One of the most endearing–and culturally enduring–products of 1980s cinema, the “teen movie” genre was reinvented with 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Although there have been plenty of movies about teenagers since the beginning of filmmaking, and the 1950’s and 60’s had plenty “teen movies,” none seemed to capture the spirit of being a teenager (or at least a fantasy version of being one) until the 1980s.
Why is a good question: maybe it had to do with the changes in American culture that followed the revolutionary spirit of the 60’s, where the first children of the Baby Boomers were now entering their own adolescence in an America that wasn’t experiencing a controversial war, fear of the draft, and the resulting generation gap that alienated parents and children just a few decades before; by providing for their children a “safer” America to experience their adolescence in, the Boomers also wanted to produce films that would be reflective of that state.
To wit, instead of the experience of going to anti-war demonstrations, their kids would be concerned with their social status in high school; instead of worrying about being drafted after high school, they could focus on romantic relationships and what college they’re going to.
Baby Boomers were going to do it “right” this time: their kids weren’t going to be sent off to die in some far-off land or rebel against their parents: they were going to live nice, normal lives where they were free to experience the pangs of heartache and freedom of youth and in general goof off and enjoy.
Such is life in the teen films that were produced in the 1980s: a lot of them have a romantic story that’s central to the plot; there are wacky hijinks the kids get into; they exist in the safe suburbs; the characters are mostly middle-class and above, and lived a lifestyle and portrayed attitudes the audience could aspire to emulate or understand better in some fashion, whether socially, economically, or romantically.
Further on that last point: maybe 80’s teen films are so memorable because the characters themselves lived pretty cool existences. Of course, the one that immediately springs to mind is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off–he has a cool room, a cute girlfriend, a loyal best friend, the admiration of his peers, and consistently pulls one over on everybody, including his principal Edward Rooney.
But even more often these teenage characters were relatable and likeable in some resonant way: Duckie from Pretty in Pink; the gang in The Breakfast Club; Chris Knight in Real Genius; Lloyd from Say Anything…–the list could go on, but you get the point. These teenagers lived lives largely independent of their parents and school was just a stand-in for a 9-to-5 job.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of teen movies from the 80’s related to the decade was how socially sophisticated its characters were and how aware and nimble they navigated their social terrains. It’s because they were teenagers with the savvy and maturity of grown-ups–an aspiration teenagers have themselves. But this also has the fingerprints of Baby Boomers all over it: in codifying the “teen experience” on film, the Boomers also shaped the perceptions of what being a teenager was supposed to be like for the teens of the era. After all, it wasn’t like actual teenagers were writing and directing these films but the generation before them.
And the teen movie is still alive and strong today, largely following the same formula that was perfected in 80s teen movies. Let’s break down some of the elements that comprised 1980’s teen movies to unlock their total awesomeness.
Teen protagonists in 80’s films fell into two categories: confident and self-conscious. The confident characters were aspirational while the self-conscious were relatable. Usually the confident character was resigned as a “wacky best friend” while the protagonist was the self-conscious one that gains confidence by the end of the movie.
Ferris Bueller: He’s smart, self-assured, and the master of his universe. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads – they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.
Chris Knight: A literal genius, Chris has decided to goof off during his last year at Cal Tech. Fast-talking and funny, he turns convention on his ear and does whatever he wants. Plus he gets to live in a college dorm when he’s a teenager.
Lloyd Dobbler: A sweetheart romantic, Lloyd falls in love with the valedictorian of his class but is disapproved of by her father, who ends up being an embezzling rat anyway. Moral, kind, and a good guy, Lloyd had the kind of maturity and sensitivity most adult men seem to lack.
Andie Walsh: The girl next door from the wrong side of the tracks, Andie has a cool afterschool job at a record store, a goofy best friend that’s in love with her, and just wants the rich kid she falls for to like her for who she is. A sentimental protagonist and wildly relatable, Andie represented the average girl in the US.
Veronica Sawyer: Sardonic but still part of the popular clique, Veronica takes a dark turn when she meets Jason Dean, who starts killing his awful classmates in Heathers. Kind of a pre-Daria, Veronica seemed to capture what a lot of teenagers are thinking but would never actually say–or do.
The Breakfast Club: Unsubtle in putting labels and types on its character (a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal) but revealing that none of them are comfortable in their assigned roles (like nearly every teenager), everyone found someone to relate to in one of the few films that made detention look kind of fun.
Wacky Best Friends
The loyal companion to the protagonist, the wacky best friend was usually in 80’s teen films for either comic relief or to egg the protagonist on. If the main character wasn’t confident, the wacky best friend was over-confident, and vice-versa. Sometimes this supporting character even stole the show.
Duckie: Who doesn’t love The Duck-Man? Well, except for Andie…Still, he’s a great character and the kind of wacky best friend that many people wish they had when they were teenagers–or for guys, a reminder of being stuck in the friend zone. Best moment: his passionate lip-synch of Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” in TRAX. Hell, that’s one of the best moments in film maybe ever.
Charles de Mar: Best friend of protagonist Lane Meyer in the insane teen comedy Better Off Dead, Charles spends most of the movie attempting to find a high off of anything (including snorting jello and snow) and being an off-the-wall character in an already sideways movie. Oh, and he’s played by the guy who played Booger in Revenge of the Nerds.
Watts: Taking the sting out of Duckie’s unrequited love for Andie, the John Hughes-penned Some Kind of Wonderful gender-flips that film’s dynamic to more satisfying results. Watts is best friends with Keith, and the two of them commiserate in being lower-class teenagers. Keith advances himself socially as he starts to date a rich, popular girl, all the while unaware that Watts is in love with him. Being a good friend, she helps him with his various goals to romance the rich girl–but unlike Duckie, she eventually wins her best friend’s heart in the end.
Cameron: Oh, Cameron. The sad-sack best friend of Ferris Bueller, he’s everything that Ferris isn’t–depressed, insecure, emotionally distant, and seemingly unable to enjoy the good time his friend has forced upon him. He’s also a more authentic representation of what a teenager actually is like most of the time than Ferris, who seems more like a manic 40-year-old had magically transformed into the body of a teenager.
Gary Wallace and Wyatt Donnelly: Both protagonists and wacky best friends, these two nerds create a genie-like 1985-era Kelly LeBrock out of some Weird Science they conjure up and proceed to have the wildest time of their life, instilling them with confidence along the way.
Of course, every teen film needed an antagonist. Usually either an authority figure or another (better-looking, richer, more popular) teen to our protagonist, the antagonist is also there for our hero to defeat and take down a few pegs.
Edward R. Rooney: Dean of Students and driven to distraction by Ferris Bueller, Rooney has the opposite of Ferris’s awesome day by trying to catch him skipping school. But by the end of the movie, he’s beaten, battered, and totally humiliated. More cartoon character than man, you can almost feel the character’s blood pressure escalating with each defeat.
Steff McKee: One of the biggest preppy jerk characters ever committed to film, Steff McKee spends much of his on-screen time in Pretty in Pink goading Blane into dumping the lower-class Andie and in general being one of the biggest assholes on the planet. You hate him so much you almost forget that Blane is actually taking orders from this clown. Almost.
Assistant Principal Vernon: As the nasty antagonist of The Breakfast Club, AP Vernon comes across as a real tool, even after you’ve become an adult yourself. Wearing a cheap-looking suit, his deeply bitter attitude and needlessly cruel treatment of Bender makes one wonder why he went into school administration in the first place. He’s not necessarily given a comeuppance but knowing what little power the guy holds as an authority figure over these kids and his rather pathetic-seeming existence are solace enough for the viewer–plus it shows teenagers what not to be like when they get older!
Professor Jerry Hathaway: Having played some of the biggest smug jerks of the 1980’s, William Atherton was a great choice to play the snobby scientist professor in Real Genius. Condescending to anyone he thinks is below his intelligence, Hathaway also exploits his genius teen students’ invention of a powerful laser for his own nefarious profit as a weapon for the government. Fortunately, our plucky heroes get their revenge by filling his newly remodeled home with popcorn kernels and redirecting the laser’s test run to fire the beam into the house, making it overflow and explode from the popcorn. A fitting revenge to a terrible person–and someone who hates popcorn. Come on, who hates popcorn? Bad people, that’s who.
80’s Movie Posters
There used to be a certain artistry in making movie posters: often high-quality illustrations or else dramatic portraits with a paragraph of text, the posters of 1980’s films had a distinct quality to them that stopped trending sometime in the early 90’s–which is a shame since there was a lot of charm to them. Some of these have become iconic, while others aren’t even featured as DVD covers (or VHS covers, depending on how deep you roll).
The 1980’s were, ironically, a much more publicly raunchy time compared to the early 21st century. Before the rise of political correctness in the 1990’s that revised the accepted vocabulary and sensibilities of public discourse, the 80’s were awash with representations, attitudes, and words that are verboten today. Teen movies of the era were similarly un-P.C., with sexual mores, attitudes towards race and sexual orientation, and general behaviors being displayed that have experienced a great deal of values dissonance between now and then. Some prime examples include:
Sixteen Candles: Remembered as a raunchy comedy, “faggot” is used quite a bit throughout the film as a disparaging remark, a supporting character is a wildly offensive Japanese stereotype, and one of our ostensible heroes gives another kid the OK to rape his drunk girlfriend (who later states that she enjoyed the experience! Yikes.).
Heathers: Murdering his classmates aside–which would become completely unacceptable after Columbine–Jason Dean brings a gun into school and fires blanks at some jocks in the cafeteria. Eep.
The Breakfast Club: Let’s see: the brain brought a firearm to school, which discharged in his locker; he gets a day at detention instead of expulsion and criminal charges. Bender relentlessly sexually harasses Claire for half the film. Oh, and the “fag” word is used quite a bit, as well.
In fact, “fag” was a relatively commonly-used derogatory insult that many teenagers used casually up into the early 2000’s. Movies just have the misfortune of being frozen in time so that its casual use is somewhat shocking to audiences of today. Of all things, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures–despite being aired in schools as a treat up to today–uses “fag” liberally. Teen Wolf does, as well. And Fast Times at Ridgemont High. And, well, most teen films of the 80’s. It was a different time.
Movies are like time capsules, and teen movies from the 80’s especially so: since they’re portraying teenage life and were aiming to appeal to teens of the time, it’s not surprising that they are also heavily indicative of the styles, values, and mores of their time period (for good or ill).
But it’s also good to see that they work so well in this regard: history should be represented warts and all. A re-edit of any of these movies would be to deny the reality of history and cultural attitudes. The 80’s were a great decade for America, but there was a lot of explicit racism, sexism, and homophobia both in its cultural outputs and in real life.
And these uncomfortable elements as represented in the teen films of this time not only reflect American culture but also how teenagers were viewed and represented in film–what they would find appealing or relatable. While a teenager in the early 21st century would be appalled by some of these cruder moments–and since our standards for depicting minors on film has shifted heavily in the ensuing decades (for example, depicting sexual situations featuring minors would ensure something like Fast Times at Ridgemont High would never be made today)–are representative of the cultural zeitgeist of the 1980’s. Looser, wilder, and definitely less inhibited than films aimed at teens today, 80’s teen movies spoke to, and often spoke up to, their intended audience.