continued this trend. The opening sequence of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off features footage from MTV, a television music network that was extremely popular with teenagers in the 1980s. The films of John Hughes always made effective use of popular music to help convey the narrative. “The films of John Hughes, who died yesterday, derived much of their power from their soundtracks,” wrote Luke Lewis for NME. “More than any other filmmaker – except, arguably, Quentin Tarantino – Hughes understood pop’s function as an emotional shortcut: where the script was sometimes lacking, a song could fill in the gaps.”12
- Write down a list of all the teen comedies you have seen. Some examples include Mean Girls, Napoleon Dynamite and Bring it On. You might like to look at Entertainment Weekly’s list of top teen filmsto jog your memory.
- Write your own definition of ‘teen comedy’. What expectations do you have about the characters, setting and plot.
- In your workbooks, write down each of these characters stereotypes as a heading and, in a brief paragraph, describe what they’re typically like: the jock; the cheerleader; the nerd; the rebel.
Test your knowledge of teen films with this short quiz.
1 Driscoll, Catherine. Teen Film: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Berg, 2011.
2 Doherty, Thomas Patrick, and Thomas Patrick Doherty. Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988, p. 42.
3 Doherty, Thomas Patrick, and Thomas Patrick Doherty. Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988, p. 58.
4 Shary, Timothy. Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen. London: Wallflower, 2005, p. 54.
5 Shary, Timothy. Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen. London: Wallflower, 2005, p. 72.
8 Driscoll, Catherine. Teen Film: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Berg, 2011.
9 Bernstein, Jonathan. Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997, p.163.
10 Bernstein, Jonathan. Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997, p.52.
11 Driscoll, Catherine. Teen Film: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Berg, 2011.