Teenagers At the Movies


Movies aimed at teenagers are nothing new. In Teenagers & Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s, Thomas Doherty argues that the courtship of the teenage audience began in the 1950s, as "a product of the decline of the classical Hollywood cinema"-with the advent of television and the collapse of the old studio system-"and the rise of the privileged American teenager" (14). After World War II, attitudes toward adolescence shifted--suddenly there were teenagers who had ample leisure time and money to spend (Palladino xii-xiii). So a movie industry searching for a new audience found teens-consumers for whom it could and would create a need.

The classic "teenpic" genre falls within a broader category of "exploitation films," characterized by "controversial content, bottom-line bookkeeping, and demographic targeting" (Doherty 10). The "scandalous material [may] be aimed at 'adults' ('sexploitation'), Blacks ('blaxploitation') or gorehounds ('axploitation')," or other groups, but "the demographic target under most intense and incessant fire remained 'juveniles'" (Doherty 10). What was true of the origin of teen movies in the 1950s continued to be true in the following decades. By the 1980s, the teenage movie-going trend had long been established, but it needed constant attention in order to be maintained. And thus the wave of films like Porky's, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Risky Business, The Outsiders, and all the John Hughes films-including Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and The Breakfast Club.

There are many criticisms of the teenpic. First, there is its "exploitative" nature. But few still posit a strict mass-culture model in which the culture industry force feeds its agenda to the public. Teens do choose whether to attend these films and which of these to see. Moreover, once inside the theater, individuals respond to films in different ways, sometimes in ways which are opposed to the dominant or intended interpretation. Like any genre-westerns, horror movies, et cetera-we can fault teen films for their triteness-stock characters, textbook storylines, conventional cinematography. But the variations within the guidelines are what draw audiences to genre films (and literature).

Teenpics can also be, and often have been, dismissed as simply telling teens what they want to hear. Moreover, what rational adult wants to spend two hours watching a movie about "popping zits, snapping towels in the locker room, ogling girls in the shower, getting crazy drunk and tearing up the strip in a 'borrowed' Porsche and grossing out Mom and Dad" (Corliss 90)? Yet teen movies continue to be churned out year after year, with their own justification: as the vice-president of Tri-Star Pictures, Steve Randall, noted in 1984, "'The 12-to-24 audience sells two-thirds of the movie tickets. It's a fact of life, and if we ever forget it, we'll be out of business'" (Palmer xiii). That's why you have to buy an "adult" ticket once you turn twelve (remember how that seemed cool the first time until you realized you didn't have enough money left to buy popcorn?).


The Breakfast Club Generation