So, last time, I offered up my dignity and childhood on a plate to contextualize my lack of experience with teen movies. I also mentioned which movies I'd seen, which ones were not part of the format (Flashdance, Top Gun, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Dirty Dancing, and The Graduate) and were therefore only going to be touched on, and which ones were essential ( The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls, Clueless, The Craft, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Heathers, Say Anything, Ten Things I Hate about You, American Pie, Footloose, and She's the Man.)
There are still MORE teen movies on Netflix and elsewhere, but these were some of the biggest zeitgeist defining films, so here they are. I suppose I could have included Napoleon Dynamite or even the Harry Potter series or Juno, but those have a different feel than these movies, or are too self-aware/parodic to count. Also, they weren't made in the 90s or 80s, which was an important consideration for defining the era. But what the hell was up with that era?
The 80s and 90s
Most of my readers were alive for these periods, so I'm not going to rehash history--literally. However, America, where all of these films were produced, was fairly peaceful, quite wealthy, and was experiencing a nostalgia boner of the sort that generally merits physician interference and a trip to the E.R. The 50s and 60s played a big role in the fashions of the era, and also in the priorities. After all, America had beaten the dirty commies and the Berlin Wall was coming down; Russia was waving the white flag and capitulating to capitalism, and the hamburger gut of poverty and malnutrition hadn't ruined America's high school quarterback figure yet. The other thing was that class stratification hadn't set in yet--rich kids still deigned to set foot in public schools, something that slowly ended as recession after recession hammered America. And of course, that whole 9-11 thing hadn't happened yet, so everyone in North America tends to have very rose-coloured glasses about the era.
ALL HAIL MAUD DIB--Wait, no, not that 80s movie. 'Scuse me.
The 80s, however, were much darker than the 90s. It's significant that the John Hughes movies (Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink) and Heathers were done then. Footloose, The Graduate, Flashdance, Dirty Dancing, and Say Anything also have some dark elements to them--and Breakfast at Tiffany's, though it's a couple decades older, totally nails the feel of an 80s movie in some strange ways. It even has a party, misbehavior, and an identity crisis. When you compare the goofy gothic tone of The Craft to Heathers, it's clear which movie is superior and more genuinely frightening--and hint, it's not the one with the Spice Witches. Ferris Bueller's Day Off also touches on this darkness a bit. Honestly, I didn't like DD or FBDO, and PiP made me want to serve Duckie up in a nice whisky glaze sauce with new potatoes on the side. He was unbearable. BC was okay, but Heathers, The Graduate, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and Say Anything were definitely my favorites--especially Breakfast at Tiffany's and Heathers.
In this batch of movies, there's a lot of abuse, arguing with parental characters, (who actually get proper development in a lot of cases), a lot of death, guns, car crashes, screaming matches that actually seem threatening, religious extremism, murder, prostitution, abortions, and suicide. Not all of these movies are better than the 90s ones, but it's hard to argue that they seem to have more depth. They still give us the big parties and the arguments and the premarital sex, but there's more at stake, a lurking sense that these characters will grow up and that life will not just be a sort of fade into the sunset or a weird flying car from a fairground escape. (Yeah, yeah, Grease was a late 70s movie. Shut it. I already made an exception for Hepburn and I'm not doing it again.)
Yeah, yeah, there's more to the discussion. Don't walk off just yet.
But what about the 90s?
You can probably see where I'm going with this. Sure, a few movies do allude to tough things, but Clueless doesn't have the same threat-level as the 80s movies. American Pie, Ten Things I Hate about You, latecomers She's the Man and Mean Girls, and The Craft are a lot tamer than their predecessors. There's more drinking, more partying, brighter colours, and less development of the romantic hole-filler boyfriends for the most part. FBDO was pretty meh about Sloan's development, but it at least hinted that she wasn't just a smiling floppy-haired shadow. She kind of was, but...you know. The 90s movies were clearly leaning on the 80s movies for style and support, and Mean Girls wouldn't exist without Heathers--but instead of murder most awkward, that had a nasty bus accident. Bullying is also a bit less threatening--mostly--in the 90s films, and is treated more jokily. On the up side, the 90s movies are less...the word that comes to mind is "patriarchal"...than the 80s films. Those tend to have a theme of female characters being handed off from father to boyfriend like shiny sports trophies.
At the same time, there's an optimism to the 90s movies that's really likeable. There's also a weird emphasis on virginity, though, something that a more recent movie, Easy A, re-created well. 80s movies were more accepting of protagonists who had sex and girls who put out, whereas the shadow of the conservative backlash was already looming in the corners of the 90s films. American Pie was a film about losing virginity, for example. That said, Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink had jokes about rape and pregnancy, but the characters were mostly virgins there as well. Still, the 90s movies are mostly much more light-hearted and kind of innocent. I mean, there's The Craft, the barfed-up leftovers of the Satanic Panic, but as dark movies go, it's not even a decent teenager version of Practical Magic. I liked Clueless more than 10TIHaY and AP, Mean Girls was a lot better than I remembered. TC was an eye-rolling bore, and StM was a cute, fairly innocent movie for its subject matter, not unlike Easy A was. Both could have, amd perhaps should have, been much darker.
The 2000s and beyond
There's not much to say about these eras. The teen movies that have come out since are basically parodies at best, focus on more adult characters, or were just spineless, toothless inane party fests. The tropes got overused, washed out like a vintage t-shirt in the wash, past the point of chicness and into the point of developing sad little rips and losing letters. It could be The Event That Shall Not Be Named, (9-11), or it could have been TV series like Sex and the City snapping up the audience. Or perhaps the audience had simply graduated. I was a little too young at the time to know.
But still, I haven't gotten into which films are great, which ones are good, and which ones made me homicidal--or why. So, for our final installment, let's talk about quality--and why some films seriously lose their lustre, even with nostalgia goggles firmly in place.
Tune in next time for the final installment--because seriously, I'm not going all Rocky on this trilogy. Absolutely not. I have some decency.
Now it's your turn. What else did you notice about 80s and 90s movies, and how they related to the era? Am I missing out on some 2000s gems, or did they really just suck? Tell me in the comments!