Teenage Riot: A History of Teen Rebellion in the Movies (Part 2/2)

Whatever Forever


Click here for part 1 of Teenage Riot: Manifestations of Teen Rebellion in the Movies.

The Eighties: Ennui as Uprising

The 1980s saw a proliferation of teen films like no other decade. The representation of sexual freedom that 1970s films began to explore hit its zenith in the early 80s—before the widespread understanding and fear of AIDS—through teen sexploitation films like Porky’s (1982), Hot Dog: The Movie (1984), Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and Zapped! (1982). (Author’s note: My dad took me to see Zapped! in the theatre when I was 9 because I was a huge Scott Baio fan. I cannot tell you how awkward it was to sit through an entire film of Baio popping girls’ bras off with his eyes with my first-generation Greek dad. I remember him chuckling quite a bit but when it was over, we got into the car and never spoke of it again. Ever. And I also distinctly remember thinking that big boobs were the only way to a guy’s heart. Thankfully, it turned out there were some real-life guys for whom average-sized boobs sufficed!) Teens were presented as bright and intelligent but horny—all the time. The main goal was to lose one’s virginity. The 1980s were a conservative decade, and the proliferation of the horny teen male was both a nod to expected gender norms and defiance against a throwback to traditional Thatcherite/Reaganesque values.

The era is really defined by the John Hughes oeuvre, which used the angst, alienation, prevalence of music and the stylized attention to clothing and hair of teen films past, but this time combined them into something new. Our teen heroes in the 1980s were super-smart, well-read, unselfconsciously easy on the eyes and misunderstood. Essentially they were good kids who were trying to break out of culturally-imposed expectations from both parents, and, for the first time so widely, peers.

Pretty in Pink (1986), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) highlighted how the school pecking order became a more important authority than teachers, parents or “the man.” Parents and teachers were still around, sort of, but the sentiment was that they didn’t matter quite as much and were more laughable and out-of-touch than truly threatening. They were to be endured and subverted at every turn, but the real authority was the kids at school and the real rebellion was against peer expectations. But these expectations were often confused and confusing, especially when they concerned sex. As The Breakfast Club’s Alison explains, “Well, if you say you haven’t, you’re a prude. If you say you have, you’re a slut. It’s a trap. You want to but you can’t and when you do you wish you didn’t, right?”

1985's The Breakfast Club

1985’s The Breakfast Club

Because the 1980s saw the proliferation of divorce, mothers in the workforce and latchkey kids, these films reflected the increased independence of the modern teen and the decreased influence of traditional family life. Sixteen Candles (1984), particularly exemplifies the invisibility within their family that many teens felt as Samantha’s family completely forgets her 16th birthday. Each of Hughes’ films embodied this philosophy, but so did most films of the mid-to-late eighties, including the Back to the Future franchise, Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) and The Outsiders (1983).

Our teen heroes in the 1980s were super-smart, well-read, unselfconsciously easy on the eyes, and misunderstood.

Heathers (1988) took this notion of rebellion against peers to a wicked, darkly satirical extreme. I doubt this film could be made today, but 1988 was before Columbine, and before so many young victims took their lives because of online tyranny. It-boy Christian Slater plays the dangerous-yet-hot outsider bad boy, JD, who convinces Veronica, played by It-girl Winona Ryder, a newly adopted member of the popular girls’ club (whose members are all named “Heather”) to begin killing the Heathers one by one and making it look like suicide in order to disrupt the social order. Eventually, though, because suicide is now “in”, the plan backfires as other students also begin killing themselves in one last and absurd attempt to be accepted by the teen queens. Veronica eventually breaks free of JD’s control, outsmarts him and becomes besties with the school geek. Full of fantastic one-liners and deadpan deliveries, such as “Dear Diary, my teen angst bullshit now has a body count,” the film has become a cult classic and has even spawned a Broadway musical.

Winona Ryder, cool as a cucumber, in 1988's Heathers

Winona Ryder, cool as a cucumber, in 1988’s Heathers

The Nineties: Irony, In-crowds and Insurgence

The trends started in the 1980s continued through the 90s with American Pie replacing Porkies as the teen-sex franchise, horror movies such as Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) becoming more self-referential, and sarcastic one-liners now standard fare in Clueless (1995), Pump Up the Volume (1990) and Ten Things I Hate about You (1999). Rebelling against peers as authority still prevailed, but now teens in film were also rebelling against themselves, their own insecurities and anxieties.

Teen rebellion starts getting socially responsible during the age when human rights and environmental causes start gaining global attention and mobilization.

Though the teen film sort of became a genre on its own, there were some unique films that defined the era’s cultural context. The 90s were a period marked by increased access to alternative media. Cable TV began proliferating and the internet was in its early stages. Zines—the predecessor to today’s blog—were a thing. Grunge and hip hop were the musical genres of choice. Third wave feminism began challenging assumptions around female sexuality in a new way. The Cold War ended, magnificently symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ecstasy became a drug of choice and the grown-ups were terrified by all-night parties called raves. War was around in Yugoslavia and Iraq, but not on home-turf. It was a complex time, both depressing and optimistic.

Empire Records (1995) best exemplifies the shifts in the economy and tech spheres of the decade. It tells the story of an independent record store’s (yes, kids, we used to buy music in a store. And that was all they sold!) employees’ fight to save their beloved workplace from being bought by a large corporation. “Damn the Man! Save the Empire!” was a rallying cry not only within the film, but as a reaction to increased consolidation and the marketing of teen culture for profit. Teen rebellion starts getting socially responsible during the age when human rights and environmental causes start gaining global attention and mobilization. Plus, the soundtrack is amazing.


1995’s Empire Records

While Empire Records was fun and cheerful, Kids, which came out the same year, was probably the bleakest film of the decade. Featuring a cast of unknowns and non-professional actors (including Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson in their debuts), the film is the most depressing look at teen sex, drugs, drinking and AIDS ever produced, partly because, though entirely scripted, it is filmed like a skater documentary. The boys are portrayed as homophobic, misogynistic nihilists, and the females demonstrate so little agency that it’s difficult to place them within the urban context that inspired the Riot Grrrls and a resurgence of female-fronted punk bands. A typically charming line from Telly summarizes the sentiment in the film: “But, like, if you deflower a girl, man, you’re the man. No one can ever do that again. You’re the only one. No one, no one, has the power to do that again.” Like I said, charming.

Kids was given an NC-17 rating because of its borderline pornographic depiction of teen sex. The sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll theme running through most teen films in this century is taken to its most horrid conclusions, and though the film is often cited as a realistic view of urban teens, it feels more like a warning that fits right into authority figures’ desires to control typical teen behaviour—sex leads to AIDS, boys are all menacing little sex-addicts, and girls are naïve and easily manipulated. It’s like a purity-culture PSA on speed. Or rather ecstasy, since it was the 90s.

1991’s Boyz n the Hood deserves a mention here not least because of it’s a stark contrast to Kids, though it’s no less depressing. Whereas the youth in Kids are portrayed as amoral and apathetic and it’s never really clear what they’re rebelling against, John Singleton’s directorial debut portrays its black urban youth struggling against an oppressive system of crime, violence, poverty and alienation. Set in South Central LA, the film features Lawrence Fishburne and Cuba Gooding Jr. as a father and son, and Ice Cube as one of Cuba’s friends. Rebellion in this movie means trying to get out of the gang system, get into college and not engage in drugs—basically everything the teens in Kids were actively courting. The film takes the typical white suburban ennui demonstrated in mainstream films throughout the 80s and refocuses it as a privilege. It basically says Oh, you’re bored white kids? Your feelings are hurt because your parents forgot your birthday? Well boo-hoo. I’m just happy I didn’t get shot on my way to school today, you ignorant *&^% brat!

The New Millennium: Back to the Future

The early part of the new millennium continued to feature rebellion in the form of sex and antagonism towards peers, but began more prominently featuring female leads and stories. Mean Girls (2004)and Thirteen (2003)particularly address issues of female sexuality and control over behavior, bringing to the fore issues of female on female emotional violence or relational bullying. These films were released early on in the millennium before social media was integrated into every teenager’s lifestyle. The girls are obsessed with retaining their social status and maintaining their relationships with one another to disastrous results. The teen girl as evil masterminded trope that began in the 70s blooms to fruition. She is shown to be smart and in full possession of her sexuality—terrifying to grown men everywhere, but also a reflection of the third wave feminist movement’s attempts to reposition female sexuality as a tool of power rather than a method of control. As the decade continues, females remain central in teen films and though many of the stories across genres focus on female empowerment, much of this empowerment is also achieved through traditional forms of attractiveness. This generation of girls has been raised to believe they are smart and capable without having to give up their femininity to be so.

The girls are obsessed with retaining their social status and maintaining their relationships with one another to disastrous results.

Juno (2007), Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) and Superbad (2007)all feature hip(ster), modern teens, adults who are more immature and conflicted than the teens, and Michael Cera as the ultimate feminist mom’s son—sweet, kind, respectful of women’s personhood, and not threatened by the bright, strong teen girls around him. The mid-2000s saw teen rebellion as conformity. The grown-ups are the ones going through the mid-life crises and rebellion against expectations, as demonstrated in this exchange between the prospective adoptive parents Mark and Vanessa in Juno:

Vanessa: What would be a good time for you, Mark?

Mark: There’s just some things that I still want to do.

Vanessa: Like what? Be a rock star?

Mark: Don’t mock me.

Vanessa: I’m just saying that this is…this is something that’s never gonna happen. You know—your shirt is stupid. Grow up. If I have to wait for you to become Kurt Cobain, I’m never gonna be a mother.

Mark: I never said I’d be a good father.

Ellen Page in 2007's Juno

Ellen Page in 2007’s Juno

The kids are accepting their increasingly adult-like responsibilities with world-weary savvy, (“I’m a cautionary whale!” says Juno) and their relationships with traditional authority figures like teachers, parents and even police officers are generally positive and amicable. The shrinking chasm between the generations is pronounced here. So, if we’re all in it together, where does that leave room for teen rebellion and identity formation?

The 2010s: Teen Movies in the New Millennium’s Teen Years

The internet and social media have changed the idea of rebellion. Contemporary communication means being in constant contact with peers and parents, and sites like Facebook and Instagram let teens carefully construct their online identities. Teenage rebellion in film has always been about the need to be seen for who one really is, free from the limitations of cultural expectations. In today’s world, teens are constantly being seen, but at the same time never really being seen because so much of their online persona is premeditated and constructed—curated even. For a generation that has spent its entire life being monitored by authority, it has also been shaped by it, internalizing those messages and allowing the teens themselves to become the monitors, making rebellion moot.

The new teen rebel espouses not pithy one-liners, but optimism as revolution.

The Hunger Games’ two films (2012/13) exemplify the themes running through teen films for the last century splendidly, and provide a timely portrayal of the limitations of rebellion, while taking the idea of constant surveillance and monitoring to its most extreme conclusions. Katniss’ mother is unable to take care of her family after her husband’s death, thereby forcing Katniss to become independent. Though music plays less of a role, the Capitol’s decadent dress is like metrosexual disco on crack (or whatever the kids are taking today). Class and race are important, though less obviously referenced in a post-Occupy world. Though the internet isn’t explicitly mentioned, surveillance is everywhere and authority is embodied by the Capitol, the nefarious government that ensures compliance. Peers will not only judge you and make you question your value as a human being, they will literally kill you in a fight for survival. There’s very little sexual behavior in the Hunger Games—perhaps in part because kids today have grown up post-AIDS, post-pill and have a better and earlier understanding of both the risks and rewards, thus rendering sex much less an arena for rebellion than for previous generations.

Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence in 2012's The Hunger Games

Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence in 2012’s The Hunger Games

And the most interesting is a shift away from irony towards hope. The new teen rebel espouses not pithy one-liners, but optimism as revolution. As the Capitol’s President Snow says, “Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”

Teen rebellion in these films closes the loop—in this dystopian world childhood is no longer idyllic. Kids are forced to assume adult responsibilities akin to that first generation of post-war parents of teens. There’s no luxury of time to be ironic, bored or overly concerned with your popularity status. Real survival is at stake and as a result, rebellion against the government becomes the backbone to identity construction. The division between adult and child is almost completely eliminated, with generations working together to defeat the common enemy. The only real weapons are hope and faith in a better tomorrow.

What’s Next?

It will be fascinating to watch the evolution of teen films. I foresee increasing roles for diverse communities. We haven’t yet seen the great American gay teen adventure or romcom. We haven’t yet seen many mainstream teen movies featuring lead characters of colour. We haven’t yet seen mainstream movies portraying Muslims in a realistic or positive light. Female-centric blockbusters still make news and merit discussion around the marketability of women as leads. We have yet to see the great teen film that realistically deals with rape and sexual abuse or abortion as the final choice, not the one considered and discarded.

Sex, drugs and music will always be an integral part of the teen film and support portrayals of rebellion. But just as films depict a culture, we must always bear in mind that they shape them too, and as teens evolve, so will their representations on the big screen.

IreneIrene 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.

Read more of Irene’s posts.

Read more from Whatever Forever.


One response to “Teenage Riot: A History of Teen Rebellion in the Movies (Part 2/2)

  1. Pingback: Teenage Riot: A History of Teen Rebellion in the Movies (Part 1/2) | Cinefilles·

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