18.1.09

The Teen Movie: A Retrospective

Since my specialty area is certainly the teen movie I thought that I would do a series of posts looking back at the teen movie since the 1950s. I have had a lot of debates with people as to what constitutes a teen movie. Watching a range of films from The Breakfast Club to Wayne's World to Elephant the question arises: what is a teen movie? Is a teen movie defined by the fact that teenagers are portrayed as a movie’s subject matter, or that teenagers are the target audience, or do teen movies in themselves constitute a genre? Certainly just because a film such as Uncle Buck or New York Minute features teenage characters does not necessarily mean they are teen movies - the former is a family movie and the later a ‘tween’ movie. If the teen film is defined by being primarily targeted at a teen audience, the teen genre would be so wide as to include films as far-reaching as The Fast and the Furious and Wayne's World, especially given that mass culture “reflect[s] teenage, not mass...tastes” (T. Doherty Teenagers and Teenpics).

Whilst the primary target audience is the teen-aged market, teen films definitely have a wider appeal, especially given the varied sub-genres which make up the teen genre, such as the slasher and revisiting youth films. The teen film has developed from being a subject matter in the 1950s to a target audience in the 1960s and finally a genre in the 1980s incorporating films from Rebel Without a Cause to Marie Antoinette.

One of the elements which helped teen movies ‘evolve’ into a genre was no doubt the teen oeuvre of John Hughes. John Hughes’ six teen films brought together, and in some cases introduced, all the key elements which make the teen genre what it is. Teen movies are, as other generic films are, “those commercial feature films which, through repetition and variation tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations” (S. Neale Genre and Hollywood). One of the most important elements which signifies the teen genre are the spaces which the characters inhabit. Such iconographical spaces include the high school, the suburban home and the mall; these are the spaces that define the teen experience, and therefore the genre film. Other key iconographical elements of the teen genre are the stock characters, (jocks, geeks, cheerleaders, outsiders, popular kids, rebels and parents), and common events (the prom, class, shopping, graduation, parties and makeovers). Such teen tropes have become so commonplace in cinema today that they have been adopted by art house cinema, which continues to respect and revise the history, heritage and clichés present in teen cinema as far back as 1953.

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