The Decade of Realizations: American Youth During the 80s

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Of all the 1980's films, that can be described as "Eighties Teen Movies" (Thorburn, 1998) or "High School Movies" (Messner, 1998), those written and (with the exception of "Pretty In Pink" (1986) and "Some Kind of Wonderful"(1987)) directed by John Hughes were often seen to define the genre, even leading to the tag "John Hughes rites de passage movies" as a genre definition used in 1990s popular culture (such as in "Wayne's World 2" (1994 dir. Stephen Surjik)). This term refers to the half dozen films made between 1984 and 1987; chronologically, "Sixteen Candles" (1984), "The Breakfast Club" (1985), "Weird Science" (1985), "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986), "Pretty In Pink" (1986) and "Some Kind Of Wonderful" (1987) (the latter two being directed by Howard Deutch). For the purpose of this study, "Weird Science" and "Some Kind of Wonderful" shall be excluded; "Weird Science" since, unlike the other films, it is grounded in science fiction rather than reality and "Some Kind of Wonderful" as its characters are fractionally older and have lost the "innocence" key to the previous movies: as Bernstein states "the youthful naivete was missing and the diamond earring motif [a significant gift within the film] was no substitute" (Bernstein, 1997, p.89). Bernstein suggests that the decadent 1980s were like the 1950s, "an AIDS-free adventure playground with the promise of prosperity around every corner … our last age of innocence" (Bernstein, 1997, p.1). The films were very much a product of the time in terms of their production ("suddenly adolescent spending power dictated that Hollywood direct all its energies to fleshing out the fantasies of our friend, Mr. Dumb Horny 14 Year Old" Bernstein, 1997, p.4), their repetition (with the growth of video cassette recorders, cable and satellite with time to fill, and also the likes of MTV promoting the film's soundtracks) and their ideologies.

The capitalist ideas so prominent in the Reagan / Thatcher era are as clearly instilled in the youth of the 1980s films as their, usually middle class, screen parents. Only "Pretty In Pink" (and indirectly, "The Breakfast Club") actually confronts class differences; in the other films, the middle class way of life is accepted as default. Almost every John Hughes film is set in affluent suburbia with the repetition of certain imagery (the big house, gardens and tree-lined quiet streets, and often a wood-paneled station wagon) with a certain population (rich, white families), which is reflected in the body of the attended, well-equipped schools. Such a sheltered existence has led the youthful characters of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Sixteen Candles" in particular to unquestionably adopted their parents' ideologies. In "Sixteen Candles", the central character, Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) hopes, realistically, for a "trans-am" car for her forgotten 16th birthday whereas Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick)'s birthday gift of a computer rather than a car is a constantly referred to concern in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"; although it was obviously an expensive gift, he is not satisfied as it is not the expensive gift he wanted as it is not an obvious sign of wealth. Ferris Bueller's materialism reflects the centering of the individual's wants over the community's needs as was common in 1980s affluent society. It is taken for granted (by them and their parents) that each of the characters in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" will go to university and that this will lead to financial success and therefore, an increase in class status through accumulated material signifiers. In a quote at the beginning, Bueller sums this up "I have to take it [a test], I want to go a good college so I can have fruitful life". This is what his parents want to hear (which is obviously why he is saying it) but it is what he would want too; anything less would disappoint him in comparison to the life he is accustomed to. "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" offers a representation...
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