Investigating the 1980s Hollywood Teen Genre: Adolescence, Character, Space

Doctoral Thesis / Dissertation, 2016

227 Pages, Grade: Pass


I would like to thank the following for their help, support and encouragement
during the writing of this thesis. My supervisors at Kingston University, Chris
Horrocks and Simon Brown, whose critical insights, guidance and suggestions kept
me focused and motivated, and sometimes confused and frustrated! Other academic,
admin and library staff at Kingston University (past and present) have, in their own
way, been a valuable source of strength and assistance, they are: Colette Balmain;
Stephen Barber; Will Brooker; Marissa Collins; Emerald Day; Ron Delves; Patricia
Lara-Betancourt; Fran Lloyd; Matt Melia; Jane Nobbs; Alex Ramon; Linda
Sheringham and Denise Thompson. Also, my friend and copy editor, Tim Gilpen,
who did an excellent job of proof-reading my thesis. My close friends, Kelvin Hill and
Claudia Mazzone, whose good humour and support have always been appreciated.
And thanks to my siblings: John, Kate, Helen and Dan. Finally, the biggest thanks
goes to my parents, Ann and Don O'Neill, who both sadly passed away during the
writing of this thesis ­ this is for you.

The 1980s Hollywood teen genre is a topic which has not attracted significant
academic interest in the context of doctoral research. Only recently have writers
focused on this period in wider scholarly texts, often positioned in relation to other
periods of the teen genre, but not extensively concentrating on the 1980s. This
research will address what is a lack of detailed analysis of this cinematic era and offer
a contribution to knowledge in terms of Hollywood genre cinema.
The aim of this thesis is to argue that teen films produced during the 1980s
effectively represent youth concerns and the coming-of-age process, for example, in
terms of adolescent identity, the different 'roles' the characters play, sexuality,
gender, relationships, class issues and the generational divide. These concerns will
often resonate with the wider sociopolitical and economic landscape of the Reagan
era. The research will investigate these themes in individual films and then go on to
analyse them using several films across the generic spectrum to show how the genre
achieves a unity and synergy, despite differences in tone and attitude of the films
under scrutiny. The films covered herein will be a selection from the subgenres of the
1980s teen films: the teen sex comedies examined were produced during the first half
of the decade; the more romantic comedies and dramas were generally made from
the mid-1980s onwards. Also scrutinised will be several delinquent teen films.
One of the methodologies used to underpin the central argument is related to
the structuralist theories and their binary oppositional factors. This will attempt to
make sense of the portrayal of a youth culture by exposing its contradictions. This
approach will be merged with film genre theories, for instance, in relation to a film's
semantic/syntactic axis and the symbolic use of generic sites and iconography. Ideas
relating to adolescence and its phases will also form part of the analysis.
The principal conclusions from this debate will be that the 1980s teen genre is
a topic worthy of rigorous academic interrogation, despite often being critically
neglected and sometimes maligned. The genre has the potential to represent and
articulate youth cultural concerns and wider societal implications, and the films
therein should be considered important media documents.

Table of Contents
Themes and Issues...3
Chapter Overview...29
Chapter One:
Literature Review...32
Chapter Two:
Coming-of-age: The Teen Sex Comedies...41
Teenage Sex Goes Mainstream...50
The Reagan Era and the Teen Sex Comedies...65
Embracing Capitalism and Rejecting Youth Countercultures...72
The Demise of the Teenage Sex Comedy...76
Chapter Three:
Stereotypes and Other Roles in the Teen Romantic Comedies and
The Breakfast Club...93
The `Ideal Male' and `Female'...111
Chapter Four:
Propp's Tale Roles and Narrative Functions in the Teen Romantic
Comedies and Dramas...119
Some Kind of Wonderful...122
The Revisionist Teen Films: Heathers and River's Edge...136
Chapter Five:
The Teen Generic Sites and Their Spaces...146
Theorising Space in the Teen Film...147
The Shopping Mall...151
The Teen Bedroom...161
The Parental Home...171
The High School...177
The City...182
The Beach...192
The Car...193
The Dangerous Implications of Border Crossings...194
Beyond the 1980s and Further Research...205

This thesis focuses on the so-called golden age of popular teen movies in
1980s mainstream Hollywood cinema. These are films about teenagers, from their
point of view and played by teenage actors that were produced in the Hollywood
studio system between 1978 and 1990. Much of the following debate will revolve
around the teen sex comedies made in the first half of the decade and the teen
romantic comedies and dramas that followed, which were generally made between
the mid-1980s and the end of that decade. The delinquent drama, a subgeneric
category of the teen drama, also forms part of this discussion, playing a lesser but
still significant role. The thesis will argue that this cycle of films effectively engages
with, and represents, adolescent concerns while at the same time embracing wider
issues relating to the changing sociopolitical and ideological landscape of the Reagan
era, which spanned his time in office from 1981-1989, under which the majority of
the films focused on here were produced.
While the study of individual films is a key part of this work, the research will
identify and interrogate the differences and similarities between the adolescent
themes and their societal implications in terms of tone and attitude across a wider
corpus of films. The challenge here will be to address these issues within both the
single film and the subgenres to reveal how the 1980s teen genre gave voice to, and
articulated, youth culture, its contradictions and broader societal concerns. This will
provide a coherent link throughout the films, their stories and characters, resulting
in the contention that the genre ultimately works as a unified whole, in expressing
these main themes and issues. Jon Lewis (1992: 2-4) shares similar views on this
approach when he writes about the teen genre, noting that the films, 'narrativize
[and] give order to...the otherwise fragmentary and fleeting, transitional and
transitory...chaotic and contradictory experience of youth.' This method of study will
be reinforced by a binary oppositional approach, drawing on the writings of Claude
Lévi-Strauss on structuralism and myth. It will be merged with film genre theory,
ideas concerning space and its symbolic values, and research relating to adolescence
and the coming-of-age process. This interplay within the films will demonstrate the
value of the genre in terms of its representational qualities.

Writing about the 1980s teen film will address a gap in the literature
concerning Hollywood genre. It is a topic that has been neglected in major scholarly
works on Hollywood film history, books such as Maltby's Hollywood Cinema (2003)
and Bordwell & Thompson's Film History (2010) contain only cursory references.
Similarly, key books on Hollywood film genre have few references to 1980s teen
films, for example, Altman (1999) and Langford (2005). Books specifically on 1980s
Hollywood cinema, such as Prince (ed. 2007), only make a brief comment on the
teen film. Steve Neale (2007: 369) questions this lack of attention, arguing that the
genre has a 'complexity [and] for many years been important to Hollywood, but more
rarely it seems, to genre critics, theorists and historians.' Scott Long (1990: 156)
notes in a broader context that the 'teenager is an orphan among cultural
representation.' More recently, however, as the below literature review outlines,
individual authors such as Shary (2002) have focused critically on the 1980s genre,
while others have devoted noteworthy entries in books which concern broader
approaches to the teen genre, like Driscoll (2011) and Bulman (2004). From a more
popular perspective, the films still resonate with a certain generation today,
including myself, who were teenagers during the 1980s. Several books have been
written from a more journalistic and personal perspective, for example, Bernstein
(1997), Gora (2010) and, most recently, Freeman (2015), all of which discuss the
nostalgic values of the films.
This thesis will be an extensive examination of a specific decade reinforced by
a particular set of methodological approaches, resulting in an investigation into how
teen culture and its broader connotations are portrayed through cinematic
representation. Focusing largely on one decade will enable an in-depth analysis of a
concentrated time period, where a distinctive pattern and style of film emerged. The
films have the potential to offer a broader canvas to work with than previous periods,
as one of the key elements of the thesis is the treatment of adolescent sexuality and
relationships. The films under discussion portray a more candid and graphic
depiction of these issues than was permitted in the 1950s teen genre, for example.
Reinforcing this is Lisa Borders (2007: 25), when writing about John Hughes' 1980s
teen films, who states: 'Though his 1980s movies were billed as comedies, they
portrayed teens with a degree of nuance and an understanding of their complex
social strata that were largely missing from the films that had come before.' Thomas
Doherty writes that, while the 1980s films were targeted at, and were about teens, the

marketing and reinvention were 'emphatically adult' (2002: 196). They were written
and directed by adults, who often based the stories on their own youthful
experiences, making their teen characters more multi-layered, sophisticated and
ambivalent than ever before. Timothy Shary (1997: 40) points out the distinctiveness
of the 1980s films: 'The teen film genre is a unique genre, in that the members of the
culture for which it is intended are not the people actually making the films that are
supposed to depict their reality.'
Moreover, from the 1960s onwards, adolescence was a topic about which
scholars from a more psychological and sociological background began to scrutinize,
and the thesis will argue how research of this nature resonates within the drama of
the films, when related to issues surrounding the coming-of-age process. What is also
significant is that, whereas in the 1950s, James Dean was 24 in the teen drama, Rebel
Without a Cause (1955), playing a high school teenager, and Marlon Brando was 30
in the teen delinquent tale, The Wild One (1953), in the 1980s, many of the actors
playing the characters were teenagers themselves, imbuing a more authentic
representation of youth and reinforcing the distinctiveness of the genre; using
Grant's (2007: 5) definition, the films under investigation here are 'expressions of the
contemporary zeitgeist...genre movies are always about the time and place in which
they are made.'
The structure and content of this introduction will follow a logical and
coherent progression. The first section will establish the key themes and issues of the
research; this is followed by the methodology section and the chapter overview.
Themes and Issues
As already noted, part of the investigation of this thesis will be how the films
represent the coming-of-age process of adolescence, a stage when the transition from
youth to adulthood is fraught with many emotional, physical and sexual changes,
which take place during a short time period. Edgar Z. Friedenberg (1963: 3) defines
this process: 'Human life is a continuous thread which each of us spins to its own
patterns, rich and complex in meaning. There are no natural knots in it. Yet, knots
form nearly always in adolescence.' In the case of this study, adolescence refers to the
age group between 14 and 20: from the junior high school years in films like Lucas
(1986), through to high school films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982,

hereafter referred to as Fast Times), and college films like Revenge of the Nerds
(1984). The terms 'teen', 'youth' and 'adolescent' will be used interchangeably
throughout. Shary (2003: 492) explains in the context of adolescence and the 1980s
teen genre that they contain a 'cultural significance unique to the genre: they
question our evolving identities from youth to adulthood while simultaneously
shaping and maintaining those identities.' Part of this process, which is depicted in
the films discussed, sees some of the protagonists experience change and conflict
during the course of the film and, by the end, some kind of transformation -- John
Hughes' The Breakfast Club (1985) being a prime example.
The adolescent behavioural conflicts and struggles portrayed by the cinematic
teens in the 1980s can be traced back to G. Stanley Hall, whose writing on
adolescence was ground-breaking at the time: Adolescence: Its Psychology and its
Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and
Education (1904). Hall outlined three key issues and developments which
characterised adolescent life: 'conflict with parents', 'mood disruptions' and 'risk-
taking'. These phases occurring within what he referred to as the 'storm and stress'
period. This is the English translation of `Sturm und Drang', a German phrase which
has its roots in German literary history of the 18
century, which meant extremes of
emotion in an individual in the face of perceived rationalist thought
issues which
thematic features which surface in the genre, providing a framework
throughout the thesis in terms of defining different types of teenage behaviour.
Adolescent 'storm and stress' will also be a thematic example of how the genre
becomes synergised across the different subgenres.
Sex and relationships are recurring themes throughout the genre and, of
course, are key elements in the coming-of-age process. Their portrayal ranges from
comic to serious and, at times, the protagonists are seen to suffer emotionally from
their experiences. Timothy Shary explains the significance of these two thematic
threads: 'Romantic longing and sexual curiosity take on heightened intensity and
profundity for youth in the adolescent years [and teens] struggle to recognise and
cope with the emotional and psychological changes' (2002: 209-210). The characters
and stories of the sex comedy are linked to sexual initiation and loss of virginity,
which are ever-present topics in the narrative and often determine how it affects the
protagonists and shapes teen identity, as well as providing a commentary on wider
connotations. For instance, the aggressive sexual exploits of the teen male in sex

comedies like The Last American Virgin (1982) resonate with a renewed sense of
masculine strength in the Reagan era. From a gendered perspective, whether sex is
depicted as comic, like in Porky's (1981), or more serious, as in Little Darlings
(1980), the films will be used to investigate representations of this type of teen
behaviour and how the male and female characters negotiate their feelings and
emotions, which often have negative or adverse consequences.
When it was discovered that the AIDS/HIV virus could be transmitted
through heterosexual sex in the mid-1980s, society's attitude towards casual sex and
promiscuous behaviour changed almost overnight and, consequently, the image of a
more sensitive and celibate youth began to feature in romantic comedies and
dramas. More teen films concerning romance and love were made, most notably in
the John Hughes' cycle of films, which included Sixteen Candles (1984), Pretty in
Pink (1986) and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987). The emphasis here is not on the
physical aspect of sex and its ramifications, but more on how the protagonists react
emotionally when, for example, they are confronted with issues of socioeconomic and
cultural difference. However, this debate will not be about class warfare using a
Marxist approach or any other specific political philosophy; it will be more concerned
with how the relationships and stories are portrayed in terms of adolescent
experience, the social and economic status of the characters and the condescension
that the more affluent characters display -- all set against a backdrop of Reagan-era
social mobility and aspiration. Hadley Freeman (2015: 55-56) points out that, in
1980s Hollywood films, wealthy people are frequently cast as 'disgusting, shallow,
and even murderous', examples from the teen genre being the above three Hughes'
films but also Heathers (1989), which involves a rich kid committing several
murders. Freeman asserts that 'working-class people are noble and well intentioned',
as in All the Right Moves (1983) and Vision Quest (1985). But, as this thesis will
show, rich characters can be congenial, like Joel in Risky Business (1983) and Ferris
in Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). Blue-collar teens are also seen to be malevolent,
River's Edge (1987) being a notable example.
The integration of sexuality and relationships in this thesis is often associated
with other key adolescent factors concerning the coming-of-age process, and the
films and characters will be used to illustrate this kind of teenage behaviour. For
instance, the dramatization of the role of the teen stereotype and its hierarchical
nature is a theme which is consistent throughout the genre, especially from the mid-

1980s onwards: the jock, the popular girl, the delinquent, the rebel and the nerd all
pervade the films in various forms and manifestations, with The Breakfast Club
being emblematic of this. Deconstructing these simplistic definitions and analysing
the differences and similarities between them will achieve a more three-dimensional
and deeper representation of this aspect of adolescent character, and again act as a
unifying feature of the genre. A lengthy discussion about The Breakfast Club and its
structuralist oppositions will reveal contradictions within the teen stereotype: one
example being that unlikely romantic relationships result despite these oppositions.
Other films investigated and which concern the problematic definition of the teen
stereotype include Revenge of the Nerds, which takes a comic view, and Lucas, which
adopts a more tender and emotional tone. Made towards the end of the decade, the
aforementioned Heathers is a dark comic teen drama which adds a postmodern twist
to the teen film and its stereotypes.
Considered analysis of the 'role' of the teen stereotype will lead to an
examination of the protagonists using different approaches in terms of character
roles and their functions and meanings. A discussion in relation to the gender divide
will concern the concept of the active 'ideal male' and his passive `ideal female'
counterpart; aligned to this is the 'shadow' characters who make an impact in this
context. This approach will draw on Robin Wood (2003b), who wrote about Alfred
Hitchcock's films from such a perspective, but Wood's arguments are just as relevant
to the teen genre. It will produce contradictory messages which point to issues
related to modern capitalism, patriarchy and the nuclear family.
Further teen roles are explored as the context shifts away from a stereotypical
depiction to a more archetypical one, when characters in the genre are portrayed in
the context of Vladimir Propp's notion of tale roles (the villain, princess) and
narrative functions. This method of study has been appropriated by film scholars in
the past, for example, John Fell (1977), but not in relation to the teen film. The thesis
will expand the debate into the genre's characters and how they operate in terms of
oppositional values and relationship with each other, and will further develop the
teen genre's representational qualities.
Other adolescent themes related to sex and relationships are examined; they
include peer pressure, conformity, the teenage clique and teen angst. The
protagonists in the sex comedies Little Darlings, Fast Times and Porky's are
subjected to peer pressure into losing their virginity; the oppressive nature of the

teen clique and conforming to its values is evident in the romantic comedy Valley
Girl (1983) and, to a more extreme level, in Heathers. In Valley Girl, the female
protagonist starts a relationship with someone from a different cultural background,
much to the disapproval of her peer group who urge her to conform to their ways.
Teen angst involving puberty and bodily change are portrayed in the genre.
Characters experience conflicting and confusing emotions as their sexual body parts
become the focus of attention. From a more vulgar but comic perspective, the
opening of the sex comedy Porky's sees the character of Pee Wee express
disappointment when measuring his penis and realising it is not getting any longer.
In a much more sensitive scene, from the romantic comedy Sixteen Candles, Molly
Ringwald looks in the mirror and is dissatisfied because her breasts are not getting
any bigger. These are examples of how the genre becomes unified: despite the
obvious differences in tone and attitude, the similarities are of more significance as
the characters both share adolescent concerns relating to puberty, and the scenes
take place in the same teen generic site: the bedroom, and an examination of the
significance of this space will also form part of this thesis. Nicholas Good's (2004: 91)
description of adolescence not only echoes the experience of the two protagonists in
these scenes and the genre as a whole, but also adolescence in the real world: 'An
overwhelming onslaught of awkward physical developments [which] assault young
people overnight...adolescents must grapple with social changes, noticeably
increased emphasis on peer groups and potential romantic partners.' These
adolescent thematic threads are consistent throughout the subgenres and are often
depicted differently but nonetheless, are features which connect the characters and
stories, defining this cycle of films as the `1980s teen genre'.
It is important to note early on in this thesis the challenges faced when writing
about a major theme like sexual identity, which could be a separate doctoral study
concerning teen film in itself. While sexuality in this work is a key part of the
adolescent and coming-of-age experience, other issues such as the teens' relationship
with the adult world and the high school stereotypes are also important aspects.
Often, these themes are linked, sometimes they are not, but the aim of the research is
to examine adolescence more holistically, not just using one major theme like
sexuality. Furthermore, when discussions of female and male 'desire' are referred to,
this is not from any psychoanalytical perspective -- it is expressed by the characters'
actions and how they communicate with each other. It is not hidden or latent; desire

is visible and often expressed through the mise-en-scène, for example, in the beach
scene in Valley Girl (described in the final chapter).
Another unifying topic which surfaces again and again during the 1980s teen
genre is the generational divide and teens rebelling against adult authority. This will
be an important aspect throughout the thesis and provide another connection
between the films and their stories. Adults are often portrayed in a negative light in
both comical and serious ways: teachers are depicted as corrupt and arrogant (The
Breakfast Club and All the Right Moves); as inept caricatures or figures of fun (Fast
Times and Heathers). Parents are often unseen, distant and emotionally detached
(Risky Business and Ferris Bueller's Day Off); they are violent and abusive, The
Outsiders (1983) and River's Edge. They are contradictory figures in films like
Private School (1983), where on the one hand, teachers are seen to be setting the
moral code; on the other, they behave just as badly as the teens.
Geographically and spatially, teen sites and their iconography play a vital role
in the development and argument of this thesis. The shopping mall, the high
school/college, the family home and teen bedroom; all places associated with the
teen genre which offer a commentary on the coming-of-age process, sexuality,
relationship issues and affluence in the 1980s. Other spaces featured in the genre,
less frequently but still of significance, are the city and other outdoor locales away
from the probing eye of suburbia. All these sites become active and imbued with
symbolism within a wider sociopolitical and cultural discourse when the characters
interact and congregate within these spaces. This examination draws on what Henri
Lefebvre (1974), cited in Childs (2006: 2), discussed in the context of 'social space',
which overturns the traditional notion of space being 'empty'. Furthermore, issues
such as the notion of private, public and liminal space are significant when related to
adolescent issues in spaces like the shopping mall in Valley Girl and the teen
bedroom in Sixteen Candles. Themes such as power, control, liberation and freedom
are investigated when analysing the emblematic qualities of the family home and the
The symbolic nature of the spaces and iconography in this research also offers
a commentary concerning the depiction of the social and economic status of the
genre's affluent characters. The huge mansions where the characters live and the
expensive cars they drive are highly visible aspects of the genre's mise-en-scène,
especially in the John Hughes cycle of romantic comedies and dramas. Barry Keith

Grant (2007: 80) reinforces this when he states that the standard way of
representing issues of race and class in genre cinema in the 1980s was 'almost
exclusively the cultural property of a white male consciousness'. Less frequent in the
1980s teen genre was a focus on blue-collar communities, but the youth films of the
period still offer significant statements on attitudes towards respecting the value of
money, privilege, education and the importance of a work ethic. The characters in
films like All the Right Moves and Vision Quest occupy contrasting spaces to their
wealthier counterparts, such as industrial environments far removed from mansions,
fast cars and other trappings of wealth.
Teen rituals are illustrated in the genre and represent another noteworthy
aspect of the coming-of-age process, serving to unite the genre. The out-of-control
party when parents are away is one such ritual which leads to an oppositional debate
concerning space and its metaphorical qualities in relation to the family home, power
and liberation of teens from parental control. Risky Business is an example of how
this concept is expressed. Displays of 'gross-out' humour and trashing of property are
teen rituals where affluent teens misbehave and suffer no consequences. These acts
are examined in the context of their broader connotations associated with white
privilege in the Reagan era.
Sporting rituals in films like Lucas demonstrate the blurred boundaries
between the teen stereotypes. The ritual of the high school prom in Pretty in Pink is
an American rites-of-passage into adulthood for every teenage life and comments on
the issue of romance and class divisions. The shopping fantasy is a female teen ritual
and, in Valley Girl, it raises issues relating to consumerism and conspicuous
consumption in the 1980s. As well as being part of the 'storm and stress' phase of
adolescence, risk taking is a ritualistic feature in the teen films of the 1980s. For
example, two of the teen characters in Reckless (1984) break into their high school
and run amok.
One of the methods that will allow the themes to develop and evolve will be to
position them in relation to the teen genre of the 1950s and 1960s. For example,
parental and adult culture during these earlier periods was very much foregrounded,
whereas this is not the case in the 1980s. Combining structuralism and history will be
challenging as the structuralist ideas of Lévi-Strauss were ahistorical; therefore, to
overcome this difficulty and to justify the argument's inclusion, it is necessary to
treat this method of study in a modified form, which will be explained in greater

detail in the methodology section below. However, genre and its history will not be a
main debate throughout the thesis; it will serve as more of a footnote to the key
debates on the 1980s, which will indicate how the genre's codes and conventions
have changed over a short time period.
This research will argue that the teen genre is an important media form as it
offers its characters a site for articulation and identity formation. As Grant (2007: 6)
points out, a film genre,
can expose the ideology of its artefacts...can offer empowerment to various cultural
groups and are sites of ideological struggle...existing on a continuum between
invention and convention [and allowing] for a greater appreciation and
understanding of genre texts and how they work, [which are] intimately imbricated
within larger cultural discourses as well as political ones.
Put simply, what emerges from the comic frivolity, vulgar humour, sexual antics,
romantic encounters and generational divides in the genre is a deeper understanding
of the coming-of-age experience and the culture and society in which the films are
set, as represented by the characters and stories of the genre. Harold M. Foster
(1987: 87) supports this claim when he writes about John Hughes' Sixteen Candles,
noting that the film `transcends the formula...and on the surface...seems to advocate
drinking, sex, and drugs, but the spirit of this film is really about the tenderness of
The introduction has already touched on the methodology that will be applied
across the thesis, and more in-depth detail here will bring the issues into sharper
focus. This section will explain how the different approaches and theories merge with
the themes, narratives and characters in order to effectively represent youth concerns
and wider social discourses. The research will view the issues through a prism of film
genre, narrative, and structuralist theories, allied to methods relating to the study of
adolescence and the coming-of-age process. This section will also focus briefly on the
historical and marketing aspects of the 1980s genre.
In terms of narrative theory, reference to the classic three-act Hollywood
structure will provide the framework for the analysis of the scenes and methods of

study. Thomas Schatz's (1981: 30) model will operate as a framing device throughout
this thesis:
[Act 1, Introduction] establishment (via various narrative and iconographic cues) of
the generic community with its inherent dramatic conflicts;
[Act 2, Conflict] animation of these conflicts through the actions and attitudes of the
genre's constellation of characters; intensification of the conflict by means of
conventional situations and dramatic confrontations until the conflict reaches crisis
[Act 3, Resolution] resolution of the crisis in a fashion which eliminates the physical
and/or ideological threat and thereby celebrates the (temporarily) well-ordered
For the most part in this study, theories surrounding film genre will refer to
what happens within the films, their thematic structure and what gives the genre its
distinctive characteristics. This relates to what Stam, et al, discuss in terms of the
'intratextual' approach, 'a process by which films refer to themselves through
mirroring, microcosmic...structures' (1992: 207). In other words, the content of the
films in terms of character types, themes and stories, objects, spaces, iconography,
attitude, emotional tone and the wider social implications produced from this. These
are Altman's (2004) 'building blocks' of a film -- more specifically their 'semantic'
features -- a term which will be used throughout this thesis. Altman also focuses on
the 'syntactic' approach concerning how these semantic features are organised within
a film; for example, relationship issues between the characters or the visual
components of a film concerning their oppositional characteristics and arrangement
in the plot, issues which are often implicit within the film. Altman dubs this
association, the 'semantic/syntactic' approach. The semantic features of a teen film
include: the shopping mall, prom night, cheerleaders, the jock, the hero and the
villain. The syntactic elements will examine how these semantic units work together,
or against each other, i.e. their oppositional values, during the course of the film's
narrative. For example, the generational divide in The Breakfast Club, or conflicts
between the different stereotypes in films like Revenge of the Nerds. Repetition and
difference within this semantic/syntactic axis are also integral to the genre debate,
for instance, in the romantic comedies: couples from different cultural and social

backgrounds start a relationship, overcome the obstacles and a happy ending ensues.
This pattern is repeated in several films under discussion here: Pretty in Pink and
Valley Girl are two examples. As Grant notes (2003: xv): 'Genre movies are those
commercial feature films which, through repetition and variation, tell familiar stories
with familiar characters in familiar situations.' It is also important to note that the
boundaries between the semantic/syntactic elements of films are often blurred,
which Altman himself acknowledges. For example, the shopping mall in Fast Times
is a semantic element, a visual signifier of the teen genre, but it can also have a
syntactic purpose in terms of it being a narrative framing device: a space in which the
characters can be introduced, and also a space where the teens congregate to resolve
their conflicts at the end. Therefore, the semantic has entered the syntactic field and,
despite the ambiguity, it does not alter the effectiveness of this approach; on the
contrary, it offers a richer generic reading of a text.
Altman (1999: 17) points out that one of the ways genre can be defined is when
an individual film contains a 'recognizably generic blueprint [containing] the basic
structures commonly identified with the genre.' This refers back to what was
mentioned previously concerning the study of both the individual film and several
films across the teen generic spectrum. For example, the 1980s teen sex comedy
Porky's, acts as a generic blueprint with its theme of teen males pursuing sex, which
is repeated in other films within this subgenre such as Losin' It (1983) and The Last
American Virgin. This idea of the paradigmatic individual film can be traced back to
the 1950s teen genre and will develop what has been touched upon thus far in terms
of the historical insight of the thesis, by examining how the 1980s teen genre has
evolved since the post-war period.
The 1950s witnessed an economic boom with teenagers being central to this.
The financial burdens of the Depression and WWII were easing, and families began
to prosper ­ more bought homes, cars and moved out to the suburbs ­ living the
American Dream. For the first time, young people had steady jobs, disposable
income and increased leisure time, making them a powerful economic group. The
car gave teenagers a more mobile way of life and independence never experienced
before. The Hollywood Studio System began to evolve and fragment; more
independent companies emerged, which meant the content of films were depicting a
wider range of moral issues. Moreover, the growing medium of television was also a
factor in the 1950s. Fewer adults were going to the cinema; they were staying at

home and watching TV, but one group ­ teenagers ­ were still going to the cinema in
large numbers. Consequently, Hollywood began to cater for the growing teenage
market; more distinctive films featuring young people at the centre of the narrative
were produced, and a new genre was making its presence felt within the Hollywood
generic canon ­ the `Teenpic' (Doherty, 2002). Rock Around the Clock (1956), as
Doherty points out, was the `first hugely successful film marketed to teenagers to the
pointed exclusion of their elders. By showing that teenagers alone could sustain a box
office hit [which] provided a model to be imitated' (2002: 57). It also, along with
Elvis Presley, introduced Rock `n' Roll to teenagers in the form of Bill Haley and the
Comets, and the fusion of youth, films and popular music would serve as a generic
model, later resonating in 1980s teen films, like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in
Pink (1986). In the former, the Simple Minds song, `Don't You Forget about Me',
plays over the opening credits and is synonymous with the film and the 1980s.
Teen Films produced by the major studios in the 1950s included, The Wild One
(1953), Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle (both 1955), all examples of
what was called at the time, `the social problem film', stories about juvenile
delinquency, to use the 1950s term of expression. James Dean in Rebel became an
icon of the era whose rebellious and alienated persona represented a new teenage
identity in post-war America, an image which was a source of antagonism to the
conservative, adult generation. Rebel was also the first film to argue that juvenile
delinquency was not just rooted in poverty like in previous cinematic depictions of
young people, for example, the 1930s Dead End Kids films, but existed within a
broader social context, i.e. white collar suburban America. Timothy Shary explains
that, `culpability [was] placed not only on poverty but also on schools, parents,
courts, urbanisation, suburbanisation, and increasingly, on the teens themselves'
(2005: 19). In the 1980s, an updated version of rich kids behaving badly in terms of
drug use is in Less than Zero, based on a Brett Easton Ellis' debut novel. Other films
such as Class of 1984 (1983) The Outsiders and River's Edge are films which feature
criminality and delinquent behaviour, but are set in blue-collar communities.
Although it is important to note that despite Hollywood cinema during the 1950s
addressing more diverse subjects as alluded to above, it was under the regulation of
the Hays Code, so anything too provocative or controversial was not permitted.
Therefore, Rebel and the other delinquent films of the period were more conservative
in these terms compared to their 1980s counterparts ­ Less Than Zero, Class of 1984

and Rivers Edge all contain scenes of rape, graphic violence, murder and drug
taking. However, in Rivers Edge, ironically, a more ideologically conservative
resolution is played out as the forces of law and order take control. This compares to
the endings of Rebel and The Wild One where in the former, patriarchy
in the
latter, law and order are the dominant forces. Jon Lewis writes, `in effect, the
restoration of the adult culture [in Rebel and The Wild One] is informed rather than
radicalised by youth' (1992: 3).
Adolescent `storm and stress' are main thematic threads of Rebel and the other
two above 1950s films, themes which resonate with the 1980s genre. Although not
categorised as a teen delinquent film, the rebel character, Bender (Judd Nelson), in
The Breakfast Club compares and contrasts to the protagonist in Rebel, Jim Stark
(James Dean). A more in depth study will follow of The Breakfast Club, but a brief
paradigmatic and historical comparison here is useful in order to forge a link
between the 1950s and 1980s teen genres. Timothy Shary (2005c: 220) writes that
teens in both films `have their failed parents to blame for most of their problems.' But
by 1985, the cinematic teen had evolved emotionally and was more aware and
articulate about their anomie than their predecessors. Bender becomes an `authority
father figure' and `their therapist' (ibid.) who urges the diverse group of teens who he
is on detention with to confront and deal with their problems and frustrations. Also,
`Bender has elevated the gesticulating pain of Jim to a more potentially violent realm.
Where Jim tried to resist fighting, Bender seeks it out' (ibid.). Both Jim and Bender
are literally crying out for attention, but where in Rebel the teens were part of the
post-war economic boom of the 1950s, the blue-collar Bender and his better off
classmates represented the growing class divided in Reagan's America. Also, the
more conservative Rebel in terms of the restoration of patriarchy and the nuclear
family at the film's ending, differs from Bender's final scene. Unlike the other
protagonists in The Breakfast Club, he does not return to his parents (who are never
seen). Shary notes in this respect, `that youth rebellion by the mid-1980s had
jettisoned the reform of family from its agenda and set out on a newly independent
course' (ibid: 221).
Similarity, the dark teen comedy Heathers, is a 1980s film whose thematic
origins are evident in Rebel and others from the 1950s. Heathers villain, Jason Dean,
goes by his initials, J.D., which is a satirical homage to James Dean. It is also short
for juvenile delinquent. Another similarity between the two films is that both lead

protagonists ­ Jim Stark and J.D. ­ are the new kid in school who attracts unwanted
attention from the jock characters. The parents in the films are also portrayed as
ineffective and in a negative light. However, in terms of the recurring themes of
rebellious behaviour and adolescent risk taking, Heathers takes it to the extreme.
Where in Rebel, the `Chickie' run leads to a teen's accidental death, in Heathers, J.D.
goes on a murder spree, implicating another student Veronica, and frames the deaths
as suicides. The differences extend to the tone of the films; where Rebel and others of
that period adopted a serious tone, Heathers is ironic and darkly comic. Shary argues
that the reason behind this is that,
by 1989, teenagers had witnessed so much manipulation of their images in the media
that even the depiction of an issue as serious as suicide had become ironic...Heathers
suggests that teens truly have vitiated their means of rebellion, leaving only homicide
as a form of protest. (ibid: 222)
Therefore, where threats to family values and social unrest were present in the 1950s
teen films, and even in the more hyperbolic ones like High School Confidential
(1958) and Untamed Heart (1957), these threats were always resolved as a
conservative and reactionary ending ensued. But, as Shary continues, `by the end of
the 1980s, American families had lost the illusion of order, and teens had gained the
air of cynicism about these institutions that Heathers so vividly celebrated' (ibid.)
It is also worth noting that several of the 1980s teen films were set in the
1950s (Porky's), and 1960s (Losin' It, The Outsiders), forging further links between
the past and the 1980s teen genre, adding a nostalgic tone to the more contemporary
films. The director of Porky's, Bob Clark, spoke of the film from this perspective:
`High schools in North America...developed the sense of the old
troubadours passing a story down from generation to generation...They tell us about
ourselves. If you understand Pee Wee and the boys [in Porky's], then you understand
Ronald Reagan and the boys because they are the same boys', quoted in Speed (2010:
Summing up the similarities between 1950s and 1980s teen genres, the two
so-called `Golden Eras' (Bernstein, 1997) of teen film can be viewed from a
production and reception perspective: Hollywood made a popular type of film about
teenage characters from their point of view, that attracted a youthful audience. How

the films from the two decades contrast is how their stories and characters are
depicted, and the ideologies which arise from this. Doherty (2002) dubbed the 1980s
films as the `post-classical teen pic'.
The success of the teen genre in the 1950s spawned a whole cycle of teen
movies and subgenres ­ many of them were cheaply made with B-movie credentials,
produced by small independent companies like American International Pictures
(AIP) ­ Roger Corman being the most famous producer working there. Teen-gang
and biker movies such as Dragship Girl, Motorcycle Gang (both 1957) and Wild
Angels (1966), catered for an ever-growing young affluent audience, many of them
watching films in the new `drive in' cinemas. They were part of exploitation method
of making films, mentioned below in relation to Porky's, but of course, without any
nude bodies or penis jokes.
Another subgenre of the teen film which emerged in the 1960s was the
innocuous cycle of `beach movies', where youths were very much under the control of
the adult community, which differed dramatically from the 1980s film, where
parents and adults where largely absent. Doherty (2002) described these movies as
`clean teenpics' and they starred young, fresh-faced and wholesome actors like
Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Although they demonstrated a slightly more
sexualised image of youth than previously seen, with mildly suggestive titles such as
Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach (both 1964), Beach Blanket Bingo and How to
Stuff a Wild Bikini (both 1965), the teens still lived in a safe universe, `with an
emphasis on fun and frolics, not discussions of troubles or conflict' (Shary, 2002:
33). These films were more about the repression and replacement of sex and, as
Doherty (2002: 159) notes,
there was little in this portrait of teenage life that would disturb a worried father.
Adults were usually absent, but their values were always present. Fulfilling the best
hope of the older generation, the clean teenpics featured an aggressively normal,
traditionally good-looking crew of fresh young faces, `good kids' who preferred
dates to drugs and crushes to crime.
It shares similar qualities in terms of the absence of any physical sex with the John
Hughes teen films in the 1980s, but the beach movies did not address any serious
issues concerning adolescence, like the candid discussion between the teens about

sex and the generational divide in The Breakfast Club. Even when a film like
Splendour in the Grass (1961), made by the acclaimed director Elia Kazan, adopted a
more serious and dramatic tone, adults were ultimately the dominant influence. The
film concerned two teenagers, played by Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, trying
and failing to form a relationship in the face of parental disproval.
As the 1960s progressed, the so-called sexual revolution took place and the
new liberal attitudes towards sex and relationships began to challenge more
conservative and normative values. The drug-fuelled, hippie counterculture was
redefining youth in Western society; feminist and gay liberation groups began to
emerge and youth began to become politicised, protesting against the Vietnam War
and supporting civil rights movements. In 1968, a new ratings board ­ the Motion
Picture of Association of America (MPAA) ­ replaced the old Hays code of
censorship. This allowed films to be more provocative in terms of its themes and
images. Shary (2005: 35) writes: `For teen films, this meant more movies dealing
with sex, drugs, violence and the honest expression of distain for adults.' Two youth
oriented films which were examples of this were the counter-cultural Easy Rider
(1969), and Last Summer (1969). The latter, a dark and violent film involving three
teenagers playing deadly, sexual games which was given the new `X' rating. This
marked a significant shift in the depiction of the cinematic teen. The adult values
which was largely present in the teen films from the 1950s up to this period, were
becoming less apparent, paving the way for a more complex and sophisticated image
of youth. At the same time, the previous generations of the teen film were still
informing the 1980s genre in terms of certain paradigmatic structures like rebellion
and teen angst. However, any countercultural impulses or political radicalism which
were present in youth films and culture in the 1960s and 70s, were not part of the
themes of 1980s teen films ­ an issue which is explored later.
Summing up this historical insight, Thomas A. Christie (2009: 83) writes that
the evolving teen cultures in post-war society adapted to the 'rapidly changing
customs and fashions of subsequent generations', and teen movies of each decade
reflected this change. From the alienated, 1950s rebellious youths portrayed by
Marlon Brando and James Dean, to the social problem teen films like Blackboard
Jungle (1955); the stoner, countercultural hippies in Easy Rider (1968), through to
the politically satirical overtones of Animal House (1978). From sexually liberated

teens in 1980s films Porky's, through to affluent, apolitical and desexualised youth in
Ferris Bueller's Day Off:
[Youth] has long been an interesting barometer of the period in which each
particular entry in the genre has been produced. By the time of the eighties,
teenagers had become sophisticated, savvy consumers, highly attuned to the
commoditised, market-driven society in which they were growing up. (Ibid.)
Altman (1999) refers to the 'extratextual' in relation to film genre theory. This is
concerned with features that are relevant outside of a film's narrative and visual
content, most notably the marketing, promotion and audience reception aspects.
These issues have already been touched upon and an enquiry here relating to the
1980s teen genre, will develop the argument and examine issues more related to the
industrial side of teen cinema.
Firstly, some of the teen films position themselves within the 'high concept'
method of film promotion, which emerged in the 1980s and is relevant in terms of
the genre's association with the Reagan era and capitalist America. The high concept
method refers to mainstream, commercially-driven films that `are differentiated
within the marketplace through an emphasis on style and through integration with
their marketing' (Wyatt, 1994: 23). A film's essence can be summed up in a couple of
sentences, which goes on to influence its marketing campaign and box-office
receipts. To attract a teen audience, the text and image on the advertising poster for
Porky's is simple and sums up the sexual nature of the film: words emblazoned over
an image of the peephole shower scene, revealing a male teen's eye staring at an
obscured naked female body. Goes the tagline: `Keep an eye out for the funniest
movie ever made about growing up! You'll be glad you came!' As Wyatt notes (ibid:
120): `The simplicity of the narrative permits its reproduction to a single image.' In
this case, the ad is specifically targeted at teenage boys. Also, from an advertising
standpoint, a Variety article by Fred Goldberg (1983), concluded that young people
would rely less on reviews and newspapers articles about films, and more on
advertisements like the aforementioned Porky's poster. Furthermore, as Murray
Smith quoted in Neale and Smith (eds. 1998) explains, many high concept films rely
on pop music to promote both the film and the artist/band; for example, the famous

scene from Risky Business when Tom Cruise is dancing naked in the family home, is
accompanied by Bob Seger's `Old Time Rock and Roll', a popular hit of the period.
If the sexual and hedonistic content of the teen sex comedies proved
problematic and ambiguous set against the conservative morality of the 1980s, in an
economic context, films such as Porky's, Fast Times and Risky Business were
successful products that prospered under the capitalist system in relation to the high
concept approach of marketing movies. It was the period of the modern blockbuster
from the likes of Spielberg and Lucas, and films such as Flashdance (1983), Beverley
Hills Cop (1984) and Top Gun (1986), from producers Don Simpson and Jerry
Bruckheimer, were made using this method of marketing. Simpson's words were
unequivocal in his approach to making films: `We have no obligation to make history.
We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. Our
obligation is to make money', quoted in Thompson (2007: 91-92). Justin Wyatt
(1994) regards several of the 1980s teen films as falling under the high concept label:
Endless Love (1981), Porky's, Risky Business, Footloose (1984), Reckless, Weird
Science (1985), Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Some Kind of Wonderful.
This attitude typified the `greed is good' philosophy of the 1980s and the new
ancillary markets (VHS, cable TV) that were emerging at this time, provided
additional platforms for teen films to reach an audience and increase profits.
Star power in attracting an audience is another element in the high concept
marketing of films, although this does not necessarily apply to the sex comedies of
the early to mid-eighties, but can be associated with the so-called `Brat Pack', a short
lived but popular troupe of actors which included: Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez,
Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy. During the mid-
eighties, they appeared in the more romantic and dramatic films of the genre like The
Breakfast Club and St Elmo's Fire (1985) (with the latter being concerned with
college graduates in their early twenties). Their good looks and charisma were
becoming increasingly popular with young audiences, on and off screen. Molly
Ringwald was arguably the biggest box office attraction of all the teen actors in the
1980s through her work with John Hughes. She became a household name during
this period for a teen market that had bestowed upon her the title of the `model
modern teen' (Lee: 2010: 43). From more of an audience reception and fandom
context, her fame and position as the `poster child for teenage angst' (ibid.) became
something of a social phenomenon, albeit short-lived, as her `three-year reign at the

multiplex, instigated a media feeding frenzy that spilled onto the streets, with
devoted fans ­ the Ringlets ­ imitating Ringwald's punk-flapper fashion and flaming
mop top' (ibid.). John Hughes himself became a marketing product and a brand
name due to the popularity of his teen films. Even today, nearly thirty years after his
last teen film, he is arguably the director most associated with the genre.
Viewing the issues from a broader media standpoint, movie consumption was
experiencing dramatic shifts during the 1980s and the emergence of the multiplex
and the demise of one screen cinemas in urban areas, were factors which contributed
to resurgence of the teen film. Many of them were situated in and around large retail
centres such as shopping malls, open spaces that served as sites of teen congregation.
Timothy Shary (2002: 6) explains that Hollywood was now offering,
moviegoers greater variety and convenience [and] the need to cater to the young
audiences who frequented those malls became apparent...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.
The introduction of the video recorder was another key example of the changes
in movie consumption. Oliver Jones (2003: 8) observes that the commercial success
of the teen film alerted the studios to their box office potential, and the youth
audience was `the one movie-going demographic willing not only to see a movie
several times while it was in the multiplex, but then to follow that by renting the
video.' Hollywood's `diversification into VCR, video games, cable television,
publishing and various forms of product merchandising provided increasingly
important streams of revenue for the industry' (Thompson, 2007: 91). For Doherty,
the teen market in the 1980s who were more affluent than ever before, were `part of
the reason that the entertainment industry ran a more ruthlessly efficient machine
for teenage exploitation, a fusillade of transmedia synergy fixing Hollywood's most
desirable audience dead centre in it crosshairs' (2002: 194). Also, the studios were
now releasing films on VCR while they were still on general release in the cinema and
the teen romantic-musical drama Footloose, saw its profits increase through this
method of film distribution. Moreover, when teen films did not fare so well at the
box office, some of them like Heathers and Some Kind of Wonderful, did much
better through their VCR rentals.

In terms of cinema attendance, by the end of the 1960s, the 16-24 year old age
group was responsible for approximately 40% of box office receipts (Doherty, 2002).
This increased and `by 1979 at the start of the 80s teen genre, every other ticket was
bought by someone aged between 12 and 20, and another 30 per cent of ticket sales
were to people in their twenties' (Maltby, 2003: 24). With the rise of the multiplex,
teenagers were becoming a powerful economic and social group and films targeted at
teenagers (and adults) began to dominate the Hollywood landscape; for instance,
blockbusters like Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Friedman
(2007: pp. 2-3) comments of the changing demographics of the period, `emphasizing
how the population shifts from the cities to the suburbs and the maturation of the
Baby Boom generation permanently altered movie going habits and ultimately
defined a new culture.' Consequently, Hollywood studios were now catering more for
the youth market as Doherty notes, from the 1970s onwards in America, `theatrical
movies cater primarily to one segment of the audience: teenagers. [Without their
support], few theatrical movies break even' (2002: 1).
By the late 1970s, the commercially successful teen comedies Animal House
(1978) and Meatballs (1979), with raucous `gross-out' scenes of hormonally-charged
teens chasing girls and trashing property, became a generic and commercial
blueprint for the 1980s teen sex comedy. In addition, the teen horror genre was
profitable as the `youth in peril' theme saw teens punished by death for engaging in
sex. For example, Halloween (1978) led to several sequels and the Friday the 13th
(1980) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) teen horrors and their follow-ups were
profitable products for the Hollywood studios. Animal House and Meatballs were
followed by the cycle of teen sex comedies
­ the focus in Chapter Two ­ that started
in 1980 and ended in 1985. Some of those listed below have already been mentioned,
but it is useful to include them on a list for which `provocative titles were indicative
of the increasingly direct sexual marketing of youth films' (Shary, 2002: 229): Little
Darlings (1980); Private Lessons (1981); Fast Times at Ridgemont High; Goin' all
the Way; The Last American Virgin, Porky's (all 1982); Losin' It; Getting It On; My
Tutor; The First Turn-On!; Screwballs; Risky Business; Spring Break (all 1983);
The Joy of Sex; Where the Boys Are (both 1984); Just One of the Guys and
Fraternity Vacation (both 1985).
Young people were also bombarded with more images of a sexual nature in the
form of advertisements, TV and raunchy pop videos on the new music channel MTV,

which started in 1982. Indeed, MTV became part of the marketing strategy for teen
films in the 1980s as Doherty explains, citing the aforementioned Footloose: `Since
the MTV-fueled success of...Footloose (1984), rock videos tie-ins have been
instrumental publicity shills' (2002: 5). This emphasis on popular music, as noted
above in relation to Risky Business, is integral to the marketing of some of the teen
films referred to in this thesis. Wyatt (1994: pp. 57-58) explains the use of music,
soundtracks and other forms of media in films becomes part of the high concept
marketing strategy, `working against character development [in becoming] a system
of referencing...identified as intertextuality.' The spectator will share a common
knowledge of the music and other media forms, which operates `from an economic
standpoint due to the audience's point of recognition' (ibid.) Wyatt highlights one
John Hughes' film that is part of the research, which relies heavily on this high
concept strategy: Ferris Bueller's Day Off (the same can be applied to all of Hughes'
1980s teen films). The lead character played by Matthew Broderick is characterised
partly by his taste in popular music such as The Beatles, MTV, New Order, and his
references to other films like Dirty Harry (1971) and Alien (1979). Hughes extends
this intertextuality by using themes tunes from popular films to enhance the
dramatic aspects of the films, for example, the Star Wars and Pink Panther scores.
This use of intertextuality, as Wyatt continues, helps to negate the more nuanced
motivations and characteristics of the protagonists, resulting in a `levelling of the
psychology of the characters'; this process foregrounds the film's style and surface
values like music, enhancing its commercial potential to a young audience. Indeed,
Ferris Bueller's Day Off was a success, making over $70 million at the box office. It
also spawned a short-lived TV series, Ferris Bueller, from 1990-91, another medium
which was becoming increasingly targeted at the youth market. Other teen films
which became TV shows were Fast Times (1986), and Dirty Dancing (1988-89).
Another form of revenue which was becoming more commonplace during this
era was the movie sequel. Porky's commercial success enabled two sequels to be
made: Porky's II: The Next Day (1983), and Porky's Revenge (1985). Similarly, there
were several sequels to Revenge of the Nerds. Although these follow-ups were not on
the same financial scale as those from the action-adventure genre, for example, the
Rocky films, they did position the 1980s teen genre within the movie franchise
business, creating more profits for the Hollywood studios. As Prince (2007: pp. 2-3)
notes, `the eighties showcased the status of film as pure product merchandising.

Sequels were like brand labels, and the studios sought to brand audience loyalty by
developing characters and film properties that could be manufactured in perpetuity.'
Porky's was also significant from a marketing perspective as it was a success in terms
of audience testing. This is when a film is previewed before its general release to an
audience, to determine an initial critical response.
Thomas Doherty goes further (2002: 2) as he regards the promotion and
marketing of teen films as being part of the `exploitation' method
­ `controversial
content, bottom-line book keeping and demographic targeting.' This meant a film's
low budget (in Porky's case, $4 million), promoting to a target-intended
demographic (teenagers) and an advertising poster campaign whose content `caters
to its target audience by serving up appetizing or exotic subject matter'; for example,
nude bodies and penis jokes. All this proved very successful as Porky's went on to
make over $100 million at the box office. Lesley Speed (2010: 824) observes that the
success of the film was down to the marketing of `vulgarity overtly for profit'. Robin
Wood (2002: 174-192) explains that the teen sex comedies form an uneasy yet
necessary alliance with the morally conservative, yet aggressively capitalist society of
1980s America:
The films are once a significant product and reinforcement of the
commodification of sex in contemporary capitalist culture, most of the consumer
products of which must be advertised and sold on their sexual appeal, blatant or
subtle. [It is] behaviour that consumer capitalism in its present phase
simultaneously permits and morally disapproves of.
Echoing this ambiguity and tension is William Paul (1994: 83), who points out that
the youth culture depicted in these films was `concerned with expanding acceptable
public discourse...but flourished through the early part of...the conservatism of the
Reagan Revolution.' Whatever the wider social-political and cultural implications,
one thing was for definite in the 1980s as Shary notes, `youth had been reconfigured
as a specialized and crucial age group for American commercial marketing (2004:
Shifting the focus to oppositional forces within the genre, leads on to the
subject of structuralism and its relationship with this thesis. The approach will aim to
make sense of the representation of 1980s teen culture by exposing its

contradictions, which will result in a deeper understanding of the group and their
wider concerns. Schatz (1981: 31) explains that 'a genre's basic cultural oppositions
or inherent dramatic conflicts represent its most basic determining feature.' In the
teen genre's case, as already noted, oppositions exist between adults and teens,
different stereotypes, social and cultural issues and generic sites. Altman's notion of
`dual-focus texts' (1999: 24) develops this oppositional approach and is a generic
property which all Hollywood genre films share. For example, this concept is
highlighted in The Breakfast Club, although Altman never refers to teen movies. He
explains: 'Constantly opposing cultural values to counter-cultural values, genre films
regularly depend on dual protagonists and dualistic structures (producing what I
have called dual-focus texts).' He gives an example from the Western genre: the
shoot-out between the sheriff and outlaw which often happens at the end of the film.
In The Breakfast Club, there's a confrontation between the white-collar jock and the
blue-collar delinquent. In Pretty in Pink, the rich kid and the poor girl try to start a
relationship. The cultural oppositions in terms of the teen stereotype are evident in
the teen sex comedies, for example, the popular girl in Little Darlings, Cinder, and
her counterpart, the outsider Ferris. This subject comes into sharper focus from the
mid-1980s films onwards, providing more material for a structuralist debate.
Differences and similarities emerge and are often viewed in socioeconomic terms; for
instance, the conflicts between the characters in Some Kind of Wonderful is a key
semantic/syntactic aspect of the film.
Positioning these binaries within a structuralist framework will enable the
argument to evolve and advance by drawing on the writings of French anthropologist
Claude Lévi-Strauss (1968) on the oppositional structures and their contradictions
inherent in ancient myths. By using this method, a structuralist reading of the
themes, characters and space of the teen genre is not viewed in individual terms, but
examined in the contexts of their relationships and differences to each other. The
analysis will be organic as opposed to autonomic and will focus on relationships as
opposed to individual things. Petra Kuppers explains further:
Structuralism is a method of grasping culture as a set of rules akin to language. It
points to the relationship aspects of culture: all cultural representations gain
meaning and value in relation to each other, not by themselves (2001: 427).

Altman (1999: 26) writes that these structuralist concepts, when merged with
film genre and their stories, 'can serve as a form of a societal self-expression, directly
addressing the societies constitutive contradictions...offering imaginative solutions to
a society's real problems.' In this context, Hollywood genre films can be viewed as
modern day myths: Lévi-Strauss (1968: 418) defines myths as stories retold through
the ages in order to convey a deeper understanding of a culture and highlight their
ideological contradictions, which are 'repressed from the surface of society, but come
back in their stories.' Susan Hayward (2000: 255) contends that a dilemma or
contradiction stands at the heart of every living myth: 'The impulse to construct the
myth arises from the desire to resolve the dilemma.' In the teen genre, myths
surrounding status and the teen stereotype will be explored in relation to The
Breakfast Club and Revenge of the Nerds. As Schatz (1981) explains when outlining
the three-act structure of film genre, resolution is only temporary, as the
contradictions still remain in the real world. Therefore, the mythic function of genre
films means that they are repeated in a ritualistic sense until a series of related
stories within the genre is formed, which continue to expose conflicts and fissures.
For example, the loss of virginity theme in the sex comedies of the 1980s, and the
romantic stories of John Hughes concerning social and cultural divides, are repeated
over a cycle of films. Barry Langford (2005: 21) explains that this 'scheme implies
that underlying social contradictions are less resolved away than repeatedly re-
enacted and thus -- at least in principle -- exposed by their mythic articulations.'
Hayward's (2013: 214) comments also support this when she writes that,
generic convention is quite distinct from the social reality that it purports to reflect.
Social reality does not present easy solutions. Life is not 'order/disorder/order
restored' as the classic narrative system would have us believe...which produces
seamlessness...which is why generic repetition works so well and we go back again
and again to the movies.
Therefore, one of the functions of genre, as Jim Kitses (1969) cited in Altman (1999:
15) explains, is that it offers a 'vital structure in which flow a myriad of themes and
The structuralism of Lévi-Strauss treats myths as ahistorical (synchronic),
presenting a challenge when viewing a genre which is time-specific (diachronic) and

set in a particular place -- 1980s America. This model of structuralism would also
encounter difficulties when issues of sexuality and gender surface, where a
psychoanalytical study may be more responsive. It also does not take into account
issues of representation -- a key concern of this thesis. Furthermore, Lévi-Strauss
was not concerned with narrative causality but more with the paradigmatic (binary)
study, 'that looks for the patterns of oppositions hidden in texts and tells us what
texts 'mean'' (Berger, 1992: 15), as opposed to a syntagmatic study, which is relevant
to a film narrative and signifies 'what happens in texts' (ibid). Lévi-Strauss focused
more on a phenomenological approach when analysing ancient myth and how it
operated within the unconscious. Despite these limitations, structuralism in its
modified form in this thesis is valuable; when allied with film genre in terms of its
cultural oppositions and the contradictions arising from this, it will foreground how
genre operates formally, narratively and thematically. The approach in this work will
use a similar method to Will Wright (1975), who analysis the Western genre. He
discusses the oppositions between cowboy/Indians, garden/wilderness,
nature/culture, East/West, outlaw/homesteader. In this research, oppositions
between, the teen stereotypes, generic sites, rich/poor, hero/villain, for example, will
provide the material for the debate. Wright uses the binary oppositional structure
inherent in Lévi-Strauss analysis and takes it a stage further. His concern,
is not to reveal a mental structure but to show how the myths of a society, through
their structure, communicate a conceptual order to the members of that society [and
to] exhibit the structure of a myth in order to discover its social meaning (1975: 17).
Wright extends the Lévi-Strauss paradigm in his analysis, and the same strategy is
applied here when exploring the teen movie in the context of a mythic narrative. This
also shares qualities with Altman's (2004) semantic/syntactic approach:
In order to understand the social meaning of a myth, it is necessary to analyse not
only its binary structure but also its narrative structure -- the progression of events
and the resolution of conflicts. (ibid: 24)
Schatz admits that 'in the final analysis of genre filmmaking, cultural myth-making
seems to me to be significant and direct' (1981: 32).

Another branch of structuralism applied to the genre is the theories of
Vladimir Propp's narratology (1968). His study of 'tale roles' and 'narrative functions'
in a story are relevant to the stories in the teen genre. For example, Propp discusses
the notion of the hero and villain, their oppositional characteristics and their 'spheres
of action', an approach which relates to Some Kind of Wonderful and Heathers. This
line of thinking offers a more archetypal interpretation of the depiction of youth
culture and its relationship aspects, as opposed to the study of the teen stereotype,
which is more culturally specific to the teen culture.
Methods used in this thesis for the study of adolescence need justification for
their inclusion. It would be a bold claim to propose that the 1980s Hollywood teen
genre, with its works of popular escapist fantasy, could form a direct relationship
with disciplines outside of the arts, which often rely on empirical evidence and
statistical data for some of their methodological tools. Thus, when applying a
methodology concerning adolescence in cinema, the aim is to adapt and modify the
research to suit the approach of the thesis and demonstrate how it resonates with the
films and creates meaning. One of the ways to achieve this is to assimilate issues into
a structuralist framework like the 'gift'/'stigma' notion (more on this below). In order
to realise this, it is necessary to circumvent any empirical data and be selective as to
what is relevant to the concerns here. Timothy Shary's (2002: 22) comments go some
way to support this: 'The cinema, with its limited range of products with unlimited
ranges of meaning, is a system of representation that provides a useful index of
issues about various conditions'. In the case of this study, the adolescent condition is
dramatised throughout the cycle of teen films.
As mentioned in the introduction, one of the examples of how the coming-of-
age process is depicted in the 1980s teen film is through the characters' sexual
behaviour. Irrespective of the comic tone of these encounters, closer analysis will
reveal that the image of adolescent sexuality is often fraught with problems and
contradictions. For the purposes of this thesis, sexual initiation and loss of virginity
become part of the 'risk-taking' phase of adolescence which Hall (1904) outlined in
his 'storm and stress' writings. One of the methods that will be applied to teen
sexuality, and which embraces the structuralist oppositional approach, is the
gift/stigma notion, as discussed by Carpenter (2002). This relates to sex and virginity
loss from a gendered perspective and highlights the concerns and attitudes of teens
when confronted with the 'do I?, don't I?' dilemma. The experiences of the

protagonists over several of the films correlate with this notion, offering an
interpretation of teen sex and its emotional consequences, some of which (abortion,
teen parenthood) are explored in films like Little Darlings, Fast Times and For
Keeps (1988). Addressing the challenge of combining research of this nature with a
narrative form like film, one of the methods of integrating the gift/stigma method of
study is to position it on the semantic/syntactic axis. For example, the sexual exploits
(semantic) of the character Stacy in Fast Times and her relationship with other
characters related to this (syntactic) are viewed in this context. In a similar vein,
other adolescent themes -- such as peer pressure, the teen clique and group
conformity -- are examined from more of a psychological and sociological angle. So
again the aim is to ensure that the research from these sources, which generally do
not refer to cinema, correlate with the image of teens and their behaviour in the
The methodology applied when integrating the unique sites and spaces of the
genre will embrace the ongoing structuralism debate of this research. Michel
Foucault's writings offer an alternative interpretation of space. It should be pointed
out, however, that it is beyond the scope of this thesis to offer more in relation to a
figure like Foucault, whose research encompasses many subjects, but the
oppositional concerns in his writings on space are compatible with this research. His
concept of heterotopia and space is linked to the shopping mall in the teen films and
offers an unorthodox reading when positioning it within the debates surrounding
consumerism. Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the chronotope, which is concerned with
the relationship between time and place, reveals a symbolic explanation of youth
culture in terms of sex, romance, consumerism and teen employment. Bakhtin's
theories on the carnivalesque and the family home are debated in terms of the
generational divide and opposing forces between youth and adults, power and
freedom -- an approach which is also relevant to the space of the city.
These methods of enquiry into the opposing forces within the spaces of the
teen film are sustained when issues relating to gender in terms of public and private
space are investigated, especially concerning the space of the teen bedroom. Ideas on
feminine and masculine space are also examined in relation to sexuality and its
development, friendship, group dynamics, peer relationships and the teen clique.
In the high school, the methodology used to investigate this particular site will
reveal it as an ambiguous space in terms of the attitudes of the protagonists towards

learning and education. Beyond the school gates, social and economic divides are
examined when the teens travel away from their suburban environments into other
outdoor spaces and come into conflict with different communities (Porky's and
Losin' It' ).
Finally, it has to be pointed out that the focus of this thesis will be on what
happens in the films with the methodology underpinning, informing and shaping the
argument. These methods of study and theoretical debates will be operating at the
service of the films, and not the other way round.
Chapter Overview
The thesis will consist of five chapters. Chapter One will be the literature review,
which will be organised by theme and will include a selection of the key sources that
cover these themes.
Chapter Two, 'Coming-of-Age: The Teen Sex Comedies', will work
chronologically and focus on the subgenre of the teen sex comedies of the early to
mid-1980s and, as the title suggests, virginity loss and sexual initiation will be key
discussion points. To contextualise this portrayal of teen sexuality and the teen film,
a brief enquiry into the history of the subject and its relationship with the teen genre
will bring the issues into sharper focus. The chapter will also debate how the sex
comedy reacts against the moral conservatism of the Reagan era, while at the same
time how it reflects this ideology in terms of masculinity and its link to the teen
image on the screen. The key recurring themes relating to genre theory, like the
semantic/synaptic approach, will be introduced in this chapter and also the
structuralist method of analysis relating to how the oppositional features create
meaning. This chapter will also begin the enquiry into other features of adolescence
and the coming-of-age process, most notably the 'storm and stress' phase: peer
pressure, cliques and the teen stereotype. In the latter part of the chapter, the tone
shifts and the sex comedies are examined within their marketing context. What then
follows is a discussion on how the image of youth in 1980s films is more concerned
with hedonistic behaviour than political rebellion of previous generations. Finally,
the reasons behind the demise of the sex comedy in the 1980s are expounded.
Chapter Three, `Stereotypes and Other Roles in the Romantic Comedies and
will carry on with the chronological structure and work from the mid-198os

until the end of the decade. The films here will mark a shift in tone and attitude as
the teen genre evolves. Some of the semantic features introduced in Chapter Two are
continued: the oppositional forces and contradictions associated with the role of the
teen stereotype and its hierarchical structures, and the generational divide, are given
much greater exposure here, The Breakfast Club being a key example. One of the
major shifts is that generic definition of the 1980s genre changes from sex comedy to
teen romantic comedy and drama. Images of physical sex become less frequent as a
more romantic and sensitive version of teen relationships emerges, conveying the
morally conservative message and attitude which Reagan and his Republican Party
were attempting to promote. Also, as alluded to in the introduction, the impact of the
AIDS virus in the mid-1980s forced the film industry to reconsider its depiction of
sex. Crossover or transitional films like The Sure Thing (1985), which contain
elements of both the sex and romantic comedy but lean more towards the romance,
will reveal further insights into the generic hybridity of the 1980s teen genre.
Following on from the teen stereotype is the different 'roles' -- the 'active' male and
'passive' female -- as the protagonists are defined by gender and notions relating to
the family within patriarchal capitalist society. Vision Quest will give an insight into
Chapter Four, 'Propp's Tale Roles and Narrative Functions in the Teen
Romantic Comedies and Dramas', will stay within the same period and subgenres of
films as Chapter Three and develop the idea of the different roles the teen
protagonists act out. This idea will be positioned within more of a narratology
context by drawing on the ideas of Vladimir Propp and his tale roles and narrative
functions. In Some Kind of Wonderful, the jock/rich kid is the 'villain', the blue-
collar character is the 'hero' and the popular girl is the 'princess'. Propp's
methodology serves the oppositional structural concerns of the thesis and will
therefore continue to link the stories and characters of this work.
Chapter Five, `The Teen Generic Teen Sites and Their Spaces' will focus on the
teen genre's symbolic use of space. The former will concentrate on the more familiar
sites to the genre like the shopping mall and the high school. The latter will examine
spaces less familiar to the teen genre, like the city, and spaces beyond their suburban
environment. The purpose of this chapter is to explore how teens function both as
individuals and in groups within these public and private spaces. It will investigate
the subject of teens at work and consumerism, which relates to the space of the mall

and its associations with broader debates on culture and society. Space and its
alternative connotations are debated in the context of high school and the teen
bedroom, and insights are offered into how these spaces become liminal and
ambiguous. Power and freedom are discussed in relation to the family home. The
Chapter will then go on to discuss themes concerning liberation and freedom, with
examples cited such as when the protagonists travel to the city. Also under scrutiny is
the idea of space becoming more dangerous and threatening when films are set in
locations beyond the safe parameters of suburbia. This chapter will not follow a
specific chronological order, and will focus on films across the generic spectrum,
unlike in the previous chapters. One reason for this approach is to facilitate films
such as The Outsiders and Valley Girl (both 1983), which were produced during the
sex comedy period but were different subgenerically, the former being a delinquent
drama and the latter being a romantic comedy. Focusing on films regardless of
chronology or generic category through the prism of their spatial values will
strengthen the claim that the 1980s teen genre can be considered more of a unified
body of films, as opposed to viewing them from a certain period of time or genre-
specific position.

Chapter One
Literature Review
Some of the writers and their ideas referred to here have already been
mentioned briefly, but it is important to refer to their work again in order to identify
the strengths and limitations of the literature. This section will be structured by
theme and the aim is to synthesise the different sources cited in the thesis so that a
more coherent review of the literature can emerge.
First, the existing literature on the teen film will be reviewed, which offers a
wide-ranging, survey-like investigation of the genre, written from a historical
perspective and covering the post-war period of teen films to the present day. These
texts are not supported by any particular theory but they do offer critical
commentary in terms of the representation of teenagers in cinema and generally
focus on the development of the adolescent and the coming-of-age process in terms
of teen sexuality and identity, stereotypes and the generational divide. The key texts
are: Shary (2005); Doherty (2002); Bulman (2004) and Driscoll (2011). Only the
entries on 1980s teen films are of significance in these books, although they are
useful when the thesis does briefly refer to the history of the genre.
Timothy Shary's Generation Multiplex (2002) is more focused on the 1980s
and is a main source of reference here. He writes on a broad range of examples from
the teen films of this period and organises his research around the different
subgenres and character types that make up the contemporary teen genre. He
illustrates how youth is represented on screen in its different guises, how teenagers
change and evolve, and he comments on the different trends and characteristics of
the subgenres. Furthermore, Shary provides an overview of relationships in teen
films characterised by tensions and conflicts related to social and cultural status,
which are set against the growing economic divide in Reagan's America. His recent
article, 'Buying me Love: 1980s Class-Clash Teen Romances' (2011), focuses more in
depth on this topic and will prove particularly useful when writing about the John
Hughes' romances, as well as Valley Girl and Lucas.
Thomas Doherty (2002) focuses on the history of the teen film, in particular
the 1950s, and how teen movies were made with a youth audience in mind. However,

his book does devote the last chapter to 1980s genre and he refers to the AIDS virus
and its impact on films, the relevance of which is reflected in how the tone and sexual
behaviour of the protagonists changed in the mid-1980s.
Robert C. Bulman (2004) narrows down the genre to the modern American
high school films from the 1950s onwards and links them to American culture at
large in terms of education, social status and relationship with adults. There are
substantial entries on the 1980s films; however, his work is limited in the context of
this research as it does not refer to the Reagan era and its ideology.
Catherine Driscoll (2011), like Bulman, writes from a sociological and cultural
viewpoint and analyses teen film in a global context. Where it is relevant is in terms
of the discussion of sexual and gender identity in relation to the 1980s films. There
are key debates surrounding John Hughes' films and virginity loss but, like Bulman,
Driscoll does not position the 1980s films within the context of Reagan's America.
Jon Lewis (1992) focuses on youth culture in its broader contexts and refers
not only to film but other youth cultures like musical trends, which is not really of
concern to this work. He discusses teen films from the post-war period to the end of
the 1980s in a variety of thematic contexts, some of which are relevant (sex, gender,
rebellion and class, for example). He argues that teen films are ultimately concerned
with the breakdown of authority in the form of family and education, which is one of
the themes of this work.
Overall, the literature offers critical commentary on the 1980s genre in terms
of adolescent representation and broader societal issues. They are vital in terms of
identifying the key films, trends, character types and adolescent themes of the
period, and they establish the foundational structures for the texts, which are more
concerned with methodology, structuralism and other theories which are relevant to
this research.
Books on teen cinema which are more subjective, humorous and nostalgic
offer limited critical commentary but are nonetheless insightful in terms of outlining
the genre's main themes and characters. They include Jon Bernstein's Pretty in Pink:
The Golden Age of Teenage Movies (1997), the first book to be written solely on
1980s teen films. It is more of a personal and, at times, sentimental tribute to the
films and avoids any serious academic inquiry. However, it is useful as a reference
point, its thematic concerns are relevant and it devotes a chapter to the sex comedies
and John Hughes' films. Stephen Tropiano (2006) writes from a historical point of

view and devotes one chapter to the 1980s. Like Bernstein's, his is a work generally
written in a humorous and light-hearted tone, although he does refer to sociopolitical
issues and the Reagan era, which is applicable here.
Books with a focus exclusively on John Hughes' films also tend to be more
personal. In Clarke (ed. 2007), writers and novelists discuss his films nostalgically
and comment on the effect they had on their own lives during the 1980s. The book
contains heartfelt passages about the coming-of-age process and the anxieties about
being a teenager. In a similar vein, journalist Susannah Gora (2010) focuses on John
Hughes' films and interviews key figures from this period -- actors, directors,
technicians -- getting their views on how this series of films shaped the American
teen identity in the 1980s in terms of love, romance, relationships, peer pressure,
etc., issues which all link into the thematic nature of this work.
Thomas A. Christie (2009) writes about all of Hughes' teen film output. He
devotes a section to each of the films and adds a plot synopsis, useful to this work
when referring to the narrative structure and comments on issues of adolescence
without offering too much critical insight. Roz Kaveney (2006) charts the recent
history of teen TV and film and, like others, focuses on John Hughes. Her work is
more journalistic than academic.
Most recently, journalist Hadley Freeman (2015) writes about 1980s
Hollywood and two of the chapters in her book concern John Hughes' films. She
writes from a more feminist point of view when comparing the teen heroines from
the 1990s films to the 1980s ones -- a subject covered in the conclusion of this thesis.
Articles, journals and essays of a more academic nature on 1980s teen film are
often written from a gendered and feminist perspective. Lesley Speed's writing
(2002) critiques masculinity and focuses on vulgar humour, both male and female, a
subject discussed with regards to the teen sex comedy and teen generic rituals in this
thesis. It also foregrounds notions of romance in the John Hughes films -- a key
theme in this work. The research of Kleinhans (2002) and Dresner (2010) on female
sexuality and virginity loss in the sex comedy is related to broader social implications
and supports the analysis in Chapter Two. The chapter will also reference the
aforementioned Carpenter's (2005) insights into virginity loss, which focus on male
and female sexuality and forms a link with the binary structuralist concerns of this

All these texts on teen cinema, both journalistic and academic, will provide the
material for the books, articles and journals more concerned with methodology on
genre theory and narrative structure. As mentioned in the introduction, these
sources often relegate the teen film or do not mention it at all, for example, Langford
(2005), Altman (1999; 2004), Sobchack (2003), Neale (1999), Grant (2007) and
Schatz (1999; 2003). Despite such omissions, which may initially appear to pose a
problem for this research, certain fundamental structural characteristics of genre
cinema and narrative are shared throughout all genres. Each genre has its own set of
symbolic rituals, codes, iconography, situations and characters. For example, in the
Western, there is often a shoot-out in the final act; in the teen film, as referred to
above, someone loses their virginity. The differences between the two genres and acts
are obvious, but the similarities are of more interest in terms of how these recurring
characteristics work in terms of genre identification. Chapters Two and Three draw
on Lesley Speed's article into the teen film and vulgar humour, 'Loose Cannons:
White Masculinity and the Vulgar Teen Comedy Film' (2010), while Altman writes
about the semantic/syntactic approach to genre (2004) and focuses on the
Hollywood musical (1987), but an examination of the teen genre concerning this
approach is equally valid. Indeed, Speed (1998a) discusses the semantic/syntactic
approach when writing about teen films. In a similar vein, Robin Wood's essay,
'Ideology, Genre, Auteur' (2003b), debates the notion of the 'ideal' male and female
in a capitalist society and uses Hitchcock's films as his case study -- the same
principles are relevant to the protagonists in the teen genre.
In terms of narrative structure, Schatz's (1991) model -- the three-act
structure -- for mainstream cinema is referenced here. He also discusses genre
identification by its 'generic codes' (again, Schatz does not mention teen films), in
this case the visual iconography: the mall, home, school (these spaces are examined
in the chapter on space). Sobchack's (2003: 109) reflections on film genre being
'cathartic' and capable of resolving 'cultural tensions' is illustrated in relation to the
denouement of The Breakfast Club. Sobchack also points out that certain actors will
always be 'instantly "knowable" as genre figures' (ibid.), like John Wayne in the
Western; in the teen film, Molly Ringwald will always be associated most keenly with
her roles in John Hughes' films.
The literature on structuralism, despite it not referring to cinema, has had in
recent years, significant influence on film theory and is therefore used here. Palmer's

(1995) book will offer a basic introduction to the principles of structuralist thought
regarding binary oppositions and their relationship values. Palmer refers to Claude
Lévi-Strauss, whose investigation into cultural binary oppositions, myth and its
contradictions (1968) resonate within this thesis. Following this is Propp's
Morphology of the Folktale (1968), from which the structural analysis of Russian
fairy tales will inform the methodological approach of Chapter Four. Also, Will
Wright's (1975) modified version of structuralism, when he writes about the Western
genre and how oppositional forces have implications on wider social issues, acts as a
model here; for example, when investigating the teen stereotype.
Much of the literature on adolescence and teen culture in America cited in this
thesis focuses on the psychological, sociological and cultural concerns and, as
mentioned in the methodology section, these sources do not reference the teen genre
or cinema. The key is to find the right balance between what is in the frame and what
is out, and to validate this relationship in order to conceptualise the genre and
strengthen the central argument. The aim is to analysis the findings, observations
and outcomes written in the various texts on adolescence, and to identify how these
issues resonate with the scenes in the teen film. Additionally, how do these sources
form a link with the literature more associated with teen film, structuralism and film
genre? For example, when Hall (1904) and Arnett (1999) write about the 'storm and
stress' phase of adolescence -- conflict with adults, mood disruptions and risk taking
-- examples of these are visualised within scenes of the teen movie; The Breakfast
Club features all three of these adolescent semantic features.
Ian McMahan (2002) covers a broad range of adolescent issues, for instance,
sexuality, peer pressure, parenting and family, and all these themes are written about
in the aforementioned literature on teen film. He adopts a scientific approach, which
at first seems to be a barrier when linking it with the actions and emotions of
characters in a genre that has a narrative structure and often a comedic tone, issues
not relevant to McMahon's insights. However, like Hall and Arnett's research, it is
possible to modify these ideas and relate them to the teen genre. In a similar vein,
Erik Erikson (1968) writes from a psychological point of view about youth identity,
and scenes discussed in the chapter on space respond to his ideas. For instance,
Erikson discusses peer pressure and this resonates with the protagonists' actions in
Valley Girl when they interact in the teen bedroom, which in turn forms a
relationship with genre in terms of sites and their symbolism.

Articles and journals concerned with adolescent sexuality and romance are
more empirical in nature but still valuable if the statistical data is ignored in favour
of the overall outcomes and results of research. For example, Brooks-Gunn and
Furstenberg (1989) examine adolescent sex in relation to peer pressure and the
gender divide, and their ideas are relevant in sex comedies such as Little Darlings
and Fast Times. Similarly, the literature concerned with the more romantic aspect of
adolescence, for instance, Downey et al (1999), discusses rejection and this
corresponds with the experience of one of the characters, a male, in The Last
American Virgin.
One article which forms a tangible connection between the teen genre and
adolescent studies and helps bridge the gap between the topics is 'The Breakfast
Club: Utilizing Popular Film to Teach Adolescent Development', by Kaye and Ets-
Hokin (2000). It uses the 'film as a vehicle for teaching about multiple aspects of
adolescent development, analysing specific scenes of the film and their
corresponding developmental themes' (2000: 110).
Murray Milner (2004) and David Kinney (1993) write from a sociological
point of view, examining contemporary American high school culture in the context
of hierarchal structures and stereotypes. Although the authors do not refer to
structuralism or binary oppositions, their analysis shares some structuralist concerns
in terms of how the differences and similarities between the teen stereotypes offer an
understanding of this aspect of adolescence. These sources offer a basic description
in establishing a foundation for the teen stereotype and are therefore limited, as the
authors do not discuss how characters change and become more three-dimensional,
like a film narrative does. Kendall's (1999) observations of the nerd in American
culture work in the same way by outlining the nerd's basic characteristics, but not
evolve them; Revenge of the Nerds is an example from the genre which will actually
take this teen stereotype and flesh it out into a more rounded character by the end.
Grace Palladino (1996) and Thomas Hines (1999) trace the roots of the
American teenager from inception to contemporary times and discuss its social and
cultural impact. What is of interest in this work is how the authors outline the
fragmentation of traditional family and how teenagers became more independent
towards the end of the 20
century. This is evident in the 1980s teen films as parents
are often absent or cast in a negative light, and teens are seen to be making their
decisions without turning to adults for guidance; for example, in Fast Times.

Books cited in this thesis written on the Reagan era but which do not mention
teenage issues or cinema are nevertheless important as they will offer an insight into
the socioeconomic, political and ideological climate of the period in which the
discussed films were made. The research will demonstrate how issues relating to the
Reagan era are reflected in the films. Troy (2005; 2008) discusses the conservative
and moralistic attitudes of Reagan and his supporters, which include the religious
right in America, who strongly disapproved of the more hedonistic aspects of society
in terms of sex and drug use as well holding strong anti-abortion views -- all
pertinent issues when positioning the sex comedies within this context. Troy's
observations about this attitude of the American state and establishment
corresponds with the literature related to modern teenagers from a more sociological
perspective. Nicholas & Good (2004), meanwhile, debate the oppositional struggle
between youth and adults.
Schaller (1992) writes about the Reagan era and points to several incidents of
sex and financial scandals which exposed the hypocrisy of the Republican Party and
its factions, who preached about moral standards on the one hand, while on the other
engaged in contradictory behaviour. Incidents of this nature are depicted in films
such as Private School and also point to the mythic aspects of story in terms of their
contradictions, which creates a synthesis with the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss.
Schaller goes on to examine how Reaganomics created a widening gap between rich
and poor, another binary opposition, and this inequality is depicted in several of the
films. For example, the issue is foregrounded in The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink
and Some Kind of Wonderful.
Schaller and Troy's insights are developed here by books which focus on the
Reagan era and position 1980s films within a socioeconomic viewpoint. Traube's
(1992) ideas about 198os cinema centres on gender and class differences and devotes
passages to two teen films, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and All the Right Moves, the
former located within a white-collar environment, the latter within a blue-collar one.
Her observations are reflected in the chapters on Propp and space. Alan Nadel's
(1997) book on 1980s American cinema positions the subject within the Reagan era
and debates how capitalist ideology is reflected in a wide variety of films from the
period. He investigates John Hughes' films and offers a critique on the affluence of
the characters and their relationship with those who are less well-off. However, other
key books, specifically on 1980s Hollywood cinema like Stephen Prince's American

Cinema: Themes and Variations (ed. 2007), do not regard teen cinema as having
any wider social impact and mainly analyse blockbusters and Vietnam-themed
movies, containing only a brief reference to Ferris Bueller's Day Off and the theme of
conspicuous consumption during the Reagan era. Steinberg & Kincheloe (1998)
continue Traube's ideas and critique white middle-class privilege in the teen movie,
linking this to the affluence of the Reagan era. This is analysed in relation to the
characters in All the Right Moves, whose blue-collar protagonist's narrative
trajectory is depicted in oppositional terms.
The literature on space is wide ranging and, like the other sources and
methodological approaches, needs justification as to its inclusion when discussing
film genre. As discussed in the introduction, Henri Lefebvre's (1974) symbolic ideas
surrounding space and their social value will form the foundation of the analysis in
the final chapter of this thesis.
Lincoln (2004) and McRobbie & Garber (1976) discuss female culture and
identity in groups within the space of the bedroom, and Alison Bain's (2003) article
extends this by focusing on the teen films of the 1980s. She examines the notion of
public, private and liminal space in the bedroom, which works in a binary context in
relation to teen identity. This symbolic notion of space is expanded in the research by
referencing Bailey & Hay's (2002) article, 'Cinema and the Premise of Youth: Teen
Films and Their Sites in the 1980s and 1990s'. The article focuses on the generic sites
of 1980s teen movies like Risky Business, Fast Times and Valley Girl and their
oppositional and symbolic values.
Bakhtin's (1981; 1992) writing on the chronotope and carnivalesque and its
inclusion in relation to the study of the space of the shopping mall and family home
is justified, as Robert Stam (1992: 185)
'Bakhtin never directly addressed the
cinema, but his theories were nonetheless influential on film theory [and] provided a
way to conceptualise an alternative kind of cinema pleasure.' Furthermore,
Montgomery (1993) discusses the chronotope, teen films and the shopping mall in a
chapter of his book about Bakhtin and cinema. Foucault's (1986; 2007) ideas on
heterotopia and panoptic forces also draw on the ambiguous use of space in relation
to the mall and the concept of surveillance, concerning parents and adults within the
space of the home.
Kowinski (1985), Fiske (1989) and Goss (1993; 1999) write about the shopping
mall, not in terms of film but more from a cultural and sociological perspective;

again, their ideas resonate with this research. They discuss the mall's positive and
negative functions in terms of its symbolic position within Reagan's capitalist
America, consumerism and conspicuous consumption. This also creates a connection
with the chronotope with regards to examining a space from a specific time and
place. William Paul (1994a) examines the positive aspects of the teens working in the
mall in Fast Times.
The literature covering cities and cinema referenced does not mention the
teen films, which is unsurprising as the city does not feature too often in the 1980s
teen films under discussion in this thesis. However, books by Clarke (ed. 2007) and
Webber & Wilson (eds. 2007) will provide some basic ideas on how the city functions
metaphorically in film, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Valley Girl are two films
that embrace these concepts.
The aforementioned books on teen film do not really offer any substantial
information on how the visual aspects and editing contribute to meaning. Bordwell
and Thompson's, Film Art: An Introduction (2008), and William H. Phillips, Film:
An Introduction (2002), are texts cited here which are concerned with these issues.
Throughout the thesis, there will be reference to how a film's mise-en-scène, in terms
of camera movement, shot size, costume, cinematography and editing, reinforces the
mood, tone and attitude of a film. For example, the opening montage sequences in
Fast Times and Valley Girl comment on consumerism and different aspects of teen
congregation and are evaluated in the space chapter.
The aim of this literature review is to critically interpret the material which
focuses on the teen film, genre theory and structuralism, and synthesize it with
sources from the wider academic field of adolescent studies, political sources about
the Reagan era and ideas surrounding the symbolic use of space. One of the key
determining features which will bring these sources together is how the oppositional
factors emerge from the literature and, in turn, are identified and analysed within the
films. This PhD will address a gap in the literature concerning the 1980s teen genre
by representing youth culture as a case study which encapsulates these structuralist,
genre, sociopolitical and adolescent ideas. The approach will argue that this
particular mode of enquiry research effectively depicts and expresses a specific
culture and its wider societal implications.

Chapter Two
Coming-of-age: The Teen Sex Comedies
Before analysing the 1980s films, a brief examination of the representation of
the teen from a broader cultural perspective will help contextualise the issues.
Ronald Reagan's Republican Party had swept to power in the November 1980 US
election and a new era in America began, marked by a neoliberal economic policy
and a morally conservative, right-wing ideology. This is the sociopolitical climate in
which the films of this period were made and there are several references to how the
sex comedies relate to this climate in the main body of this chapter. A more detailed
examination of the themes and ideologies during The Republican Party's first term in
office, is outlined under the section in this chapter, `The Reagan Era and Teen Sex
Comedies'. An analysis of Reagan's second term, which corresponds with the
production of the post-teen sex comedies, continues at the beginning of the next
Into this new 1980s environment swept the modern teenager, whose media
profile started making headline news in terms of youth sexual and cultural identity.
Three cinema-related stories entered into the social discourse, which David
Considine (1985: 1) referred to as the `pervasiveness of the teen screen.' The would-
be assassin of President Reagan was obsessed with the teenage star of Taxi Driver ­
Jodie Foster; Timothy Hutton was the first teenager to win an academy award for
Ordinary People (1980); the 16-year-old Brooke Shields' performance as a teenage
prostitute in Pretty Baby (1978) forced the government to abandon the anti-smoking
campaign she was involved in, and reject her position as an appropriate American
role model for young people
­ an early sign of the disparity between the conservative
adult world and the changing identity of the teenager. Two other examples that
featured provocative images of the youthful sex symbol Brooke Shields were the
profitable yet critically maligned films, The Blue Lagoon (1980) and Endless Love.
Although they are not part of the teen genre as discussed in this work, their
commercial success `seemed to indicate that audiences were ready, if not eager, for
more sexually explicit portraits of youth sexuality' (Shary, 2002: 211). From this
point on and up to the mid-1980s, images of teen nudity
­ for example, in the sex

comedies Porky's, Fast Times and Private School
­ were commonplace in spaces like
school shower blocks, locker rooms and dormitories, hidden from the controlling
glare of parents and adult authority figures.
Firstly, a more detailed definition than the one given in the introduction
concerning the sex comedies and their semantic/syntactic elements is necessary to
establish the key characteristics of the subgenre. Shary (2002: 212), who dubs them
`sex quest films', observes that their candid and uninhibited approach is focused on
`the pursuit of sexual practice' in the form of sexual initiation and characters
attempting to lose their virginity, often in a casual and promiscuous manner. Oliver
Jones (2003: 73), claims that Porky's and Fast Times, the subgenre's biggest box
office hits, `set the ground rules for those to follow', again invoking Altman's (1999)
generic blueprint theory. However, Jones fails to mention Animal House or Little
Darlings, both made before these two films, with the latter being an exception as it
foregrounded female sexual desire. Lesley Speed (2010: 821) points out that the use
of `low humour' is a recurring semantic feature and calls them, `vulgar teen comedies
[that contain] acts of hedonism at parties, excessive drinking, having sex ... ridiculing
authority figures.' Much of this behaviour takes place in schools, summer camps,
parental homes and shopping malls
­ key generic spaces within the genre.
A close reading of these generic ritualistic teenage acts will serve to expose the
oppositional structures, tensions and contradictions in relation to issues such as teen
identity, peer relations, sexuality and gender ­ what was referred to in the
methodology section as `dual-focus texts' (Altman, 1999), where genre relies on these
dualistic, structuralist features. In addition, the subject of underage sex and abortion
becomes a narrative device in Fast Times and The Last American Virgin as the teen
sex comedy displayed a more serious attitude. This chapter will also begin to
investigate the binary relationships between the teen stereotypes and the
contradictions and myths that emerge from these. Furthermore, the teen characters'
relationships with the adult and parental world will be developed here and provide a
link to the following chapters, where the focus on this topic will be interrogated in
more detail. This chapter will argue that, beneath the comic frivolity and vulgarity, a
more serious study of adolescence is depicted in terms of sexuality, gender roles and
relationships. Teen sexuality is more complex than any research or film can express,
but the goal is to examine how this cycle of films positions the cinematic hormonally-
charged teen within discourses relating to sexuality, adolescence and the coming-of-

age process. In the second part of this chapter, the films will be aligned to the
changing 1980s sociopolitical landscape, along with previous youth cultures that
were linked to political and ideological causes.
Much of the sexual behaviour by the teens in the sex comedies draws parallels
with the `risk-taking' stage of adolescence, which was mentioned in the introduction.
Risk-taking serves as a teen generic ritual and is also part of the `storm and stress'
phase of Hall's (1904) research, which Arnett (1999: 319) writes about in a more
contemporary context:
Adolescents have higher rates of reckless, norm-breaking, and anti-social behaviour
than either children or adults...are more likely to cause disruptions of the social
order and to engage in behaviour that carries the potential for harm to themselves
and/or the people around them (1999: 319).
However, these comments are linked more to real-life experience and suggest serious
moral repercussions for those involved. Whereas in the fictional, mechanistic world
of genre cinema and the teen film, the characters' suffering is only temporary and a
happy ending usually ensues, the overall message of many of the comedies is not
overtly moralistic, which may have alienated young audiences (Shary, 2002).
Nevertheless, risk-taking is a recurring semantic/syntactic aspect of the 1980s teen
genre, linking the stories and their characters, and often has significant
consequences within the narrative. Much of this behaviour is related to sex. Synder
(2006: 161) observes that, `risky sexual behaviour is defined as sexual activity that
places youth at a heightened risk of pregnancy or contracting a sexually transmitted
infection.' Representations of this are portrayed in a more comic light in The Last
American Virgin, when the boys contract an STD after having sex with a prostitute.
Meanwhile, the teens in Losin' It incur the wrath of men in a Mexican town with their
attempts to seduce the local woman. However, The Last American Virgin and Fast
Times contain more serious examples of the dangers of sexual risk-taking, as
characters become pregnant and have abortions. But such are the conventions of
genre cinema that the conflicts and tensions that arise during the second act of the
films are resolved in the third act, and the girls are seen not to suffer and end up
leading assumed normal lives. For example, in Fast Times, the character of Stacy
(Jennifer Jason Leigh) falls pregnant and decides not to keep the child. This is not

portrayed as a key dramatic event in the film, and by the end she has started a new
relationship and is seen to be otherwise happy. This storyline of teenage pregnancy,
however, resolved, along with the fortunes of Karen (Diane Franklin) in The Last
American Virgin, reflected what was happening to youth in wider 1980s society and
is discussed in more detail later in the chapter. There was an increase in teen
pregnancies in the United States, which exceeded most advanced nations (Brooks-
Gunn & Furstenberg, 1989). Furthermore, Tropiano (2006), citing a Gallop poll in
1985, notes that male and female youths by the 1980s were having more sex than
ever before and were losing their virginities at a younger age.
With research into teenage sexuality on the increase in academic circles in
the post-war period, it often produced contradictory and inconsistent findings. Some
studies indicated a rise in sexual activities amongst teenage girls during the 1980s
Brooks-Gunn & Frusenberg (1989); others claimed that females were more cautious
`and viewed the world in terms of relationships and closeness, whereas men attach
more importance to individuality and had a more impersonal attitude towards sex',
Bernard (1981), cited in De Gaston and Weed (1996: u.p.). This correlates with the
gift/stigma attitude to sex and gender, discussed in more detail shortly.
Characters in the sex comedies often have sex as a result of peer pressure,
another key adolescent theme
­ for example, in Little Darlings, Porky's and Fast
Times. Pressure does not usually come from boyfriends or girlfriends, but from their
immediate peers in order to galvanise group conformity. The motivation for teens in
the sex comedies to lose their virginity was portrayed as a rite of passage into
adulthood, but what transpires is that the pursuit of sex and loss of virginity is often
more satisfying than the actual act, which usually ends in adversity: whether it is
emotional torment, like Angel (Kristy McNichol) in Little Darlings, or the characters
being humiliated like the boys in Porky's, who think they are going to have sex with a
prostitute in a bar out of town, but instead are tricked and mocked by the locals. The
films express that the coming-of-age process, sexual initiation and the transition into
adulthood is fraught with problems.
A closer reading of the recurring semantic themes of virginity loss will help
to articulate contradictions and fissures surrounding teen sexuality, as represented
by this cycle of films. This chapter positions these themes within a structuralist
oppositional framework in terms of virginity as a gift or stigma (Carpenter, 2002).
Despite the topic of teen sexuality often being treated in a comical way in the films,

the repercussions of first-time sexual experience initially leaves the characters in a
state of confusion and distress, especially the female teens like Stacy in Fast Times,
and the aforementioned Angel in Little Darlings and Karen in The Last American
Virgin. The males in teen films often, but not always, view loss of virginity as an
experience that will make them more masculine, therefore, virginity loss as a stigma.
Consequently, `they express disdain for virginity, engage in sexual activity primarily
out of curiosity and desire for physical pleasure. They felt a sense of shame,
embarrassment and humiliation about being virgins' (Carpenter, 2002: 346). In
Porky's, for example, one of the plot lines focuses on a peer group that humiliates
one of its members because he is still a virgin, a character appropriately named Pee
Wee. In a syntactic context, his main goal throughout the film is to lose his virginity,
which he does at the end of the film, and therefore the stigma of being a virgin has
been removed. In narrative terms, the final act has brought a satisfactory resolution
to Pee Wee's dilemma, conforming to Schatz's (1991) classical narrative model.
Conversely, virginity as a gift is usually, but not always, associated with the
female adolescent sexual experience as depicted in the sex comedies. One of the
characters in Fast Times, Lisa (Amanda Wyss), refuses to have sex with her
boyfriend, Brad (Judge Reinhold), because, `I don't want to have to use sex as a tool.'
She is a fictional teen who wants to preserve her virginity or at least wait until she
gets married or is in a committed relationship. She represents someone who lives in
a society that is `more permissive than in previous decades [but] continued to value
virginity and predicate sexual activity on love and relationships' (Carpenter, 2002:
346). However, Brad boasts to another male in the film that he has had sex many
times with Lisa, but when she ends their relationship he is unable to get a date with
anyone else, suggesting he may have been lying about having sex in order to protect
himself from the stigma of being a virgin.
The dual-focus theme of the gift/stigma notion takes on a more complex
approach as the conflicting messages from research into female teen sexuality,
outlined above, are represented by the character of Stacy in Fast Times. A brief
introduction here will lead to a more detailed examination of this issue later in the
chapter. In syntactic terms, at the beginning and throughout the film, she viewed her
virginity as a stigma and proceeded to have sex at the first opportunity. She was left
abandoned and suffered the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy and subsequent
abortion. However, towards the end of the film, a transformation occurs and she

treats her relationship and attitude to sex with the character of Mark as a gift,
realising the importance of love and romance.
Several of the sex comedies foreground female sexuality, which departs from
the more dominant portrayal of male desire in the sex comedies. It was not just the
males actively seeking sex in the teen genre; female sexual desire was positioned at
the heart of the story, especially in Little Darlings, Private School, Fast Times and
Porky's, all of which show teenage girls discussing and engaging in sex. They become
active as opposed to passive characters and challenge what Elizabeth Traube (1992:
24) claims about the gender bias in Hollywood films in the 1980s: `The Reagan era
organized desire along traditional asymmetric lines, encouraging men to pursue an
inflated version of the American Dream from which woman continued to be
In Little Darlings, the sexual initiation theme was predominantly viewed
through the point of view of two teenage girls, both underage at 15, who set out to
lose their virginity while away at summer camp. Like Fast Times, which features
underage sex, it received an R rating, meaning under-17s in America were not
allowed to see the films. This ambiguous position meant that the natural audience for
these films at the time could not see them legally unless accompanied by an adult.
Nevertheless, the film explored young female teen group sexuality, developing a new
semantic/syntactic strand in the sex comedy, as the girls are portrayed as being
much more sexually aware than those portrayed in films of an earlier era, like the
`beach movies'. While generic rituals and iconography provide the framework for
these concepts to `flow', as Kitses puts it: The girls take part in food fights and much
of the film takes place in a familiar teen location, the summer camp. But what
emerges is a depiction of girls constantly discussing and obsessing about sex, making
it the key theme of the narrative. Thomas Hine (1999: 272), in his book about the
history of the American teenager, discusses the changing attitudes towards youth in
the latter part of the 20th century, which relates to the themes portrayed in Little
Darlings and other teen sex comedies:
Young people increasingly socialized in groups, and they saw sex not so much as a
prelude to marriage but as a form of personal exploration and intimate
communication...virginity was no longer prized, and...young people...seemed to be
talking about sex constantly.

For example, in Little Darlings, during the coach trip to summer camp, one of the
girls admits to watching Last Tango in Paris ten times. Similarly, at the beginning of
Fast Times, the teen waitress informs her friends about admiring an older customer's
`cute little butt'. Males become sexual objects of desire in Little Darlings, which is
evident from a scene in the first act, establishing the theme of female sexual desire.
The girls' voyeuristic pleasure is conveyed when they are transfixed by the male body
and partial nudity on display as a group of boys from a neighbouring camp swim in a
lake, whom they spy on through binoculars. Similarly, in Private School, after
discovering the boys have been spying on them in their dormitories, the female teens
are seen to enjoy being objects of male sexual gratification. In the shower/peephole
scene in Porky's, instead of running away in disgust and embarrassment, the girls
revel in being watched. Brooks-Gunn and Furstenberg (1989) discuss the shifting
sexual identities within the oppositional forces of male and female sexual desire
which were reflected in the 1980s sex comedy. Although, historically, young men
were always more likely to lose their virginity as teens in the 1970s and 80s, `the gap
between male and female teenagers narrowed as more and more girls became
sexually active' (1989: 251).
As already alluded to, peer pressure and adolescence are inextricably linked
and this issue provides a distinctive semantic link for all the different 1980s teen
films. In doing so, this research starts to examine how, despite its subgeneric
differences, the 1980s teen genre becomes more of a unified whole. Brooks-Gunn
and Furstenberg (1989) explain that teenage peer pressure is more common in
matters concerning sexuality than any other aspect of young peoples' behaviour. The
theme also relates to the screen image of the teen stereotype and the binary
oppositional forces with which this is associated. Youth tensions surrounding peer
pressure are evident early on in Little Darlings when the ring leader and perceived
most popular girl, the unpleasant Cinder (Krista Errickson), initiates a bet involving
the rich Ferris (Tatum O' Neal) and the poor Angel: who will lose their virginity first
during the summer camp vacation? Female sexual initiation on this occasion is
treated as a stigma. Cinder bullies the two girls during the course of the film and
encourages others to pressure them. This creates a tension between Angel and Ferris
and both are seen to be at odds with each other for most of the film. Cinder claims to
be sexually experienced and turns the loss of virginity contest into proof of the two

girls' heterosexuality; in turn, she expresses her homophobia, scornfully referring to
them as, `two little're probably lezzies'. In adolescent terms, Cinder
could be perceived as a depiction of someone who demonstrates `relational
aggression, by attacking their personal and social relationships, for example, through
ridicule, exclusion, and malicious gossip' (McMahan, 2002: 193). This behaviour,
from both males and females, is a recurring generic characteristic in the 1980s teen
genre in relation to peer pressure and its varying degrees of unpleasantness, from the
insidious girls in Heathers to the less vindictive (but still controlling) group in Valley
Girl. Males include the jock antagonists in Valley Girl, Pretty in Pink and Some Kind
of Wonderful. All these so-called `popular' teen characters display contradictory and
binary traits that support the structuralist and dual-focus agenda of this thesis:
They are seen as being nice to others at the same time that they are high in
relational aggression. Far from being disliked and rejected by others, they are well
liked by many and seen as popular. (Cillessen & Rose, 2005; Keisner & Pastore
2005; Prinstein & Cillessen, 2003), quoted in McMahan (2002: 193).
Little Darlings, the resulting action from the peer pressure sees Angel
pursue a teen of her own age who is attending a nearby camp, the suitably named
Randy, played by Matt Dillon. Ferris, meanwhile, attempts to lose her virginity to one
of the camp's instructors, an older man, Gary (Armand Assante). Both girls are
assertive and forceful in attempting to have sex. The traditional gender roles are
reversed, and they behave more like the boys in Porky's at this stage of their sexual
initiation. Males become the objects of female sexual desire, and both girls treat sex
as a stigma. As Dresner notes (2010: 179), Angel and Ferris in Little Darlings, `act in
some measure as sexual initiators/aggressors toward the male objects of their desires
[displaying] a mixture of masculine and feminine approaches.' However, as stated
above, sexual activity in some of the films ultimately has adverse consequences. After
Angel loses her virginity to Randy in a barn, an awkward and acute atmosphere
pervades; they are both viewed at opposite sides of the room, signifying at this stage
both a literal and emotional distance. She confesses to him that, `it was not what she
thought it would be...It was so personal...different...I feel so lonesome'. He is initially
defensive and appears insecure, but when she tells him it was her first time and asks
if he thinks it is `weird that she was a virgin', he moves close to her, they embrace and

he becomes more sensitive, displaying more of a gift attitude to sex. David Considine
notes (1985: 269) in relation to the sex comedy, it was `a rare post-coital scene, which
revealed a moment of rare adolescent uncertainty and ambiguity.' When she returns
to her classmates at the camp, Angel denies anything happened and later breaks off
her relationship with Randy, suggesting her first-time sexual experience left her
emotionally troubled. Arguably, the scene is a representation of what Erikson (1968:
137) discusses in relation to sex and youth:
Much of sex is of the self-seeking, identity-hungry kind; each partner is really trying
only to reach [herself]/himself. Or it remains a kind of genital combat in which
each tries to defeat the other.
Ferris' irresponsible pursuit of the older man ends up with him unsurprisingly
rejecting her, but she lies to the girls and tells them they did have sex. The white
nightgown Ferris wears during their encounter reinforces her virginal status, and her
experience reads more like a contemporary fantasy of a teenage girl's attraction to an
older man, which is doomed to failure. Angel's sexual encounter, conversely, plays
out in a more realistic way and is depicted as awkward and lacking any romance.
Both of their experiences embrace the Lévi-Strauss notion of exposing the inherent
contradictions in a story through their oppositions in order to make sense of a
culture; in this case, the myths surrounding adolescent sexual initiation.
Furthermore, Ferris and Angel are from opposite ends of the economic divide:
the former is from a wealthy background and the latter is less well-off, but these
opposing forces are not foregrounded in the film, unlike, for example, in the teen
cinema of John Hughes. In a syntactic context, they are defined throughout the film
by their sexual behaviour and dislike by the popular girl, Cinder. In the final act,
Ferris and Angel bond and become close friends, while Cinder becomes the outcast of
the group, revealing the contradictions associated with the stereotypical image of the
popular girl being a type of role model and trendsetter
­ an issue brought into
sharper focus in films like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Heathers. Also,
despite, or because of, their different social backgrounds, Angel and Ferris have
difficult relationships with their parents: Angel's mum and dad are going through a
divorce during the course of the film, while Ferris lives alone with her mother. As
well as highlighting tensions between the teen-adult community, this also suggests

an insight into teen sexuality in relation to what Jessor & Jessor (1977) cited in
Brooks-Gunn & Furstenberg (1989) and McMahan (2009) points out: that teenagers
from dysfunctional family backgrounds are more likely to enter into sexual acts
earlier than those who have a better and more stable relationship with parents who
are still together.
Teenage Sex Goes Mainstream
Fast Times at Ridgemont High came out a year after Little Darlings and,
along with Porky's, was a box-office success, giving the teen sex comedy greater
exposure. It follows the adventures of a group of high school teenagers in southern
California who hang out in the shopping mall, party and engage in a variety of sexual
activities. Oliver Jones (2003: 70) asserts that films like Fast Times and Porky's did
not have to rely on `hard-core thrills' to become popular:
For the first time in mainstream American cinema, the brief sight of a young topless
girl was enough to arouse the male teen cinemagoer. Without a doubt, no genre has
ever done so little to meet such low expectations.
However, Fast Times is more than just young people seeking cheap thrills and
the film raises some intriguing issues concerning gender and the teenage sexual
experience. Following on from Little Darlings, what is immediately evident in terms
of binary opposites is the equality of female and male sexual desire. Robin Wood
(2002: 196-197) explains that in the film, `adolescent sexuality is constantly
enlightened and intelligent [it] restores a certain credibility to the concept of
entertainment [and] allows its young women both desire and disturbance.' Jon Lewis
(1992: 72) writes that the `sexual rite of passage into womanhood is staged with
seriousness, sensitivity and honesty, [and is] starkly realistic when it comes to teen
sex.' Indeed, the film's bold approach to these issues broke new grounds in American
cinema in terms of the portrayal of abortion, a subject in wider society that many
conservatives and right-wing religious groups vehemently opposed. The `credibility'
that Wood (2002) refers to owes much to the writer Cameron Crowe's investigation
of the book on which his screenplay was based before embarking on filming. He went
undercover to pose as a teenager (he was 25 at the time) and enrolled at a Californian

high school for several months. This helped in the depiction of a more authentic and
realistic high school environment.
The film's director, Amy Heckerling, made the foregrounding of female
sexual desire more evident by readdressing the gender imbalance through the mise-
en-scène. The opening of Fast Times expresses this realignment of opposing
male/female sexual desire by capturing the frenetic and sexually charged atmosphere
of the shopping mall, populated by hormonal teenagers. Here, female desire is
conveyed visually in the opening passages and creates a kind of gender role-reversal.
The editing and mise-en-scène are deployed for dramatic effect to `rectify the cycle's
sexist imbalance' (Wood, 2003a: 196). An establishing, medium-long shot frames the
mall while fast-paced editing expresses the male and female gaze equally as the
teens display their predatory sexual characteristics
­ `a travelling shot along a row of
asses in tight jeans bent over pinball machines looks like a typical sexist cliché until
one realises that the asses are not identifiable as female' (ibid). However, it could be
argued that Little Darlings, which Wood may not have seen, is just as progressive in
terms of gender realignment favouring female desire.
In the next scene, the action moves to the high school canteen, where Stacy
and her best friend, Linda (Phoebe Cates), are introduced and an opposition in terms
of their characters is established. Linda, like Claire in The Breakfast Club and Cinder
in Little Darlings, is the popular girl who at first sight appears confident and
experienced in sexual matters, acting as a kind of mentor to Stacy who, at this stage,
is still a virgin, sexually innocent and naïve. Lesley Speed (2002: 1) refers to the
events in this scene as of `low comedy', or vulgar comedy. This is usually carried out
by males in teen films and is relatively specific to the teen genre. It serves to create
equality in terms of gender and expand `teen film and low comedy beyond their
traditional masculine preoccupations' (ibid.). It is a comedic act that involves
references to the lower parts of the body and `a tendency to construct comic scenarios
around themes such as masturbation, oral sex and sexual fantasy' (ibid.). The use of
this humour is demonstrated by Linda simulating fellatio with a carrot for the benefit
of the inexperienced Stacy, in full view of a group of male teens who are sat on the
table opposite. The scene could be seen as a fictional portrayal of the more
permissive behaviour that young people were demonstrating during the 1970s and
1980s, on account of the more liberal attitudes to sexuality in the west (Carpenter:
2002). Indeed, no teenager
­ male or female ­ would have been seen acting in this

provocative way in teen films of an earlier generation. William Paul (1994a: 101),
however, writes that this scene is problematic insomuch that it adds a further layer of
complexity by challenging this notion of female equality. He claims that it is the male
perspective that ends up as the dominant desire, suggesting that female sexual desire
is `contained [and] the capper to the scene is that a group of guys, who have been
listening to them the entire time, burst out laughing.' These acts of low humour are
examined within a more political context towards the end of the chapter.
In a later scene, another use of vulgar comedy is used to privilege the female
perspective as opposed to the traditional male position. Stacy's brother, Brad, is
masturbating while watching and fantasising over Linda, who is by the swimming
pool. Initially, this is seen from Brad's point of view as he dreams of the naked Linda
approaching him and offering sex
­ slow motion and evocative music reinforce the
dream's eroticism. But where a film like Porky's would `devote minimal screen time
to female perspectives, Fast Times here shifts the narrative's focus away from male
fantasy to provide a female perspective of Brad's surreptitious behaviour' (Speed,
2002: 7). After Brad's fantasy has ended, the camera then becomes more objective as
it follows Linda into the house. Therefore, while the viewer is initially caught up in
Brad's fantasy, which in a male-oriented teen comedy may have ended at this stage,
the female director prolongs the scene and seeks to challenge the male perspective by
focusing on the banality of Linda's actions, as she enters the house and catches an
embarrassed Brad in the act. As Vanderhoff (2005: 45) explains: `There is a balanced
perspective between male and female, fantasy and reality.' Like the above scene in
the canteen, female sexuality is not seen as marginalised and passive; the teen girls,
as in Little Darlings, become active narrative agents.
This portrayal of women as equals of their male counterparts is extended by
the various conversations between Linda and Stacy that pepper the narrative. They
are candid, revelatory accounts full of sexual references, breaking new ground in the
portrayal of the female teen in American mainstream cinema. Peter Lev comments
on how `remarkable is the film's matter-of-fact treatment of teenage sexuality' (2000:
104). Instead of just talking about it like the teens do in the John Hughes films, youth
in Fast Times and the other sex comedies from 1980 to 1985 actively engage.
Furthermore, the theme of unwanted teenage pregnancy and abortion was a first in
American teen cinema. In fact, abortion in America had only been made legal a

decade earlier in 1973 and to see it as a narrative device in a teen film with an
underage character may have been one the reasons the film received an X certificate.
The experiences of youth in Fast Times and the other sex comedies comment
on a range of issues relevant to the sexual and emotional development of a teenager,
and the problems this brings in shaping a young person's identity. Reinforcing this is
McMahan (2009: 412): `Adolescent sexuality is generally treated as a source of
problems, rather than as an integral part of human development.' Teen pregnancy,
abortion and STDs are issues with which young people have to cope in these films,
aligned to adult fears of teen behaviour in the morally judgmental era of Reagan's
This adolescent angst is portrayed in Fast Times by Stacey's naivety and
innocence, which is built on the notion that her peers, like the popular Linda, are
supposedly more experienced when it comes to sexual matters. Linda appears
confident, brash and is constantly telling Stacy about her older, mature fiancé. She
also pressurizes her into losing her virginity. Their relationship could be viewed in
the context of what McMahan (2009: 182-183) refers to in terms of adolescence and
`reference groups'. Linda symbolises Stacey's reference group serving as a model on
`how to act, what to value, what attitudes to hold.' Stacey looks up to Linda as a status
symbol of social power; teenagers are `more likely to observe and imitate those who
are admired or successful...and those that control sources that are important ... such
as praise or criticism' (ibid.). However, the mythic contradictions within the popular
girl image of Linda (like Cinder in Little Darlings) are exposed. In the final act of the
film, it is revealed that Linda may not be telling the truth. As Peter Lev claims, `by the
end of the film it is clear that the bond of sexual expert-sexual novice is based on a
lie. Stacey understands that Linda's fiancé is imaginary' (2000: 105). This is
conveyed when Linda is reading her a letter she has written to him, in which she
berates his non-attendance at her graduation. The camera frames Stacey's visual
expression, revealing a wry smile that implies her boyfriend is imaginary, thereby
exposing her lies, insecurity and inexperience with men and, in turn, making her
more of a three-dimensional character, forcing the spectator to re-evaluate her
stereotypical popular girl image. Colin MacCabe (1995: 85) explains how a scene like
this is conveyed through the mise-en-scène:

The camera shows us what happens ­ it tells us the truth against which we can
measure the discourse...the reality of the image ensures us that this is the way it
really is...Narration in mainstream cinema, at times, relies on a conflict between
spoken discourses which may be mistaken and a visual discourse which guarantees
Therefore, in structuralist terms, if what Lev claims is true, the innocence/experience
opposite, which has been associated with the characters up to this point, is exposed
as a contradiction. It is Stacey who, despite her negative experiences during the
course of the film, is the one who turns out more knowledgeable than Linda, who
does not engage in any sexual activity, apart from in a fantasy context in the
aforementioned Brad's dream.
Although the film is pluralistic in its characterisation, Stacey's sexual exploits
can be seen as one of the main syntactic threads of the narrative as Shary (2002:
128) notes: `The film takes on high school life in broad terms, and thus sex is merely
one aspect of the narrative's matrix [but] the sexual development of a
dominant plotline.'
So what are the ramifications of the sexual issues outlined in the above
narrative trajectory of Stacy's semantic/syntactic axis, and how do they affect and
develop the other characters involved? Returning to the issue referred to earlier in
this chapter
­ concerning sex as a gift or stigma (Carpenter, 2002) in relation to the
15-year-old Stacy's sexual encounters
­ will offer a detailed examination of how these
opposites function and how the ambiguities and contradictions arising from this are
revealed. `Sex as stigma' can be associated with the two men Stacey has a brief sexual
relationship with: the first she meets at her workplace, Ron Johnston (D.W. Brown),
the local heartthrob who describes himself rather ostentatiously as an `audio
Schatz's (1981) classic storytelling outline, referred to earlier, will elaborate on what Shary says about
Stacy's predicament. It traces through the three-act structure, which Will Wright (1975) regards as an
important feature of structuralist film theory, and also comments on Altman's semantic/syntactic
approach to genre. The `establishment' or introduction stage sees her part of her `generic community',
i.e. the mall, the high school, her peer group. She expresses her curiosity about virginity, although this
is an unpleasant experience and a `dramatic conflict' ensues. In the `animation'/`intensification' or
conflict stage, she becomes more sexually confident and has sex with Mike. She falls pregnant and has
an abortion as the `conflict reaches crisis proportions'. In the resolution stage, the `threat' has been
temporarily removed as the abortion was successful and appeared to leave no emotional or physical
scars; any transgression on this would have challenged the generic boundaries of the teen sex comedy.
Her and Mark become a couple and are portrayed as happy and content as a conventional ending is
played out.

consultant'. At 26, he is considerably older than Stacy, who lies about her age and
tells him she is 19. The second is Mike Damone (Robert Romanus), the college slime
ball, to whom she falls pregnant and soon after has an abortion. The negative
experience of adolescent sex is taken a stage further than in Little Darlings. The
unromantic and insensitive manner in which the two scenes are played out in Fast
Times is reinforced by the squalid mise-en-scène of Stacy's first encounter when she
loses her virginity to Ron. It happens in a place known as `The Point', a popular
location for the teens in the film to have sex away from the regulated and
authoritative glare of adults. It is an isolated, shed-like structure decorated with
offensive slogans such as `Surf-Nazis', which is seen from Stacy's point of view during
her sexual engagement with Ron, making the whole experience for her and the
viewer alike somewhat degrading. As William Paul (1994a: 192-196) comments, the
scene has a `hallucinatory, almost nightmarish quality [and] the sense of devastation
in Stacy's sexual initiation is a daring dramatic strategy in a film that has a jokey
surface.' It is an example of how the treatment of teenage sex differs from the
humorous Porky's, as when Pee-Wee loses his virginity at the end of the film, it is a
cause for celebration. The coming-of-age process and journey into adulthood for
Stacey is far from a celebratory experience.
Tolman's (2002: 2) discussion about teenage girls and virginity loss resonates
with Stacy's sexual encounter in Fast Times. A common response of young girls to
their first sexual experience is that `it just happened' and young teens' inexperience
at such a young age suggests that Stacey's experience, like Ferris and Angel in Little
Darlings, is an example of someone who has not `yet constructed a sexual self.'
Anderson, et al (1989: 99) echoes the negative aspects of teen female sexual
Female youth are more ambivalent about first intercourse than male youth because
the transition could potentially cause more problems for females [who] experience
exploitation and ambivalent guilt feelings...but also they experience less
physiological and psychological sexual satisfaction by males.
These negative feelings are evident in Fast Times, the male in this scene showing no
sensitivity to the pain that an underage girl is feeling. The camera views Stacy's
distressed face in close-up, made all the more uncomfortable by the dark

cinematography that engulfs the space to emphasise her anguish. She tells Linda that
`it hurt so bad'. Claudia Kunkes (1980), quoted in Considine (1985: 268), endorses
the above views on the negative consequences that Stacy, Angel and Ferris go
through in the films: `Sex before sixteen or seventeen is counterproductive
emotionally...Younger kids haven't developed the ego functions which are crucial in
making their own choices about sex.'
However, Stacy appears more confident when she takes the lead the next time
and has sex with Mike in a pool cabin at her house (her parents are away), a setting,
like The Point, which connotes a kind of `illicit' sexual encounter. The sex is brief and
lacks any passion, sensitivity or tenderness. Mike leaves straight away, probably out
of embarrassment, adding an awkward yet realistic tone to the scene, much like
Randy in Little Darlings. Leary and Dobbins' (1983: 139) research highlights Mike's
inadequate sexual performance and premature ejaculation. It is a symptom of
`heterosexual-social anxiety...defined as anxiety arising from real, anticipated, or
imagined interactions with others of the opposite sex.' Both experiences are
ephemeral and, as David Denby points out, reinforcing the sex-as-stigma metaphor:
`Stacy and her friends are shucking off their clothes before they've explored
friendship or the pleasures of courtship or romance' (1982: 50).
When Stacy falls pregnant with Mike's child and decides to have an abortion,
the film takes on a more serious tone, much like it does with Karen's story in The
Last American Virgin, which is focused on shortly. However, Fast Times director
Amy Heckerling never moralises and the film is `strikingly non-judgmental in its
treatment of promiscuity and experimentation' (Wood, 2003a: 197). The film does
not revert to melodrama or histrionics, which may have been the case had Stacy's
parents been part of the equation or if it were more of an adult-themed film. Her
brother Brad's sympathetic support for her during the abortion is `conspicuously
absent from the cycle [of teen films, which represent] the positive potential of certain
family ties, in Brad's gentle, understanding and non-paternalist acceptance of his
sister' (ibid.). Furthermore, the abortion is portrayed as `pro-choice [and] certainly
not presented as a pleasant experience, but neither is it treated as in the least
shocking' (ibid.). Even Mike is somewhat redeemed when he pays half of the medical
fees towards the termination.
Stacy's relationship with the nerdy Mark (Brian Backer) is different and
treated like a gift as opposed to a stigma. Their surroundings reflect this, her

bedroom offering a more feminine and habitual mise-en-scène compared to the two
previous sites. Mark is seen as sensitive and indulges her in courtship and romance,
taking her for dinner and acting like a gentleman. They are both viewed as opposites
in terms of sexual awareness at this stage, which privileges female desire: Stacey,
having already lost her virginity, is portrayed as confident and seduces the virgin
Mark, who immediately feels uncomfortable, again displaying symptoms of
`heterosexual-social anxiety' (Leary and Dobbins, 1983). At one level his character
reinforces the nerd stereotype and, like Brian in The Breakfast Club, he is
desexualised and remains a virgin. But as the story develops, there is enough change
in him to be more of an inclusive character. His behaviour is in opposition to the
other males who are motivated by `getting laid' or at least fantasising about it
­ for
example, Brad and the stoner character, Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn), who, like Linda,
may claim to have had sex but is never seen in any sexual act. Mark is castigated
about his lack of sexual prowess by the duplicitous Mike. However, the irony here is
that the supposedly more experienced Mike turns out to be anything but the perfect
lover, thus exposing the myth of male virility and sexual potency, another
contradiction revealed through the myth of the fictional teenage experience. Despite
his image, it is Mark who finds romance with Stacy and although we are informed
just before the end credits, in a satirical tone, that they are `having a passionate love
affair but still haven't gone all the way', Mark remains a virgin. As Shary (2005: 228)
notes, he is `the one character who, by the film's end, does not have sex and seems
better off without it...and his virginal status is more reassuring than frustrating.' A
similar sensitive approach to sex and virginity is seen from the point of view of the
Tom Cruise character, Woody, in Losin' It, who has a tender moment with a
prostitute and decides he is not ready to have sex, thus preserving his virginity.
In The Last American Virgin, the character of Gary (Lawrence Monsoon) is
another male who treats virginity as a gift and his predicament is brought into sharp
focus. Shary points out that he `is one of the most sympathetic and sensitive types in
any teen quest film' (2002: 229). He is not a nerd like Brian in The Breakfast Club
and is portrayed as more thoughtful than his peers. He is, however, still depicted as a
hormonally-charged teenager and the film, up until the final act, is concerned with
teen lust. Gary and his two friends
­ the muscle-bound stud Rick (Steve Antin) and
the jovial and rotund David (Joe Rubbo)
­ act out various `low humour' scenes in
their attempts at gaining sexual fulfilment. Gary does not lose his virginity. He falls

for Karen, but she instead falls for Rick, who deflowers her and gets her pregnant.
The heartless Rick abandons Karen, at which point the tone of the film becomes
much more serious. Gary vows to arrange for her abortion and look after her while
she recovers. He goes on to declare his love, thinking they will become a couple. He
then discovers, in what is a shocking ending for a teen sex comedy, that she is back
with the lecherous Rick who displays, like other alpha males in the teen genre,
`relational aggression'
­ an extreme form in this case. When seeing them in each
other's arms at a party, Gary's horrified face is amplified by being framed in extreme
close-up. He drives away, still a virgin, crying as a bleak and depressing final twist
overshadows the high-spirited and humorous youthful antics of much of the film.
This ending departs from the classic resolution of genre cinema where a `well-
ordered community' is re-established (Schatz, 1981). A darker outcome is expressed
as the film articulates how the painful experience of love and relationships in youth
can be a destructive and heart-rending experience. Shary (2002: 229) comments on
the film's ending, which also echoes to a lesser extent the plight of the girls in Little
Darlings and Stacy in Fast Times, as the binaries of love and sex, gift and stigma,
create tensions and personal heartache. He says,
waiting for the "right" person to lose one's virginity to, is a damaging ambition. Like
so many youth/sex films, the division between love and sex is thus enforced ­ the two
rarely occur in the same relationship. The Last American Virgin becomes a warning
to youth against the pursuit of sex, which leads to disease, pregnancy, and the loss of
friends, and the pursuit of love, which is unpredictable and unrewarding
Downey, et al (1999: 149) expands on Shary's insights into this aspect of
adolescent turmoil and proposes a more psychological definition. A young person
who goes through similar experiences to Gary's character may suffer from being
`rejection sensitive', which could `avoid or limit future involvement or investment in
romantic relationships.' If the adolescent does form a relationship after being
rejected, `they may become hyper-vigilant for signs of rejection, such as the partner's
being attentive or being friendly to a potential rival.' Furthermore, Rosenblum &
Lewis (2003: 275-278) discuss how the increased hormonal levels and change that
young people experience combine with pain and frustrations of romantic turmoil:
`Adolescents report emotional distress related to feeling pressure to "be in love"...

concerns over choosing the right romantic partner, and suffering the loss of a break
up.' This is what happens to Gary, who is left devastated, proving that true love in the
sex comedies, and the teenage years, is difficult to attain.
The downbeat and ambiguous end to The Last American Virgin differs greatly
from other teen films, where a more traditional happy resolution is achieved. For
example, Neil Campbell (2004) writes about the endings of The Breakfast Club and
Ferris Bueller's Day Off being harmonious when at times they threatened to
overturn the social order. Gary's plight in The Last American Virgin, which was
seemingly heading for a stable resolution in the form of a steady romantic union with
Karen, is shattered as youth experience depicted in the film becomes chaotic,
disordered and unstable, thus challenging the generic boundaries of the sex comedy.
Such examples in the teen sex comedy of the males remaining virgins create a
tension between the gift/stigma metaphor and correspond with research at the time,
which revealed that more young men felt comfortable and less pressured into losing
their virginity, treating sex more as a gift and `expressing pride and happiness about
being virgins' Sprecher & Reagan (1996) cited in Carpenter (2002: 347).
Furthermore, their reluctance could represent a crucial statement in relation to their
status as teenagers in the modern world, and an unwillingness to make the transition
from adolescence to manhood, much like the young protagonist Holden Caulfield in
J.D. Salinger's tale of teenage angst, The Catcher in the Rye. Campbell & Keane
(1997: 226) point out: `Holden [e.g. Mark in Fast Times] resists overt sexuality for it
represents a move into adulthood and phoniness, responsibilities and choices,
preferring instead the world to stand still, in an imaginary time of innocence.' These
male teens, along with Brian in The Breakfast Club, represent a group in the 1980s
teen genre whose virginity is depicted in positive terms. Moreover, the oppositions
between male and female teens in the above sex comedies in terms of sex, gift and
stigma is an example of how the subgenre's semantic/syntactic features are
characterised by repetition and difference, and points to how the definition of the
genre, as written in this thesis, is starting to become more unified as a whole.
These infrequent examples of more sensitive males in the sex comedy, with a
less masculinised image and who treat sex as a gift, contrast with Porky's, where the
male characters' bravado and posturing are indicative of the sex-as-stigma attitude.
Bernstein (1997: 8) describes the males in Porky's as `a group of young male studs...
blustering but inexperienced and foul mouthed
­ in feverish pursuit of sex.' The film

offers an intriguing insight into oppositional structures regarding the portrayal of
gender and male/female desire. Where the film is similar to Fast Times is in its use
of teen-generic characteristics like low humour
­ the aforementioned carrot scene is
more than matched by the infamous shower/peephole episode in Porky's, where the
male teens are seen spying on naked girls as they have their showers. However, a
closer reading of these oppositional structures reveals some contradictory results. In
terms of the gender balance, Wood (2003a: 196) and others claim it is seen through
an active male point of view, with the females being passive agents in the narrative:
Where the cycle as a whole is obsessed with male sexual desire and anxieties (the girls
in Porky's have no problems, and exist purely in relation to the boys, whose `needs'
they either satisfy or frustrate).
Lesley Speed (1995: 25) echoes this point, claiming that females are marginalised
and only viewed in relation to teenage boys' desire and have little narrative function.
They serve as stereotypical versions of male fantasies, for example, in the guise of the
`slut', the attractive older sports teacher, the `exotic dancer' called Cherry Forever,
and the inverse feminine image of the `monstrous Miss Balbricker '. Sex in Porky's is
played for laughs, devoid of emotion or romance, and from beginning to end, as
Vanderoff points out, it is `a male fantasy film...completely driven by male characters'
(2005: 150). In a similar vein, the fantasy of the older woman as sex teacher to
teenage boys is illustrated in two other sex comedies of the period: Private Lessons
(1981) and My Tutor (1983). It evokes an idealised sexual world for young men
offering no-strings-attached sex without the emotional complications
, that is, sex as
stigma. It draws on Lévi-Strauss' notion of stories as myths and Jon Lewis (1992: 72)
supports this when he comments that Porky's `mythologizes' young boys' sexual
experiences and refers to it as `puerile'. Nevertheless, analysing the action through a
more psychological lens, the origins of the boys' hormonal charges in Porky's and
other sex comedies can be viewed in terms of what Erikson (1968: 128) refers to as a
key phase in the early stages of sexual identity during adolescence:
The male at age fourteen begins to consolidate a sense of identity around the
biological nucleus of his maturing sexuality ... At the same time he is concerned with
questions of what kind of man he might become.

William Paul (1994a: 114) argues that the film has a more complex set of
values in terms of gender and sexual representation. He offers an opposing view and
claims that the women in Porky's are not objectified, as Robin Wood and others
suggest, as the film `strives for something like sexual equality between men and
women...even to the point of objectifying the guys as well as the gals.' He comments
on the amount of male nudity seen on screen and the film's obsession with penises,
making it different from other teen sex comedies, which focus on certain parts of the
female anatomy. Considine (1985: 268) supports this by claiming in films and
society: `Adolescent females were becoming more liberated and more libidinal', just
like in Fast Times and Little Darlings. For example, in the shower/peephole scene,
when the girls discover they are being watched they join in with the fun and become
active, `posturing for their voyeurs' entertainment' (Bernstein, 1997: 11). In another
teen comedy they may have felt humiliated, but in Porky's male and female desire is
equal: `the girls enjoy being sex objects...male and female alike is a sex object and
quite happy to be so, [and the girls are] presented as sexual adventurous and willing'
(Paul, 1994a: 117-119).
Lesley Speed (2010: 820) offers a different viewpoint by arguing that instead
of promoting male sexual bravado it does the opposite, `it emphasises the failure of
the male sexual quest.' This expands on what has already been written above about
the negative repercussions of sexual activity, but without the serious overtones.
Nevertheless, what happens in Porky's is no less significant to the themes and
argument of this thesis. The boy's journey into manhood and pursuit of sex is beset
by anxiety and the female is often seen as a threatening presence. For instance, when
they travel across county to a salon-cum-strip club (the titular Porky's), owned by a
man called Porky, hence the film's title, their pursuit of sex is met with hostility. This
scene will be developed in the final chapter on space in relation to class conflicts and
the dangers of border crossings.
The boys' quest towards sexual fulfilment and masculine identity can again be
viewed through the `storm and stress' aspect of risk-taking, albeit with comic effects.
However, Porky's does raise some issues with regards to gender roles and their
problematic nature, as already alluded to by William Paul (1994a). On the one hand,
the females in the brothel scene are passive, sexualised and objects of the male gaze.
On the other, the film provides an inverse feminine image of the female sports

teacher, the `monstrous Ms Balbricker', a character who instils fear in the boys.
Theissen (ibid: 72-73) describes her as, `the archetypal phallic woman, mannish in
appearance...strict...unforgiving...obsessively anti-male...the archetypal castrating
woman.' She enters the room in the shower/peephole scene, grabs the penis that has
been inserted through the hole in the wall, and makes it her mission throughout the
film to find the teen responsible. However, she is ridiculed by staff members and
students alike, and at the end of the film is arrested by the police, `a drooling,
blithering psychotic, a joke rather than a true threat' (ibid: 72).
The myth of male sexual dominance and potency is examined in several
scenes in Porky's. In the film's first scene, which has been already mentioned in
terms of how it unites the genre, the character of Pee Wee is in bed and is beginning
to wake up. In close up, the camera slowly moves down his body, creating a sense of
anticipation to reveal he has an erection. His mother enters and he has to turn over
quickly to avoid embarrassment. When she leaves the room, Pee Wee then proceeds
to measure his sexual organ, in what appears to be a daily occurrence, and is
convinced it is getting smaller. In another scene, two of the teen males play a
practical joke on several of their friends, including Pee Wee and a character named
`Meat' (another penis reference), by arranging for them to have sex with a prostitute
­ the aforementioned and ironically named Cherry Forever (Susan Clark) ­ in a log
cabin. It is she who acts as the dominant sexual presence by checking and
commenting on the boys' manhood as they are lined up and inspected; she becomes
the `sexual aggressive female' (Paul, 1994a: 115). Cherry then leaves the scene and
the boys await their turn, naked on the porch. Framed in tight close-up, this
amplifies their fear and excitement at the sexual pleasure they think they are about to
experience. In the other room, two pranksters pretend to have sex with Cherry by
making sexually suggestive noises and bouncing up and down on a bed. These two
scenes are juxtaposed using parallel editing, which highlights the ensuing failure of
the male sexual conquest: `By crosscutting back and undermines the
increasingly excited expectations of the classmates with the elaborate hilarity of the
jokesters' (ibid: 115), The prank ends when a huge, masked knife-wielding man
suddenly enters the scene, pretending to be Cherry's husband and, apparently in a
murderous rage, chases the naked teens out of the cabin into the woods. The subtext
of this scene, which turns from comedy to horror and back to comedy as the two
pranksters and the maniac reveal themselves, is that sexual arousal and the lust for

casual sex will be punished in a sadistic (but comical) way. The scene ends with the
ultimate humiliation as Pee Wee, still unaware of the prank, carries on running and
is picked up by two cops on the highway, who then go on to ridicule him. Similarly,
when the boys in The Last American Virgin catch an STD after having sex with a
prostitute, they are seen in a shop, awkward and too embarrassed to ask the assistant
for a suitable cure for their condition. They are also chased out of an older women's
apartment by her angry boyfriend. Therefore, contrary to what Robin Wood and
others say about Porky's being focused on `male gratification', Paul claims that
`males are not only punished and humiliated in the film by the displacement of
sexual desire into terror, [it also] reverses male and female roles to make the woman
the predator and the men the sex objects' (ibid: 116).
A similar scene of unfilled sexual male desire is depicted in the boy's locker
room between a young male coach, Roy (Boyd Gaines), and Miss Honeywell, the
coach of the cheerleaders, nicknamed `Lassie', played by Kim Cattrall (prefiguring
her Sex and the City character). When they start making love he discovers the
meaning of her nickname as she begins to howl like a dog, a sound that reverberates
through the gym for all to hear, making the male coach's sexual experience anxious
and frustrating, inducing a sense of fear on being discovered. It `undercuts the
pleasure of the sex [which becomes] a nightmare' (ibid: 117). Reinforcing this is
Lesley Speed (2010: 835), who says his experience `subordinates male sexuality to
public surveillance and female desire.'
These representations in the teen sex comedy highlight the contradictory
nature of male sexuality. The scenes could also be viewed as another case of what
Leary and Dobbins (1983) viewed as `heterosexual-social anxiety'. Also, the themes of
male sexual humiliation and punishment challenges the notion that Robin Wood
(2002: 193) proposes in his analysis of sex in teen movies in the context of the binary
opposites of `male as hunter, female as hunted'. Theissen (1999: 73) argues that the
labelling and stereotyping of the women in the film (Cherry Forever, Lassie, Miss
Balbricker) is born out of their `fears and fantasies...and are exaggerated...
masculine constructions.' The scenes become parodies of the hunter/hunted
relationship and further comments on the misrepresentation of male sexual
supremacy. Consequently, Porky's proposes two opposing representations of young
male sexual identity: on the one hand, it celebrates youthful sexual activity and
promotes the male sexual quest; on the other, sexual experience reduces the male

teen to a series of humiliations and, in doing so, exposes the myth of male sexual
dominance. Similarly, females can either be viewed as objects of the male voyeuristic
gaze. Randy Theissen describes the shower scene in Porky's as `an archetypal male
fantasy' (ibid:
69). Conversely, William Paul argues the opposite, that the film
empowers women and makes them more the predator than the prey.
What these films reflect is that, for a short period between the back-end of the
sexual liberation movement of the 1970s and the conservative ideology of the Reagan
era and the onset of AIDS in the mid-1980s, teenage protagonists in cinema, for the
first time on such a large scale, experienced sexual freedom like never before. This
corresponds with what Hines (1999: 271) says, that sex to young people was no
longer `a prelude to marriage but a form of personal exploration.' However, this new
freedom experienced by the characters had negative consequences in the form of
disease, abortion, humiliation and rejection. The union of Brian and Stacy at the end
of Fast Times is an example of teens acting responsibly. Carelessness and restraint
are opposing semantic aspects, which are consistent throughout the sex comedies,
serving as a warning to young people in their exploration of their sexual identity.
What also begins to emerge from the sex comedies in terms of viewing them as
dual-focus texts is the oppositional debates between youth and the parent/adult
world. In the 1980s, teenagers were spending less time with their parents and not
seeking their advice, but instead confided in their peers or siblings (Steinberg &
Kincheloe, 1998). This is reflected in the sex comedies, for example, Stacy confides
with her brother in Fast Times about her abortion; similarly, Gary looks after Karen
after her abortion in The Last American Virgin. In both films, their parents are never
seen and these incidents resonate with what Grace Palladino discusses regarding the
growing independence of youth during the latter part of the 2oth century and the
fragmentation of the traditional family unit, as `teenagers began to shape their own
space and chart their own futures without reference to their parents' plans' (1996:
xviii). This is echoed by Gray & Steinberg (1999: 239-240), who refer to it as a
process of `individuation' where a `young person develops a clearer sense of himself
and herself as psychologically separate from their parents.'
Continuing with the theme of the generational divide, the teens who suffer
because of negative sexual experience in the aforementioned films, may have had
parents who are depicted in terms of what McMahan (2009: 146) refers to as,
`Indifferent... Those who are neither responsive nor demanding.' Adolescents whose

parents fit this description `are more likely to get involved in delinquency, early
sexual activity, and drug use.' These may be contributing factors to the issue of the
growing divide between the teen and adult world. However, within the fictional
narrative of the teen film it is problematic to define what the parents are like because
they are often marginalized and out of sight. It is, however, safe to suggest that in
some cases they are conspicuous by their absence.
The Reagan Era and the Teen Sex Comedies
This section will broaden the argument into how the sex comedies operate in
terms of their relationship with wider sociopolitical concerns. It will develop and go
into more detail regarding what has been discussed thus far in terms of the ideology
and themes of the Reagan era. This is not an attempt to focus on Reagan the
individual per se, but the values and ideas which were associated with his Presidency,
the Republican Party and their affiliates, and how these resonate with the films
under discussion.
Chuck Kleinhans discusses the teen sex comedies and claims they `capture a
social and historical moment, a liminal space...poised between the post-Vietnam,
post-Watergate period and the `Reagan Renewal" (2002: 73). Dresner (2010: 175)
claims that the mixed critical reaction to the teen sex comedies was borne out of the
negative attitude towards youth culture and sexuality, that in `the brief period
between the sexually liberated 1970s and the "Just Say No" era of the mid-eighties,
American society seems to have been deeply ambivalent about the concepts of teen
Firstly, it is important to look at American cinema in a broader context and its
interplay with the political and economic climate of the period, and then relate this to
the teen sex comedy which spanned Reagan's first term in office. By the end of the
1970s, America was still feeling the aftershocks of the Watergate scandal and
President Nixon's resignation, and the military failure in Vietnam and its subsequent
communist takeover. The country was experiencing an energy crisis, high
unemployment, rising inflation and increasing crime rates. The Iran hostage crisis
had scarred a nation. The Russians had invaded Afghanistan and the communist
threat was intensifying. The socialist revolution in Nicaragua saw the Sandinistas
rise to power and there were revolutionary struggles in other Latin American

countries, most notably, Grenada and El Salvador. America faced the prospect of a
socialist uprising in South and Central America. Two Presidents after Nixon, Gerald
Ford and Jimmy Carter, had failed to halt the downward economic and political
spiral. In 1980, the Republicans won a landslide election victory and Ronald Reagan
became the new American President, ushering in the `Reagan Revolution'. He saw
himself as America's saviour, someone who could rescue the nation from the depths
of despair. To his supporters, he became known as `The Great Communicator' and
his eternal optimism was a key feature of his personality. However, some
commenters noted `that Reagan's popularity rested as much upon his personal style
and winning charisma as on his policy platform or commitment to particular issues'
(Hudson and Davies, 2008: 7). This optimism was grounded in the notion that in
order to succeed, Americans must have `a firm belief in the possibility of social
advancement, the inevitable reward of hard work, and the virtuous pursuit of wealth.'
(Baker, 2007: u.p.). Reagan himself, was from humble origins, growing up in a poor
One of Reagan's characteristics was his macho image and assertive form of
masculinity. America needed new leadership to take it into the new decade. Jimmy
Carter was not `man enough' and too `feminine' to be President, according to political
commentator John Mihalic, writing in The Wall Street Journal (1984) cited in
Jeffords (2004: 4). Shary (2005: 30) points out that the cinematic representation of
masculinity towards the end of the 1970s was negative and depicted a traumatised
and `shell-shocked' nation. Vietnam-themed movies like The Deer Hunter (1978),
Coming Home (1979) and Apocalypse Now (1979) were examples of this. `America
seems eager for a refreshed sense of patriarchal ambition', as the `mildly agreeable'
Jimmy Carter's Democratic Party gave way to the `assertive' Ronald Reagan, who
would project a more masculine approach to leadership. Reagan was Time's `Man of
the Year' in 1981 and Jeffords (2004:11) explains that he and his administration
portrayed themselves as `distinctly masculine...tough, aggressive, strong...
domineering...restoring economic and military as well as spiritual strength. [He]
became known as the premiere masculine archetype for the 1980s...that came to
underline the nation's identity.' Alan Nadel describes Reagan as `exemplifying the
power of display as well as a concomitant optimism about the effect of using power'
(1997: 3). This image of power and display is evident in the teen sex comedies as the
male characters in Fast Times, exhibits behaviour that puts them on display, which

they assume gives them a position of authority over others. Similarly, in other teen
sex comedies, many of the alpha male types or jocks in films like Porky's, Losin' It
and The Last American Virgin display aggressive masculine traits: hormonally-
charged teens whose vigorous pursuit of sex was often without boundaries or
censure. `Boys in teen films similarly encountered
­ and often enjoyed ­ a new sense
of aggression that renewed their ideals of masculine potency.' (Shary, 2005a: 30)
However, as already explained, this image of masculinity was, at times, difficult to
sustain and belied an underlying anxiety that affected the characters' quest for sexual
fulfilment and manhood, making the issues more problematical and ambivalent
within a film narrative context.
This new masculinity and assertive leadership was also evident in military
and ideological terms concerning America's aggressive foreign policy and global
status. One of the main goals of the Republican Party was defeating communism and
the action-adventure genre, with films like First Blood (1982) and its sequel, Rambo:
First Blood Part II (1985), the most obvious choice to convey the message. It pitted
the muscle-clad Sylvester Stallone against the communist `Other' on the battlefields
of Afghanistan and Vietnam. These texts commented on American imperialism, the
Cold War and the rejuvenation of the dominance of US military foreign policy after
the failure in Vietnam (Prince, 2007). The teen war-themed films, War Games
(1983) and Red Dawn (1984), were to the 1980s teen genre what the Rambo films
were to the action-adventure genre
­ an anti-communist, cinematic demonstration of
America's patriotic and military strength at the height of the Cold War. In addition,
the macho-cop movies of the 1980s, like Lethal Weapon (1987), Die Hard (1988) and
Robocop (1987), reasserted masculine values. Susan Jeffords (1994) refers to these as
`hard body' films of `remasculinization' in the Reagan years. The ex-actor Reagan
was unambiguous in his stance on America's foreign policy, labelling the Soviet
Union as the `Evil Empire', a quote he borrowed from Star Wars, `which typified the
extent to which Hollywood film pervaded the country's culture' (Bordwell &
Thompson, 2010: 661). In fact, when Reagan announced plans to build a missile
defence shield in 1983, it was quickly dubbed `Star Wars'. Jean Baudrillard (1989),
quoted in Nadel (1989), extends this movie reference when he claims that Reagan,
`has worked up his euphoric, cinematic, extroverted, advertising vision of the
artificial paradises of the West to all-American dimensions.' His uncompromising
attitude was a return to the fervent anti-communist position of the 1950s. Also,

America's invasion of Grenada in 1983, was the first time their military had invaded
an overseas country since Vietnam, further demonstrating the aggressive renewal of
their military foreign policy. Indeed, extending the Star Wars analogy, the highest
grossing film of 1983 was The Return of the Jedi, who Nadel writes in terms of its
similarities to American ideology on a global scale, `envisioning America as [a] neo-
imperialist enforcer' (2007: 86). As Andrew Britton (1986) in Barry Keith Grant (ed.)
explains: `The essential project of the Reagan administration is to recoup the recent
losses of imperialism as rapidly as possible and to inhibit the further spread of world
revolutions' (2009: 118). By the end of the decade, his supporters would claim that
Reagan could, in part, take credit for his role (through his relationship with Russia's
President Gorbachev) in the fall of communism.
Despite the optimism and the belief that hard work will lead to personal
growth and upward mobility, the economic climate during the Reagan years was
defined by an aggressive form of capitalism. The 1980s became known as the 'greed
is good'
era, synonymous with materialism, the pursuit of wealth, conspicuous
consumption and power. The period was marked by a right-wing, neoliberal
economic ideology, dictated by free-market forces, deregulation, less government
spending and tax cuts favouring the better-off in America. Much of the drama in the
teen films takes place in white-collar, affluent milieus and many characters reflect
the lives of white teens who come from families which benefited from these economic
policies. Troy (2005: 5) explains that it was not just the lower and working classes
who were marginalised under his administration, his `insensitivity' extended to
`blacks, gays [and] woman'. There were few dramatic or leading roles for African-
Americans or other ethnic groups in 1980s teen movies. They are often portrayed as
crude stereotypes like the black character in Fast Times (played by Forest Whitaker),
who is seen as aggressive and confrontational. In John Hughes' teen world, the
absence of any black characters, according to Nadel (1997, p.172), is not down from
any prejudice on Hughes' behalf but a reflection of the white middle class America he
belonged to: `As Hughes himself admits, he has little knowledge of or experience with
blacks, and he simply doesn't know how to integrate them into his world'.
Reagan and his wife, the First Lady, Nancy, attempted to promote a
conservative, moralistic agenda, marked by traditional, rigid family values in an
The term, `Greed is Good', comes from the Oliver Stone film, Wall Street (1987), which features
ruthless stockbroker Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas.

attempt to return to the spirit of the 1950s nuclear family era of the Eisenhower
years. Together, their `Just Say No' campaign, which warned teenagers about the
dangers of drug use and sexual promiscuity, was an effort to rehabilitate the nation's
youth. But this, as Shary (2005: 54) notes, widened the opposing forces and `gave
youth a renewed sense of irritation for adult authority.' The religious right in America
became allied to the Republican Party in the 1980s and both were united in
condemning drugs, abortion and casual sex ­ all thematic strands featured in the sex
comedies. Indeed, the theme of abortion is treated sympathetically in Fast Times and
The Last American Virgin, suggesting these films were reacting against this right
wing, religious ideology. Furthermore, the Republican Party's policy on drugs
viewed addicts as criminals and without compassion, dramatically reducing the
funding for treatment programmes for hard drug addiction. As Bourne explains
(2008: pp. 41-45), the Reagan administration `did not accept the idea of the addict
as a sick person...Drug addiction was not a health problem but a moral
problem...Drug users were not patients, but sinners or criminals who should be
punished not treated.' They believe that society, racism and inequality were not
responsible for social problems like addiction; it was down to the individual to take
account for their own lives and actions. Although there are no stories of hard drug
addiction in the teen sex comedies ­ a subject too serious for the genre ­ the teens
smoke dope in Fast Times, which forms part of the wider debate of youth rebellion in
the face of adult conservative authority and the Reagan's `Just Say No' campaign.
The Republican Party and their conservative supporters were highly critical of
the hedonism of previous youth generations; for example, the 1960s sexual
revolution and the 1970s sexual excesses associated with the Disco scene and the gay
underground. They believed in patriarchal values, where the husband is the
breadwinner in the family and the wife remains passive as the stay-at-home mother.
Reagan and the religious right disliked movies with sex and profanity, like the ones
discussed here, and as Gil Troy points out, (2008: 236): `He and many of his
supporters feared that America's "anything goes" culture was undermining the
country's moral fibre.' Michael Schaller reinforces this (1994: 92-95):
Ronald and Nancy Reagan attempted to alter the sexual behaviour of many
Americans and their attitude toward abortion, [and] like many conservatives,
pursued the goal of recoupling sex and reproduction, two activities which, since the

1960s, had been decoupled. Woman's access to abortion and contraception, like gay
sex, defied the linkage of sex, reproduction and marriage.
This agenda became known as the `Culture Wars' of the administrations of
both Reagan and later George W. Bush Snr. Significantly, as Prince (2000) quoted in
Maltby (2003: 274) explains, in the 1980s, certain religious groups viewed
Hollywood as, `a godless industry whose products were corrosive to the spiritual
health and value of the nation', with the teen sex comedies being a genre falling
under this category. Furthermore, one of Reagan's senior staff publicly voiced his
disapproval of an idea to distribute free/low-cost contraceptives to teenagers to
prevent unwanted pregnancies and STDs at school-based clinics, calling this a `dumb
policy...that will damage our schools and our children', quoted in Tropiano (2002:
148-149). This reactionary position was at odds with the fact that teenagers in the
1980s were having more sex than ever before both in society and in film. This
conservative attitude spread to a wider political and social spectrum of middle-class
America, which distanced itself from the subject of adolescent sexuality. According to
Gardner and Wilcox (1993), quoted in McMahan (2009: 413), `many American
adults believe adolescent sex is wrong, a lot of elected officials, school
administrators, media commentators...shy away from asking detailed questions
about sexual activity.' Similarly, Nicholas & Good (2004: 91) note that, `many adults
see youths' blossoming sexuality as threatening-feral behaviour to be controlled.'
This is the climate in which these teen films were being made: the `repressive
mentality' (Shary, 2010: 57) of the Reagan government and other religious and
educational institutions. In one respect, the sex comedies, as Shary (2002: 29)
argues, could be seen as a response against this type of cultural conservatism: `The
sexual and narcotic hijinks of the early `80s films may have been an initial reaction to
the Reagan era's puritan ethic for youth
­ movies were sites where teens didn't have
to "Just Say No''.' This opposition creates a tension between cinematic youths
expressing themselves and the morally conservative attitudes of those in positions of
power in the wider world.
However, the issues become ambivalent when viewing teenage sexual
behaviour in the films in terms of responding against this conservative ideology.
Despite the casual and promiscuous nature of the depiction of sex and the shifts in
gender roles and male/female desire, the films are a representation of

heteronormative behaviour, where heterosexual sex and relationships are regarded
as the normative values in a society, a cornerstone of conservative ideology.
Therefore, arguably, the teen sex comedies are reactionary texts that enforce `normal'
codes of behaviour, as opposed to reacting against the prevailing systems.
Viewing the teen films through a structuralist lens reveals contradictions
within the adult-teen binaries that echo what was happening in wider, sociopolitical
life. For instance, in Private School, the adult community is exposed as hypocritical.
Initially, in the first act of the film, the adults set the strict moralistic tone: at a school
dance, teachers and school officials look on in shock as the teens get amorous with
each other. The female gym teacher (a less fanatical version of Ms Balbricker from
Porky's then reprimands a couple for getting too close to one another. In another
scene, an awkward and embarrassing moment is experienced by one of the teens
when she bumps into her teacher while buying condoms in a drug store. Despite the
comic nature of these scenes and the representation of adults as caricatures, they
serve to highlight the conservative and reactionary tone that high school teens
experience when faced with surveillance from the adults. As the film enters the
second act
­ the conflict stage ­ the incongruities are exposed. Adults and parents
are seen just as sexually predatory and hedonistic as the teens: at a parents' day, a
drunken father ogles the girls and attempts to grope them; a wealthy father arrives to
visit his daughter in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce with a much younger girlfriend,
both seen drinking and petting heavily; the aforementioned gym teacher is later seen
extremely drunk. This type of behaviour may relate to what Milner (2004: 165-166)
refers to when parents `copy teenagers' in trying to reclaim their youth. If a
conservative adult society is trying to impose restrictions and influence teenage
behaviour, but at the same time, as Milner puts it: `Parents gain status by being more
like teenagers, it is difficult for them to exercise authority to change or shape the
behaviours of those teenagers.' Parents and adults are seen as flawed and
inconsistent, which sets the tone for their image in many of the films in the 1980s
teen genre, irrespective of whether it's a sex or romantic comedy
­ further evidence
of the genre as a whole becoming more synergised.
Furthermore, these contradictions within the adult community were
witnessed in broader society: several prominent right-wing Christians who supported
Reagan and his moral crusade to rehabilitate the nation by condemning abortion,
casual sex and communism, fell from grace and became embroiled in sex and money

scandals, which proved their undoing (Schaller, 1994). Moreover, according to Gil
Troy (2008: 237), `most Americans condemned divorce, drug use and promiscuity in
principle, but many often succumbed to temptation in practice.' He goes on to
suggest that the values of the 1960s associated with the sexual revolution, free love
and drug use, reverberated into the 1980s as individual freedom undermined
tradition and moral conservative attitudes. Reagan himself was labelled a hypocrite
by his two children. Despite his belief in patriarchal family values, he was divorced
and both his wives were professional women who were not homemakers. Also, many
conservatives and the religious right denounced homosexuality, despite Reagan
having gay friends from his days in Hollywood.
These scenes in Private School validate the link between films, structuralism
and contemporary myths by disclosing a more ambiguous depiction of the
representation of adult behaviour in the context of their relationship with the teenage
communities and its wider implications. But they also draw on what Susan Hayward
(2013: 214) refers to in relation to meaning in classic Hollywood narrative being
`invisible' unless a more rigorous analysis is applied, as any symbolic value is often
masked as the plot structure has its limitations. Hayward points out that meanings in
Hollywood genre cinema, like what is outlined here, are repressed by the conditions
in which they are produced: the enigma-resolution narrative arc and the continuity
editing style of filmmaking often suppress meaning with `invisible' cutting techniques
and smooth narrative progression, a style that does not draw attention to itself.
Although ideology is evident in teen cinema, for example, heterosexuality, gender
differences and social and economic divides, it is nevertheless `naturalised' and made
seamless. Therefore, as Hayward continues, any contradictions within the ideology
are not immediately apparent, as genres are `hermeneutically determined...there will
always be closure...they provide simple common-sense answers to very complex
issues, the difficulties of which get repressed' (ibid.). Only a close integration like this
one will uncover meaning and further the argument of this thesis.
Embracing Capitalism and Rejecting Youth Countercultures
Shifting the focus to how the sex comedies work as a commentary on broader
ideological discourses will further enhance the argument and their representational
qualities. Risky Business is part of the teen sex comedy cycle with its emphasis on

young men lusting after women and seeking to lose their virginity. It is also one of
the few teen films of the 1980s whose plot is concerned with making money
(Bernstein, 1997), a discussion that will continue in more detail in the Chapter Five
and the film's relationship to spatial issues. One of the ways the film works beyond
the boundaries of genre is by reinforcing `patriarchal capitalism' and negating the
social changes of the 1960s and 1970s in relation to rebellious youth (Wyatt, 1994).
Robin Wood (2003a: 146) goes on to suggest that high concept films of the 1980s like
Risky Business work to `diminish...and render safe all the major radical movements
that gained so much impetus and became so threatening in the 1970s: radical
feminism, black militancy, gay liberation, the assault on patriarchy.' The Cruise
character in the film represents what Ryan Moore (1998: 257) refers to in his analysis
of youth in the cultural texts of the 1980s and 1990s, as becoming apolitical and
apathetic to social and political change. There is no reference in the film or in others
of the 1980s teen genre discussed in this thesis to `the Sixties [as] a last gasp of
idealism, an inarticulate longing for an alternative to the suburban rat race.'
However, this becomes problematic in binary terms. On the one hand, while Risky
Business negates any countercultural impulses and embraces the new capitalist ethic
of 1980s America; on the other, the film still indulges in free love and casual sex,
which was very much part of the 1960s sexual revolution and, as already stated,
behaviour of which Reagan and conservative America disapproved.
In the film, Cruise plays Joel, the white son of affluent parents who live in an
exclusive Chicago suburb. He is initially a shy, sexually inhibited virgin who, during
the course of the film, undergoes a sexual transformation and becomes a mini-
successful capitalist when he turns his home into a brothel for one night. He is
initially taunted by his friends because of his lack of sexual activity and promptly
calls an older prostitute, Lana (Rebecca de Mornay), who quickly satisfies his carnal
needs and moves into his house while his parents are on holiday. He is forced to turn
his home into a brothel in order to pay off a debt and thus enters into this `business
venture' with Lana as his `partner'. She is from a dysfunctional family background, a
character who represents the `Other' in Reagan's new America, someone who is
excluded from the financial opportunities and rewards experienced by America's
wealthy. Joel even secures his success into an Ivy League college on the night. One of
the college's representatives turns up and interviews him, accepts his application
(which is academically undeserved) and is rewarded accordingly with the

opportunity of sex, thus expressing the link between 1980s capitalism and
exploitation. Indeed, `patriarchal capitalism' in Risky Business has been reinforced:
the age-old American myth of the individual and equal opportunity is something that
the film fails to deliver
­ Lana returns to being a prostitute despite her major role in
organising the evening. As Wyatt asserts (1994: 197): `Opportunities for
advancement are still available in the Reagan era, but these chances are limited to
those who are already ensconced in the affluent socioeconomic class.' Gil Troy (2005,
p.15) illuminates this by pointing out that Reagan's policies were hugely divisive in
the 1980s, largely benefiting the rich at the expense of the less well-off and
marginalised, the `wealthy seemed to reap Reagan's bounty disproportionately.' Or as
Michael Schaller puts it, when he refers to `The Other Americans' like Lana who did
not prosper under the Reagan administration, the `rich got richer and everyone else
tread water' (1994: 76).
In the final brothel scene, Risky Business ironically becomes less concerned
with the pursuit of sex than with Joel's new status, reputation and respect amongst
his friends as a successful entrepreneur. However, like Private School, the film sits
ambivalently within the Reagan era. Despite Joel living the capitalist's American
Dream, albeit an illegal and immoral one, the film's liberal attitude to sexuality can
be viewed as a reaction against the moral conservatism of the era. Therefore, the
film's complexity extends to a broader sociopolitical context, but the tone remains
comic and avoids any `cautionary tale' or moralistic approach:
All the events in the film are depicted as entertaining and comic, therefore, Joel's
coming-of-age is more a celebration of his daring business education than a
question of the licentious methods by which it is achieved. (Shary, 2004: 231)
David Denby (1983: 65) reinforces the moralistic tone and claims the attitude
of the film is questionable, pointing out that the selling of sex is `presented without a
hint of irony or criticism [but] as a triumph of free enterprise.' Indeed, he considers
the teenagers are not depicted in a positive light, as having sex with prostitutes `may
not be the coolest way for wealthy boys to break away from their parents' (ibid.).
However, Harold M. Foster argues that the film successfully works on a deeper, more
ambiguous level:

Risky Business is a complex film that works on many levels. One level,
unfortunately, brought down the wrath of many parents. But I feel the film, one of
the most important of this decade, works on a much deeper level. `Here's success.
Mom and Dad', the film is saying. `This is what you want me to be.' Risky Business
almost demands discussion because of its ambiguity and complexity of values. But
without question, this film requires a thinking audience (1987: 88).
The theme of disavowing 1960s and 1970s radical political ideals and social
rebellion seen in Risky Business is evident also in Porky's and crosses over into the
romantic comedies of John Hughes, another example of the genre becoming a
cohesive body of work, despite its generic variances. According to Lesley Speed
(1995), these films represent a crisis in white middle-class youth by betraying the
political and rebellious attitude of the 1960s youth counterculture. They lack the left-
wing satire of 1970s teen comedies like Animal House and Meatballs, and other
cultural media associated with youth, such as the National Lampoon magazine,
which was characterised by its satirical approaches to society's repressive tendencies.
Animal House `derives from 1960s anti-authoritarianism [and] serves as an allegory
of American politics in the Watergate era. [One of the characters is a] satirical
representation of Richard Nixon' (Speed, 1995: 821-822). The ambivalent link
between capitalism, power and sexuality in Risky Business is highlighted by Shary
(2002: 230-231), who describes Joel as a `teen baron of Reagan-era capitalist
exploitation. [The] film parallels Joel's ambitions to become a successful capitalist
with his venture into the world of sexuality.' Although this and other teen sex
comedies still share the hedonistic attitude of the 1960s counterculture, `they mark
a decline of youth films' aspiration to challenge the social order [which] marks
advanced capitalism's eclipse of countercultural aspirations...Sexual promiscuity and
the destruction of institutional property have shed their subversive image' (Speed,
1995: 821-822). Thomas Elsaesser refers to this apathy towards political conformism
in cinema as `post-rebellious lassitude', quoted in (ibid: 822).
Ryan Moore (1998: 828) alludes to the representation of youth beyond the Reagan era in the 1990s,
which would become known as Generation X. He describes a youth in this period characterised by
`downward mobility...and political apathy, many young middle-class whites have latched onto a
defensive façade ­ that, in the end, nothing really matters.' Characters in Richard Linklater's Slacker
(1991) and Suburbia (1996) are examples that represent this.

The `crisis' of middle-class youth identity is further illustrated by returning to
what was referred to at the beginning of the chapter in the context of a new cinematic
representation in the Reagan era
­ an assertive new form of masculinity in the teen
sex comedies. Theissen (1999: 66) views masculine identity in this period as a form
of `hypermasculinity [in an] atmosphere of exaggerated male bodies and anxiety'.
The male teens' vigorous pursuit of sex, which characterises the patriarchal culture of
the Reagan era, often belies an `anxiety' over the negative aspects of sex, outlined
earlier in this chapter: humiliation, STDs, premature ejaculation, etc. Particularly in
Porky's case, as Theissen explains, the character of Miss Balbricker is the
`incarnation of masculine anxiety'. Moreover, the `crisis' is further heightened in the
sex quest films as the male teens are under pressure to prove their manhood by
losing their virginity, such as Pee Wee in Porky's. In addition, the emergence of
feminist movements in the 1960s and 1970s, changing gender roles and young
females becoming more sexually active may play a part in this `crisis' of masculine
identity, in a similar vein to how the new female post-war identity affected
masculinity in film noirs.
The Demise of the 1980s Teen Sex Comedy
The cycle of teen sex comedies came to an end in 1985. The Sure Thing,
starring John Cusack, blurred the boundaries between sex and love and acts as a
transitional film between the sex and romantic comedy teen subgenres. One
straightforward reason behind the end of the sex comedy is that, after the
commercial success of Fast Times and Porky's, their imitations like Losin' It and
Private School lost money at the box office. This sent out the message to the studios
that films about raucous, sex-crazed teens were struggling to attract an audience.
This is no different from any other subgenre or cinema movement; many of them
have a short lifespan and go out of fashion, only to be replaced by another. In the
teen genre's case, a more overtly conservative portrayal of teens in 1980s America
emerged in the form of the romantic comedy and drama
­ more aligned with what
Reagan and his moralistic philosophy were trying to promote in society. Another
tangible reason for the shift was the emergence of the aforementioned `Brat Pack'
group of young actors, whose presence, as Shary explains (2002: 29), was

built upon wistful, tormented, and ultimately clean images of mid-eighties youth
who proffered occasionally sincere questions about sex and drugs as they engaged
less in these practices (on screen, at least) than their previous counterparts.
According to John Cawalti (1979), cultural myths that embody a certain cycle of
films, for instance, the myth of male sexual dominance in the sex comedy, often lose
their attraction. Cycles undergo `generic transformation' and their mythic functions
are `no longer fully adequate to the imaginative needs of our times' (1979: 260).
As noted, a more important reason for the demise was the realisation in the
mid-1980s that the AIDS virus could potentially be contacted not just through gay
sex but also heterosexual sex. Shary observes that because of this: `The youth sex-
quest film stopped production altogether from 1986 to the mid-1990s' (2005: 63).
To bring these issues into sharper focus, it is necessary to discuss the origins of the
HIV/AIDS virus and its timeline; the reaction of the media, politicians and its
positon within the wider public domain. AIDS first came to the attention of the
medical community in America in June 1981 when five young gay men in Los
Angeles were diagnosed with a rare lung infection, which became known as Acquired
Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Two of them died soon after and by the end of
1981, there were 270 cases of the virus and 121 of those men died (, 2015:
u.p.). In these early days, it was thought to effect only gay, promiscuous men who
had unprotected sex. However, in 1982, there was case of AIDS in an infant who had
received blood a transfusions, and in 1983 there were reports of heterosexual men
and woman who were diagnosed, through having unprotected sex. But it was still
thought to be largely isolated within the gay community, and the media did not
feature any stories about it and no politician discussed it in public, which points to
the attitudes within mainstream institutions and the stigma which gay men and
woman faced. As more cases came to light, in 1984, the bathhouses which were
frequented by homosexual men in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York were
closed down to prevent the spread of the virus. By 1985, more research was being
committed and the US congress allocated $70 million and the search for a vaccine for
HIV/AIDS was underway. When the actor Rock Hudson, an icon of masculinity who
kept his sexuality secret throughout his life, died from the virus in 1985, this made
global headlines and helped to humanise the virus. Societal institutions began to
take notice, warning the population that unprotected sex, gay or straight, could lead

to death. Furthermore, more cases of people catching the virus from contaminated
blood transfusions and needle sharing amongst drug addicts were on the rise. Before
his death, Hudson went public with his homosexuality and donated $250, 000 to
help start, along with Elizabeth Taylor, the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
The mainstream media was now discussing AIDS in a serious light, in `countless
news reports, talk shows, [and] television broached the heretofore forbidden details
of sexual congress, airing language and images unimaginable' (Doherty, 2002: 200).
Batchelor and Stoddart write that this new understanding,
paved the way for many broad reaching initiatives that have had far-reaching social
impact on American society. [It] helped to institute a broader, franker discussion of
sexuality in America's schools, [and] made sexual orientation a much more open
situation in mainstream America, but the responses revealed that people could come
together to fight injustice. (2007: 22-23)
Despite this, AIDS/HIV sufferers were soon demonised by certain sections of the
media and religious institutions, the virus was labelled the `Gay Plague' and `Gay
Cancer'. Leading right-wing Christian
Jerry Fallwell, an example of
someone who aligned themselves with the Republican Party in the 1980s, was quoted
as saying `AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals; it is God's
punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.' This demonisation was not
exclusive to the gay community, as the case of Ryan White proves. He was a teenager
form Indiana who acquired AIDS from contaminated blood when he was being
treated for haemophilia, and was subsequently banned from his school.
Positioning the teen sex comedies in the context of AIDS, widens the debate
into this subgenre. The heterosexual teens in these films are portrayed has having
casual sex, unaware of the potential dangers involved, creating a type of counter
narrative. As it was only thought that gay sex was largely responsible for the virus
when it was first diagnosed and given a name, which coincided with the start of the
teen sex comedy, nevertheless, a fear, humiliation and a state of sexuality out of
control is evident in these films, which results in some of the promiscuous characters
catching other STDs. Although these scenes are often comically played out, the teen
sex comedy could be viewed as a precursor to AIDS and the potential dangers of
sexual promiscuity.

Hollywood responded to the impact of the AIDS crisis in the mid-eighties by
changing the attitude and motivations of its characters in term of sex and
relationships, and the teen film was obviously part of this. So where voyeurism and
casual sex flourished and were celebrated in the sex comedies, a significant shift
began to appear in the teen genre. Doherty (2003, 200) notes that, `sex became the
extracurricular activity that dared not speak its name', and also points out that
Hollywood was also at this time featuring films with preteens as the heroes of the
stories, for example, Stand by Me (1986) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989).
Subsequently, the dominant trends in the era of AIDS became the `chronological
downsizing and sexual neutering of the American adolescent' (ibid.). The filmmaker
whose work most keenly featured this new representation of teen identity was the
writer-director-producer John Hughes. His more sensitive portrayal of adolescent
angst left an indelible mark on the 1980s teen genre. In the time of AIDS, Hughes'
films featured young protagonists who `were noteworthy not for promiscuity and
licentiousness but for chastity and temperance, [who], almost always preferred
cuddling to copulation' (ibid: 201). Where the teen sex comedies of the first part of
the decade `flaunt their cynicism and hedonism...Hughes' films are sexually and
economically antiseptic' (Rapping, 1987: 18). Promiscuity was replaced by a more
benign form of sexual activity. In Hughes' Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles and Ferris
Bueller's Day Off, the teens do no more than just kiss and embrace.
Consequently, `sex as gift' is the prominent semantic/syntactic thread running
through the romantic comedies and dramas, as is the focus on the genre's different
stereotypes, which is analysed in the following two chapters, with romance replacing
sexual promiscuity as both male and female characters display more of a judicious
and thoughtful attitude to sex. As Timothy Shary puts it: `AIDS and other sexually
transmitted diseases rendered the teen-quest film unpalatable, youth began finding
love again' (2002: 261). However, this did not mean that the 1980s teen genre lost
its subversive edge, as films made in the latter half of the 1980s, such as River's
Edge and Heathers, which are discussed later, contained characters who Doherty
describes as `soulless nihilists' (2002: 200).

Chapter Three
Stereotypes and Other Roles in the Teen Romantic Comedies and
Before a close analysis of the films, a short enquiry into the second term of
Reagan era, its themes and ideologies, and how it impacted on the teen genre from
the mid-eighties onwards. This will offer an overview of the issues within a
sociopolitical and economic context, much like the debate in the previous chapter
concerning his first term and its links to the sex comedies.
In November 1984, The Republican Party were re-elected with an
overwhelming majority. President Reagan continued to promote his love of America,
patriotic ideals and family values in a number of speeches and commercials in the
run-up to the election ­ a campaign which was named, `Morning in America', which
attempted to promote a feel-good mood for the American people. He would continue
to reference Hollywood films, quoting Dirty Harry's famous line, `Make my Day',
when challenged by the Democrats in 1985. Similarly, he appealed to fans of Star
Wars and his Christian supporters, by claiming that the `Force is with us'. Anti-
communist fervour was reaffirmed as the nation continued to recover from the
political and military setbacks of the 1970s. Despite Reagan's demonization of the
Soviet Union and communism, in 1985 he started to negotiate with President
Gorbachev in the hope of ending the Cold War and scaling down both countries'
nuclear weapons arsenal. However, closer to home, America continued to battle with
socialist revolutionary groups in central and South America, with the Reagan
government giving their support to `right-wing dictatorial regimes...with the CIA
aiding government forces that operated death squads in El Salvador, [and
supporting] the `contras' to overthrow the legitimately elected socialist oriented
Sandinistas in Nicaragua' (Hammer & Kellner, 2007: 110).
The Republican Party's election victory had appeared to convince their
supporters that America's global status as a superpower and economic driving force
was re-established. Certainly, promoting a fear of communism, terrorism and the
`Other' was a successful campaigning tool, while his detractors would claim that he
would embellish and exaggerate these issues and remain secret about the true nature

of his foreign and economic policies. Although in reality, the economic recovery only
benefited the wealthier in America, as the less well-off struggled and remained
excluded from the American Dream. The national deficit was a record $200 billion
with the spending on military, tax breaks for the rich and large corporations
accounting for much of this figure. The number of people in America who lived in
poverty at the time of Reagan's re-election was 41 million (ibid: 111).
Following on from the timeline discussed towards the end of the previous
chapter, there were significant developments concerning the AIDS crisis in the
second half of the 1980s. The general public, not just in America, but worldwide were
now aware of the extent and the potential dangers of the virus as people started to
question and revaluate their sexual behaviour. By 1986, more money for research
was being provided and by the end of the year, there were approximately 40,000
cases of AIDS worldwide. Initially, Reagan and his government refused to address
the epidemic in public. Schiller (1994: 93) suggests that one reason behind this may
be that Reagan's conservative views meant that he found `the subject distasteful' and
any sympathy he may convey towards sufferers may `upset religious conservatives',
like the aforementioned Jerry Fallwell. It was not until 1987, on the advice of the
First Lady, Nancy, that he referred to AIDS in a speech, but only mentioned that
scientists were `still learning about how AIDS is transmitted' (ibid.). In 1988, the
aforementioned Ryan White (who died in 1993) became a spokesperson for AIDS
education and by the end of the decade, there were an estimated 100, 000 AIDS
cases in the United States. Also, by this time, `it had become the cause celebre,
initiating the practice of wearing red ribbons at awards shows, testing the tolerance
and compassion of all Americans' (Stoddart & Batchelor, 2007: 22). No teen film
made any reference to the AIDS/HIV during the 1980s, but several low-budget films
and made for television movies featured the topic: An Early Frost (1985), Parting
Glances (1986) and As If (1986). Long Time Companion in 1989 was the first to get
a wide theatrical release and Philadelphia in 1993, became an Oscar winner and
commercial success.
Returning to the films and their sociopolitical significance, the optimism of
Reagan's first term in office and a couple of years beyond, was reproduced in the
John Hughes' teen films, which are analysed in more detail in this, and the following
chapters. These films are characterised by a prevailing positivity, featuring wealthy
white kids skipping school and falling in and out of love. Geoffrey Baker (2006: u.p),

in his article, 'Social Mobility in Reagan-Era Teen Films', discusses how these issues
of romance, wealth and status function in Hughes' Pretty in Pink. He links it to an
era in which individuals were 'weaned on optimistic Reagan-era perceptions of social
mobility [where] the poor girl got the rich boy.'
These middle class cinematic teens,
as Stoddart and Batchelor write, `embraced the politics of Ronald Reagan, believing
that economic success was every American's privilege' (2007: 25). Alan Nadel refers
to Hughes as the director `who is the filmmaker sine qua non of President Reagan's
America, [whose films] make concrete the combination of class values and pervasive
optimism essentialized in President Reagan's America' (1997: 10). Although this
optimism is generally the dominant mood, there are characters in Hughes' films who
represent the other side of the economic spectrum in Reagan's America, those who
were struggling to survive.
Before becoming a filmmaker Hughes worked in the advertising industry for
several years, mastering the anecdote, the one-liner and the sound bite ­ verbal
language which characterised Reagan's speeches, which, as already noted, made him
popular with the electorate. Furthermore, notwithstanding the tensions during the
conflict stage of these narratives, their resolutions usually conform to normative,
conservative values. Neil Campbell (2004: 3) refers to Ferris Bueller's Day Off as a
film, 'which is potentially disruptive, but ultimately reconciled in [its] own interest to
American core values like family, home, school and friendship.' All principles
promoted by Reagan and his party. Hudson and Davies (2008: 9) write that Reagan
possessed a `sunny temperament and infectious optimism', much like Ferris Bueller.
Moreover, Grindon writes that Ferris Bueller `is a master of self-promotion. He
embodies the confidence of a President who wants to set free the entrepreneur from
the restrictions of government, or in Ferris' case, the demands of high school' (2007:
160). Alan Nadel (1997: 154) further elaborates on this and points out that Ferris
qualifies as an unmistakable leader' and compares him to Reagan in relation to his
power of manipulation (Reagan was dubbed `The Great Manipulator' by some of his
critics), and goes on to discuss Ferris' `unregulated' behaviour, which also
The original ending saw the alternative character of Duckie and the poor girl Andie getting together. However,
when this was shown to a test audience they overwhelmingly rejected it and wanted the rich kid Blane and Andie
reunion, suggesting the audience's idea of a happy ending was more conservative than unconventional. Bernstein
(1997: 78) explains that Andie's and Duckie's `poor but honest moral superiority gnawed deep into the corrupt
souls of the richies who were forced to deal with their own worthlessness, [but the audience] wanted to see the
poor girl get the rich boy of her dreams. They didn't care about the dignity of the oppressed.' Director Howard
Deutch and screenwriter Hughes reluctantly agreed to change the ending.

characterises government economic policies. Nadel cites Vicky Lebeau (1992) who
expresses a transatlantic approach, regarding Ferris' `youth rebellion as nothing
more than a series of tricks and revels in parental and personal wealth and status
[becoming, like the film's audience], the children of a political and cultural exchange
between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan' (ibid.).
The blue-collar dramas, Vision Quest and All the Right Moves, dramatise
Reagan's triumph-of-the-individual-spirit message that hard work will lead to career
advancement and wealth. However, towards the end of his second term, which
concluded in 1989, a more pessimistic tone was evident, as sexual scandals
perpetrated by politicians and religious figures, insider trading on Wall Street
(depicting by the film of the same name), increasing unemployment, a widening
wealth gap and the Iran-Contra affair, became headline news (Baker, 2006).
Heathers, River's Edge and Pump Up the Volume (1990) could work as a metaphor
for Reagan's second term, all films which are more negative and cynical in its
portrayal of teen issues. These three films could be linked to what the Philipp Jenkins
argues in his book, Decade of Nightmares (2006), quoted in Hudson and Davies
(2008: 4). Jenkins does not focus on the economic aspects in terms of the revival, but
more on the `societal decadence and rampant criminality' of the Reagan age, which
both Heathers and Rivers Edge depict in their narratives. Tonally and thematically,
they are in stark contrast to the John Hughes movies. As Hammer and Kellner note,
`Hollywood films supported but also criticized the dominant political values of the
period' (2007: 112).
Extending this negative tone, two of the Hughes' films reflected the changing
mood of the socio-political climate during Reagan's second term. The
aforementioned Pretty in Pink contrasts against Hughes' next teen film, Some Kind
of Wonderful, and `charts the starker pessimism of the decade's end. [Both films]
bookend a rupture in the portrayal of class in American cinema of the 1980s' (Baker,
u.p). Where Pretty in Pink conforms to the rags to riches narrative which is part of
the optimism of the Reagan era ideology, Some Kind of Wonderful departs from this
and offers a more abstruse analysis of class issues. It sees the poor boy initially
becoming involved with the rich girl, although it transpires the she is also from more
of a similar background to him, but is portrayed as aspirational and has been
accepted by the rich crowd ­ she is initially the girlfriend of the jock character. This
makes the issues more ambiguous than a straightforward poor and rich character

falling in love. By the end of the film, the male character chooses to get together with
a girl from a similar class background, and the `rich' girl rejects her adopted
bourgeois status in favour of independence, revealing the myth of upward mobility in
the Reagan years.
From more of a wider perspective in economic terms, the fathers of the main
protagonists from Pretty in Pink, Vision Quest and Lucas (1986) are all unemployed;
characters who represent those who struggled through the recession of Reagan's
second term in office. They are also divorced meaning the teens are part of the single
parent culture. Although the fathers do not play a major role in the films, they did
depict a rising divorce rate during the 1980s as the family unit in America began to
fragment, despite Reagan's belief in family values and patriarchy. Batchelor and
Stoddert explain divorce and single parent households were issues which were
impacting more on youth in the 1980s than ever before, and `although it is
counterintuitive, the conservative embrace of the Reagan years did not translate into
a greater sanctity for marriages' (2007: 26).
The blighted landscapes of River's Edge depict a community which has
suffered during the recession of the late 1980s in America. These are communities
which Nadel writes about who are victims of Reaganomics, more specifically, `lack of
regulation...dismantling of social programmes, collapse of savings and loans...
deflection into private pockets of billions of dollars in public funds...demise of its
credit surplus and its standard of living' (1997: 8). Also, River's Edge is described by
Grindon (2007: 147-165) as `mixing nostalgia with malaise', when discussing it in
terms of Reagan's evocation of 1950s and small town America, which is where the
film is set, but in the present. Although the `habits and fashions' of River's Edge
recall the earlier period, `the traditional values touted by Reagan's policies generally
appeared to be fundamentally irretrievable or an ideological fabrication...,
questioning the simple minded optimism of that disguised Reagan's politics' (ibid.).
Therefore, the likes of River's Edge, Vision Quest, Some kind of Wonderful and
Lucas, can be viewed as a challenge to the capitalist ideology of the period in terms of
characters in these films who do not prosper under this system. In a similar vein,
much like way that the sex comedies react against the Christian-based, moralistic
agenda of the era.
Consequently, some see Reagan's period in office as a success in terms of
creating wealth and cementing America's status as a world military and economic

power. More liberal commentators viewed his policies as an attack on the welfare
state. He neglected the issue of civil and gay rights and abandoned plans to promote
racial integration in schools. He showed a lack of interest in affordable housing
programmes for the less well-off and displayed an ignorance and lack of empathy
towards victims of AIDS and drug addicts. Less government spending meant a
reduction in social programmes and subsequently there was an increase on defence.
Also, during this period there was a crackdown on organised labour and the unions
lost some of their power as workers were often sacked for going on strike. This, as
Alan Nadel puts it, instigated `a form of white supremacist social Darwinism...which
created a bipolar economy that accelerated the gap between the rich and poor' (1997:
162). An oppositional and often contradictory era ­ a position which resonates
within the stories of the teen movie.
Bearing these issues concerning the Reagan era in mind, the emphasis will
shift to the analysis of the films, their characters and stories. As noted, the
promiscuity of the sex comedy had given way to romance and sensitivity as the
industry responded to a more sexually vigilant climate by attempting to 'reshape the
moral landscape of the teenpic genre' (Doherty, 2002: 198). The Reagans' 'Just Say
No' campaign, which attempted to suppress any hedonistic or subversive behaviour,
ran parallel to this shift in tone of the teen movie. From the mid-1980s onwards,
stories about casual sex and loss of virginity were replaced by comedic and dramatic
narratives about love and romance. Even when there is a scene involving characters
losing their virginity, which is rare in the post-sex comedy teen film, it is treated with
a degree of sensitivity and tenderness and the two characters involved are seen in a
committed relationship. In All the Right Moves, Steff (Tom Cruise) and his girlfriend
Lisa (Lea Thompson) have sex for the first time, but it is seen off-screen. Prior to
this, they discuss their relationship and talk about sex in terms of the importance of
trust and responsibility.
An investigation into the role of the teen stereotype, its dual-focus
oppositional forces, and contradictions will continue to develop the argument and
the depiction of the teen in 1980s genre cinema. This will lead to discussing another
teen role applied to the protagonists: the concept of the 'ideal male' and `female'
(Wood, 2003b), which will evolve the image of the cinematic teen. Themes which act
as a unifying force across the genre concerning the coming-of-age process and the
'storm and stress' aspects of adolescence will continue to provide material in arguing

how the films make sense of a youth culture and articulate teen concerns, set against
the changing 1980s' sociopolitical landscape. Also, despite the absence of sex, other
adolescent themes which challenge moralistic values, such as teen rebellion against
the adult world, drunken behaviour and trashing property, are still very much part of
the genre from the mid-1980s onwards.
In the romantic comedies and dramas of this period, one semantic/syntactic
aspect which is more prominent than in the sex comedies is that the protagonists
experience a transformation in their personalities. This is an integral part of the
message these films are conveying. It often revolves around issues such as the
characters accepting their cultural and socioeconomic differences, like in Valley Girl,
Pretty in Pink and, most notably, in The Breakfast Club. Also, the generational
divide and the conflicts between youth and adult/parent are key themes in this
chapter -- semantic features which are not foregrounded in so much detail in the sex
The analysis will begin with Revenge of the Nerds (referred to as Revenge
hereafter), which was made in 1984. It acts as a transitional, hybrid film between the
sex and the romantic comedies as it contains characteristics associated with its
predecessors, like virginity loss, but this is not central to the narrative. What the film
brings into focus is the image of the teen stereotype and its binary oppositional
forces, along with the contradictions that emerge from this relating to the nerd, the
jock and the popular girl. In Chapter Two, the sex comedies touched upon the subject
of the stereotype and set a platform for the following chapters. They provided an
example of how this semantic feature started to unify the subgenres into a more
cohesive whole. Cinder, the popular girl in Little Darlings, the jocks in Porky's and
the nerd-like Mark in Fast Times all had significant roles to play. Timothy Shary
(2002: 34) notes that Revenge offers 'the most dominant image of nerds in 1980s
teen cinema.' In addition, what is different in the film is that it deals with teens who
have finished high school and now, aged 18 or 19 and at college, they are entering
into the latter stages of adolescence.
The film's plot concerns a group of nerds who start college and are
immediately tormented by their jock/popular girl counterparts. What the
introduction of the film illustrates is the clichéd representation of the nerd in the
form of the two protagonists: Lewis (Robert Carradine) and Gilbert (Anthony
Edwards). They are both portrayed as having buck teeth, bespectacled, socially inept

but clever and interested in maths and computers. They fit David A. Kinney's (1993:
21) definition of the media depiction of this teen character, 'awkward, intelligent,
shy, unattractive social outcasts with unfashionable hair and dress styles.' When they
arrive for the first day of college, they are 'ridiculed and rejected by [their] peers'
(ibid.): the jocks and the popular girls. However, it is not just the nerds in the film
who are initially depicted as the 'Other': a black effeminate male teen, an Asian
student, a male slob and nerd-like girls who are not considered slim and beautiful are
also treated like outcasts. They align themselves with the nerds and are subjected to
harassment by a youth culture made up of white jocks and popular girls, the so-called
mainstream of youth culture as initially depicted in this film. The jocks are conveyed
as having high self-esteem and are rugged football players; they are highly visible
alpha males (they run the school council); tough, masculine and narcissistic. They
throw wild parties and engage in acts of 'low humour', a similar semantic trait to the
sex comedies such as Porky's -- further evidence of the genre's unifying themes. The
popular girls are slim, obsessed by their appearance and are part of the cheerleading
team. Kinney's research reveals that the jock and the popular girl emphasise,
traditional gender roles (achievement, competition and toughness for boys;
attractiveness, appearance, and interpersonal relations for girls). [They maintained]
their high peer status which required limiting the size of their group by excluding
peers who did not meet their standards. (ibid: 26)
The above definition of the different teen stereotypes can act as a paradigm for the
following films in this analysis, although they are variations: not all jocks will be seen
to play sports, as in Valley Girl and Pretty in Pink; not all nerds are computer
enthusiasts, for example, the nerds in Sixteen Candles do not refer to computers; and
not all popular girls are cheerleaders, for instance, Claire in The Breakfast Club.
Furthermore, it is important to reiterate what was written in the literature review
about Kinney's and Milner's (2002) analysis of the teen stereotype: they offer
valuable insights in outlining a basic definition and set a foundation for the role, but
are limited as they do not discuss how characters change and become more three-
dimensional, unlike a film narrative and in turn, this research. In Revenge, by the
end of the film, the nerd Lewis and the main popular girl shed their stereotypical
images by forming a relationship and become more composite characters. However,

the jocks, like in Porky's, remain clichéd characters. In fact, Lewis loses his virginity
to the girl at the end of the film, which is unusual; as stated in Chapter Two, nerds
usually remain virgins in the 1980s genre. On the one hand, the film shares generic
characteristics with the sex comedy with the virginity loss theme; on the other, its
transitional status within the genre is conveyed by the focus on the analysis of the
teen stereotype, which sets in motion one of the key semantic strands of the teen
genre from the mid-1980s onwards.
If the nerds and outsiders are depicted in terms of their 'otherness' to the
white, heterosexual male jocks in the film, this opposition, in metaphorical terms,
can be viewed in relation to Reagan's America. As already stated, the Republicans
were known for their tough, masculine identity, just like the jocks in Revenge and
also, the 'traditional American values' message which the Republican Party preached.
This promoted a selective view of US history, favouring white hegemony, which
marginalised other ethnic and social groups, who continued to fight for equality in
adverse conditions. Kendall (1999: 265) argues that the initial clichéd image of the
nerd in the film 'substitutes for other oppressed groups and recodes bids for the
overturn of the dominance of white straight males.' However, as the narrative
progresses, the nerds fight back against their tormentors, undergo a transformation
and in the final act, they 'demonstrate a reconfiguration of civil rights discourse'
(ibid: 266). In mythic terms, the film becomes an underdog fantasy as they triumph
in the face of adversity and displace the dominant white heterosexual male.
The transformation of the nerds and other outsiders in the film, and the
blurring of the boundaries between their stereotypical image and the jocks, begins
after they throw a party. The nerds get drunk, smoke marijuana and are sexually
active. Lewis tells Gilbert: 'they are not girls [but] women...we're in college now.'
They behave more like the jocks who, in the film's introduction, were having a party
which included a variety of drinking games. As Shary (2012: 34) observes, they share
'somewhat ironically...common interests with their college cohorts in having a good
time.' More generic unity is evident as Revenge demonstrates that the 'low humour',
which Lesley Speed (1998) discussed in Chapter Two, can be experienced by the least
likely of teen types. Furthermore, the binary oppositions in the teen story are again
creating a contradictory message when viewing the issues through a Lévi-Strauss
structuralist approach. This continues when the jocks and the popular girls break up
and ruin the party and the nerds vow revenge. By doing so, they further assimilate

themselves into what Lori Kendall (1999: 266-268) describes as part of 'hegemonic
masculinity', transforming from 'underdogs to everyman heroes.' They exact a covert
plan and plant hidden cameras in the cheerleaders' dorm and behave like sexual
voyeurs, observing the girls in their most private moments, a scene not unlike the
shower/peephole episode in Porky's. This expresses the nerds as active sexual
beings, just like their jock counterparts, that is, as 'normal men'. At the same time,
they utilise the characteristics which define their stereotypical nerd status, as Kendall
explains: 'They too want to survey and control women as sexual objects, and they use
their special strength -- control of technology -- to express these desires' (ibid: 269).
Also, the nerd transformation in Revenge is seen as more radical than others in the
teen cycle, 'since its characters achieve pleasure, power, and popularity without
shedding their nerdy images' (Shary, 2002: 34).
Another incident which reinforces the nerds' 'complicity with hegemonic
masculinity' (Kendall, 1999: 270) is through an act of sexualised violence, albeit
played out comically. They exact revenge on the jocks by rubbing liquid heat on their
jock straps, a further stage in their transformation from nerds to 'men'. In the final
act, Lewis has sex with one of the jock's girlfriends, Betty (Julia Montgomery), by
tricking her through wearing a mask and pretending to be her jock boyfriend. She
claims it's the best sex she's ever had, and still believing it is her boyfriend, says: 'you
did things to me you never did before'. Although she is initially shocked and revolted
when Lewis reveals his true identity, this is just temporary as she asks, 'are all nerds
as good as you?', to which Lewis replies, 'all jocks think about is sports; all we think
about is sex.' Driscoll (2011: 49) comments on this scene in relation to notions of
maleness when she explains that 'the geeks seek recognition of their masculinity
through the authority of sexual partners.' The transformation from nerd to a more
'normal' male is cemented and the myth-like fantasy of the triumphant underdog is
achieved. Betty ends her relationship with her boyfriend and begins dating Lewis,
thus redefining the teen stereotype, offering a less hackneyed version of youth
sexuality in the 1980s teen genre. The nerds in Revenge get 'rehabilitated' (Kendall,
1999: 260) and a new identity is achieved.
Another example of the nerd who shares similar characteristics to those in
Revenge is Ted, 'The Geek', played by Anthony Michael Hall in John Hughes'
romantic comedy, Sixteen Candles. This was Hughes' first examination of the teen
hierarchy within the high school system and the problematic nature of the labelling

of different youth groups. Ted's physical appearance fitted the nerd stereotype: 'Pint-
sized and pale-faced, his barely formed features dominated by a huge pair of
sheepish eyes' (Bernstein, 1997: 57). However, his general behaviour and attitude
eschewed rigid definitions, as Susannah Gora (2010: 50) points out: "The Geek' was a
nerd [but] he was no stammering, insecure, pocket-protector wearing dweeb. [He]
would be charming, ebullient, cocky...the self-described 'King of the Dipshits''.
Similarly, Thomas A Christie (2009: 66) comments on Ted and his geek friends,
'beneath their veneer of insecurity we are always made aware of the existence of very
distinct personalities.' Ted, like Lewis in Revenge, also has sex with the popular girl,
Caroline (Haviland Morris), at the end of Sixteen Candles. Therefore, the
transformation works both ways in the two films: the shallow popular girl has
become more of a complex character, distancing herself from her clichéd image as
she enters into a relationship with the nerd. Even the jocks undergo a
transformation, but this does not happen until the third instalment, Revenge of the
Nerds III: The Next Generation (1992), when one of the jocks says: 'As I sat last
night at the computer, I realized that...I was a nerd; and that there's a little bit of
nerd in everyone.'
Other nerds depicted in 1980s teen films do not undergo such significant
change as those in Revenge. For example, Brian in The Breakfast Club is described
as having a 'liminal masculine identity' (Kendall: 1999) and is the only character at
the end of the film who is not romantically attached. Also, as referred to in Chapter
Two in Fast Times and The Last American Virgin, the nerd-like characters remain
virgins, despite trying to have sex. Brian in Fast Times, as Shary (2002: 34) explains,
at one stage is 'less developed and therefore viewed with pity and occasional
contempt.' He is shy and does not display any 'masculine' characteristics like the
nerds in Revenge, and he is reproved by the slime-ball Mike for still being a virgin.
However, the contradiction in this teenage myth of sexual awakening is that the
virgin Mark is the only male character in Fast Times who forms a loving relationship
by the end of the film.
Another aspect of Revenge which challenges the stereotypical image of the
nerd relates to issues of work, masculinity and the growing use of computers. The
nerd and the computer were inextricably linked during this period, and Lewis and
Gilbert say at the beginning of the film that they have chosen to attend their college
because it has the 'best computer department in the country.' This may reinforce

their nerd status, but at the same time it points to something more significant in
terms of the growing influence of computer technology and its relationship to
masculinity, as Kendall (2011: 505) observes: 'The increasing legitimacy of expertise
in computers as a form of masculine prowess.' Computers in the 1980s were a key
part of capitalist America and pioneers like Bill Gates and Stephen Wozniak (co-
founder of Apple) were 'geeky guys who couldn't get a date in high school [who]
became millionaires through the very act of technological manipulation which
labelled them nerds to begin with' (Kendall, 1999: 266). Therefore, if money and
power equates to masculinity this results in 'revenge' for this previously non-
hegemonic group' (ibid).
The image of the nerd in the 1980s teen genre comes under closer scrutiny
in the teen romantic comedy-drama Lucas, made in 1986, which treats its characters
with a degree of sensitivity and sincerity, as the shift away from the promiscuity of
the sex comedies becomes more evident. In a mythic context, it is the quintessential
American underdog fantasy, and the portrayal of the coming-of-age process avoids
cliché and takes the dual-focus jock-nerd relationship to a different level. Although
the title character, played by the late Corey Haim, fits all the physical signifiers of the
nerd ­ bespectacled, small, unkempt and seemingly undernourished, similar to
Brian's appearance in The Breakfast Club -- he is also extremely intelligent; he is 14
and 'accelerated', clever enough to study with older students in junior high. He falls
for the older popular girl, Maggie (Kerri Green), who is 16 and does not display any
of the antagonistic characteristics or relational aggression that other popular girls in
the genre do. However, she begins a relationship with one of the jocks, Cappie
(Charlie Sheen) who, like Maggie, from the beginning of the film does not conform to
stereotype. Shary (2002: 36) writes that he 'is a rare football player of some
integrity.' He is a friend of Lucas who protects him, although his courtship of Maggie
creates the central conflict of the film, as Lucas' failed attempts at transforming
himself in an effort to impress her are not successful and potentially dangerous -- he
joins the football team but gets injured during a game and ends up in hospital. His
transformation from a nerd to a more masculinised version of a teen is highlighted in
the film's final scene. Though he may not lose his virginity like the nerds in Revenge,
his bravery on the football field and subsequent hospitalisation garner him the
respect of the jocks who previously taunted and bullied him. They give him a varsity
jacket and his transformation from nerd to unlikely hero is complete when Lucas

'proudly dons it to signify his triumphant ascent to a potentially new level of
masculinity in which he may gain both physical and sexual confidence' (ibid.). Here,
the liberation of the nerd and the blurring of boundaries and oppositions between
the teen stereotypes is not through sex, like in Revenge, but through being accepted
by his jock counterparts in terms of physical courage in the face of adversity. It is also
difficult to define the character of Lucas; his attempts to be more like a jock, although
impressive and admired by a cross-section of the teen community, nonetheless seem
difficult for him to sustain beyond the imagination of the film.
Unlike The Breakfast Club and other Hughes' romances, the teen stereotype
in Lucas and its relationship to social status is not a main issue. Lucas lies about his
background to Maggie, who is from a white-collar family. He says he lives in a big
house when, in fact, towards the end of the film it is revealed he lives in a trailer park
with an alcoholic father and his mother has left the family. Maggie's parents are also
divorced, so despite their economic differences the teens share parental disharmony,
again a unifying theme within the genre, and this time within a single film. Lucas is
seen to use his intellect to survive and social differences are not foregrounded, as
Shary (2011: 571) comments: 'Lucas is one of the few youth romances to introduce
class differences as a factor and then essentially disarm them.' As for status within
the teen hierarchy, Lucas initially regards as 'superficial' the jock football team and
the cheerleaders, the two clubs portrayed as having the most prestige. But when the
jocks accept him as their rightful peer at the end, they go through a positive
transformation, their clichéd image is overturned and the contradiction exposed,
unlike the jocks in Revenge and Porky's whose respective clubs remain elitist and off
limits to anyone not conforming to the footballer/cheerleader stereotype. It is also
another example, in adolescent terms, of the jock's relational aggressive
characteristics -- they are antagonistic towards Lucas but also show him kindness
and respect in the final scene (Mayeux, 2011).
The theme of jocks and other teen stereotypes experiencing transformation
and becoming more three-dimensional continues in the more serious, but still at
times comedic, The Breakfast Club. Teen roles and identity are closely interrogated
as adolescent angst is foregrounded more than in any other film discussed thus far.

The Breakfast Club
Made a year before Lucas in 1985, John Hughes' The Breakfast Club is
arguably the best-known teen movie of the 1980s. The following analysis examines
and deconstructs the oppositions within the five main stereotypes of the American
high school system: the jock, the nerd, the popular girl, the delinquent and the rebel.
It will develop in much more detail what has been written on the teen stereotype thus
far, as well as on the teen/adult relationship. The film concerns the so-called
hierarchical structure of the American high school and its chain of command, and
this research will examine the flaws and contradictions within this system. There is
no physical sex in the film, although the teens do discuss the subject and it is treated
with a level of seriousness not seen before in the genre. Banks & Bliss give it little
attention when writing about 1980s cinema and refer to it as 'innocuous' (2007: 127),
whereas Doug Rutsch points out that the film is still significant and influential today:
'The Breakfast Club is no cultural relic. Its examination of social classes, basic
human interaction and high school dynamics continues to make it fodder for college
classrooms' (2005: u. p.).
The film revolves around five high school students who have to spend a
Saturday in detention together in the school library: the jock: Andy (Emilio Estevez);
the nerd: Brian (Anthony Michael Hall); the popular girl: Claire (Molly Ringwald);
the delinquent: Bender (Judd Nelson), and the rebel: Allison (Ally Sheedy). Like in
Revenge, their stereotypical image and binary oppositions are made explicit from the
inception as the characters are portrayed by their differences in terms of social and
cultural status, academic ability and domestic/family life. As Jonathan Bernstein
points out, 'they are a quintet of representatives from disparate social groupings in a
controlled environment' (1997: 62). It is not just within this environment where the
drama plays out, it is within the 'rigid social system within the high school, and the
cliques which constitute the structure of this system' (Christie, 2009: 78). This is the
premise in which the film is presented, but as it approaches its resolution unlikely
romances ensue and 'the rigid order of things begin to crumble' (Lewis, 1992: 138).
Stephen Tropiano echoes this, 'their respective labels begin to fade as they let down
their defences and start to open up' (2006: 178). Like the sex comedies, The

Breakfast Club contains comic moments but the film attempts to represent and
foreground the emotional problems of the 1980s teenager with much more
seriousness than its predecessors.
In referring to Kinney (1993) and Milner's (2004) research into the different
teen groups within the American high school and their differences and similarities,
will establish the foundations for the teen stereotype here but again, these authors
research is somewhat limited as it does not take into account the transformations
characters go through. Milner outlines the different teen groups and their variations,
demonstrates how they operate within a 'hierarchical status system' and focuses on
modes of behaviour such as 'conformity' (2004: 93), which help shape and
characterise the individuals and the groups. His research reveals that teens were
'stratified by status and most had variations on a common structure' (ibid: 40), and
most high school students are organised into sets of crowds and cliques with
distinguishable identities and most students are associated with one of these
particular identities. The details of these groups can vary from school to school and
year to year, but the basic structure is common to most hierarchical high schools.
(ibid: 43)
What are the characteristics of the members of these groups or cliques which
Milner refers to, and how does his research relate to the hierarchical structures and
stereotypical characteristics with regards to The Breakfast Club? Firstly, Milner
discusses the so-called 'top' of the pecking order
the image-obsessed 'preps'
including popular types such as the prom queen and jocks. Those at the bottom were
the 'nerds' or 'geeks', typically (male) virgins, socially awkward and inept and who
focused on their studies, usually maths or science, like Brian in The Breakfast Club
and the Revenge nerds. This leaves the criminal/delinquent and rebel, who would
probably fit closer into the lower end of the high school self-styled pecking order. The
delinquent would be nonconformist or apathetic to any chain of command structure.
But what is of interest in The Breakfast Club, and not revealed in Milner's research
about teen stereotypes, is the contradictions within this system and how they expose
a more truthful depiction of adolescence within a fictional narrative.

In the first instance, how does John Hughes establish the protagonists'
stereotypical characteristics? Towards the end of the opening credits, a quote from
the David Bowie song, `Changes', appears as an intertitle against a pane of glass, in
which 'the songwriter berates the adults intervening in the adolescents' world and
admonishes them that their children are well aware of the tasks before them' (Kaye &
Ets-Hokin, 2000: 111). The glass shatters to symbolise how these teens react against
the adult world. Over a montage of images of the high school the voice of Brian is
heard reading out a letter written by him (at the end of the film) to the teacher, Mr
Vernon (Paul Gleason), who takes the detention. This introduces the premise of the
You see us as you want to see us -- in the simplest terms, in the most convenient
definitions: a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Correct?
That's the way we saw each other at 7:00 this morning. We were brainwashed.
The opening scene acts as a mini-like narrative and foreshadows and codifies
one of the main semantic/syntactic features of the film: the relationship between
teenagers and their parents. Immediately, they are recognisable by their stereotypical
high school identities. After the opening credits, the camera focuses on the front of a
Mercedes Benz car, or more precisely, a 'swank sedan' (Wood, 1986: 63), framing its
logo in close up to emphasise the wealth of the owner, a character who is successful
in Reagan's capitalist America. Claire and her father are the occupants and her role
as the rich popular girl (the princess) is immediately established. Her father's attire
reinforces their wealthy status: he wears a Burberry scarf and a 'Brooks Brothers suit'
(ibid.). Claire is pretty, pristine, clean-cut and 'exudes an elite nonchalance' (Shary,
2002: 31). She is like Cinder in Little Darlings and Betty in Revenge of the Nerds,
but her character is revealed as more complex and later is treated with a degree of
seriousness and sensitivity. Her visage conveys her displeasure at why such a prom
queen would have to attend detention, 'for skipping class to go shopping' -- an
activity which Scott Long (1990: 157) explains as 'a social function' in this context:
The teenage years became a training-ground for consumption...In the arena of
adolescence, people learned to satisfy their needs with objects; they were taught the

flat obligation and the intricate techniques of consumption. Teenagers turned into a
market; they went to the mall.
This social function reached its peak in the money-obsessed 1980s, a theme which is
investigated later in relation to Valley Girl, consumerism and the shopping mall. As
Claire leaves, her father gives her a gift as if to buy her off, which suggests her
emotional detachment from him. Indeed, all the parents are portrayed as:
Essentially faceless and voiceless, because they have no identities beyond their
complaints, parents in the film are drivers who transport their children to and from
detention, goad them with criticism, and ultimately, represent the source of their
children's inadequacies. (Charney, 1996: 30)
This estrangement is linked to what Palladino (1996), Steinberg & Kincheloe (1998)
and McMahan (2009) referred to in the last chapter, with regards to teenagers in the
1980s becoming more distant from their parents and more independent, compared
to previous generations. Landes (2001) develops this and argues that it relates to the
fact that parents were spending more time at work than ever before and less time
with their families in the Reagan era. This created a tension as teens became starved
of attention from their parents, a recurring and coalescing feature of the 1980s genre.
However, the irony is that while teens complained about, and rebelled against, their
parents in The Breakfast Club and other teen movies featuring affluent characters,
they still benefited from the privilege bestowed upon them and wealth in terms of the
expensive cars and clothes bought for them, and their Ivy League educations.
Next is Brian, the nerd (the brain), who is seen with his mother and younger
sister. An oppositional structure is evident here to Claire in terms of wealth. Brian
appears to be from more of a blue-collar background: the family car is less expensive,
his clothes are drab, connoting a lack of fashion sense. This is compounded, as David
Denby (1985) in Shary (2002: 34) observes, by his 'pale skin, pale-blue eyes, and
almost milky blond hair; he's bodiless, almost translucent.' Although Claire 'exhibits
a snobbish attitude toward Brian...the working class member of the group' (Shary,
2002: 63), he shares with her the estrangement with a parent, in his case a
demanding mother who shows little sympathy towards his plight. This is another
example of similarities creating unity, this time within the individual film, and it also

prefigures scenes later in the story. However, Brian, unlike the nerds in Revenge, is
desexualised and clearly contrasts against the stereotypical jock image, that is, 'lack
of sports ability, small body size, lack of sexual relations with women' (Kendall, 1999:
Andy, the jock (the athlete), is the next to appear and his characteristics are
defined in a similar way to Claire and Brian in terms of mise-en-scène and the
attitude of the parent figure, his father. His jock status is apparent from his wrestling
jacket; he appears pumped-up but tense; his father calls him 'Sport' and, like Brian's
mother, is demanding. They pull up in a huge jeep, conveying an aura of masculinity
and authority: 'the heavy guy in the heavy station wagon' (Wood, 1986: 63).
According to Marianne H. Whately in her article on teen cinema and The Breakfast
Club, the car becomes a phallic symbol: 'The possession of a powerful expensive car
[is] a sign of male power' (1988: 114). Like the jocks in Porky's and Revenge of the
Nerds, Andy possesses other traditional characteristics associated with the jock
stereotype: physicality, aggression and uber-masculinity.
On his own, Bender (the criminal) enters the scene next and is described as a
postmodern version of 'a classic Dead End Kid' (Wood, 1986: 63), linking images of
youth from 1930s cinema to the 1980s. He is the delinquent who, according to
Milner's research, is defined in opposing terms to jocks by being at the bottom end of
the scale in the high school caste system: 'Anyone who is not a jock...might be
labelled 'alternative'' (2004: 40). On the surface, Bender's appearance is more
explicit and his costume makes him stand out as it conveys his rebelliousness and
nonconformist attitude. As Bordwell and Thompson explain, 'costume can have
specific function in the total film, and the range of possibilities is huge, [and] can
play important motivic and casual roles in narratives' (2008: 122). His shoulder-
length hair, long coat, shades and black combat boots compared to the more
conventional costumes of the three aforementioned characters, reveal his opposing
values to the so-called higher status of the jocks and popular girls. Milner writes
about the alternative characters within the high school system and Bender falls into
this category with his 'bizarre dress and hairstyle, [rejecting] both adult authority
and the cultural dominance and superior status of the popular crowd' (2004: 42).
Shary echoes this description of Bender, 'he lurks behind shades and working-class
garb' (2002: 31).

Lastly, Alison (the basket case) appears. She gets out of the car, her parents
remain unseen, goes to say goodbye, is ignored and they drive off. She is the rebel
and appears to be the most non-conformist of the whole group and, like Bender, is
framed in medium-long shot, which contrasts against the three other characters who
were framed in medium close-up inside the car with their parents present. This
distancing effect is both literal and metaphorical, as mise-en-scène separates them
from the others on account of their status. Furthermore, the oppositional forces
already evident between parent and teenager appear more extreme in Bender's and
Alison's case, as their estrangement is augmented by the fact that their parents are
not seen or heard. Alison's costume is also revealing in terms of characterisation. She
dresses down and hides behind her black make-up and clothes.
Shary's analysis of the stereotype in 1980s teen movies points to the
similarities between the nerd and the delinquent, which continues to bring these
contrasting images of teens together: 'As with nerd characterizations, the great
majority of delinquent characters are male and from lower-class backgrounds'
(2002: 41). Therefore, even at this early stage, the teen stereotype is being
deconstructed and the myth is being exposed, albeit implicitly. Although they are
polar opposites in terms of academic ability, appearance and physicality, their
comparable qualities foreshadow events to come, as the characteristics between the
protagonists become blurred, giving rise to a more problematical and ambiguous set
of agendas. The antagonism between teen and parent/adult has been established in
the first few minutes and is summed up in colourful terms by John Bernstein,
echoing the above quote by Charney (1996), as he regards parents and adults in the
Hughes' films as `cringing, vindictive...bewildered and spiritually
undernourished...criminal in their neglect and simpleminded' (1997: 52). Or to put it
less dramatically, as Graham Turner (2006: 235) explains: 'The Breakfast Club, and
other teen movies -- conflicts between individual self-expression...and social
restraints are articulated in different ways...the key constraining influences are
parents and schools.'
Once all the students meet in the classroom and detention begins, the
oppositional structures are amplified. The various differences between the students
These two quotes from Bernstein and Turner can be traced back to what was written in the literature review
about the different style of writing about the teen film. Although they are saying the same thing about the
parents, the language differs. Bernstein writes from more of an informal perspective, where Turner writes
academically. See also next footnote.

are first demonstrated not by dialogue but by the positioning of the characters within
the composition of the shot, which alludes to the so-called hierarchy within the high
school. As William H. Phillips points out: 'How filmmakers position people and
objects in the background and how they situate them in the foreground are options
that influence what the images communicate' (2009: 45-46). Bach (2006: 73)
explains when referring to this scene in the film that it 'emphasizes the function of
social groups on identity formation in high school which not only determines who
sits where but who can occupy what role in this space.' A close textual analysis of one
shot in this opening scene, lasting only a few seconds, will foreground the themes
under discussion, not only between the students, but between teacher and student.
The two popular figures, Claire and Andy, who appear to be acquainted, sit next to
each other at the front of class towards the left of the screen. They are sitting upright
and paying attention to the teacher, Mr Vernon, who is in charge of detention. Their
presence in this shot conveys an air of conformity; they appear to be trying to set an
example to the other students, amplified by their subsequent behaviour in the next
few scenes, reaffirming their roles as the students supposedly at the top of the school
hierarchy. Being at the front of the class, the jock and the popular girl at this stage
can be viewed symbolically in terms of what Kinney (1993: 23) refers to as
'adolescent socialization', where teens of these groups are highly visible within the
space of the high school. For instance, they take part in extracurricular activities,
which has an effect on how they are perceived within the youth community. They
participate in school activities like football, basketball and cheerleading, and are
involved in groups which offers them a degree of power and authority, for example,
the student government and the year book, like the jocks in Revenge. This, in theory,
works to 'express significantly higher levels of self-esteem than do their peers who
are members of less popular groups', like the other three who 'do not participate in
widely recognised extracurricular school activities' (ibid.)
Sat behind them is Bender, his seating position extending the metaphorical
nature of the scene. As mentioned above, his blue-collar status and role as a
delinquent suggest he is below Andy and Claire within the high school chain of
command (although when he starts to exert his influence on the proceedings he is
later seen on the same level as them). He is slouched in his chair, his feet on another
chair and he is looking away from the teacher. He is playing the classic delinquent

role, rebelling against authority which 'draws attention to his thuggish attitude'
(Shary, 2005: 68).
Opposite Bender is Brian, who sits in a similar conforming posture to Andy
and Claire but behind them. Like Bender, the nerd is low in the high school pecking
order. However, although the differences between them are obvious, the fact that
Brian and Bender are sitting on the same plane supports Shary's above statement
that nerds and delinquents come from the same social background. This continues to
create a bond between these two disparate figures, which suggests at this early stage
that the rigid definition of the teen stereotype is beginning to be deconstructed.
Sat right at the back of the class, turned away from everyone is Alison who,
like Bender, and to an extent Brian, is the outsider or the 'Other'. At first, she comes
across as an extreme version of the rebel outsider, as Shary observes, 'she seems to
have no status at the school at all; since she is so unknown; she does not even speak
to her detention peers until the day is half over' (2005: 70).
At the top of the class, lording over the students, is their teacher, Mr Vernon.
His positioning here would appear to reinforce his authority, but the image tells a lie,
exposes the contradiction within the student/teacher opposition and prefigures
events to come. As the drama unfolds, Vernon is depicted as an 'antagonist and fool
[and] has absolutely no legitimate authority in the eyes of these students' (Bulman,
2004: 105-106). Loukides and Fuller (1996: 30) describe him as 'a nincompoop, a
preening peacock who hates his job, detests his students, and has an inflated sense of
superiority.' His authority is immediately challenged when Bender makes a
humorous remark about his suit: 'Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?'
This provokes laughter from Claire and Andy, hinting at the bond which will develop
between the students. This slur costs Bender another Saturday in detention, as
Vernon attempts to establish his authority with his retort: 'Don't mess with the bull
young man or you'll get the horns.' Additionally, Vernon has his back to camera; the
spectator does not see his face which implies an emotional distance -- much like the
negative portrayal of the parents in the first scene.
On the one hand, the shot is unbalanced, asymmetrical and lacks unity, which
anticipates the following scenes of disharmony and conflict. Conversely, the issues
are made more complex and ambiguous as it also hints at harmony between the
teens, especially in their relationship with the teacher whose intransigent attitude
eventually galvanizes this disparate group; 'his rants against their worthlessness only

serve to bond them together as students, in spite of their differences' (Bulman, 2004:
106). Therefore, within the first five minutes -- the establishment phase of the film in
terms of what Schatz (1991: 30) outlines -- the mise-en-scène has revealed a 'generic
community with its inherent dramatic conflicts', but also foreshadows a certain
togetherness which will be played out towards the end of the film.
Before any tangible transformation takes place, the students start to interact
and 'portray their initial defensive posturing while they feel each other out' (Kaye &
Ets-Hokin, 2000: 111). They act out their roles in a variety of ways, most notably
through an exchange of verbal insults relating to their lifestyle, family life and status
of their respective stereotypical images. But, as referred to above, there are hints
which reveal contradictions and challenges to the so-called rigid system of high
school stereotype. Throughout the establishment, animation and intensification
stages of the narrative which Schatz (1991) refers to, there is a 'blurring of
distinctions within the high school hierarchy' (Speed, 1998: 104). This is played out
until the resolution, 'where each character has undergone a life-altering revelation of
the injustices of social stereotyping and confronted their own personal flaws' (Lee,
2010: 47).
Bender is portrayed as the aggressor and his behaviour towards the other
students at first perpetuates his delinquent label. But beneath the surface, his
attitude and identity reveal a more complex and ironic set of characteristics, as Shary
he is the catalyst who initiates the intense dialogue among the students, and despite
their initial disdain for him, they recognise that his disinterest in social acceptance is
not genuine but is demanded by his image, which is itself motivated by an intense
hatred of his abusive parents. (2005: 68)
The contradiction here is that, far from being at the lower end of the high school
caste system, it is Bender who shows leadership qualities. It is he who provokes
much of the debate and, in doing so, is portrayed as more of a romantic figure.
In a key early scene, he tampers with the door that separates the students
from the teacher in order to fix it permanently closed, which 'effectively forges the
group, pressing toward greater honesty with each other and a consequent
deconstruction of their role...the adolescents draw a boundary, creating their own

peer group' (Kaye & Ets-Hokin, 2000: 111-112). They are now both literally and
metaphorically separated from the adult world of authority and Bender urges them
to 'get real'. He initiates discussions into issues concerning sexuality, loss of virginity
and parental relationships -- subjects which had not yet been discussed in depth in
the 1980s teen genre and are pivotal to a young person's identity and development.
Levy-Warren's (1996) comments, quoted in Kaye & Ets-Hokin, (2000: 111), relate to
this: 'Adolescents must permit themselves to become aware of those to whom they
are attracted, what they wish to do with them, and how it feels to be involved
physically and emotionally with the same person.'
The narrative enters the conflict phase, or how Schatz (1991: 30) puts it: the
'animation' and 'intensification' stages. The verbal insults begin to start, leading to
tension and threats of physical violence as the teen stereotype is defined more
acutely; but despite the hostile atmosphere, slowly, a unity develops. Bender starts to
taunt Andy and Claire, mocking their roles as jock and prom queen. He says to Andy:
'Well hey, Sporto! What'd you do to get in here? Forget to wash your jock?' About
Claire, who he sarcastically refers to as 'sweets', 'cherry' (slang for virgin) and a
'richie', he suggests to the others that they get her 'impregnated'. Andy retorts and
berates Bender, 'if you disappeared forever it wouldn't make a difference. You may as
well not even exist at this school.' Bender momentarily looks upset at this remark;
shot in medium close-up so his expression is clearly visible, his status within the high
school caste system is bluntly conveyed. His face conveys an indication of the
emotion that will follow in the final act.
During the lunch scene, there is a number of visual signifiers symbolic of the
characters' difference to one another in terms of their social status and relationship
with their parents. Lesley Speed writes about this scene: 'What a person eats for
lunch becomes a reflection of his or her identity' (1998: 106). Brian's meal is dull and
ordinary, reflecting his emotional detachment from his humourless parents who
expect him to achieve academic excellence. Andy's lunch box is overloaded with a
variety of food containing a high level of carbs to reinforce his macho persona,
demanded of his father who will not accept second best. Claire has an expensive
sushi dish packaged in an attractive box with chopsticks which Bender has never
heard of. This demonstration of wealth and materialism (like in the opening between
Claire and her father) bolsters her rich-kid status and her parents' need for her to feel
'special'. Alison has a can of coke which overflows. She discards the food her parents

(who ignore her) have prepared for her, and hastily prepares and eats a sugar and
Cap 'n' Crunch sandwich. Bender does not have any food.
This leads to a key scene concerning the students' domestic lives and
relationships with their parents, 'eating lunch becomes the catalyst for a series of
taunts and arguments which highlight the markedly different domestic environments
of these characters' (ibid.). Bender, in a mockingly theatrical facade, acts out a family
scene in what he perceives to be Brian's typical home-life situation: a companionable
father-son relationship. When challenged by Andy on what his home life is like, he
again adopts a theatrical pose and sarcastically acts out a scene to illustrate his
abusive treatment by his violent father, both verbal and physical; he shows a cigar
burn on his arm to Andy, inflicted by his father -- framed in extreme close up in
order to intensify the dramatic nature of the scene -- a punishment he received for
'spilling paint in the garage.' Two extremes of domestic family life are brought into
sharp focus by Bender whose presence dominates the screen here. He then goes on to
vent his anger and jettisons a pile of books from a table. According to Shary (2005:
220), his
class status is integrally linked to his rage and his role in the school...a direct
connection between Bender's poverty and his aggression, which stems from living
under abusive parents and the popularity regime of wealthier kids at school.
In the lunch scene, Claire and Bender's identity in terms of class can also be
viewed in a broader political context within 1980s America, and is another example
of the dual-focus text which Altman (1999) regards as a key structural aspect in genre
cinema. As indicated above, Claire and her family represent the success and affluence
of the Reagan era. Bender is at the opposite end of the socioeconomic scale, in a
group which became marginalised by the neoliberal economics of the period,
signifying the film could be seen as a microcosm of this social divide. Furthermore,
Bender's aggressive behaviour could be linked to an adolescent phase which, as
Erikson (1968: 130) suggests, may be destabilising in his attempts to form an
identity, if the 'environment tries to deprive him to...develop and integrate...he may
resist with the wild strength encountered with animals who are suddenly forced to
defend their lives.'

The next part of the film highlights and develops the key semantic feature of
risk-taking in the teenage years, which has been discussed in the context of Hall
(1904), Arnett (1999) and others, concerning the 'storm and stress' phase of
adolescence in relation to teen virginity loss in the sex comedies. Here, it takes a
different form but is nonetheless another example of the subgenres coming together
to form a coherent whole. In The Breakfast Club, risk-taking is more aligned with the
'conflict with adults' phase. The group leave the library and head for Bender's locker
where his marijuana is stashed. He says to Claire: 'Being bad feels pretty good, huh?'
This act of risk-taking signifies the teenagers' necessity for exploration and
enlivenment and, in the process, reaffirms their separation from the adult world by
breaking the rules of detention laid down by Vernon. The act also binds them
together as a group with a committed show of strength which serves to reassure them
about their own uncertainties and vulnerability. For the first time, a palpable sense
of unity has been established and their differences are temporarily non-existent. In
narrative terms, the film is now building towards a resolution and what Will Wright
(1975: 186) refers to as a 'statement that explains a change in the situation. It is
through the logic of this situation that a narrative 'makes sense'.' This development
and sense of harmony is reflected by a change in visual style as a series of fast cuts
and several stylised montage sequences capture the students' rapid movement
through the corridors as they try to avoid Vernon. The school here, as Lesley Speed
(1995: 27-28) points out, serves as a site for teen rebellion against authority: 'the
oppositional aspects of teen enjoyment are heightened by being situated within a
politics of educational discipline.' This rebellion is reinforced by the soundtrack
which accompanies the action: a fast-paced pop song, Fire in the Twilight, by Wang
Chung. Speed notes that, 'popular music is firmly linked to youth liberation and
rebellion' (ibid.). When the students realise they have reached a dead end and will be
caught, Bender again exhibits strength and courage, setting out on his own knowing
Vernon will catch him and the others will return to the library unnoticed. Bender is
subsequently locked in a cupboard by Vernon but escapes and returns to the group.
As soon as they start to get high on Bender's dope all the social barriers begin
to break down and the teenagers transform from stereotypes into archetypes. In his
book, Story, Robert McKee explains the difference between these two opposing
terms, which is highly relevant in relation to this film:

The archetypal story unearths a universally human experience then wraps itself
inside a unique, culture-specific expression. A stereotypical story reverses this
pattern. It suffers a poverty of both content and form. It confines itself to a narrow,
culture-specific experience and dresses in stale, nonspecific generalities. (1999: 4)
The 'unique cultural expression' in this case is teenage malaise and angst revolting
against adult and parental culture. Furthermore, each character is trapped by their
image and 'nonspecific generalities', i.e. the stereotypical characteristics attributed to
teenage groups. As the characters change, the tone becomes confessional and
conciliatory, which rubs against the abrasive and confrontational atmosphere
pervading the film up to this point, thus setting up another binary opposite and
adding more depth and meaning to the narrative as it reaches its resolution.
When Brian gets high he is particularly funny and his transformation is
radical (but temporary); as Shary explains: 'Nerds most often attain their liberation
through some abandonment of academics' (2002: 32). Much like the nerds in
Revenge but to a lesser extent, Brian has shed his stereotypical image and, in a
similar vein, both Claire and Andy, while under the influence of marijuana, parody
their roles as prom queen and jock: the former by saying how 'popular' she is in an
ironic, self-deprecating manner; the latter, by aggressively running and dancing
round the library, mocking his jock image. By smoking pot with Bender, Claire makes
it known that 'she is attracted to [his] delinquency because she longs to be deviant
herself' (Shary, 2005: 69) -- further evidence of how the oppositional structures
within the teen stereotype are exposed as contradictory, even if it takes the use of
recreational drugs to achieve this.
The act of dancing to popular music and getting high further extends and
deconstructs social, emotional and economical barriers. It continues to eliminate the
differences and oppositions between the characters. Lesley Speed argues that this
creates a sense of utopia and a kind of extended family is established, with Bender as
the father-figure. The scene represents,
a relaxing of inhibitions with the affirmation of a new intimacy...a sense of
community is associated with the shared consumption of popular culture...The

desire to invest commodity culture with a sense of community is fundamentally
utopian. (1998: 106)
This behaviour sets the foundation for what Shary calls 'the film's climactic set
piece -- an extraordinary 20-minute scene of non-stop communal confession' (2005:
69). Here, the issues are laid bare and the myth of the teenage high school
stereotype, and the oppositional structures which are supposed to define them, are
exposed as hypocritical. It reinforces the structuralist approaches of this thesis in
terms of what Lévi-Strauss and, later, Will Wright discuss in relation to how binary
oppositions function to expose contradictions within a story, and how they comment
on a culture as a whole. In the scene, there is no hierarchy, all the characters are
equal as the truth emerges and the group is galvanised. The camera movement
emphasises this new sense of togetherness -- each character is framed equally as it
slowly rotates around them -- which contrasts against the opening scenes in relation
to their parents' cars, seating positions and the food they eat for lunch. The film has
entered its resolution stage and, to reiterate what Schatz says above, it 'eliminates the
physical and/or ideological threat and thereby celebrates the (temporarily) well-
ordered community' (1991: 30). The slow-moving camera also captures the
contemplative and introspective mood of the teenagers as they reflect on their
positions within a world where they struggle to express themselves.
As alluded to in the early scenes and up to this point, the primary source of
their anger is their relationship with, and opposition to, parents who, like their
teacher Mr Vernon, are symptomatic of a corrupt and antagonistic adult world.
David Edelstein (1985) cited in Shary (2002: 43) explains:
When they realise they're united against a common enemy -- the teacher, their
parents, adults in general -- they begin to open up confessing sins and fears and telling
stories. And all, in their way, feel trapped by their images.
Brian speaks of the pressure his parents put him under to receive high grades and
that he contemplated suicide when his 'average' slipped because he got an F. Andy
explains the reason he is in detention is because he humiliated a weaker student
while his friends 'laughed and cheered me on'. A scene of this nature would have
been played for laughs in the sex comedies; for instance, in Porky's when Miss

Balbricker is subjected to ridicule by her colleagues in her attempts to identify and
apprehend the students who were present during the shower block/peephole
episode. In The Breakfast Club, the true emotional consequences are conveyed,
which marks a shift in the tone of the 1980s teen genre, from vulgar humour
involving groups to more of a personal and intimate individual reflection. Andy
admits that he carried out this act to gain the respect of his father, who constantly
challenges his masculinity and by stressing the 'win, win, win!' attitude, a key
philosophy of Reagan's America. His relationship with his father also reflects what
Spencer Bloch (1995), in Kaye & Ets-Hokin (2000: 114), discusses in terms of the
'adolescents' need for sponsorship...this comes forth from the parents...when it is not
available... their growth becomes twisted or aborted.' Furthermore, this may point to
Bender and his 'twisted' behaviour and relationship with his parents. Andy also
admits that another motivating factor which led him to carry out the attack was how
he perceived himself, not only in the eyes of his father, but his peers. Erikson (1968:
128) explains that this is one of the psychological features of adolescence which
causes problems in searching for a true identity: 'They [adolescents] are sometimes
morbidly, often curiously, preoccupied with what they appear to be in the eyes of
others as compared with what they think they are.' Moreover, developing the
relational aggression characteristics of the popular teens, Andy is another example of
how the image of the teen stereotype is more complex than its surface appearance
suggests. Lara Mayeux (2011: 349) writes on the oppositional nature of this
behaviour: 'Perceived popular adolescents are...complicated. Paradoxically they are
seen as having both positive qualities, such as leadership skill and kindness and
negative ones, including physical, verbal, and relationship aggression.'
Alison says she is a nymphomaniac, which prompts a frank discussion about
sex and virginity -- a new development for the 1980s genre. Claire, under intense
pressure from the others, admits to being a virgin -- a statement which challenges
the perception of the popular girl within the high school caste system, much like
Linda in Fast Times and Cinder in Little Darlings. Alison then confesses to being a
compulsive liar and says: 'I never did it either' -- behaviour which may explain her
'basket case' label.
Claire goes on to complain that her parents hate each other and use her as a
pawn to fight their battles. Bender, at this stage, has 'the least to reveal' (Shary, 2005:
69) because he has already exposed so much of himself earlier. However, the

oppositional structure in relation to the rich/poor binary erupts again as Bender
vents his anger towards Claire, referring to her diamond earrings: 'I bet he [her dad]
bought those for you! I bet those are a Christmas gift! You know what I got for
Christmas this year? I got a carton of cigarettes.' Again, this outburst reaffirms the
above point relating to the widening divide between rich and poor, as Shary explains:
'Bender's group becomes a testament to Reaganomics and the stratification of
American class roles in 1980s America' (2005c: 220).
The film moves towards its conclusion and raises key issues concerning their
identity as teenagers, continuing relationship with each other, their parents and the
future. Andy asks: 'Are we going to be like our parents?, to which Alison replies,
'When you grow up your heart dies'. This statement lends itself to the notion of how
the oppositional forces that separate youth from adulthood will soon become blurred
and eventually 'adulthood [will] inevitably overtake them' (Bulman, 2005: 107).
Their stereotypical images have been deconstructed 'as they move beyond the
confines of their roles, identities and connect on a deeper, more intimate level' (Kaye
& Ets-Hokin, 2000: 114).
In the film's final scenes, two unlikely romantic unions are established:
Claire/Bender and Andy/Alison. Here, Hughes propagates the 'opposites attract'
myth and, in doing so, defies generic expectations and conventional wisdom as a
more complex, ambiguous and symbolic ending is played out. Shary (2005c: 220)
after he [Bender] ironically woos the prom Queen...she gives him one of her
diamond earrings...which may signify his 'payment' for relieving her of her
conceited arrogance (or virginity), and it also implicitly suggests a dual shift in
Bender's image...for he is now richer and feminine.
Alison and Andy's transformation is equally ironic given their two opposing
cultural backgrounds. Claire gives Alison a beauty makeover, which effectively turns
the basket case into a popular girl, 'thus modelling the less popular girl after her own
image' (Speed, 1998: 108). This new image attracts the attention of the jock as she is
now more 'traditionally' attractive, and they kiss at the end of the film. Her new
identity is revealed, which Shary (2002: 52) claims has more of a negative effect,
saying it 'diminishes her previous rebel status and provides simply another false

façade behind which she can hide her anxieties.' Hadley Freeman (2015: 80) echoes
this and is highly critical of Alison's transformation, noting that while Hughes'
female characters are usually strong-willed and independent, on this occasion, in
order for her to win the attention of the jock, she undergoes one 'of the most
misguided makeovers of all time, [swapping] her fabulous eyeliner for pink blusher
and quite a lame Alice-band.' Or as Steinberg and Kincheloe (1998: 113) put it, she is
now 'wearing a pink bow in her hair, a lace blouse and looks like a freshly scrubbed
teenager.' For Andy, this change points to his conflicted masculinity and his need to
explore more of an emotional and vulnerable side, brought out by Alison. At this
stage, another jock character in a 1980s teen movie displays similar delicate
emotions to Andy. Made a couple of years before The Breakfast Club, Tom Cruise's
character, Steff, in All the Right Moves is a football-playing jock who does not quite
fit the stereotypical image. Shary (2002: 74) points out, 'he does not exploit his
popularity [and is] troubled and frustrated.' Similarly, Traube (1992: 75) describes
him as 'decent, honest, industrious'. He could be described as the prototype 'sensitive
jock' (Shary 2002) of 1980s teen films. Although an infrequent characterisation
within the genre, it paved the way for the likes of Louden in Vision Quest and, to an
extent, the jocks in Lucas.
This transformation in the characters reinforces the romantic myth, as
illustrated by Galician: 'All you really need is love, so it doesn't matter if you and your
lover have very different values' (2004: 103). The paradoxical romantic union
between rich popular girl/delinquent boy and jock/rebel represents a radical shift in
their identity, something which did not seem possible up to this point, due to their
antagonistic behaviour towards each other. Conversely, the ending of The Breakfast
Club could be viewed, as Mark J Charney points out rather disparagingly, as
'unrealistic and...laughable', although he concedes that the 'idea of an extended
family, one that willingly accepts members for who they are, makes [the film]
successful at the box office' (1996: 34). Lesley Speed, like Shary, offers a more
sophisticated and thoughtful response and suggests that their unions work not just
on a 'verbal' and 'emotional' level, but on a metaphorical one, referring to the
'symbolic exchanges of the earring and the makeover [which] can be seen as attempts
to consolidate a reconciliation in light of the more problematic exchanges that have
taken place during the day' (1998: 108). The symbolism could also offer a possibility
that the personal and socioeconomic differences will be eradicated in the long term,

especially in light of when the group question whether on Monday morning they will
still be friends or will they ignore each other, as the world beyond the movie is
brought into focus. This issue illustrates the adolescents' search for an identity, as
Erikson (1950) explains, quoted in Kaye & Ets-Hokin (2000: 114), 'the struggle to
feel real, the struggle to go through whatever has to be gone through.'
As far as Brian is concerned, he does not really experience any radical
change in his personality (apart from getting high and dancing); therefore, his
stereotypical nerd characteristics and 'virginity' remain intact, just like in the sex
comedies: Mark in Fast Times and Gary in The Last American Virgin. While the
others pair off, he is left alone and is asked by them to write the detention
assignment for the whole group, which he 'kisses' after completion, suggesting his
'partner' is and will be his studies. Viewing this in relation to the theories of Lévi-
Strauss, the myth and contradiction of the nerd stereotype is real and in Brian's case
has not been overcome. As Shary points out: 'Unlike most nerd characters in other
teen films, Brian ultimately appears to accept his labelling' (2005: 70). This contrasts
with the nerds in Revenge who disavow their nerd stereotype. However, on one level,
because Brian has not changed like the others and has kept his independence, he can
be viewed as the least conformist of the group, which is ironic considering the so-
called 'rebel' personas of Bender and Alison. Steinberg and Kincheloe (1998: 109-
110), taking this analysis of Brian's status further, argue that he has transformed into
a 'maverick hero' by writing the essay, which in no uncertain terms tells the
parental/teacher and educational institutions to 'go to hell'. He can therefore be seen
in the same terms as the other male 'heroes' in the film, Bender and Andy. Altman's
notion of the generic template (1999) raises an interesting point here when
comparing Bender's rebel persona to James Dean's archetypal rebel in the 1950s.
Bender experiences a significant transformation when he becomes romantically
involved with Claire, whereas by the end of Rebel Without a Cause, Dean is left just
as alienated and his future remains more ambiguous.
The Breakfast Club's resolution in relation to the
structure outlined by Schatz (1991: 31) has eliminated 'the physical and/or
ideological threat and thereby celebrates the (temporarily) well-ordered community'.
Indeed, a resolution of sorts has been achieved and the contradictions and tensions
in class, stereotypes and gender have been overcome, although Brian's comments
about whether they will speak to each other on Monday suggest an uncertain

outcome. As referred to above, in treating genre as a kind of cinematic modern-day
myth, The Breakfast Club analysis here adheres to what Thomas Schatz proposes
(2003: 98),
a popular folktale [which] assigns a function that generates its unique structure,
whose function is the realisation of collective ideals, the celebration of temporarily
resolved and cultural conflicts, and the concealment of disturbing conflicts behind
the guise of entertainment.
Reinforcing this is what Thomas Sobchack (2003: 110) refers to as the
'cathartic potentials of the genre film' which 'can be seen in the way in which the
tensions of cultural and social paradoxes inherent in human experience can be
resolved.' Therefore, the myth in The Breakfast Club of the oppositional structures
between the different characters in terms of stereotypes, social status, popularity,
physical appearance is exposed as a lie in the final act. As Lévi-Strauss points out,
'myth progresses from the awareness of oppositions towards their resolutions...The
purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction'
(1968: 224-229).
In terms of the film's relationships and how they resonate with the emotional
development of the adolescents, the experience which the characters have gone
through in the context of what psychologists Brown and Theobald (1998) in Bach
(2006: 76) discuss, has
charged [them] with the task of achieving a 'sense of identity' -- crystallizing their
self-concept, positioning themselves on a career path, and embracing a set of
values and beliefs that will guide their choice of activities and interpersonal
The 'Ideal Male' and `Female'
The Breakfast Club and other 1980s teen films to what Robin
Wood (2003b) describes in his essay, 'Genre, Ideology, Auteur', as having 'ideal' and
'shadow' characteristics will develop the argument and widen the structuralist debate
in terms of the opposing nature of the different teen types and their roles. Wood's
essay is concerned with how Hollywood films reinforce capitalist ideology and links

this to 'the work ethic...success and wealth...happiness', and how problems are
'solvable', hence the happy endings in genre films (2003b: 61-62). Wood goes on to
discuss heterosexual relationships, gender roles and the family. What emerges from
this ideology, Wood claims, is that genre films produce the 'ideal male', one who is
the 'viral adventurer...potent, untrammelled man of action'; his 'shadow' is the
'settled husband/father...dependable but dull.' The 'ideal female' is the
'wife...mother...the endlessly dependable mainstay of heart and home'; her 'shadow'
is the 'erotic woman...adventuress...fascinating but dangerous' (ibid.). If this is
applied to The Breakfast Club before any transformation of the characters takes
place, Alison can be described as a shadow-type figure, not fitting the exact definition
of Wood's description, but a modified version: an outsider who Shary accurately
describes in this context as 'coiled-up and nonconforming in the shadows' (2002: 31).
Here, the mise-en-scène plays an important role as her black, Goth-like image and
costume reinforce her 'shadow' status. She says she is a nymphomaniac but then
admits this is a lie and that she is still a virgin, making her a 'dangerous' character.
Steinberg and Kincheloe (1998: 113) describe her as a 'renegade, a grunge girl who
really doesn't fit into the mainstream of high school.' But the transformation she
experiences at the end on account of the 'makeover' changes her more into an 'ideal'
female, her black clothing discarded and replaced with more classically feminine
attire. She now rejects her shadow role and becomes something more traditionally
acceptable to wider society and, in doing so, attracts the attention of the 'ideal' male,
Andy, the athlete/jock, the ' of action'. Alison and Andy now
represent the ideal white heterosexual couple in a capitalist society. Within the
context of this approach, we can see links back to the sex comedy, and thereby
generic cohesiveness: in Fast Times, Stacy's 'erotic woman' persona is part of her
syntactic characterisation for much of the film, but in the end she becomes the 'ideal'
female when she starts a relationship with Mark (ibid.)
In John Hughes' romantic comedy, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Ferris Bueller
(Mathew Broderick) and Sloane (Mia Sara) are an 'ideal' couple from start to finish:
he is active, she is passive. Both are from wealthy backgrounds and the film suggests
they will marry and live the American capitalist dream. But in this and other teen
films there are 'shadow' characters who often challenge and critique the dominant
ideological forces (Landes, 2001). The character of Cameron (Alan Ruck) is a
variation of the ideological `shadow', 'dependable but dull' (ibid: 62), to Ferris' ideal

man throughout most of the film. He is monotone, cautious, asexual and lacks Ferris'
sense of adventure. However, like other characters discussed in this chapter, in the
final act of the film he transforms into something more rebellious and critical of the
status quo when he destroys his father's car, an act of defiance which is analysed in
more detail in the Chapter Five.
the ideological position of the ideal
male surface in two other John Hughes romantic comedies, Sixteen Candles and
Pretty in Pink, starring Molly Ringwald in the lead roles. In both films, the Ringwald
character longs for the popular and rich ideal man: Jake (Michael Schoeffling) in the
former and Blane (Andrew McCarthy) in the latter. For much of the two films she is
romantically pursued by two shadow men whom she rejects, the aforementioned Ted
the 'Geek' in Sixteen Candles, and the effeminate Duckie (Jon Cryer) in Pretty in
Pink. She is faced with difficulties in establishing a relationship with the two ideal
men who 'both hold positions of power, due to social status and money, over
Ringwald's characters' (Landes, 2001: 23). In contrast, the shadow characters are her
friends, are not in any positions of power within the teenage hierarchy of these films,
and therefore will never be a suitable match ideologically. In the final act of both
films, the union is established between Ringwald and the popular characters as the
concept of the 'ideal couple' is realised. Any deviation from this would challenge the
boundaries of classic Hollywood narrative and the capitalist agenda of these films,
within the context of Wood's research.
The Breakfast Club, another film which challenged the jock stereotype
was Vision Quest. Matthew Modine plays the ideal male, the blue-collar Louden who
is from a single-parent family; his mother has left and he lives with his unemployed
father. His syntactic development differs from Andy in the Hughes' film in that, from
the beginning, Louden is portrayed as sensitive and thoughtful and does not
experience such a radical transformation in his character. He possesses all the
physical attributes of the stereotypical jock: he is muscular and constantly working
out and jogging; he is also seen as ambitious in his 'quest' to become the best wrestler
in the state. His winning mentality and individual spirit reflect the work ethic
required to succeed in capitalist America. He is a character in the Rocky tradition --
an underdog against whom the odds are stacked. Louden does not have rich parents
who can buy an Ivy League education for him; instead he has to attain a wrestling
scholarship in order to progress. His sheer determination to get the grades and win

the big wrestling match in the dénouement instils the film with what Stephen
Tropiano calls 'a Reagan-induced sense of individualism' (2006: 187). Echoing this
is Barker (2006, u.p.) who points out that Reagan's image as a former actor and the
`economic conservatism and relentless optimism' of his first term in office were
reflected in terms of the `social mobility' of the blue-collar characters displayed in the
films. Ideal males like Louden and Steff in All the Right Moves are key examples of
characters who achieve this success, from `proletarian to managerial class' (ibid.)
Pretty in Pink is another film which frames this issue within a romantic Cinderella
scenario with the poor girl who gets the rich boy. Moreover, Louden is a
representation of what Robin Wood (2003a: 147) refers to when he writes about
Hollywood films of this period: he is part of the 'capitalist myth of freedom of choice
and equality of opportunity, the individual hero whose achievements somehow 'make
everything alright'. He is similar to the Tom Cruise character in All the Right Moves,
another blue-collar teen hoping for a sporting scholarship to a college. Both are
unlike many other teen movie jocks; they are portrayed as being studious as they
need the required grades to get the scholarship. Louden is sensitive, shy and,
throughout most of the film, a virgin. Cruise's Steff does eventually have sex with his
girlfriend, but only after a couple of failed attempts. Also, the nerd/jock opposition is
becoming more blurred in this context relating to studies and sexuality. In a shift
from the comedies discussed thus far, both Vision Quest and All the Right Moves fall
under the subgenre of drama/romance, marking another variation in the tone of the
1980s teen genre. They further develop the hybrid nature of the teen films by
focusing on sports.
Despite his sensitive characteristics, Louden is an 'ideal' character, a man of
action, determined and highly motivated. He meets Carla (Linda Fiorentino), an
independent, free-spirited and sexually liberated woman who is slightly older. She is
a 'shadow' character, the 'erotic woman'. He becomes fixated with her and at one
point becomes jealous as she spends time with other men. They do eventually have
sex, but she subsequently leaves him unannounced. As Wood (2003b: 62) states, she
displays shadow characteristics by being 'adventuress...fascinating and, [she] betrays
the hero'. However, where in a film noir a shadow character may cause the downfall
of the male protagonist, in the 1980s teen genre Carla's 'betrayal' is seen in positive
terms. She returns to watch him in his wrestling match (which he wins) and explains
that she would be a distraction and may prevent him from achieving his goals. The

ending echoes what Wood concedes about these definitions, that in generic terms
they are full of 'contradictions' (ibid.). Although she is unconventional, Carla is not
seen as a negative influence on Louden's adolescent development. In terms of
Wood's theories, the ideal female character in Vision Quest, Margie (Daphne
Zuniga), is depicted as more of an appropriate match. She supports him throughout
the film and is seen as responsible and conventional, but Louden does not appear
interested in her. However, the end of the film suggests they may get together, thus
confirming an 'ideal' relationship which is more suited in ideological terms. In a
mythic context, the film is a modern jock fantasy, more complex and personal than
the likes of Porky's and Revenge of The Nerds in the shaping and development of a
fictional adolescent identity. As Shary (2012: 73) explains, 'the film offers a notion of
masculine fulfilment that is narrowly focused on sexual and physical achievement,
sustained through getting the girl and beating the guy.'
As mentioned towards the end of Chapter Two, The Sure Thing, directed by
Rob Reiner is, like Revenge, a transitional film between the sex and romantic
comedies, validating Richard Maltby's (2003: 74) assertion that 'Hollywood is a
generic cinema, which is not the same thing as saying that it is a cinema of genres.' It
stars John Cusack as a college teen, Walter 'Gib' Gibson who, during the Christmas
break, travels from the east coast to California where his friend Lance (Anthony
Edwards) promises him that he will have sex with the 'sure thing', played by
Nicolette Sheridan, the supposed 'erotic woman' in the context of Wood's research.
Lance asks Gib: 'How would you like to have a sexual encounter so intense it could
conceivably change your political views?' This question positions the film early on
within the sex comedy teen subgenre, although Gib is difficult to define in terms of
the teen stereotype. Initially, he displays jock characteristics, is seen playing
American football and is generally hyperactive: he is hormonally-charged like the
teens in the sex comedies, is on a mission to lose his virginity and indulges in
drinking games. He is the 'ideal' male and man of action. However, he also displays
quite eccentric, nerd-like characteristics. He shares the journey with one of his fellow
students, Alison (Daphne Zuniga), who is travelling to the same place to be with her
boyfriend. She is portrayed as clever, obsessive and preoccupied with schedules and
lists. She is more of a female nerd, a rare occurrence in the teen genre of the 1980s.
Her boyfriend, Jason, is the 'settled husband...dependable but dull' (Wood, 2003b:
62), unlike the free-spirited and spontaneous Gib, who attempts to romance Alison

during the course of the journey. They are incompatible at first; they argue and
bicker, but get together in the final act. The 'opposites attract' myth is evoked, just
like in The Breakfast Club.
What is revealing about the film is that it brings into sharp focus the
embarrassing nature of teen relationships, without them having sex. For example,
Alison and Gib have to share a bed together in a motel; they wake up in an embrace,
both are self-conscious and uncomfortable, but a connection has been established.
The film moves away from the sex quest theme, and examines the more intimate and
romantic nature of adolescent and romantic encounters. Also, The Sure Thing's
hybrid nature takes on new meaning as the syntactic elements of the film, the plot
structure in terms of the protagonists' journey and the development of their
relationship, imbues the teen genre with a road movie generic quality -- a rare
example in the 1980s.
In the film's final act, when Gib meets 'the sure thing', who is portrayed
rather stereotypically as a passive sexual object, she displays none of the 'erotic
woman' characteristics of Carla in Vison Quest. Her and Gib meet but do not have
sex (if the film was more of a sex comedy, they probably would have done). Alison
meets up with her 'settled husband' and realises that she is not part of his structured
and controlling lifestyle. The film's final scene sees Alison and Gib back at college on
the East coast, where they finally kiss and become a couple. In classic generic terms,
as Wood (2003b: 62) points out, 'the problems the film has raised are now resolved',
which, incidentally, is not quite the case with The Breakfast Club. Furthermore,
linking The Sure Thing back to the sex comedies, where sex at the beginning of the
film was treated as a stigma, by the end it is more akin to being a gift. The
representation of adolescent love and relationships in The Sure Thing is more
mature and intimate, as the genre's attitude continues to shift -- the hero choosing
romance over casual sex and remaining a virgin. The film's reactionary attitude
conforms more to the morally conservative values of the Reagan period and the
religious right, than the hedonistic nature evoked in the sex comedies. Moreover, The
Sure Thing's educational figure of authority is not depicted in a negative light like in
Fast Times and The Breakfast Club; here, the female English professor is portrayed
as having a positive effect and encourages the students' creativity. Education is a
significant thematic element, where it is largely ignored in other teen films of the era
and which are focused on in this thesis.

To conclude, the romantic comedies and dramas discussed in this chapter
feature a more morally conservative representation of the teenager than the sexually
liberated teens of the sex comedies. Their tone reflects the moral ideology of the
Reagan era and the growing rise of the religious right at a time when HIV/AIDS was
front-page news. However, the irony is that the teens in the films were becoming
more distant from their parents and the stability of the nuclear family -- an
important feature within conservative ideology -- was becoming more fragmented,
imbuing the issues with a degree of ambiguity. This shift in tone with regards to sex,
from stigma to gift, in conjunction with the strained teen/adult relationships,
illustrate that binary oppositional forces exist in the 1980s teen genre not just within
individual films, but also within a broader generic context between the subgenres.
Also of significance in the teen movie subgenres is not just the characters'
differences but their similarities, as the 1980s teen genre becomes more of a unified
and cohesive corpus of films. The protagonists in the sex comedies had none of the
politically subversive and countercultural attitudes of previous post-war youth
generations and this is extended to the teens in the romances and dramas. Echoing
Speed (1995) in the previous chapter, Lebeau (1995: 22) argues that John Hughes'
films are 'the symptom of a youth culture which is both self-obsessed and
anomic...which has betrayed the youth rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s.' The teens
rebel in the 1980s against the adult and parental cultures, but not against the wider
prevailing political and social order.
What has also emerged is that the films discussed in this chapter, more so
than the sex comedies, attempt to expose the myth of the teen stereotype and its
hierarchal structures, and create a more democratic representation of adolescence
through examining their differences and similarities. Differences in couples -- boys
and girls at different ends of the socioeconomic spectrum -- are brought into sharper
focus, issues such as social status and how this is positioned within the ideological
capitalist criteria proposed by Wood (2003b) during the Reagan era.
The subject of teen roles and their implications for youth culture and wider
societal issues will continue in the next chapter, while the focus will remain on the
romantic comedies and dramas of the period. The approach will mark a shift away
from the teen stereotype and the 'ideal' role. The research will draw on the theories
of characterisation and narratology of Vladimir Propp and apply them to the films,

an approach which will continue the structuralist and oppositional analysis,
highlighting the representational values of the 1980s teen genre.

Chapter Four
Propp's Tale Roles and Narrative Functions in the Teen Romantic
Comedies and Dramas
Applying the ideas of Vladimir Propp's character and narrative study of
Russian fairy tales from his book, The Morphology of The Folk Tale (1968), will
develop the notion of the teen 'roles' referred to thus far. It will also highlight the
films' narrative and dramatic structure. It must be emphasised that the purpose here
is not to foreground or update Propp's work, but to use his theories as a framework
in continuing the argument and debates surrounding the representational aspects of
teen culture and its wider sociopolitical issues.
What does Propp add to this thesis and how does his inclusion develop the
central argument? What are the limitations and possibilities in using this method of
study? A Proppian analysis shares similar characteristics with the structural debate
concerning how binary oppositions operate within a story, much like the ideas of
Lévi-Strauss and Altman's (1999) notion of the dual-focus text. For example, the
hero/villain oppositions which Propp discusses are applied to this chapter and evolve
the structuralist debate of the thesis. However, unlike Lévi-Strauss, Propp was
concerned with the narrative of a story and this relates to the syntactic axis of a film,
which again embraces Altman's ideas about genre. Indeed, Altman points out that
Propp was 'resolutely synchronic' (2004: 682) in his approach to structure and
narrative. Will Wright (1975) refers to Lévi-Strauss and Propp when writing about
the structural form of the Western. He was not just concerned with the binary
oppositions and relationships within the genre (cowboys/Indians;
garden/wilderness, etc.) and how these created meaning; he went a stage further and
questioned what happens to a story within its narrative structure, as Stam et al
(1992: 79) put it, 'emphasizing story events and temporal sequence.' This
corresponds to a Proppian approach and Wright acknowledges his own research as a
'liberalised version' of Propp (1975: 25). Furthermore, the teen films have a fairy tale
and mythic quality that links them to a Proppian tale: Valley Girl is a modern-day
Romeo and Juliet set against the backdrop of a Californian sunset; John Hughes'
Weird Science is a contemporary version of the Greek myth of Pygmalion; Pretty in

Pink is an updated version of Cinderella. Matthew Broderick, star of Ferris Bueller's
Day Off, quoted in Freeman (2015: 160), says the director John Hughes intended for
the film to be more of a 'fable'. In relation to the teen sites and space, the 'kingdom'
-- an archetypal site in the fairy tale -- becomes the high school in the teen film, and
the 'ball' becomes the prom. Valley Girl and Pretty in Pink are examples of this. The
prom becomes a ritualistic event and a rite of passage in a teenager's life,
representing the transformation into adulthood. For high school girls in particular, it
is like a wedding rehearsal, with the dress taking on almost magical, talismanic
Propp's work is limited in this context as it does not refer to mood, tone or
dialogue. It is his structuralist approach and character study which is of value to this
work and the tone and mood will be produced by the films. Also, Propp refers to
dragons and other mythical creatures/figures as villains, so these 'roles' in the teen
genre often become the jocks or adult characters. The villains are not necessarily
male; for example, this chapter discusses female villains in Heathers. Another
restrictive aspect is that Propp's writing was born out of Russian formalism, which
was scientific in nature. As Bordwell (1988: 16-17) points out, it is a 'taxonomic and
meaning-neutral recasting Propp [and] tinkering with his static
taxonomy, a relationship can be achieved.' Peter Wollen addresses this anomaly
when he discusses Propp and film genre in his essay, 'North by Northwest: A
Morphological Analysis', and states: 'I wanted to test Propp's method by applying it
not simply outside the field of the Russian the narrative field of the
cinema' (1975: 22). Others include Shelia Johnston's (2007) Proppian analysis of
Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and John Fell's (1977) work on Rio Bravo (1959).
So what are the principles of Propp's structural analysis and how can these be
applied to the teen movie? He identified 31 plot attributes in fairy tales which he
termed 'functions'. For example, one such function is 'Interdiction' (1968: 26), which
means the hero receives a warning about a possible threat. When characters carry
out these functions, Propp says they become 'spheres of action'. John L. Fell (1977:
19-20) explains in more detail:
By functions he [Propp] meant elements following chronological, linear sequence
which served as fundamental components, stably, independent of how or by
whom...they were fulfilled. An example would be hero and villain join in

combat...functions always followed the same chronological order...and describes an
astonishing uniformity of structure among all the apparently primary sources.
This approach can be applied to the teen genre and its narrative structure as, for the
most part, the films in this thesis follow a chronological and linear pattern. Propp's
purpose in studying folk tales was to identify recurring functions and themes, similar
to the way genre films work in terms of their repetitive nature, like the virginity loss
in the sex comedy. In a Proppian sense, this could be a function dubbed, 'Sexual
Initiation: the youth attempts to lose his virginity'. These similarities are extended to
the 'tale roles' or dramatis personae which Propp identifies as his main character
types: the villain, the donor, the helper, the princess and/or her father, the
dispatcher, the hero and the false hero. Some of these roles will be used here in a
contemporary form to suit the particular character and linked to the ideology which a
film is conveying. For example, Ferris Bueller's hero status is allied to his
mischievous nature, privilege and moneyed lifestyle, some key definers of the Reagan
era -- so the approach sustains the sociopolitical debate of the thesis, but expressed
in a way related to Propp's notions. Propp points out that a character may act out
several roles, for example, the donor may also act as a helper, the princess as a
dispatcher. It must be noted, however, that not all the functions and tale roles appear
in a single film, and to include them all within this chapter would be far beyond the
scope of the work.
Positioning Propp's tale roles in relation to the teen stereotype and Wood's
'ideal' male and female' is useful here as it continues the notion of the teen role and
its representative value, making this chapter a kind of companion piece to the last
one. The Proppian villain, for example, will be aligned with the depiction of the jock
in the previous chapter in order to contextualise the issues. They differ insomuch as
the basic role of the stereotype in this research is only relevant to the teen genre,
where Propp's tale roles are more archetypal, covering a broader canvas and not
limited to one genre (this is also the case with Wood's ideas). But they share
similarities in that the aggressive and confrontational jocks in Revenge, or Hardy in
Some Kind of a Wonderful, for example, could be viewed as Proppian villains. A
different role title but the same motivations and characteristics. This is an example of
how the different character types and roles serve the same function and unify the

Some Kind of Wonderful
The analysis will begin with an examination of the aforementioned romantic
drama, Some Kind of Wonderful, written and produced by John Hughes and directed
by Howard Deutch. This film is appropriate as several teen character roles and their
actions are compatible with Propp's tale roles and functions, so it will act as a kind of
paradigm for this method of study for the other films discussed in the chapter. The
plot concerns the protagonist, Keith (Eric Stoltz), who plays the tale role of a modern
Proppian hero. He comes into conflict with the rich kid, Hardy (Craig Sheffer), who
plays the villain and becomes his love rival and nemesis. Like other similar
antagonistic characters in the genre, they all experience little transformation in their
characters. Jon Lewis describes Hardy and other rich kids in the genre as 'dissolute,
bored and heartless' (1992: 140). The object of Keith and Hardy's affections is the
popular girl, Amanda (Leah Thompson), who, at the beginning of the film, is Hardy's
girlfriend and her tale role is the teen genre's Proppian princess. As noted, she is not
so well-off but hangs out with the rich crowd who have accepted her because of her
good looks and traditional appearance, despite her lack of status within the teen
hierarchy. The repetitious nature of genre is illustrated here as the film shares
similar themes to Hughes' Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club in its 'class-clash'
teen romance (Shary, 2011). Roz Kaveney (2006: 33) dubs Pretty in Pink its
'thematic stablemate'.
Keith is from a blue-collar family and is artistically inclined, thoughtful and
introspective; he is a character who is difficult to categorise. Lesley Speed (2002:
107) writes, he 'is a product of the romance genre's tendency to remodel masculinity
with an emphasis being placed on his gentle and artistic nature.' He is similar in this
respect to Louden in Vision Quest and Steff in All the Right Moves, but he is no
football-playing jock with all the masculine implications this entails.
Keith's best friend is the tomboy, the working class Watts (Mary Stuart
Masterson), who secretly desires him and is a similar type of outsider figure to
Duckie in Pretty in Pink, with their alternative dress sense and ambivalent sexuality.
She plays two Proppian roles in the film: first, the hero's helper; then later she
becomes the princess. Keith says to his father: 'I like art. I work in a gas station. My
best friend is a tomboy. These things don't fly too well in the American high school.'
Lewis (1992: 140) describes him as a 'hapless outsider'. Another key figure is the

delinquent, Duncan (Elias Koteas), the 'skinhead', who befriends the hero Keith and
ironically becomes his helper/donor.
In the beginning of the film, a montage credit sequence introduces the main
characters and an implicit connection is made between them. Certain functions also
emerge as Propp's narratology begins to take shape, which provides a framework for
a broader sociopolitical reading of the text. Keith is seen working his part-time job in
a gas station; Watts is playing the drums in her bedroom; Hardy is seen in a
relationship with Amanda which Kaveney (2006: 33) describes as 'an unfeigned
passion whose complexities we only learn about later.' The image in the next scene is
significant: Keith is framed walking 'moodily' (ibid.) along a railroad; a train is
heading towards him and he steps away just before the moment of impact,
suggesting he has some type of death wish, foreshadowing events to come. Towards
the end of the opening montage, Propp's functions begin to be applied to the action.
Keith, from a distance and obscured, sees Amanda and Hardy together in an embrace
-- Hardy drives off in his expensive sports car to immediately indicate his wealthy
status. Keith is framed in medium close-up and his charged look conveys his feelings
for Amanda. He looks at his hands, which are covered in oil and grime from his job at
the gas station, signalling his blue-collar background. Jon Lewis (1992: 140) observes
that this binary in relation to social status at such an early moment in the story
points to a wider discourse within teen culture, as already discussed in Chapter Two
in relation to Little Darlings and, more explicitly, with regards to The Breakfast Club
and the teen stereotype in the previous chapter:
The problematics of the romance are made obvious...Like Pretty in Pink the drama
is reduced to simplistic class issues...a high school rigidly organised according to
cliques that solely regard wealth in its division of society.
Keith makes sure Amanda and Hardy do not see him, invoking Propp's function: 'An
interdiction is addressed to the hero' (1968: 26), a warning that Keith should not get
involved, or as Propp puts it: 'You dare not look into this closet' (ibid.). The function
in this instance can also be related to the risk-taking phase of adolescence as it
transpires that Keith's sphere of action will expose him to a possible threat of
violence. Of course, he does get involved and, like Bender in The Breakfast Club,
Randy in Valley Girl, Andie in Pretty in Pink and Johnny in Reckless, he becomes a

contemporary version of the Proppian hero in the context of issues surrounding class
conflicts and hierarchy, which resonates with what Bulman (2004: 100) describes as,
student-heroes [who] express themselves in opposition to the tyranny of the middle
[and upper] class establishment...creativity and freedom are alive when they battle
the forces of conformity, status hierarchy and restrictive social conditions.
Later, Hardy and Amanda pull up to the gas station where Keith works and he
fills their car up with petrol. The affluent Hardy's villain persona is immediately
apparent in his condescension towards Keith and he warns him not to look at the
princess Amanda, his 'property', a word alluding to 1980s wealth and capitalism. The
'Violation of Interdiction' function is illustrated as the 'villain enters the tale. His role
is to disturb the cause some form of misfortune, damage or harm' (Propp:
1968: 27). 'Be nice to me or I'll make you check the tyres', he says scornfully. The
meaning here is more literal, compared to the opening scene where gesture and body
language conveyed denotation. Watts' role as a Proppian 'helper' is highlighted soon
after this scene. Keith tells her of his romantic interest in Amanda and Watts urges
him not to go near 'the big money, cruel hearts society' or 'go roaming where he
doesn't belong.' Again, invoking the 'Interdiction' function, he ignores her and does
venture into this potentially dangerous environment and the central conflict of the
narrative begins to evolve. Some Kind of Wonderful, like Pretty in Pink and The
Breakfast Club, as Ryan and Kellner point out (1988: 120), 'make class difference the
basis of their romantic plots, and they seem to mobilize persistent populist anger
against unjustifiable differentials in the distribution of wealth.' Moreover, the scene
resonates with what DeMott (1990: 12) asserts about the notion of a classless society
being a 'deceit'.
Propp's functions, 'Reconnaissance: The villain makes an attempt at
reconnaissance' (1968: 28), and 'Trickery...The villain uses persuasion...deception or
coercion' (ibid 29-30), are represented in terms of their relationship to the syntactic
nature of the story. Hardy has been dumped by Amanda and he becomes aware of
her and Keith going out on a date. Enraged, he devises a plan, that is, a 'sphere of
action' to lure Keith, his 'victim', into a deadly trap by inviting him and Amanda to a
party at his house where he and his friends plan to attack him. Hardy insists there
are no hard feelings and says to him: 'It wouldn't be the weirdest thing in the world if

we turned out to be friends'. This apparent attempt to bridge the class divide within
the American high school system makes Keith reply cautiously: 'Yes, it would'. Propp
refers to this: 'An inverted form of reconnaissance is evidenced when the intended
victim questions the villain' (ibid: 28). When Watts is told of this situation, she
agrees: 'Did I miss something, like a new world order?' Keith agreeing to go to the
party introduces another of Propp's functions: 'Complicity...The victim submits to
deception and...agrees to all the villain's persuasion [as] deceitful proposals are
always accepted and fulfilled' (ibid: 30). In addition, the 'Interdiction' function
intensifies this as it is clear that Keith is being set up and the spectator urges him not
to go to the party.
In relation to cliques and peer pressure during adolescence, as already noted
by Erickson (1968), Milner (2004) and McMahan (2009), Amanda is confronted
with similar dilemmas previously discussed in relation to The Breakfast Club and
Little Darlings. The group pressures her into staying with Keith and when she
refuses, the girls lambast and ignore her. She is no longer part of the popular girl
clique: 'She knows that to cease to be Hardy's girlfriend is to forfeit the social status
she required...if she is dating Keith, she no longer exists' (Kaveney, 2006: 35-36).
This incident could be interpreted within a couple of Propp's functions. In terms of
'Absentation', Amanda exposes herself to the censure of her peers by 'absenting'
(1968: 26) from the security of the family home, the 'family' here being the popular
girl clique. Her being banished from the clique, this is illustrated by the function
'Villainy', where the villain (Hardy) 'expels someone' (ibid: 33). Using Propp's
methods as a framing device to dramatise the recurring theme of peer pressure offers
a different approach in arguing how the teen genre engages and represents
adolescence and the coming-of-age process. It also continues to bring together the
subgenres of the teen film. The use of peer pressure, using this approach, also
demonstrates how this theme serves to unite the genre as a whole.
Part of Keith's sphere of action is illustrated through the Propp function of
'Transfiguration...the hero is given a new appearance...and puts on new garments'
(ibid: 62). A reading of this leads to a more complex and problematic set of concerns
when viewed through the prism of social status and the high school hierarchy. Keith
takes Amanda on a date, which blurs the boundaries between blue and white-collar
sensibilities. Firstly, he wears a smart suit, transforming his appearance from
someone who has been casually dressed or seen in oil-stained overalls; like the teens

in The Breakfast Club, costume takes on a symbolic meaning. DeMott (1990: 65)
explains with regards to the date, 'despite humble origins [Keith] is worldly and
poised in posh settings...he selects a lucco restaurant, orders wine and Belgian
caviar.' These qualities, along with his ability to restore classic cars and his talent as
an artist, 'set him a notch higher than the richies who condescend to him.' All this,
despite the fact that 'voices [are] warning him that a social system exists that can
hurt him' (ibid.). He even uses the money he saved up for his college fund, much to
his father's anger, to buy Amanda a pair of diamond earrings, thinking that this is
what she is used to. However, Roz Kaveney (2006: 37) argues that this exchange
becomes 'morally ambiguous' because it equates Keith with Hardy. Amanda
a valuable possession who automatically confers status on him [Keith], she is a
glamorous aesthetic object [and] he wants to own her rather than love her, [making
him], just as guilty as the villain.
Likewise, Shary (2011: 572) claims that by Keith giving her the earrings and taking
her out on a lavish date (unusually, Watts is their chauffeur who drives a rented
limousine), he has made 'the biggest mistake of his he fails to understand that
such financial demonstrations appear relatively disingenuous to a middle-class girl
trying to resist upper-class impulses.' The earrings, like in The Breakfast Club where
Claire gave Bender her diamond stud, are viewed within a wider social discourse.
Lesley Speed (1998: 109-110) refers to them as 'an object of socio-economic exchange
[and] social reconciliation.' However, Nadel (1997: 153) views the gift in more
positive terms, observing that Keith's 'misfit' persona will disappear as buying the
diamond earrings 'are his way of being worthy of [her] love because being able to give
them will change his image.'
In the final act, Propp's 'Mediation' function is apparent when Keith finds out
what will happen to him at the party. His sister, who plays the role of 'helper',
overhears Hardy and his cronies making plans to harm Keith, and 'misfortune or lack
is made known' (1968: 38). She then informs her brother and he begins the 'Counter
Action' function (ibid.) when confronted by the villain, who makes threats of violence
against him. Also, the 'Struggle function: The hero and villain join in direct combat',
is demonstrated (ibid: 51). This is when the delinquent, Duncan, who acts as Keith's

helper/donor, enters the scene. 'The first function of the donor' is enacted when the
'hero is...attacked...which prepares the way for him receiving either a magical agent
or helper' (ibid: 39). This leads to the function of the 'Hero's reaction...The hero
reacts to the actions of the future donor [and in doing so] saves
employing the same tactics used by his adversary' (ibid: 42-43). Keith leaves but it is
not revealed whether Duncan and his gang harm Hardy. Nevertheless, Propp's
function of 'Victory...The villain is defeated' (ibid: 53) concludes this scene. Applying
Propp's methodology here continues to underpin the issues concerning the social
status within the American high school system. According to Shary, who discusses
this scene, it is an 'invasion of the lower class upon the upper, [suggesting] that brute
force is the most imminent threat the poor pose to the sensitive rich' (2011: 575). The
hero, Keith, and his friendship with the helper, Duncan, is allied to their blue-collar
backgrounds. Jon Lewis (1992: 141) comments on this and says: 'Hughes' heroes
eventually transcend the rigid high school order and are befriended by delinquents
who are really more like them than they or we had expected.' Bender's role in The
Breakfast Club is a similar example.
Propp's function, 'The Wedding...The hero is married and ascends the throne'
(1968: 63) is symbolically played out in Some Kind of Wonderful's final scene. The
romantic union is sealed although not between Amanda and Keith as she decides that
she is better off on her own, which Shary states is a 'rare declaration of independence
for any leading character in a romantic film' (2011: 574). He realises that Watts is the
girl for him and he gives her the diamond earrings. Again, this raises more issues
concerning social status, but also, sexuality. Shary describes Keith and Watts' union
as 'conservative' (ibid.). Watts is portrayed as tomboyish, masculinised and
disparagingly called a 'lesbian' by Duncan in the early part of the film, but her
romantic union with Keith alludes to her becoming feminised and any debate about
her sexuality has now been supressed. However, unlike Alison in The Breakfast Club,
she does not have to change her appearance to satisfy male sexual desire. The gender
norms of the teen caste system are 'destabilised [as] the boyish character of
Watts...wins...Keith's affections without conforming to the feminine ideal
represented by Amanda' (Speed, 2002: 109). It contrasts to the ending of Pretty in
Pink, where Andie rejects Duckie who is culturally 'different', and chooses a more
conventional partner, the rich kid Blane.

The rationale behind a Proppian analysis of Some Kind of Wonderful and the
following films in this chapter, is that it has enabled the themes of the coming-of-age
process, teen romance and its wider sociopolitical implications to embrace another
structuralist methodology for the enhancement of the argument. This is augmented
by the application of the tale roles and Propp's functions, which broaden the scope of
the thesis in terms of characterisation and narratology.
A Proppian approach will continue to underpin the teen drama, All the Right
Moves, a film linked to achieving the American Dream in the Reagan era, 'the dream
of an open, mobile society where individuals rise through talent and achievement'
(Traube, 1992: 71). Unusually for a 1980s teen movie, it is set in a blue-collar
community, a fictional Pennsylvanian industrial town called Ampipe, where the local
steel mill is the town's main employer. When faced with closure, this threatens the
workers' livelihoods. Tom Cruise's Steff, the hero, is a talented high school football
player hoping for a college scholarship to study engineering. His Proppian hero
status is viewed within the context of individual aspiration and the American Dream.
Traube (ibid: 67) describes him as a 'success hero [who] has been used to
reformulate an older republican dream of individual freedom in the context of an
increasingly organised, consumption-orientated, corporate capitalist society.' Being
from a blue-collar community, his sphere of action is linked to hard work and
determination -- qualities which characters from this social group in the teen dramas
need to possess in order to succeed -- unlike the depiction of the wealthy kids in the
genre. Steff eventually achieves his goals but not before overcoming several
obstacles. One of these is his football coach (Craig T. Nelson), initially portrayed as
the Proppian villain who clashes with Steff and stalls his progress. As Bulman (2005:
95) writes, 'high school football coaches [in teen films] are often portrayed as
antagonists...who are cruel and heartless.' He is similar in this respect to the coach in
Revenge, played by John Goodman, but Goodman is more of a caricature and
portrayed comically. Despite this tonal difference between the coaches -- one serious,
the other comic -- it is their similar adversarial character traits which help cement
the films as part of a larger generic body of work. Also, like The Breakfast Club, this
binary opposition concerning the conflict between youth and adult forms part of the
dramatic conflict of the film, although this time the parent, Steff's father, with whom
he initially clashes, is ultimately seen as a decent, honest man who supports and
encourages his son -- an adult version of a Proppian helper.

Other Proppian functions operating within All the Right Moves and which
comment on adolescent issues and the wider social context include 'Absentation'.
Previously alluded to in this chapter, it refers to when 'one of the members of a
family absents himself from home...sometimes members of the younger generation'
(1968: 26). Steff is viewed leaving his home in the morning and walking to high
school, which fits Propp's description of 'the hero [who is] an ordinary
person...depart[ing] on a search' (ibid: 80). Here, this means the search for a better
life, pursuing the American Dream. In Steff's case, it starts at high school and
achieving a good enough education and grades to get a sport scholarship to study
engineering at college and escape his surroundings. Although he is a jock and
demonstrates all the physical traits associated with this, he is depicted as more
sensitive and introspective, like Keith in Some Kind of Wonderful. Timothy Shary
writes that 'All the Right Moves is the first notable film of the 1980s to portray the
teen jock as troubled and frustrated' (2002: 74). The film shares semantic aspects
with the sex comedy: there are penis jokes, a brief scene of female nudity and the
males are generally seen in groups at football practice, demonstrating adrenaline-
fuelled macho behaviour. But the focus is on Steff and his sphere of action, which is
more about achieving success in Reagan's America than casual sex and gross-out
Steff is seen walking to high school and is picked up and dropped off by the
character Bosco (James A. Baffico), who turns out to be another Proppian villain.
Like Hardy in Some Like it Wonderful, his role 'is to disturb the peace...cause some
form of misfortune, damage, or harm' (1968: 27). This scene is an example of the
function: 'Violation of interdiction...where the villain enters the scene' (ibid: 28). It
is later when Bosco reveals his true nature -- after the college football team loses a
big match against one of their rivals, he and his drunken friends vandalise the
coach's house. Steff is with them, also drunk. He was previously thrown out of the
team after he had a disagreement with the coach, and although he realises what they
are doing is wrong and is unaware what the others intend to do to the coach's house,
he is nonetheless involved and becomes the villain's 'victim'. This triggers the
function: 'Complicity...The victim submits to deception and thereby unwittingly
helps his enemy' (ibid: 30). The coach sees Steff at the scene and then prevents him
from obtaining his scholarship. At this stage, he is unable to achieve his goals and
pursue the American Dream as his Proppian 'search' is stalled and the 'hero's decline

is initiated' (Traube, 1992: 75). He takes some temporary work on a construction site
demolishing a decommissioned mill -- a symbolic image of a community and its
inhabitants suffering during the Reagan era as the decline in manufacturing leaves
its impact. When Steff confronts Bosco and asks him to tell the truth about the
incident to the coach in the hope that he will be forgiven, this triggers Propp's
function -- when the hero begins his 'Counteraction' (1968: 38) -- in order to defeat
the villain. Bosco refuses to help so they end up in a fight, prompting the function,
'Struggle: The hero and villain join in direct combat' (ibid: 51). Steff then has to
approach the coach directly and apologise for his actions and his bad attitude during
football. In this, the Propp function, 'Difficult task: A difficult task is proposed to the
hero' (ibid: 60) is demonstrated. Additionally, Steff's girlfriend plays the Proppian
helper (see below) when she intervenes and talks to the coach's wife, who then
persuades her husband to rethink his decision. This turns out to be a success, as in
the film's final scene the coach forgives Steff and he gets his college scholarship to
study engineering. In other words, a happy ending ensues and the ideological
ramifications of the film are upheld in terms of succeeding in Reagan's America. As
Traube (1992: 76) writes, the setting of the mill where the final scene takes place is
'the symbolic boundary between blue-collar and white-collar worlds.'
A comparison between Steff and Joel, the lead character and hero in Risky
Business (also played by Cruise), will comment on the plasticity of Propp's tale roles
in the context of this thesis. Risky Business, although a sex comedy, is another type
of crossover film as it goes beyond the sex quest theme and comments on the
capitalist ethic of the 1980s. Bernstein & Pratt (1985: 33) note that the film 'extends
the terms of [the sex comedies] by crystallizing their conventional components and
by translating the uncertainty of the adolescent situation into a comparable
ambivalence towards American affluence.' This comparison is highlighted by the role
of the Proppian 'helper' (1968: 79) in both Risky Business and All the Right Moves,
key figures who actively move within the hero's spheres of action and worthy of
further investigation here. It is another semantic/syntactic feature, where the
similarities and differences point to a wider observation on the generic unity of the
teen film and its symbolic values. The roles are played out in an oppositional context,
offering commentary on different approaches to the work ethic in capitalist America.
The prostitute, Lana, in Risky Business becomes Joel's business partner and helper;
she assists him in organising the brothel in order for him to make enough money to

pay off his debts and repair the damage to his father's car. As mentioned above, in All
the Right Moves, Steff's girlfriend, Lisa (Leah Thompson), becomes his helper when
she speaks to the coach's wife in the hope that she will persuade her husband to
change his mind concerning Steff's future, thus enabling him to go to college. Despite
these opposing situations and different motivations of the characters, their roles are
similar in that their ultimate goal as the hero's helper through their sphere of actions
is to 'achieve a solution to a difficult task' (ibid.) A further example of a Proppian-like
helper features in Pretty in Pink. This time it is between two females, the lead
character Andie and her older friend Iona (Annie Watts). The latter is a constant
source of help and advice throughout the film and lends Andie a gown for the prom.
Propp's tale roles continue to be updated in the teen film in terms of working as a
device to continue the notion of a unified genre.
The romantic comedy, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, when compared to All the
Right Moves, offers another variation on the Proppian-like hero role. Traube (1992:
78) describes the character of Ferris from the perspective of the 'boy-hero tradition,
which links the achievement of success to an opposition between youth and age.' In
Ferris Bueller's, the opposing forces are his parents and his teacher. But the
difference here is that the likes of the blue-collar Steff 'are ambitious industrious
youths [who] achieve success as a reward for toil, self-denial, and obedience to
authority.' Whereas the wealthy Ferris and Joel in Risky Business are 'romantic,
roguish heroes: boys who prefer play to work, who succeed through tricks or daring
[and], routinely subvert established conventions and repressive authority.' Ferris's
'project is not work but play' (ibid. 76). Hadley Freeman claims that Ferris, 'thinks
deeply about nothing' (2015: 161). Steinberg & Kincheloe, in their article, 'Privileged
and Getting Away With It', dub Risky Business and Ferris Bueller's the
'misbehaviour films' (1998: 116). Ferris plays truant from school and his goal is to
avoid detection from his parents and his teacher, offering a more comic variation of
the recurring semantic feature of the generational divide. Part of his hero status is
defined by his anti-authoritarian attitude, especially to the teacher figure, the inept
and unsympathetic Mr Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), who is depicted as the villain, albeit
one who is made to look a fool by Ferris. He is the 'villain...who makes an attempt at
reconnaissance' (Propp, 1968: 28) as he tries to locate and punish the errant Ferris.
But the hero's rebelliousness is calculated and at times ingenious -- he hacks into the
school's computer records at one stage in order to amend his attendance records,

demonstrating skills similar to the nerds in Revenge. Indeed, Ferris' hero image in
terms of the films discussed here 'uniquely combines characteristics of the nerd and
popular boy...which threads through Hughes' films as an index of individuality'
(Driscoll, 2011: 51). Rooney's assistant says to him: 'He's very popular...The sportos,
the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebie, dickheads...all adore
him...They think he's a righteous dude.' Even Jean (Jennifer Grey), Ferris' sister, who
resents him throughout most of the film, saves him in the end when Mr Rooney is on
the verge of exposing him. She too falls under his spell and becomes a Proppian
'helper [who rescues Ferris] from pursuit' (1968: 79), as the villain is defeated. The
use of Propp's functions here facilitate the notion that, in the teen romantic
comedies, if you are rich and privileged like Joel and Ferris, you will not be punished
for the various transgressions you commit. Instead, the films portray them as noble
acts, with adults depicted as inept at controlling and disciplining these teen
characters. Their heroic attributes and rebelliousness is based on freedom and
pleasure, which Traube (1992: 76-80) labels 'cool', and 'the films are fantasies of the
rebellious independent self [set against] a benign authority...leaving no space for any
reconciliation between the generations.' Joel's transformation by the end of Risky
Business is significant: he is now admired by his friends for organising the brothel
and his hero status is elevated to a god-like level, whereas when he was first
introduced, he was a shy virgin, taunted by his friends. Ferris misbehaves from the
start and does not go through such a transformation, as Hadley Freeman points out,
'he is as blithe and content at the end of the film as he is at the beginning' (2015: 161).
Furthermore, Ferris Bueller's and Risky Business represent a shift when returning to
the notion of the generic template which Altman (1999) identified. The rebellious
characteristics of the male heroes of the 1950s teen genre like James Dean and
Marlon Brando were marked by a broody, alienated spirit. Joel and Ferris are
carefree, playful and popular.
Heroic teen rebellion is played out in a more serious way by Steff in All the
Right Moves, depicted as impulsive behaviour and short-lived as he comes to realise
that, in order to succeed, he must be obedient and play by adult rules. Steff initially
rebels against the 'villain' football coach and ignores his father's advice, but
eventually submits to authority by the final act. His father warns him not to be 'too
proud' when making decisions about his future. The coach yells at him: 'You want to
go to college? Then play the way you've been taught!'

The binary oppositions inherent in Propp's functions and tale roles, which
facilitate the representation of teen culture in these films and wider implications
concerning the balance of power, privilege, freedom and influence, favour the
wealthy teens who misbehave and are disrespectful towards adults. Catherine
Driscoll (2011: 53) reinforces this view when she notes that, during the 1980s teen
films, the 'US image of adolescence had become more symbolically middle class...and
associated with Reaganomics.' Taking this a stage further is Steinberg and Kincheloe
(1998: 110), who point out that in the 1980s teen genre, these
young men are entitled to misbehave [and] to destroy, by virtue of who they are:
white, male, and middle-upper class Americans. Hollywood is positioning these
youth as the CEOs of tomorrow, the new inductees into the "Old Boys Club", these
"new boys" are just following in the footsteps of their fathers. They are doing what
society, their parents and the audience expect them to do.
This white-collar entitlement contrasts with the blue-collar teen of the more
dramatic and serious All the Right Moves, who comes to realise that the only way to
succeed in 1980s America is by hard work, discipline, respecting the value of money
and submission to adult values. There is not so much a major transformation in Steff
during his sphere of action: at the beginning of the film his goals are outlined, he
overcomes the obstacles in the 'conflict' stage and, in the final act, is successful in
reaching his goals by getting a college scholarship. The difference between Ferris
Bueller's/Risky Business and All The Right Moves again can be read as a metaphor
for the polarisation between the 'haves' and 'have nots' of Reagan's America.
Applying Propp's ideas on character and narrative to help illustrate this, offers an
alternative version of the teen role and its relationship to the argument and
methodological nature of this thesis.
Traube (1992: 76) adds another dimension to the use of Proppian roles when
she points out that Ferris is the first 'postmodern hero of a teen comedy'. He often
breaks the fourth wall by addressing the audience and the fragmented narrative
contrasts against the more classical structure of other teen films. Also, these hero
qualities are part of his adolescent relational aggression, not in a vindictive way like
other so-called popular figures discussed in previous chapters; he is more benign and
likeable but nevertheless controlling. Traube (ibid: 80-81) explains: 'His cool

rebelliousness is not an expression emotional struggle...but a highly crafted
and effective strategy for dominating others. [He is] the omnipotent patriarch to
Sloane, Cameron, and Jean [his sister].' Hadley Freeman says something similar but
writes from a more informal, personal point of view: 'Ferris, I realised, was kind of a
jerk...He manipulates his parents' blind love for him. He torments his younger sister,
and he lies to pretty much every person in the movie' (2015: 162).
Additionally, both
Ferris and Joel appear immune from the `storm and stress' phase which affects other
teens in the genre and this is another facet of their respective hero personae.
Reckless (1984) is a teen romantic drama which shares similarities with All
the Right Moves with regards to having a blue-collar protagonist in the leading role.
It is located in an unnamed industrial steel town in Pennsylvania. But thematically,
the two films differ as Reckless is not so concerned with chasing the American Dream
in the Reagan era; the film is more introspective and ambiguous as the protagonist's
motivations are never clearly defined -- he appears more complex than other teen
characters of the 1980s teen genre. It stars Aidan Quinn as Johnny, the Proppian
hero, from the wrong side of the tracks who starts a relationship with rich girl
cheerleader, Tracey (Daryl Hannah), the princess. Like in Lucas, The Breakfast Club,
Valley Girl, Some Kind of Wonderful and Pretty in Pink, a relationship between two
characters from different social and cultural backgrounds provides the
semantic/syntactic axis of the film -- the 'opposites attract' myth. Johnny, although
initially a member of the football team, does not possess any of the jock
characteristics associated with this stereotype. His father is an alcoholic who does
not support him and his mother has left the family home, a similar situation to
Lucas. He is a rebellious loner and an outsider who sustains these characteristics and
does not experience any kind of significant transformation, apart from falling in love.
Johnny lives on the edge, literally of the town; he rides a motorbike and dons a
leather jacket, similar to Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and is moody like James
Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. He seems to have a death wish, like Keith in Some
Kind of Wonderful, as he takes adolescent risk-taking behaviour to its extremes
when he rides his motorcycle perilously close to a cliff edge on several occasions
during the film -- a 1980s version of the 'Chickie run' scene in Rebel Without a
Another example of the differences between informal and more academic writing on the teen genre.

The Proppian villain, unsurprisingly, comes in the form of the jock, Tracey's
boyfriend Randy (Adam Baldwin), the popular football player who, like Hardy in
Some Kind of Wonderful, reacts aggressively when he discovers Tracey and Johnny
are romantically involved. Propp's 'Interdiction' function, 'an interdiction is
addressed to the hero' (1968: 26), is triggered when Johnny is seen watching Tracey.
Randy notices this and expresses his displeasure to Johnny, invoking the part of this
function: 'You dare not look into this closet' (ibid).
Johnny and Tracey are paired together by chance at a school dance and begin
to bond by dancing wildly together. At the end of this scene, Randy expresses his
jealousy and he and Johnny engage in a minor fracas, again evoking Propp's
function, `The Violation of Interdiction...The villain enters the disturb the cause some form of misfortune, damage, or harm' (1968: 27). In a later
scene, Johnny and Tracey break into their high school and trash a classroom and its
contents, another example of the ever-present adolescent risk-taking behaviour. In a
similar vein to The Breakfast Club, in which the teens are seen running down the
corridor, in Reckless, the Kim Wilde song, Kids in America, symbolically conveys
how popular music has a liberating effect on youth (Speed, 1995). Shary comments
on the romance between Johnny and Tracey, and again a comparison with The
Breakfast Club is apparent. It echoes Claire's attraction to Bender, which is based on
the dynamic of their social differences: 'Tracey's attraction to Johnny seems founded
solely on her repressed drive to rebel (again the barbarism of the working class is
romanticized by the rich) and his attraction is to drive her to rebel' (Shary, 2011:
569). But where in the last chapter, Claire was the teen stereotype ­ the popular girl;
here Tracey is the Proppian equivalent ­ the princess. Bender was the delinquent,
where Johnny is the Proppian hero. Interestingly, the sex scenes between Johnny
and Tracey are rare for a romantic teen drama of this era and contrast with the sex in
the sex comedies -- they are stylised and fairly erotic, but they do not treat sex as a
stigma. They involve a genuine emotional connection and desire between the two
Where the film is different from other teen romances, especially the John
Hughes' films, is that it is not so much a critique of wealth in the Reagan era as
represented by Tracey, or by teens from less affluent backgrounds chasing the
American Dream; the film is more about youth liberation and rebellion. According to
Shary (ibid.), 'it is a stylish celebration of both characters' needs to escape from their

polar opposite a place that is most romantically ambiguous.' In the final
act, Johnny and Randy clash and demonstrate several of Propp's functions: 'The hero
and villain join in direct combat' (1968: 51); 'The villain is defeated' (ibid: 53) and
'The villain is punished' (ibid: 63). In the final scene, despite peer pressure from
Tracey's friends who object to her forming a relationship with someone not from the
popular crowd and outside of their clique, she leaves with Johnny as they ride off out
of town into the sunset. This resolution differs from other teen romances in that the
hero and princess depart with no destination in mind and no apparent means for
survival -- their future is uncertain.
The Revisionist Teen Films: Heathers and River's Edge
Developing the brief discussion in the introduction, the dark drama-comedy
Heathers takes an ironic view of high school life, imbuing the 1980s genre with a
postmodern twist. The action takes place in the same environment as Fast Times and
contains the same teen stereotypes as The Breakfast Club, but the black humour sets
it apart and a very different tone is created. Those familiar with the modern teen film
are in on the joke as genre expectations dictate our understanding of the film. Jon
Lewis (1992: 142) explains when writing about the film that,
the very predictability and familiarity of the genre allows the teen audience not only
to laugh at themselves, but to commune in the acknowledgement of a shared
knowledge...of the very idiocy of the media's re-presentation of them.
Indeed, several murders, albeit comically played out, form the heart of the story in
Heathers. It differs dramatically from the relatively safe universe of other teen
romantic and sex comedies. Shary (2005: 76) describes Heathers and River's Edge
as 'revisionist teen films...that made an important statement on the
genre...understanding [its] generic heritage [and] transcend[ing] the typical concerns
of subgenres dealing with delinquency, romance and schooling.' The film also
departs from a more traditional aesthetic of the teen movie as it is punctuated with
some dream-like and surreal images. Lewis goes on to describe the film as a 'teen-pic
pastiche; a teen film to end all teen films' (1992: 142). The screenwriter of Heathers,
Daniel Waters, explains his approach, quoted on his IMDb page (no date: u.p.):

Films often portray teenagers as the innocent victims of a cruel society. I've always
felt that young people were born with a lot of evil already in them. I wrote 'Heathers'
with the idea that most teens are not innocent victims, and that it's a cruel world
from day one.
The three characters from which the film takes its title are the popular girls,
all called Heather. These are the film's Proppian villains whose cruel behaviour to
others is the most extreme form of relational aggression demonstrated by females in
the 1980s genre. They are a powerful teenage clique, although their image remains
lampooned and caricatured throughout, one of the ways in which the film provides a
postmodern twist on the genre. They are the rich, snobbish, arrogant and self-
proclaimed leaders of the school. Like Cinder in Little Darlings, they do not
experience any type of transformation and are never aware of the superficial and
shallow nature of their positions. As Shary (2005: 65) writes, 'unlike Claire in The
Breakfast Club, the Heathers never come to a profound realisation of their tenuous
positon.' Similarly, Scott Long (1990: 163) comments on this syntactic feature by
noting that 'the group boundaries are relentlessly enforced' in Heathers, unlike The
Breakfast Club, Revenge of the Nerds or Lucas. The Heathers resist this syntactic
development and remain villains. One reason why this particular film is an
appropriate case study for a Proppian analysis is the image of the villain, who is
central to the film's narrative. In an early scene, the leader, Heather Chandler (Kim
Walker), expresses her arrogance and hubris. When asked by the main character
Veronica (Winona Ryder) -- a reluctant member of the group who is torn between
her friendship with other less-popular figures in the high school and her allegiance to
the Heathers -- why others in the school think she's a 'piranha', she responds, 'they
all want me as a friend or a fuck...I'm worshipped'. Ironically, this distorted view
resonates with what Mayeux (2011: 350) discusses regarding adolescent popularity:
'The very visible nature of popular youths makes them potentially sought after
romantic companions for adolescents who wish to improve their own social standing
among peers.' The Heathers then go on to demonstrate Propp's (1968: 30-31)
'Villainy' function, 'where they cause harm or injury', in this case to another student,
on whom they play a cruel prank. They get Veronica to forge a love letter, which she
signs to make it look like it came from Kurt (Lance Fenton), one of the two main
jocks in the film; the other is Ram (Patrick Labyorteaux). These are the Heathers'

male counterparts, and just as cruel. The Heathers give the letter to a student they
consider one of the 'losers' within the high school system, the overweight and lonely
Martha (Carrie Lynn), whom they cruelly nickname 'Dumptruck'. Martha is then
humiliated in front of the entire school cafeteria and attempts suicide. Veronica is
ashamed and starts to question why she is part of such a clique. This incident of
villainy, when applying a Proppian reading to the film, is a key moment, 'since by
means of it the actual movement of the tale is created' (ibid: 30). At this point, the
new kid in school is introduced, the mysterious Jason Dean (J.D.), played by
Christian Slater, who turns out to be the film's biggest villain.
Veronica and J.D. begin a romance and he uses her anger, and his own, at the
Heathers to persuade her to join him in making them suffer. 'I don't really like my
friends...It's like they're people I work with and our job is being popular and shit', she
says. However, J.D.'s sphere of action involves him acting out several of the villainy
functions in attempting to achieve his goals whilst he 'wages war against the system
of identities' (Long, 1990: 164). The drama turns into a tale of murder as he tricks
Veronica, and she unwittingly becomes his accomplice and witness to his crimes. He
kills the leader, Heather Chandler, and then the two jocks, deceiving Veronica into
thinking he will just scare them. The murders are made to look like suicide, and J.D.
becomes a representation of a Proppian villain, a very dangerous one in the context
of this chapter, saying: 'The extreme always makes an impression'. The hyperbolic
tone of the film is extended as the 'suicide' of Heather Chandler perversely makes
her, in death, more popular amongst the students, reinforcing the rigid high school
caste system depicted, 'her beauty and bitchery, everything that made her, are reified
forever' (ibid:165).
By deceiving Veronica, J.D. acts out the 'Trickery' function, where the 'villain
uses persuasion [and] employs means of deception or coercion' (Propp, 1968: 30-31);
and 'Villainy', where 'the villain demands or entices his victim [and] commits
murder' (ibid: 33) -- J.D. lures the two jocks to their deaths. In turn, Veronica's
sphere of action in her role as victim involves 'Complicity: The victim submits to
deception and thereby unwittingly helps [the villain].' Also, 'The hero agrees to all the
villain's persuasions' (ibid: 30). However, Veronica's transformation is ambiguous as
she continues to side with J.D. after the first murder and fantasises about killing one
of the Heathers, but by the end she becomes the hero and defeats the villain, J.D.

The parents and teachers in Heathers, like many adults discussed so far in this
thesis, are cast in a negative light, incompetent and irresponsible, albeit portrayed
more satirically than anything seen thus far. Shary (2005: 79-80) explains that, in
the film, part of the problem of adolescent turmoil and their villainous acts may be
down to the lack of adult role models in Heathers:
Responsibility is placed on teachers and administrators who are sorely out of touch
with their students, parents who are self-absorbed and as immature as their
children, and the students themselves who succumb too easily to the pressures of
This is another example of the estrangement explained in relation to The Breakfast
Club and the growing emotional distance between teenagers and their parents which
Palladino (1996) and others outlined. Interestingly, the similarities between J.D.'s
father and J.D. is an exception, but not in any positive way. Their weird and corrupt
relationship sustains the dark humorous approach of the film and offers an insight
into the roots of J.D's villainy, characterised by an extreme form of adolescent `storm
and stress'. Scott Long (1990: 164) writes he has 'learned his destructiveness from his
father, a mad bomber who has harnessed his explosive skills as a destroyer (and
developer) of buildings...Destruction gives him [J.D.] energy: and this means
murder.' 'Chaos is great', J.D. proclaims.
In the final act, J.D. plans the ultimate form of villainy as he plans to blow up
the school and make it look like as a mass suicide, in what Long describes as the
'apocalypse of adolescence' (ibid: 165). To do this, he recruits and again uses the act
of deception to coax one of the Heathers (Shannan Doherty) into getting students to
sign a petition, which J.D. intends to use as a fake suicide note. But in the last scene,
Veronica discovers his plot and wounds J.D., who then blows himself up. Propp's
functions of 'Struggle...the hero and the villain join in direct combat' and
'Victory...The villain is defeated' (ibid: 51-53), are played out. Veronica, her face
blackened, hair unkempt and her clothes torn to shreds from the effects of the
explosion, demonstrates the function of 'Transfiguration...The hero is given a new
appearance' (ibid. 62). This works symbolically as she is no longer the pretty and
popular girl. She then goes and embraces Martha 'Dumptruck' and pledges her
friendship, suggesting a more socially inclusive high school system without divisions

and tensions between the different teen groups (Bulman, 2005). However, the
ending is ambivalent as she approaches one of the Heathers and declares herself 'the
new sheriff in town', which seems to be implying that a new chain of command is
being initiated at the school, with Veronica in charge.
The result of these various acts of villainy in the film is that the theme of
teenage suicide is foregrounded for the first time in the genre (and in this thesis).
Although the audience knows they are faked (apart from Martha's attempted
suicide), the characters in the film do not. It reflects what was happening in wider
society at the time and resonates with other depictions of 'real life' adolescent
turmoil, as already noted in this research in terms of sexuality, abortion and
pregnancy. Donna Gaines (1990), quoted in Steinberg Kinchelcoe (1998: 119),
writes that, in the United States: 'By 1990, 400,000 young people were attempting
suicide yearly.' However, the already problematic issue of linking these films with
studies of adolescence becomes more challenging in the ironic and satirical Heathers,
which Scott Long (1990: 164) refers to as 'comic nihilism'. Nonetheless, it is an
example, for the first time in 1980s teen films, of how the genre represents youth
suicide and death. Propp comments on this link between society and its relationship
to a fictional narrative when he writes: 'Real life itself creates new, vivid images
which supplement tale personages' (1968: 87).
In Tim Hunter's River's Edge (1986), the tale roles become blurred and
ambivalent as teen malaise shifts from suicide to murder, but unlike Heathers, a
serious and grim tone pervades the film without any hint of irony or humour. It is
part of the delinquent teen subgenre and offers an opposing image of youth to the sex
and romantic comedies and dramas. It is set in a town where dysfunctional,
fragmented families grind out a daily existence, characterised by drug and physical
abuse; they are considerably less well-off than their counterparts in the Hughes'
films. There seems to be a lack of sunshine in the town and the dark, gloomy
cinematography captures the foreboding and pessimistic mood. Based on a true
story, the plot concerns the motiveless killing carried out by one of the teens, John
(Daniel Roebuck), the incarnation of the Proppian 'villain who commits murder'
(ibid: 33). He strangles his girlfriend and leaves her dead body by a river. Taking the
sardonic Heathers out of the equation, the villainy in River's Edge is more extreme
than anything discussed so far. John boasts to his friends about his crime and they go
see the corpse. Their reaction is indifferent, apathetic, disinterested, and ultimately

as perplexing and disturbing as the crime itself -- they do not immediately go to the
police and keep it a secret for several days. The teens are constantly stoned and they
seem to lack any real motivation, which initially makes it problematic to defining
them in terms of Proppian tale roles -- they appear to resist being categorised in this
context, apart from the aforementioned villain. Furthermore, unlike other groups of
teens in 1980s genre films, there appears to be no coherent hierarchy. Scott Long
(1990: 162) argues that, in the film, adolescence becomes,
irrelevant...which vanishes in vapid, imitative violence [and] monotonous uniformity.
The pervasive emptiness of the movie is merely the 'sensitivity' and 'understanding' of
Hughes' films pushed to the limit. River's Edge shows a world made repressively
understandable, hence flat, unvaried, and void. It is a world where all boundaries are
broken down.
Reaffirming a recurring and unifying theme in this thesis, Lewis (1992: 15)
suggests that parents and adults are partly to blame for the teens'
'cold...misguided...inexplicable and inexcusable behaviour.' However, the parents in
River's Edge, unlike those in the teen comedies, are not part of the success story of
Reagan's America and represent the ones who struggle to achieve the American
Dream. They are absent, drunk, violent and abusive. This relates to what McMahan
(2009: 440) writes when discussing family and adolescent antisocial behaviour in
society: 'The stress on parents who are struggling to get by tends to make them less
effective and more coercive toward their children, which, in turn, may lead to
aggressiveness in the children.' The teens in the film experience a more extreme form
of `storm and stress' than any others referred to so far in this research, with the
exception, perhaps, of certain characters in the satirical Heathers and Bender in The
Breakfast Club, although his problems are never seen. It is a factor which leads to
teen 'anomie', which Robert K. Merton (1962), cited in Lewis (1992, 15-16), describes
as 'a breakdown in the cultural acute disjunction [between] norms and
goals [and the] capacities of members of a group to act in accord with them.' The
failure of the nuclear family leads the teens in River's Edge to form their own group
values and loyalty, which marks their ignorance and obliviousness to the crime.
These are all reasons why the teens in the film do not quite embrace the Proppian
roles; Long (1990: 162) points out that they are 'stripped of a coherent identity, they

are left with the scraps of the adult world.' They face a similar, but much more
malign, struggle to the teens in The Breakfast Club, with their resistance to adult
culture. Gavin Smith (1987: 70-71), echoing Long's comment above, goes on to claim
that the teens in River's Edge depict a group who portray a
more truthful, if still distorted image of freedom, liberated from Hollywood's glamour
and middle-class optimism, a million miles from the Self Help and Self-
Aggrandizement ethics of The Breakfast Club -- a distillation of middle-class fantasy
values formulated by Hollywood into a universal teendom where there is room for all
and a future without Armageddon
Eventually, a Proppian version of a hero emerges from this nihilism and
breaks away from the group's silence about the crime. Matt, played by Keanu Reeves,
the 'reluctant hero' (Lewis, 1992: 15), acts as the one moral voice of the film and goes
to the police about John's crime, demonstrating Propp's function of carrying out a
'difficult task' (1968: 60). He does not come into conflict with the villain John; this is
left to another character, Feck, played by Dennis Hopper, an adult who is part
Proppian villain, part hero. Feck is an-ex biker, gun-toting sociopath who has also
killed his girlfriend in the past and hides out in a shack, administering free dope to
the teens. He kills John and the 'villain is punished' (ibid: 63). Feck represents the
spirit of 1960s rebellion but this proves a dangerous mix for the teens in River's
Edge. The high school teacher is similar to Feck: he is not a caricature like other
teachers in the teen genre, but is cast as a left-wing radical who grew up in the 1960s,
again part hero/part villain. After John has been identified as the killer but is still on
the loose, the teacher berates the class for not taking extreme measures, saying that if
they cared for their dead friend they would be hunting the killer down with guns.
This is a more explicit example of what Lebeau (1995) and Speed (1995) were
referring to previously in this research, concerning youth in the 1980s teen genre
depicted as becoming less politically rebellious than previous generations. But where
the rich teens in the sex comedies and Hughes' cinema express their rebellion by
trashing their parents' houses, youths in River's Edge, as Gavin Smith notes (1987:
71), are part of the 'pre-apocalypse, post-hippy idealism where there's nothing much
to do except get messed up.' Different representations of rebellion, but nevertheless
another adolescent semantic feature which continues to coalesce the teen genre.

Another quasi-Proppian villain is Layne (Crispin Glover), the self-styled
leader of the teen group, but this turns out to be his twisted fantasy. His 'hyper
kinetic behaviour' (Lewis (1992: 18) and amphetamine-fuelled determination to
protect John and his crime invokes Propp's functions of 'Trickery [and]
Villainy...where the villain casts a spell [and] uses persuasion' (1968: 30-33). He
attempts to sustain the unity and silence of the teen group by any means necessary,
but his villainous exploits, unsurprisingly, end in failure and turn into a kind of
dangerous satire. His villainy takes the form of adolescent peer pressure and is taken
to a more insidious and malevolent level here than previous examples discussed.
Layne acts out the role of the 'deviant peer...which becomes a powerful force during
adolescence, [he] models antisocial activities and puts social pressure onto others to
take part in them' (McMahan, 2009: 439). He is inspired by right-wing, media-
induced scenes of militaristic action and references John Wayne and Chuck Norris
movies. His teen mentality and 'bizarre set of values' (Lewis, 1992: 14) are exposed:
'It's like a fuckin' movie when a good friend gets in potentially big trouble. Now we
have to deal with it. We've got to test our loyalty against all odds. It's kind of exciting.
I feel like Chuck Norris', he says. A similarly detached and weird attitude, but far less
menacing, is expressed by one of the female teens, Clarissa (Ione Skye). She appears
confused yet unaffected by her friend's murder; she can only say that she 'cried for
the guy in Brian's Song' (1971) -- a popular TV movie. Part of the anomie of the teens
in River's Edge is how their emotions are shaped by fantasy as opposed to reality, as
Rapping (1988: 19) observes: 'Media characters are truly more real and compelling to
these kids than their real adult models.'
The pseudo-Proppian tale roles represented in River's Edge are expressed
early on in the film through the mise-en-scène: John takes Matt and Layne to see his
girlfriend's body. It is Matt, the hero, who is framed in medium long shot, alone, in
the background of the frame, 'his head down, his eyes...never meeting the gaze of the
camera' (Lewis, 1992, 15). The villain, Layne, is viewed in medium close-up in the
foreground, on the same plane as the other villain, John. His morbid excitement is
expressed through his manic body language as he starts his villainous, yet doomed,
sphere of action to cover up the crime and protect the killer.
The toxic combination of extreme right and left-wing ideologies in the film is
finally renounced as a more conservative ending is played out, Matt informing the
police to let the patriarchal forces of law and order take control in the final act. It is

also another example of Altman's concept of a generic blueprint when comparing the
film to Rebel and The Wild One, which develops and evolves over time and was
referred to in the introduction.
At the same time as John is being murdered by Fleck, Matt and Clarissa are
having sex, two scenes illustrated by the use of parallel editing. Shary (2005b: 32)
points out that this makes 'a certain link between sex and death, but more so
juxtaposing the lack of emotion all of these characters feel toward two such extreme
circumstances.' It turns into a kind of distorted Proppian tale, as the hero Matt's
'sphere of action' does not 'defeat the villain in open combat' (Propp, 1968: 53). This
is left to Fleck, who turns from a villain to a kind of anti-hero as he kills Layne. The
two scenes could relate to what Propp refers to when 'victory is encountered in a
negative form' (ibid.). When one hero 'hides' [Matt], while the other is victorious
[Fleck].' But in the last scene, Fleck has been arrested and confesses to killing his
girlfriend, becoming the villain again.
Shary (2005b) claims River's Edge is symbolic in terms of youth
representation, from the sex comedies through to the image of the dead girl's body. A
generic link is created between the subgenres as the body 'is the final result of all the
abuse inflicted upon prematurely sexualized young woman in the exploitative sex
romps', discussed here in Chapter Two. Many teen males in the 1980s genre do not
understand the consequences of their actions, and in River's Edge the female teen
becomes the victim of the most deadly form of macho behaviour.
Despite its limitations, outlined at the beginning of this chapter, applying
Propp's ideas to fit the stories of the 1980s teen genre has added another dimension
to the characterisation and narrative potential of this thesis. It does so by offering an
alternative method of defining the characters, their stories and wider implications by
the 'roles' they play and the 'functions' which they act out. Propp's approach also
continues the structuralist, oppositional investigation into the issues. Even a film like
River's Edge, which initially resists any such definitions, ultimately comes to share
some of Propp's roles and functions due to the classic narrative structure of the film.
It is important to reiterate that Propp's methods serve to underpin the
analysis in relation to how the genre continues to become more of a unified whole
and its representational values concerning teen culture, adolescence and how the
films resonate with sociopolitical aspects of the period. In the next and final chapter,
the interrogation into teen culture and its society will position the genre within the

context of its space and its generic sites, developing and evolving the argument by
viewing the issues through another analytical lens.

Chapter Five
Teen Generic Sites and Their Spaces
This chapter will examine the 1980s teen film in the context of the symbolic
nature of space and will argue that the generic sites do more than just operate in
terms of their iconography and genre recognition. Henri Lefebvre's (1974) notion of
'social space', referred to in the introduction, will act as a foundational concept here.
The sites under investigation are the ones most associated with the teen genre: the
home, the bedroom, the high school and the shopping mall. The chapter will then
analyses the symbolic space of the city, a less frequented space of the genre. A short
inquiry into the space of the beach and car, will lead to an examination which will
conclude the chapter, concerning another spaces which are traditional teen generic
teen sites, that is, more dangerous spaces where the characters venture beyond the
relative safety of the mall, high school and home, and which require some mode of
transport, like in Porky's and Losin' It.
The research will explore how teens as individuals and in groups react and
function within these spaces, which will develop the argument relating to teen
culture and its wider implications already discussed in previous chapters. The
approach will remain the same, in that the stories told in the films are the main
focus, with the methodologies (in this case relating to space) underpinning them.
Space, as Grant (2007: 11) contests, can become 'symbolically-charged' when viewed
from a cinematic perspective. Extending this idea is Gibbs (2002: 16-17), who notes
that space has the potential in cinema to become 'expressive' and when 'things
happen' it becomes 'endowed with meaning beyond the literal.' To reiterate what
was explained in the methodology section, as far as the structure of this chapter is
concerned, the films will be organised around the different sites, not chronologically
or by their subgeneric category. Using space in this context is another way of uniting
the disparate parts of the genre, the bedroom, for example, serving as a backdrop to
the adolescent concerns expressed in both the sex comedy, Porky's, and the romantic
comedy, Pretty in Pink. Similar themes are examined here in relation to
consumerism and the shopping mall in Fast Times (a sex comedy), and Valley Girl (a
romantic comedy).

Theorising Space in the Teen Film
The significance of space in relation to the teen genre, or indeed other
Hollywood genres, is an infrequent topic for analysis, as Richard Maltby explains
(2003: 353):
Spatial representation is rarely stressed in Hollywood, making it difficult to appreciate
its significance...a richer understanding of a Hollywood movie can be offered by
examining its visual discourse than by presuming that its meaning is located solely in
plot and dialogue
Moreover, Manny Farber (1998: 3) notes that 'space is the most dramatic stylistic
entity...seldom discussed in film criticism.' Peter Wollen (1980: 25) points out that
the relevance of space and place in classic Hollywood cinema has often been
subordinate to the narrative, plot and dialogue: 'Places are functions of the narrative
(actions must take place somewhere) yet the fascination of the films are often with
the films themselves.' The actions relating to teen issues such as sexuality,
relationships, identity and the different roles, discussed in the previous chapters, all
take place in the spaces of the teen genre, and this chapter will interrogate how these
actions, behaviour and character types link and intertwine with the spaces. In doing
so, parallels can be drawn with the semantic/syntactic approach when positioning
space and place as an active agent within the narrative. For example, one of the
functions of the shopping mall in Valley Girl and Fast Times is the use of it as a
narrative device to introduce the action.
Like Henry Lefebvre, the ideas of other scholars who do not refer to films and
discuss the symbolic notion of space are relevant here. Yi-Fu Tuan (1977: 3) refers to
the 'unexpected meanings' inherent in space and place, an issue which he stresses
may 'raise questions we have not thought to ask.' Hetherington (1997), cited in Bain
(2003: 211), notes that place is meaningful when it is instilled with 'memory,
representations and relationships and the actions of valuing, naming and ordering
[is] cross-cut by tensions, conflicts and contradictions as social groups assert their
alternative readings of space.' For example, the dual-focus concerns of the adult-teen
order and chaos dynamic are illustrated in the space of the parental home (discussed
later in more detail). Similarly, Foucault (1986: 23) proposes, 'the anxiety of our era

has to do fundamentally with space.' This is demonstrated when conflict between the
teens arises in the space of the high school in The Breakfast Club and, in a more
violent form in the teen delinquent drama, Class of 1984 (1982), where a youth gang
terrorise fellow students and staff in a high school setting.
This chapter will draw on Bailey Hay's (2002: 226) writings on the mall as a
'counterspace' to the school in teen films and will discuss the notion of these sites in
oppositional terms, reinforcing the structuralist approach of this thesis. William Paul
(2002a) goes on to propose that the mall space has a constructive effect on a
teenager's identity in relation to work and the transition into adulthood. Conversely,
Kowinski (1985) claims the mall has more of a negative impact and is a space which
controls the teens and programmes them into engaging in shallow consumerism.
Goss (1993) argues that the architecture of malls are designed to keep groups like
teenagers under control and separated in terms of gender, which is evident in Valley
Girl and Fast Times. He comments on the control that adult authority attempts to
impose on teenagers' lives, one of the recurring themes of this research which merges
the genre into a coherent whole.
Foucault's (1986) concept of 'heterotopia' or 'other space' continues to draw
on structuralist ideas and the ambivalent use of space, and is relevant to the
shopping mall. It elicits an alternative reading of these generic sites, 'a counter-site
[which is] simultaneously mythic and real...the space in which we live, which draws
us out of ourselves, in which the erosion of our lives, our time and our history occurs'
(1986: 23-24). Foucault discusses space in terms of its oppositional forces of power,
knowledge and surveillance, and its relationship to social situations and the
restrictions and limitations which are created from this:
These are oppositions we regard as simple givens: for example between private
space and public space, between family space and social space, between cultural
space and useful space, between the space of leisure and that of work. (ibid: 23)
Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the 'chronotope' adds to the structuralist debate in
relation to the shopping mall scenes in the teen film. It translates literally as 'time-
space' and is a depiction of a precise time and place and the relationship between the
two. Foucault and
Lévi-Strauss share similar views to Bakhtin on this relationship,

but where Bakhtin differs is in his ahistorical agenda, where time and space are
the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships...expresses the
inseparability of space and the [cinematic] artistic chronotope, spatial and
temporal indictors are fused into one carefully thought-out concrete whole. Time, as
it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space
becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history.
(Bakhtin, 1981: 84)
Montgomery (1993: 92), drawing on Bakhtin, argues that in teen films, the
mall articulates not so much issues of genre and narrative but rather how the
shopping mall setting itself influences the characters. This has broader connotations
beyond the film: 'By continually referencing a 'real' dynamic social space, the mall
setting functions as a chronotope. As a result, a commentary upon the [teen]
subculture is developed across the decade.' This idea is reinforced by Ganser, et al
(2006: 2) when writing on 'the road movie', whose ideas can be viewed in the context
of the mall:
The chronotope serves as a means of measuring how...real historical time and space
as well as fictional time and space are articulated in relation to one another. [It]
operates on two different levels: first, as the means by which the text represents
history [1980s in this thesis] and second, as the relationship between images of time
and space [the shopping mall] in the text, out of which any representation of history
must be constructed. The chronotope of a particular text [the teen genre] thus
functions as an ideological index [Reagan era, consumerism].
In other words, a film chronotope is a fictional space which the spectator will be able
to register when viewing the visual information which makes up the content of the
frame, in this case a shopping mall: food stores, retail outlets, shoppers'
entertainment venues, bars, gyms, etc. Allied with placing this information within a
precise time (chrono), i.e. the 1970s onwards, specific relations become visible and
certain stories can 'take place', because the setting is familiar.
Montgomery (1993: 94) notes that 'films provide us for analysing in miniature
the larger implications of consumerism as a shared activity...In what sense does it

begin to resemble a belief system?' This quasi-religious connotation is echoed by
Fiske, who points out that consumerism is the new religion and 'shopping malls
become cathedrals of consumption' (1989: 13). These analogies are discussed with
reference to the films below. Moreover, Goss (1999: 45) discusses Foucault's notion
of heterotopia and space (1986) and extends the consumerist metaphor as the mall
becomes an 'other space' or 'counterspace':
The contemporary shopping mall is an example of what Foucault calls 'heterotopias
of compensation,' real and discrete 'counter sites' where multiple images of ideal
times and places combine to create an illusion of a world outside of everyday life,
[and] promises restoration in a utopian community of consumption.
Parallels can also be drawn between the concept of the chronotope and
Lefebvre's writings on space. Soja (1996: 6) writes: 'As Lefebvre insistently argued,
historically, sociality and spatiality are too important to be left only to such narrowed
specializations.' In this thesis, historically being the 1980s; sociality meaning the
teenage culture expressed in the films; and spatiality refers to the symbolic value of
the mall, bedroom, school, home and the city. Additionally, Bakhtin's writing on the
carnivalesque can also be applied to the parental home; for example, the out-of-
control party scenes in Risky Business, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles and Weird
Science subvert and liberate the dominant ideology through chaos and humour,
drawing on the oppositional debates surrounding parent/teenage culture. Again,
Altman's (1999) notion of dual-focus texts can be applied to the estrangement
between the teen and the adult communities, but on a broader scale, as opposed to
the differences between individual characters in the genre.
These ideas surrounding the ambiguous use of space in the teen movie are
extended to the opposing forces of public and private space. Bain (2003: 202),
writing on gender and space in teen movies, draws a distinction between,
places of retreat and places of interaction. The former refers to those more
private places where teenagers can withdraw from the adult world, the
latter to those more public places where teenagers can put themselves on
display in order to be seen.

Teens in the 1980s genre 'withdraw' to the private space of the bedroom and 'display'
themselves in public places like the mall and the beach.
When these ideas on space are allied to the oppositional debate, they are also
challenged. Bain (ibid: 204) argues that, when the characters are either alone or
interacting, space in teen films becomes ambivalent and boundaries are blurred. She
writes about the bedroom in Valley Girl and Pretty in Pink in terms of 'retreat' and
'liminal' space, characters confronting their hopes, dreams and fears in a space that
is 'simultaneously public/private, collective/individual, material/symbolic.' Where
structuralism would attempt to identify and expose contradictions, the idea of
'liminal' space leaves some questions unanswered; it becomes problematic as the
ambiguity makes it difficult to read the binaries in structuralist terms. Turner (1982),
quoted in Goss (1986: 27), subscribes to this