BY IRENE KARRAS
There’s no period of life that’s fraught with more soul-searching than adolescence, and teen films have always reflected this tender period of discovery. Although its expression may change depending on the social, political and economic context, the defining element of a teen film has always been, and always will be, the struggle to find and express one’s true self against the imposed narrative and expectations of the dominant culture. But as films depict teen life, they also shape it and define what’s appropriate through their protagonists, music and fashions, giving young people relatable models and vicarious vessels through which to explore their burgeoning identities and social issues.
The Fifties: Felling the Father Figure
Our current concept of “the teenager” was actually created in the 1950s. The combination of a post-war, post-Depression generation becoming parents, combined with the development of a true middle class and the availability of higher education to the masses extended the idyllic period between childhood and adulthood.
This is also the decade when advertising as we know it today began in earnest and marketers played no small part in defining the early teen identity. Films have always been both a representation of the culture of the time and a method for creating and communicating that culture, often in the interests of big business.
Widely regarded as the first film to feature a modern teenager, 1953’s The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, tells the story of rival bike gangs’ negative effect on a small California town. Brando’s dark, sexually-seething performance was no doubt frightening to the parents of the time—and exciting for its youth. For the first time, the teenager as rebel featured prominently. “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” asks one of the preppy pretty girls in town. Brando responds with a surly yet bored “Whadya got?” while drumming his hands to a peppy tune.
I’m particularly touched by this scene because in it, Brando manages to convey both the bravado of the teen years and the tenderness. There is nothing scarier to many adults than a pack of poser teen boys, but inside they are often soft, kind and complicated. The contrast of this dangerous, leather-clad, anti-establishment hero with his obvious delight in the local clean scene and subsequent crush on a pretty, normal girl sets the stage for just about every other teen romance film.
It was truly the beginning of teen culture as we know it.
The 50s went on to produce several teen films featuring outsiders, most famously, James Dean. His portrayals of Cal Trask in East of Eden (1955)and Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)personify the angst of being misunderstood and the juxtaposition of becoming your own person while still needing and craving your parents’ attention and love. Dean’s work in these films is exquisite, made even more sublime when you know that many of the best scenes were improvised. The combination of these films with the adoption of Levis jeans and white tees as the classic teen uniform and the prevalence of that new rock ‘n’ roll music lay the foundation for subsequent films featuring and marketed towards teenagers. It was truly the beginning of teen culture as we know it.
The 50s’ teen on film was primarily male, isolated from his father’s system—represented in most films by parents or teachers—rebelling against the imposed masculine order but still bound very much by its rules. With no war, no real economic despondency, and lots of free time, for the first time teenagers had the luxury of self-reflection and critical thinking about authority, rather than blind adherence to it. Jim Stark’s anguished cry to his parents—“You’re tearing me apart!”—summarized this new tension and its subsequent exploration through film succinctly and poignantly.
The Sixties: Surf Subversion and Civil Rights
When people think of films in the 60s, the beach movie is most likely what comes to mind. These frothy, fun films featured favorites like Elvis Presley, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon and Sandra Dee. Their casts were uniformly white, pretty and clean—seeming conformists who have no need to question the meaning of life as their 50s’ counterparts did. These films were also the first cross-marketed movies, featuring stars who were already successful musicians, bringing their audiences to new mediums (and would end up being hugely influential to modern media conglomerates like Nickelodeon).
The most influential surf movie to spark this period was 1959’s Gidget, which went on to spawn two more films and a TV series. Blonde, perky Sandra Dee plays the feisty, under-developed, Francie, nicknamed Gidget for “Girl-midget”, who’s prone to exclaiming things like “Honest to goodness, it’s the absolute ultimate!” with sheer sincerity. (Irony as teen expression hadn’t been invented yet.) While her friends are into the early throes of husband-catching, Francie is more interested in catching waves until the estrogen cocktail in her body finally kicks in and she develops a crush on her surfing mentor, Moondoggie.
Though the political and social tensions that were beginning in the early 60s rarely find their way into these films, upon closer examination, one can find a hint of rebellion against authority. The very freedom to surf all day can be seen as a reaction to the restrictions of adulthood and a way of opting out of their parents’ lifestyles. Though no sex is overtly shown in these films, it is everywhere, expressed through music and (for the times) suggestive dancing in bikinis and swimsuits. Teens are still rebelling, and one could argue that the cover of conformity and simplicity is actually a more subversive form of rebellion than the melodramatic portrayals of teen angst in the ‘50s.
Though the film was blasted by critics for being “over sentimental,” I believe it was ground-breaking.
The ‘60s also marked the beginning of major social change in women’s and minority rights, and the teen films of the time address these issues. To Sir, with Love (1967) was remarkable for Sydney Poitier’s beautiful performance as a black engineer-turned-teacher trying to win over his white, underperforming students. Though the film was blasted by critics for being “over sentimental,” I believe it was ground-breaking. Here, for the first time, was a mass-marketed film featuring a man of colour who wasn’t a slave, a butler or the bad guy. Though the film isn’t perfect, it was an indication that social reform was underway.
But for me, a child of immigrants, 1961’s Westside Story remains the first mass-marketed, mass-supported film of the decade to touch upon the impending drive for social change and to look at youth gang-warfare as racially and class-motivated. Based on the 1957 musical, the modern Romeo and Juliet film featured Natalie Wood and Richard Beymar as the tortured Maria and Tony. Underneath its splendid dance numbers and soaring vocals lay a story of immigrant alienation, racism, sexism and simmering conflict between established groups and those challenging the status quo. When Maria exclaims “All of you! You all killed him! And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets or guns, with hate. Well, now I can kill too, because now I have hate!” she perfectly summarizes youthful alienation that can lead to a thug life. The most celebrated song from the film, “America” captures the tension new immigrants often feel between their nostalgia for the warmth and simplicity of their poor homeland and the flashy yet cold promise of opportunity in their new country: “I like to be in America! Okay by me in America! Everything free in America! For a small fee in America!”
The Seventies: Stylish Insurrection Against Gender Ideals
The 1970s, though often maligned for its bad clothes and music, was an eclectic time for teen film. More fringe films depicting overt teen experimentation with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, including Over the Edge (1979) and If…. (1968), came out but it was the disco and horror films of the era that featured teen rebellion in much more subversive and subliminal ways, precisely because of their mainstream status.
Disco culture stood at odds with traditional masculinity, and allowed people to bend gender in a socially acceptable way.
Though disco is often ridiculed as fluffy, “bad” music, its effect on urban youth, especially the working-class and poor, is underestimated. Disco culture stood at odds with traditional masculinity, and allowed people to bend gender in a socially acceptable way. The best example of teen rebellion against gender and cultural norms is Saturday Night Fever (1979). John Travolta plays Tony Morena, a racist, sexist, homophobic, working-class Italian-American tough guy who happens to also be kind of a metrosexual who loves the nightlife and lives to boogie. The boy loves his disco dancing, seeing it as an escape from his abusive family and limited prospects. To participate so heavily in disco, with its gay-friendly origins and flamboyant paraphernalia, was to make a conscious decision to rebel against the class, ethnic and gender norms of the time. Real men didn’t dance, wear those big collars, or care about their hair, but Tony does all of these and he’s considered the ideal guy. He’s also forced to confront his chauvinistic views on women through his relationship with his dance partner, a smart, tough, older gal who challenges his notions about female intellect and sexual availability. By today’s standards, the film is cheesy and obvious, but given the context, one can see the subtle subversion of authority underneath those flashy moves.
The horror genre really came into its own in the 70s and featured women as main characters, largely as victims but also often as “the final girl”. Many of these teen girls demonstrated a capacity for problem-solving and bravery that belied traditional representations of femininity, but it wasn’t all empowerment and sunshine. The genre of the time often presented children and teens as something to be feared. The overall optimism of the 50s and 60s gave way to huge shifts in social norms, which resulted in darker representations of youth. The widespread use of the contraceptive pill separated sex from reproduction and helped position children as something to be afraid of. The Omen (1976), The Exorcist (1973), The Brood (1979) and Halloween (1978) all present youth as bringers of doom.
If you were female in the seventies, you wouldn’t be remiss in believing that the onset of menstruation would bring with it uncontrollable madness, as seen in films like Carrie (1976) and Alice Sweet Alice (1976). You hit puberty and you start killing people, ladies. Female sexuality—finally free to be expressed without the traditional fears of pregnancy—is presented as something to be dreaded and controlled.
Many of these teen girls demonstrated a capacity for problem-solving and bravery that belied traditional representations of femininity, but it wasn’t all empowerment and sunshine.
Yet, both Carrie and Alice can also be read as challenging status quo expectations for women. Carrie enacts the ultimate revenge fantasy of anyone who’s been bullied because they are different. Alice manages to reject the constraints of religious dogma and family. Both are representations of culturally dominant fears around burgeoning female sexuality (something still prevalent today), but they are also unique manifestations of female power and outright revolts against attempts to control it.
Irene Karras is a Calgary-based communications consultant and freelance writer with a fondness for 1950s Greek melodramas, 1980s coming of age movies, weird Canadian films, and, by necessity, PG movies. She blogs at misplacedmysassy.wordpress.com and tweets @irene_karras.