Privileged and getting away with it: The cultural studies of white, middle-class youth
Steinberg, Shirley R
KIDS IN HYPERREALITY: REFLECTIONS OF DYSFUNCTIONALITY
Young people live in a new world. The world of hyperreality shapes and reflects youth’s subjectivity in ways that could not have been imagined fifty years ago. We do not have to look far to find evidence of the effects of this new world and the institutions that surround our youth. At the end of the twentieth century, the family is also an institution undergoing change. The omnipresence of parent-child alienation, so often perceived as an individual problem, can better be understood as a social phenomenon. While a macro-social process is at work here, one in which young people cannot seem to refrain from viewing parents through a lens colored by their inconsistencies and shortcomings, parents seem unable to repress their resentments of their children’s view of them, and so fire back with equivalent disdain (Ventura). Parents, children, teachers, and other youth workers don’t seem to grasp the social nature of this process or the nature of young people’s lives in hyperreality. Adults don’t “get it,” many young people maintain, as they listen to and watch adults articulate and act upon their failure to understand the differences between experiences (Lewis).
In the midst of these generational misunderstandings, even the families that physically stay together often find themselves culturally and emotionally fragmented. Tuned into their different “market segments” of entertainmentmedia, they retreat to their own virtual realities. Contemporary movies from Home Alone (1990) to Problem Child ( 1990) depict this chasm, and a movie like Oliver Stone’s JFK ( 1991) looks at post-assassination American society itself as a dysfunctional family (Francke). In this context the commodification impulse in American capitalism goes to work, turning youth culture’s alienation and family dysfunctionality into a product for mass consumption. Director/producer John Hughes, for example, transforms this family pathology into an aesthetic form in his string of youth culture movies: The Breakfast Club (1985), Sixteen Candles (1984), Pretty in Pink (1986), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Weird Science (1985), and Home Alone ( 1990). Typical of this genre is The Breakfast Club with its focus on the confusion of parents and the ineptitude of adult authority. With its heroic young people who successfully negotiate the trials and travails of contemporary adolescence, The Breakfast Club, like other Hughes productions, unabashedly strokes and flatters its young audiences in a flagrant effort to “sell” the films to them. At the same time, however, the films point out the size of the chasm that separates youth from adults (Rapping). In a world where young people are often unable to control their destinies, films that depict empowered kids can be terrifically appealing to young audiences (Adatto).
Representations of youth in contemporary culture are sites of power and ideological struggles. Larry Grossberg maintains that movies depict young people in a variety of ways: as carriers of the most negative traits of adults (KIDS, 1995; River’s Edge, 1986); as alien, frightening beings (Village of the Damned, 1960, 1996; Suburbia, 1983); as saviors of civilization (Star Wars, 1977; Back to the Future, 1985); as victorious warriors (Top Gun, 1986; Red Dawn, 1984); as defenders of justice (The Legend of Billie Jean, 1985); and as misunderstood, alienated fighters for dignity (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and Home Alone). Such diversity, Grossberg continues, illustrates contradictory adult feelings about young people in contemporary life. In this context right-wing family values visions of romanticized and protected young people collide with a lived reality that defies romanticization-especially with racially and economically marginalized young people (Francke).
Critical analyses of youth have traditionally failed to focus on the age dynamic of young people’s cultural interactions, relegating them to pale reproductions of parental socio-economic class positionalities.The study of hyperreality’s cultural curriculum understands that young people, though operating at a similar class plane as their parents, encounter problems, socio-economic structures, and opportunities in ways different than their parents. Age and generation exert a profound effect in this context, forcing analysts to take into account “double articulations” of youth experience through age and class, age and race, and/or age and gender. In an era where middle- and upper-class youth find their adolescence prolonged by the economic privileges of parental affluence, and lower socio-economic and working-class youth find it prolonged because of declining low and medium-skill economic opportunity, the effect of the double articulation of age increases (Harris). When discomfort with youth is combined with fear of non-whites and poor people, depictions of marginalized youth as threats to middle-class values multiply-as sub-themes in Poltergeist (1982) and Home Alone illustrate. While in no way diminishing the importance and need for further study of marginalized youth, much of the analysis of the cultural curriculum of youth over the last two decades has focused on such young people. There is an absence of literature about middle- and upper-middle class young people and their interactions with questions of power, ideology, privilege, and familial dysfunctionality (Harris). Such youth, males in particular, are the subjects of this analysis. We will examine films concerning this particular group from the 1980s and 90s and the polysemic readings that emerge.
In larger studies of hyperreality’s cultural curriculum we have isolated three macro-themes of privilege in which to examine youth films: patriarchy, white supremacy,and elitism.Within each macro-themereside many additional themes; naturally, these axes of privilege cannot be separated, but in this chapter we will focus for analytical purposes on the study of privilege vis-a-vis patriarchy. In this context we will present some of the micro-themes which have emerged in our analyses of these cultural intersections.
Little agreement exists on the meaning of patriarchy and how the term might be used in critical pedagogy and critical theory. Certain scholars have called for the term to be abandoned, while others argue that despite its analytical fuzziness it can be used as an orienting concept in the study of the male domination of women. When used in sociological literature patriarchy falls within four general frames:
1) a system of government based on kinship;
2) a generalized form of masculine oppression;
3) a technology in the reproduction of capitalism;
4) a system of gender and class relations.
From a feminist theoretical perspective four views of patriarchy and patriarchal oppression have been employed:
a) Liberal feminist view of patriarchy: no one structure around which women’s oppression is organized exists. Indeed, within liberal feminism no search for grand social structures is undertaken. Instead, liberals look for small scale problems of injustice typically revolving around the refusal to provide equal rights for women in employment and education and the existence of sexist attitudes that help maintain the inequality of these rights for women. In focusing on rights and attitudes, liberal feminism fails to address the deep social roots of gender inequality and the interconnections between these various dimensions.
b) Radical feminist view of patriarchy: men as a social group oppress women as a social group. This gender opposition constitutes the most important structure of social oppression, deriving its power from the social structure of patriarchy and patriarchy alone. This is to argue that the patriarchal oppression of women is not a byproduct of capitalism. In such radical feminist accounts there exists a propensity fr essentialism, meaning that social oppression becomes biological reductioniSm. In this context males are viewed as predisposed by nature to oppressive behavior toward women. In addition, this predisposition tends to become universal, dismissing differences between both women and men in terms of ethnicity, race, class, and religion. No matter what the social context, the patriarchal oppression of women remains relatively the same and little possibility for change exists.
c) Marxist feminist view of patriarchy: gender inequality is derived from capitalism, not from a structurally independent form of patriarchy. The way class relations are structured ultimately determines the nature of gender interaction. The focus on capitalism and economics in the Marxist version of patriarchy is deemed too narrow by many feminist critics. This leads scholars to ignore the ways that gender subjugation operates differently than economic domination. The conversation about the relationship between capitalist oppression and patriarchal oppression continues to be central in the discourse of feminist theory (see Johnson).
d) Dual systems in feminist views of patriarchy: in this theoretical formulation, Marxist and radical feminist analyses of patriarchy are synthesized into a capitalist-patriarchal interrelated view. Sylvia Walby and others criticize dual-systems theory arguing that it doesn’t go far enough in its eclecticism. These critics want to include a variety of structures around which, in their analysis, gender oppression takes place (see Waters; Walby).
In this paper we utilize a critical constructivist theory of patriarchy that examines gender and gender oppression as socially structured and ever-evolving. Such a theory focuses on the various ways masculinity is shaped by complex power dynamics. Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, published in 1970, revived an almost dormant sociological conversation about patriarchy. Deployed as a counter-hegemonicdevice, Millet’s radical feminist view of patriarchy worked to identify the nature of gender inequality for the feminist movement’s developing struggle against male domination. Almost three decades later it is less difficult to understand the modernist assumptions that were driving this compelling but conceptually underdeveloped early work in feminist theories of patriarchy. With the benefits of hindsight and the insights of the postmodern critique, we can begin to formulate a critical constructivist view of patriarchy. Modernist methods of analysis induced feminists to theorize universalistic, cross-cultural views of patriarchy that assumed a common subjugated experience for all women. Millet’s “Notes Toward a Theory of Patriarchy”-that set the terms of the discourse on patriarchy for years following its release-couldn’t deal with the diversity of women’s experiences, especially in relation to class, race, and ethnicity. The modernist tendency to essentialize women’s identity around only the power axis of gender subverted analysis of women’s subjectivity and experience outside a generally white, middle-class, heterosexual norm.
Our theory of patriarchy draws upon a non-totalizing conception of male power that understands patriarchal power does not emanate from a single nexus nor does it work for the same outcomes no matter what the historical place and historical time. This is why John Fiske’s notion of a power bloc is helpful, as it views power structures as ever changing and shifting alliances around specific issues in particular conditions. Thus, for example, particular men and groups of men may align with wealthy women around issues that support their mutual upper-class interests. On another issue the power bloc might shift and realign itself in such a manner that these same men and women find themselves on opposing sides. In addition, the modernist tendency to view masculinity as a monolithic concept devoid of masculine diversities around issues of class, ethnicity, race, or sexual preference is no longer acceptable in the critical constructivist theoretical formulation. Early feminists used such a monolithic conception as a political device in their critique of patriarchy, afraid that male ambiguity and complexity would undermine the solidarity of the movement. Because of these and other concerns with a totalizing and essentialized view of patriarchy, the use of the term has often been avoided over the last decade among students of gender. It is our contention that a critical pedagogy needs to reconceptualize and reclaim the notion of patriarchy in the critical constructivist context and study of the structural and epistemological ways it works to construct masculinity and subordinate women and minorities (Waters; Butler; Fox; Walby; Gore; P. Smith). Within this critical pedagogy, we are using the vehicle of film study to read youth films and decode embedded patriarchial privilege. In each section of this essay, we discuss popular films that have gained the attention of youth in the last two decades. We have selected six micro-themes for the organization of this chapter:
1. The Maverick Hero
3. Female Relationships
4. Familial Relationships
5. Trashing and Partying
6. Getting away with “it.”
Within these micro-themes we draw connections among the actions, attitudes, and beliefs of teens and about teens.
1. Maverick Hero
Young Males “With an Attitude” as Maverick Hero The smart ass, or kid with an “attitude” is the hero of subversive youth culture. Characteristics of this hero include coolness, giving advice through slogans, and the use of violence and destruction. The appeal of many youth films derives from the insurgent response of typically young male protagonists to middle-class adult propriety. Youth and adult are pitted against one another with youth as sympathetic character. In Home Alone few could sympathize with Kevin’s parents and their lack of understanding of Kevin’s lowly position in the family and their inattention to his needs. Kevin’s behavior is an act of justified self-protection from this hostile family environment. Like other young rebels such as Bart Simpson or Beavis and Butt-Head, Kevin revels in disorder-confusion that rattles the foundations of bourgeois stability. In Beavis’s and ButtHead’s lexicon: order “sucks:’ chaos is “cool.” The heroes of this subversive youth culture of the contemporary era take sustenance from this disorder (Kincheloe, Kellner). The self-sufficient boy-hero of hyperreality’s youth culture movies draws heavily on the American literary tradition of the maverickhero. Such a character has for the last two centuries done things his own way, usually outside of established institutions, ultimately victorious in defense of noble values.
Finding his origins in James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo in the early nineteenth century, the maverick hero achieved classic expression in the pulp Western novels and movies of the first half of the twentieth century. Mutating into a more cynical, low-affect smart-ass with the advent of the counter-culture of the 1960s, the maverick-hero maintained his self-sufficiency and agency, controlling himself and his circumstanceseven in the midst of chaos. From Hawkeye and Trapper John in MASH with their smart-ass attacks on army hierarchy and procedure and reverent co-workers, to Rambo, maverick heroes in post-1960s movies, albeit from different ideological perspectives, affirm individual agency, self-reliance, and resistance to social restraints. While they maintain their social obligations, maverick heroes are always reluctant, always ambivalent about the struggle in question-indeed, their nobility is consistently hidden behind a hedonistic and cynical facade (Adatto). In this context it is not surprising that Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick, in Casablanca became such a cultural icon in the Vietnam and post- 1 960s era. His actions in the movie constitute the quintessential Hollywood expression of the maverick hero. “I’m no good at being noble,” he tells his beloved Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) before he gives her up in order to facilitate the cause of the French Resistance against the Nazis.
In Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Culkin’s Kevin is maverick-hero, smart-ass par excellence albeit in the guise of a child. One of the sub-themes of the Home Alone movies involves the comic juxtapositioning of cuts of family members lamenting poor little helpless Kevin with cuts of the heroic Kevin ecstatic in his mastery of the chaos of his solitude. The movie’s appeal, especially to young people, revolves around the ability of the unlikely (maverick) hero to address all contingencies. As the cocky Kevin mugs to the camera, his eyes tell the kids in the audience that we don’t need adults, we can make it on our own without parental encumberment. He is the maverick-hero outsider-in this case, outsider to his family and an unhelpful imploded community-who overtly states that “he can’t trust anybody in [his] family.” So confident is he of his self-sufficiency that he decides he would rather vacation alone than with his family-whom he describes as a “group of creeps.” Like other maverick heroes, Kevin did not choose his predicament, but finding himself in the situation he carries a torch for all of hyperreality’s children who find themselves marginalized in a hedonistic and narcissistic adult culture (Kincheloe, Toil and Trouble; “New Childhood”; “McDonald’s”).
The youth films which are the subject of our research, manifest the next step of “growth” with the maverick hero. Actors such as Christian Slater, Robert Downey, Jr., Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, and Sean Penn are continually cast in films which reinforce the parents against “us” archetype. These young, white men reflect the society that stands against them; they are portrayed as heroic resisters who, at all costs, defeat the overwhelming odds of parental intervention, stupidity, and uselessness. Upon a first viewing, the actors elicit sympathy and overt support in their attempt to overthrow the controlling oligarchy of parents and adult supervisors. It was, indeed, with this sympathy and quasi-empowerment, that we began our interest in these films. Upon further reading, we found much more sinister and negative portrayals of this hero.
The maverick hero is found in most youth films. Christian Slater’s “JD” in Heathers is a portrait of a youth with an attitude, who feels his life is in shambles and wants to share that chaos with his girlfriend, the school, and the world. JD goes as far as to commit murder, bombings, and set-up suicides in order to declare his emancipation from the system. Using the slogan, “All we want to be is treated like human beings;’ he engages Veronica (Winona Ryder) in his murderous activities. JD blames his sociopathic behavior on his parents, the school, everything but himself. Ironically, the trailer for the film begins with a picture of Veronica and the voice-over “JD has come to answer her prayers.” Positioned as a deity and savior, JD manages to kill four people, blow up the school and make Veronica feel that somehow it is her fault: “I have no control over myself when I’m with JD.”
Christian Slater becomes the hero in Pump up the Volume ( 1990). As Mark, the renegade DJ, he broadcasts from a pirated airwave to high school students in need of a belief and a cause: “Did you ever get the feeling that everything in America is fucked up? You know that feeling? That the whole country is like one inch away from saying that’s it? Think about it, everything’s polluted; the government, the schools, you name it. Is there life after high school?” By inciting the students to rebellion, he advocates his fellow students to “TALK HARD” and to just do whatever they have always wanted to do. Looking at the school, the government and the family as the enemy, Mark sets out on a one-man campaign to overthrow the entire suburban system that his mother and father worked so hard to enter: “We moved out here because its a nice place to live.” Mark encourages anarchy, mishandles situations and is indirectly responsible for a suicide. Originally feeling “uncool,” Mark becomes the epitome of “cool” in attracting hordes of teen fans who share his disdain of the system. Mark and his listeners never say what it is that they hate, they just manage to exhibit tremendous resentment about “it.”
The Breakfast Club has its share of maverick heroes. Once again, with girlfriends as marginal, the characters played by Judd Nelson (Bender), Emilio Estevez (the jock), and Anthony Michael Hall (Brian), all manifest heroic moments as they re-discover their own maleness and power. After the jock tells Brian, that “you don’t even count, if you disappeared it wouldn’t make a difference at this school,” Bender proceeds to teach the entire the club how to misbehave: “bein’ bad feels pretty good, right?” His useless personality becomes heroic as he leads the other four into different experiences from smoking pot to destruction of the school library. Like Mark in Pump up the Volume, he becomes the “coolest” as the maverick hero, leaving adults and buildings in his wake as he calls his throngs to mass destruction and anarchy. Even the nerd, Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) achieves heroic status as he writes the definitive essay which basically tells the entire system to “go to hell.” He is transformed into a fighter along with Bender and Emilio as the females watch and follow their lead. Much like Veronica in Heathers, the girls are unable to “control” themselves with these new-styled heroes.
Squeakier, cleaner maverick heroes show up in Risky Business, Weird Science and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off In these films, upper-class suburban males decide that they have “had enough.” We can only assume that they have had enough of living in affluent neighborhoods, having household servants and access to unlimited funds, computers, and vehicles. These mavericks decide that life just isn’t “cool” enough and that they need to “show” their friends just how cool one can be. By engaging peripheral friends and girlfriends in misbehavior, they heroically steal cars, destroy homes, and make utter fools out of adults in each film. Unlike the anger of JD in Heathers, Bender in Breakfast Club, and Mark in Pump up the Volume, (anger which is implied to have been born of poor parenting and isolation), Ferris (Matthew Broderick), Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise in Risky Business), and the nerds Gary and Wyatt (Ilan Michell-Smith and Anthony Michael Hall) are privileged young men, with loving parents, beautiful homes, friends and days full of happy events. However, as maverick heroes, they recreate the chaos and destruction as in the films with the “uncool” heroes. The strongest three traits all maverick heroes share are that they are male, white, and middle-upper class.
Andrew McCarthy (St Elmo’s Fire, Less Than Zero, Sixteen Candles, and Class) discusses his involvement in these youth films. As he reviews his roles as maverick heroes in his films in the 1980s he reveals that a [thought]:
kept gnawing at the back of my head: What the fuck do we have to say? There are people in fucking Beirut that are getting killed, and we’re talking about how we’re suffering or we’re out there or we’re happy or we’re sad. I mean, our lives are very dramatic and real to us, and we feel all the pains and whatever that anybody does at any age. But they’re only important to us. It’s interesting that people want to hear it. I guess it’s the whole American fascination with bigger than life. With something you don’t have. But I just think it’s amazing. We don’t have a fucking thing to say. (Kaye 143)
McCarthy considers the teen angst and the heroic outbreaks of the young males as dramatic, “bigger than life,” but can’t determine exactly why their pain and lives merit so much attention. These young men are entitled to misbehave, to murder, to destroy, by virtue of who they are: white, male, and middle-upper class Americans. Hollywood is positioning these youth as the CEOs of tomorrow, the new inductees into the “Old Boys Club,” these “new boys” are just following in the footsteps of their fathers. They are doing what society, their parents and the audiences expect them to do.
Along with the reinforcement of patriarchal dynamics of the maverick hero, these young people are presented to the audience in a subversive manner. The question is begged from the audience: “Who wouldn’t dislike these ungrateful kids?” As the depiction of young white males in film privileges them, it also victimizes them and imprints a hatred and fear of youth by adults both within the films and upon the audience. We must always keep this second layer in mind: underlying each portrayal and theme within a Hollywood film critical observers find the conclusions, assumptions and fears with which the audience will leave the theater.
“Fucking is what I love, take that away from me and I really got nothing.” (KIDS, 1996)
There could be no discussion of maleness and patriarchy without acknowledging the importance of sexuality within film. Sexuality as a micro-theme is broken down into three areas, all of which cross over and blur within and out of boundaries of definitions: homophobia, sexual performance, and concern with the loss of virginity. As a reinforcement of being male, a recovery of any fear of poor performance, males in youth films are concerned with many aspects of sexuality.
The word fag and/or faggot is the dominant epithet. Being a “fag” is the lowest of low, the worst one can be. Where “fink” was a word of choice in the 1960s, implying a person who was disloyal, the 1980s and 1990s have re-titled the goblin as homosexual, a “pussy,” or a faggot. An early scene in KIDS shows a group of youth “hanging” around the park beating a gay man nearly to death. A female who is not interested in a male or who is not popular is fair game for being called homosexual: “Are you a lesbian?” is the question asked to unpopular Dawn in 1996’s Welcome to the Dollhouse. Her only friend is “a faggot,” Dawn explains to a boy at school, “just because he’s (Ralphie) a faggot doesn’t mean he’s an asshole.” However, when Dawn has a boyfriend, Ralphie calls her on the phone and she hangs up on him calling him “a fag.”
Suicide is justified in Heathers when JD and Veronica kill two athletes and leave clues that they were gay and killed each other due to their “horrible secret.” As the police discover the bodies, their horror at losing two of the best school football players is replaced by dismay when they discover the planted evidence, “ah man [groan], they were fags.” The funeral of one of the boys is mourned by friends and family as the father approaches the coffin and yells with anguish, “I love my dead, GAY son.” JD recalls the sign in the cafeteria which declares the “NO FAGS ALLOWED RULE.” Knowing that gayness is the unforgivable, the unspeakable, JD sets up the deaths to “condemn” the boys long after they are gone.
In Weird Science, when Gary and Wyatt go drinking in the blues clubs in Chicago, they tell stories about “bitches,” and yell “faggot” to different people. In Risky Business, the gay male becomes Joel’s worse nightmare as a transvestite appears at his home upon being summoned as a prostitute. Jonathan (Rob Lowe) of Class is humiliated by the entire prep school when he is forced to run out of the dorm in a bra and pair of panties. The rest of the movie is ensconced in Jonathan’s attempts to “prove” his maleness by going to Chicago to meet a woman, “get laid, and bring [us] her panties.”
Gratuitous homophobic remarks pervade youth films. In Footloose ( 1984), for no apparent reason, Ren (Kevin Bacon) is teased for wearing a tie: “I thought only pansies use neck ties.” Julian (Robert Downey, Jr.) of Less than Zero (1987) is on a collision track with drugs and death and seems to be pushed over the edge when forced by the drug dealer (James Spader) to have sex with men. Even though Julian has mainlined heroin, stolen from his best friend, and violated his friends’ trust, the worse thing he does “to himself” is to have sex with a man. In St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), Kevin (Andrew McCarthy) is assumed to be gay because he continually rejects the advances of street hookers.
Parodies of homosexuals pervade youth films. Unsavory characters in the form of waiters, school administratorsand weak family members are portrayed as stereotypically gay. Gratuitously, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the obnoxious maitre’d is portrayed as a gay male with absolutely no scruples or human qualities. Being labeled “a fag” provides license for others to dislike, mistreat, and even kill. Homophobia serves to reinforce a need to acknowledge a dominant masculinity, a manliness. This directly relates to the need of a “real man” to be patriarchally reinscribed as a good “performer” in bed, and heterosexual at all costs.
The need for high-quality sexual performance is a subject of discussion in all youth films. From sharing sexual secrets, tips, and conquests to plotting ways of seducing and raping women, youth heroes in films are obsessed with sex. Probably the most blatant example of the obsession with sex in youth films occurs in John Hughes’s Weird Science. As Wyatt and Gary are labeled as nerds, they realize that they must do something to demonstrate that they too, can conquer a woman. With computers, cutouts from porn magazines and a Barbie doll, they create a program with the perfect woman: “It’s not a bad idea, making a girl.” “Should we give her a brain?” When lightening strikes the house, the girl becomes real, a sexual slave, at their service: “You made me; you control me.” Lisa (Kelly LeBrock) is their maid, their confidante, their mother, their lover and their matchmaker, as she cleans, listens, has sex with them and finds them both girlfriends. What more could young men ask for? After Lisa disappears, the boys have realized their manhood; they are no longer nerds and are respected by the entire high school. Wyatt is approached by his angry father and remarks to Gary that he will say no to his father “like a man.” Lisa was created as a vehicle for Gary’s and Wyatt’s transition to manhood, to the assumption of dominant masculine power.
Probably the most disturbing film of the decade, KIDS, portrays the quest for sex. Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) is a fifteen-year-old male whose life is dedicated to sexual pleasure. He seeks out young girls (preferably virgins), has intercourse with them and then moves on to the next girl. As he instructs Casper (Justin Pierce), his friend, “You’re the man, if you deflower a girl, no one can ever do it again. Virgins, I love em, no diseases, just pure pleasure. That chick was so clean, I love virgins, they’re the best, purity.” Telly is unaware that he is carrying the HIV virus. When Jenny (Chloe Sevigny) discovers she is HIV positive after her first and only encounter with a boy, Telly, she tries to find him to tell him about her test results. When she finally finds him, he is having sex with the thirteen year old virgin sister of his friend. Jenny drops to the couch in exhaustion and falls into a drugged sleep. Casper wakes up next to Jenny, pulls her pants off and proceeds to rape her as she sleeps. When he is finished, he goes back to sleep. Sexual conquests are always fun, pleasurable and forgiven for these young male protagonists. The youth films examined all depict young males and females going to bed, the girls always enjoying and forgiving any violation, and the males going on to discuss in detail these events. In Risky Business, Joel (Tom Cruise) confidently runs a whorehouse for the entire neighborhood: “My name is Joel Goodson, I deal in human fulfillment, I grossed over $8000.00 in one night. Time of your life, huh, kid?” After Joel meets Alana (Rebecca de Mornay), a prostitute, he discovers that lovemaking with a professional is perfect. He becomes so fond of Alana that he allows her to become his girlfriend if she becomes respectable. Whore becomes girlfriend of Princeton-bound high schooler and turns into his angel, his nurturer and his rescuer. Joel is able to be successful in his “enterprise” because he is told by his best friend that “all women are whores-kids will spend sixty dollars [on a date] and not get pussy.” He suggests to Joel that running a house of prostitution only makes sense.
In Welcome to the Dollhouse, Dawn knows she has no friends but Ralphie; however, when Brandon corners her and demands to rape her, she willingly presents herself and waits each day after school for the rape. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) opens with the “search for action.” The males want to have sex, and the females think they have to in order to “have or get” a boyfriend. After each sexual experience, the girls are caught with a look or statement of disappointment, the males are victorious. In Class, Jonathan meets a beautiful woman (Jacqueline Bisset) and has an affair with her. He is reminded by his best friend, Skip (Andrew McCarthy) to always remember that “a fuck is just a fuck.” When Skip finds out that Jonathan’s lover is his (Skip’s) mother, Jonathan tries to explain. However, Skip pompously replies that “there’s nothing to talk about, I told you a fuck is just a fuck.” After much consternation and a physical confrontation, Skip and Jonathan renew their brotherly friendship; the mother is placed into a mental institution and is never heard from again.
Perceiving their self-worth in terms of their sexual attractiveness to the male protagonists, girls in youth films spend a lot of time finding ways to attract the boys. Many of them attempt to change their looks and personality in hopes of attracting the “right boy.” Ally Sheedy’s character is a renegade, a grunge girl who really doesn’t fit into the mainstream of high school. However, upon a quick visit to the bathroom, she is transformed. Leaving the library dressed in matted hair, combat boots and black, tweedy ugly clothes, she returns to the library and is noticed by Emilio, “What happened to you?” “Claire (Molly Ringwald) did it, is something wrong?” “Nothing’s wrong, you’re just so different. I can see your face.” “Is that good or bad?” “It’s good:’ Claire has changed her so that she is entirely made up, is wearing a pink bow in her hair, a lace blouse and looks like a freshly scrubbed cheerleader. Naturally, Emilio’s character is attracted and they form a couple. In Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990), Dinky (Winona Ryder) is another outcast grunge female without many friends. Jeff likes Dinky, but warns her: “you’ve gotta take more of an interest in yourself-you know, how you look-so you can be my girlfriend.”
In Heathers, girls discuss having sex and how to “deal” with it. When Heather Chandler is forced to give an athlete oral sex, she spits out the fluid and chokes. Despite the unpleasantness of the act, she acknowledges that that is what girls have to do-it’s just the way it is. “Just the way it is” is a prevailing feeling with most of the girls in the youth movies. Even nerds are depicted favorably when they rape women. In Revenge of the Nerds (1984), the gang of nerds decides to become empowered. One of them dresses in a costume and has sex with a cheerleader (she assumes it is her boyfriend). When he takes off the mask, she exclaims that the sex was so good, she wants to keep seeing him. There is no mention of any violation to the young woman. She actually exclaims: “I’m in love with a nerd!” In Sixteen Candles the character Long Duck Dong, a Chinese exchange student, spends the entire movie trying to “bag a babe.” The ninth graders are obsessed with having sex, and when Jake (Paul Dooley) exclaims about his girlfriend: “she’s beautiful and built, I’m just tired of her,” he proceeds to “give” Anthony Michael Hall’s nerd character the girl and a Rolls Royce. The girl is unconscious due to drinking, and the nerd has sex with her in the Rolls. When she wakes up she sees the nerd and asks: “Did we?” he answers, “Yes.” She accepts the answer and goes on to discuss other things, reinforcing patriarchy’s notion that women ultimately exist as sexual objects designed to “service” male needs.
3. Female Relationships
Where are you, Sister Friend?
In the patriarchal context of the youth movies in question, female relationships are irrelevant. In none of the movies did we find depictions of a close female-female relationship. In several films, girls bond through revenge, hatred, and meanness; however, there are no examples of redeeming female relationships. Along with the misogynistic belief that women are not able to form meaningful relationships with one another, the films are full of women seeking revenge on other women and falling victim to the dominant male desires. In none of the films are the females ever successful; in fact, they are routinely punished, exorcized or relegated to minor character status. Their absence is frightening and problematic as we witness this deeply rooted patriarchal recovery of misogyny. Jacqueline Bisset’s character in Class well represents the treatment of women in these films: she is a sexual outlet for her son’s friend, then abandoned and eventually sent to an asylum. Her son and his friend (her lover) reconciletheirs is the relationship that matters.
The past decade has produced a number of female-as-witch films. Beginning with The Witches of Eastwick (1987), witchcraft has become a popular way for women to avenge enemies. Rarely does a woman gain vengeance through her intelligence or her professionalism. Even in seemingly empowering films like JaggedEdge(1985), Dressedto Kill (19801 and FatalAttraction (1987) women who appear empowered lose control, become angry and cruel, and are always punished in the end. Unlike male misbehavior, female misbehavioris not glamorized or rewarded. Every girl and woman who misbehaves will pay for her actions, either through repentance, death, abandonment, or a severe punishment. The Craft ( 1996) is a film in which four high school girls bond through finding out that they are witches. They are continually mistreated by their high school counterparts and vow to avenge this mistreatment.
Sarah is a “natural” witch. Her mother was a witch, and Sarah inherited her powers. Sarah is told by another witch that her power is “from within.” The four girls learn to worship Mano, the male god who controls everything. Mano instructs the girls to take action against people who have harmed them. In one instance, Rochelle, an African-American witch, is told by the blonde prom queen that “I don’t like Negroids.” In order to avenge this racist remark, Rochelle casts a spell which causes the racist queen to loose her hair and become publicly humiliated.
The girls are warned by an adult witch that “what you send out you get back three times.” It is important to note, at this point, that never in any of the male youth films analyzed here was a male warned about punishment for any misbehavior. However, in these female films, when women and girls misbehave, they are punished. Snakes, rats and roaches are cast to crawl over Sarah, the witch’s daughter, when she misbehaves. No female who practices The Craft escapes punishment.
Fun (1996) is an independent film that revolves around Hillary and Bonnie, two hitchhikers who meet and immediately form a bond. The film takes place over a 24-hour period. The girls enjoy running around the town without any ostensible inhibitions. They knock on doors and then run away. They go into one home and murder the old woman who offers to give them a drink: “It was nuclear.” They revel in the “fun” they had killing the old woman. After their arrest they tell a newspaper interviewer that “just because we enjoyed it doesn’t mean we didn’t know it was wrong.” Bonnie commits suicide and Hillary is incarcerated for the rest of her life. No one gets “away” with anything.
In most youth films when females are friends, they are competitive and deceitful. In Fast Times at Ridgemont High, two girls discuss sex. One urges the other to “go ahead” and try it. After she does, the other remarks that she was still a virgin-not a slut. Heathers relies on a theme of female competition, popularity, and resentment.Veronica has three friends, all named Heather. They are the most popular girls in the school, and form the most powerful clique there. The Heathers spend much of their time making fun of disenfranchised “geeks,” all female. The movie is predicated on the desire of Veronica to purge herself from the Heathers. She meets JD and they determine that these girls should be killed, as should the jocks they hang out with. Sociopathic relationships between females are manifested throughout the film, resulting in numerous deaths and the passing of the torch of popularity to Veronica who declares: “Heather my love, there’s a new sheriff in town.”
Mothers add to the misogynisticimage of women throughoutthe films. Treated as marginal characters, they are stupid, vain, concerned with wealth and ignorant as to the true feelings of their daughters and sons. In the misbehavior films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Risky Business, mothers are too busy to notice what their sons are doing. After transforming his bordello home back to a suburban heaven, Joel’s mother walks into the home and screams: “My egg is ruined-there’s a small crack in the egg.” This petty material worship of a glass egg reinforces a notion of exactly how shallow the mother really is.
4. Familial Relationships
“If you say you get along with your parents, you’re a liar.” (The Breakfast Club)
Young people, regardless of socio-economic class, believe that adults don’t care about them. Conscious of a lack of parental contact, American youth too often feel unwanted. Youth movies portray kids roaming through a world devoid of parents where definitions of morals and values are self-produced. Right-wing proponents attempt to portray women, especially feminists with careers, as primarily to blame for this neglect. Such a charge does not stand up to analysis, as studies report that American fathers average only thirty-seven seconds of verbal interaction with their children a day. The average adolescent spends around five minutes a day alone with his or her father-and much of that time involves watching television in the same room (Holtz). By the 1980s, many young people woke up in the morning with no adult contact, came home from school to an empty house, and confronted and dealt with a large number of daily problems without the help of adults. The problem became so bad that telephone support lines were formed in several cities for kids to dial when they needed adult information or assistance when no one was around. Founders of the line thought that they would receive primarily emergency calls; instead, they discovered that most of the calls came from lonely young people who only wanted to talk to a friendly person.
Teenagers of the last couple of decades spend an average of about five hours a day by themselves. They spend an additional two more hours a day watching TV alone. Finding themselves in this context, young people turn to one another for support and counsel. Problems, including severe depression and suicidal feelings, are discussed with peers unable to deal with the severity of such difficulties. The films of John Hughes often address this contemporary dynamic of youth culture. In Sixteen Candles when Sam (Molly Ringwald) finds that her parents have forgotten her birthday, she turns to her friends for support. In The Breakfast Club the students in detention have no one but each other to turn to for support in their attempt to survive their alienation at school and at home. Films by directors other than Hughes also address this same theme: in Fast Times at Ridgemont High kids turn to each other in their adult-free worlds for sex, abortion, and job counseling; in Taps (1981) despite parental pleas-teenage boys in a military school resort to armed force to keep their school the way they like it; in Little Darlings (1980) and The Blue Lagoon (1980) teens explore their incipient sexuality in total isolation from their parents.
The effects of such isolation are dramatic. The more time young people spend alone, the greater the risk for drug and alcohol abuse; this, regardless of race, class, or gender. Living in such conditions kids are confronted with premature adulthood with all its stress and fatigue (Holtz). When one is forced to handle adult responsibilitiessince puberty (or before), physical and psychological manifestations of stress and fatigue during one’s teenage years should not be surprising (Gaines). Young people who have had to take care of themselves also seem to harbor and exhibit greater anger than those who don’t; “if no one cares about me then I don’t give a damn about any one” seems to be a common attitude among lonely kids. When the boredom of mainstream schooling is combined with hours of solitude, contemporary young people’s mission becomes the struggle to escape boredom. This is why TV and popular culture play such central roles in the lives of children. When asked if they spent more time with their parents or watching TV, young people disclosed that more of them knew TV better than their parents (Holtz).
In youth films, there is either a pattern of parents who don’t get along or a mother who has disappeared. Not unlike Disney films, most of the youth films point out that the mother has either died or walked out on the family-this leads to the blame for abandonment being laid squarely on the mother. In The Craft, a girl becomes a witch when her mother dies. JD’s mother (Heathers) is blown up when his father demolishes a building with dynamite. There are constant references to her leaving him, implying that somehow, even through death, she chose to go. Pretty in Pink’s Sam bonds with her single father (Harry Dean Stanton) throughout the movie. Paralyzed socially by his wife leaving him, he is unable to work. He discusses his inadequacies with Sam: “I’m just an ignorant son of a bitch who never gave you anything.” “She’s gone [mother], why can’t you just accept it? I loved her too, she just didn’t love us back.” There is no discussion as to why the mother left, merely the assertion: mother didn’t love us.
Dinky (Winona Ryder) in Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, is obsessed with meeting her real mother who abandoned her at birth. Her adoptive mother is a vacuous, selfish woman who constantly plots to send Dinky to a boarding school. While Dinky’s father is not sure he wants to send her away, he is under the “spell” of his sexually hungry wife. Dinky witnesses his seduction when she enters their store. This movie condemns biological and adoptive mothers as equally inadequate and selfish. Roxy Carmichael left fifteen years previously to seek fame and avoid motherhood. Her ex-lover, portrayed by Jeff Daniels, is a tortured man who is now married with three children. When confronted with the reappearance of Roxy, his wife leaves him alone to face both Dinky and Roxy. She has absolutely no empathy for the unpleasant situation in which he is placed.
Mothers in the films Ferris Bueller, Weird Science, Risky Business, Valley Girls (1983), and Less than Zero appear inept, materialistic, and shallow. The only parent in KIDS is Telly’s mother, who chain smokes as she nurses her baby in front of Telly and Casper. Casper remarks to Telly that his mother “is lookin pretty good.” From the signifier of the cigarette over the nursing baby, we interpret a tacit condemnation of this mother. In fact, this short scene somehow provides a justification to the misogynistic and careless ways in which Telly treats females. Flagrant mother-blamingemerges in The Lost Boys (1987) as well. Here we have boy vampires involved in mass murders. When the vampire boys’ father (Ed Herrmann) and boys are discovered, the father claims that “David and my boys misbehaved-I told you, boys need a mother.” Because the mother left a murdering vampire husband, her children are killers.
The other type of mother depicted in these movies is the supportive, silent and complacent mother. In Heathers, the mother is a pat6-eating sycophant. In Footloose, the mother (the wife of a preacher) is silent, supportive, and ineffective. In Soul Man (1986), the mother sits quietly as the millionaire father tells his son that he will not pay for his college education. Every time she speaks, her husband tells her to “shut up.” Even when disagreeing with his son, they exchange looks acknowledging just how boring and stupid she really is.
On the other hand, Dad seems to be the block off which the son is chipped. Pompous father-to-son back-patting and proclamations of “that’s my boy;’ prevail in many of these movies, even though the father almost always disagrees with the son and his behavior. In The Lost Boys, the vampire dad calls murder, rape, and pillage “misbehavior.” After losing his son in a car accident, John Lithgow’s character in Footloose, is an angry and vengeful preacher whose life seems to have ended with the death of his son. He is determined to quiet his wife and daughter and to control an entire town. Mark’s dad in Pump up the Volume, begins as a superintendent of schools who “sold out.” Originally a hippie, he turned in his water pipe for a solid suburban position. After Mark’s misbehavior, obstruction of justice and pirating of a radio wave, the father recognizes his own errors and stands tall next to Mark. Once again, Hollywood reinforces an agenda that male misbehavior is easily forgiven; as a manifestation of white, middleupper middle-class privilege, misbehavior is these boys’ birthright.
The Breakfast Club, might be retitled The Lousy Parents Club. Every action of the five teens is driven by a negative interaction in the home. The jock (Emilio Estevez) is pushed by his father to be a real man. As he explains to the group why he is there for a Saturday detention, it is apparent that his father is the real culprit: “I taped Larry Lester’s buns together-I did it for my old man-I tortured this poor kid because I wanted my dad to think I was cool. He always goes off about what he did in school-I always thought he was disappointed.” “I was thinking about my father, his attitude and weaknesses, my friends were cheering me on.” Sympathetic music plays in the background. “All I could think about was Larry’s father and the humiliation. How do you apologize for something like that? It’s all because of me and my old man. God, I hate him, he’s like this mindless machine that I can’t relate to any more-you must win, be number one, I won’t tolerate any losers in this family.” Bender identifies with this character as he recounts images of his father and the cigarette burns his father branded on his arms. Molly Ringwald’s character mentions that her “poor, rich, drunk mother is in the Caribbean.” The club unites on the image of poor parenting throughout the film, each youth seems to be there as a direct result of familial dysfunction.
Julian’s (Robert Downey, Jr.) death in Less Than Zero is a direct result of his father’s negligence. Julian yells at his father in the tennis court when the father refuses to give his son fifty thousand dollars to pay off a drug deal: “You’re a father, I’m a son.” His father replies, “Get out or I’ll call the police.” The film inscribes the belief that had the father supported his drug addict son and paid off the debt, Julian may have made it through. Julian returns to his angry father to beg for help: “Look what you’ve done to our family.” “I need you to be my father for one goddamn day.” His father replies, “Trust was the first thing you ruined.” Julian leaves and subsequently dies of an overdose.
While mothers are negatively represented in these films, fathers are either cruel and macho (which is a direct result of spousal abandonment) or they reify their sons in their own image. Mothers are one-dimensional characters worthy of blame. Adoptive mothers, as in Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, and in both Problem Child I and 2, are incapable of loving a non-biological child. Dad, on the other hand, is able to “rise above” adoption and still love the child like a parent. The only celebration regarding females comes at the expense of either sleeping with a woman as a conquest, or in the absence of a woman, as the direct reason for a child who misbehaves. This discussion of family relationships culminates in the themes of suicide and self-pity.
Given the portrayal of youth in current films, perhaps the dramatic increase in adolescent suicide is not shocking. Adolescent suicide did not even exist as a category before the emergence of a media-driven hyperreality in the 1950s. By 1980, suicide was second only to accidents as the leading cause of death among teenagers. By the 1990s, 400,000 young people were attempting suicide yearly and youth suicide was being described in the academic literature as an epidemic (Gaines). The 1990 youth-suiciderate was twice that of 1970 and three times that of 1960. During the 1970s and 1980s, the percentage of pre- and early-adolescents taking their own lives increased at a higher rate than middle- and lateadolescents. In the five year period between 1980 and 1985, the suicide rate for 10 to 14-year-olds more than doubled. Today, 5,000 teens take their own lives each year, while another one-half million make unsuccessful attempts. In a report issued by the Center for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Study of one twelve-month period, 250,000 high-school students engaged in a suicide attempt that required medical care. Such sobering figures demand analysis and study of young people from a variety of angles and a number of methodological perspectives (Holtz).
The familial and generational alienation described here provides a context for understanding young people’s increasing retreat to their own sub-culture. In Home Alone, for example, a central sub-theme of the movie involves Kevin’s absolute lack of need for parental figures. Alone, he shops with newspaper coupons, protects his family’s house, and defends himself against the thugs who would rob him. None of this is unusual in the films of John Hughes, whose children and teenagers rule a cosmos where youth culture is the only one that matters. Like Kevin’s parents who leave him behind in both Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Hughes’ mothers and fathers are starkly absent. Since World War II, youth has consistently become more and more separated from adulthood. As early as the 1950s, young people were beginning to convince their parents that adults were losing their ability to shape the culture in which their children lived, thus, losing control of their sons and daughters. The academic study of young people in the last half of the twentieth century has been shaped by this fear, as it focuses attention on youth as “the problem.” Viewing the dominant culture and adult values as unproblematic, mainstream scholars have often seen conflict between young people and their parents as evidence of youth dysfunctionality. This functionalist perspective is grounded on order, and insists that youth be instructed to follow directions and that schools maintain the equilibrium of the status quo (Paul; Lewis; Griffin; Polakow; Kincheloe, “New Childhood”).
Corporations of various types have been quick to pick up on the social placement of youth as a separate cultural category, a distinct “market demographic.” From toy manufacturers to fast food marketers, to movie producers, American business works to exploit the youth market. Such entrepreneurs adeptly recognize that liberal notions of youth as naive innocents who should watch only “quality” movies and TV and play with only “educational toys” miss the growing worldliness of young people. As advertisers and marketers have learned, young peopleare active, analytical viewers who many times make their own meanings of media texts. In this context corporate analysts now recognize that youth feel oppressed by the middle-class view of them as innocents in need of protection. Drawing upon young people’s discomfort, corporate producers market to a more “adult” group of young people. Even by the late 1960s, youth TV and advertising were grounded on this premise; movies followed closely behind. Such productions dismissed the restraint, discipline, and old-fashioned viewpoint that youth should be under the strict control and supervision of parents. Indeed, in recognizing youth as a distinct phase of life, the new entrepreneurs identified a covert and subversive youth culture and proceeded to feed it-that is, to colonize it for their own purposes.
4. College and Future Angst
“Harvard: there is no substitute.” (Soul Man)
Another prevailing micro-theme within the concept of elitism is that of anxiety about college and the future. Interestingly enough, no colleges are discussed other than those of the Ivy League. Even though the majority of the films take place in Chicago (John Hughes is from Chicago), no one aspired to attend Northwestern, the University of Illinois, or the University of Chicago. The premise of three of the films is entirely based on this angst about college acceptance. Ferris Bueller scores points with his parents: “I want to go to a good college, so I can have a fruitful life.” He then smiles to the camera, winks and tells the audience, “They bought it.” Ferris is aware that the most important concern his parents have is that he goes to a good college. As part of his entitlement, there is no doubt that Ferris will accomplish anything he desires: “As long as I’ve known him, everything works for him; there’s nothing he can’t handle. I can’t handle anything; school, parents, future, Ferris can do anything,” Cameron tells Ferris’s girlfriend. He asks Ferris what he wants to do in life, Ferris replies, “Nothing.” They both realize it is a joke.
Risky Business opens with a scene in the Goodson’s kitchen: “Joel, did you get your SAT scores yet?” Joel answers his mother, “597 in math, 560 in verbal.” His mother watches him, “If you wanted to, could you take them over again?” Joel’s father walks in and asks him about his interview with Princeton. His parents are concerned because they are going out of town and he will be meeting the Princeton recruiter. Much of the discussion in the early part of the film is about making money and the future of the males. One boy has a dream in which his irate father screams at him: “You’ll never have a future.” His dream becomes a nightmare. Joel’s greatest fear is that he will ruin his future. After he becomes involved with a hooker and his home is trashed, he runs a bordello for the neighborhood. In the middle of the evening, the Princeton recruiter appears. As he interviews Joel, the recruiter tells him that “Your record is not quite Ivy League,” noting Joel’s unimpressive school history. Joel introduces the recruiter to a prostitute and they leave together. Ironically, the film ends with the recruiter telling Joel’s father that “Princeton can use a guy like Joel.” Joel is able to use his privilege and misbehavior to earn a seat in a leading university. It has nothing to do with his scholarship.
White actor C. Thomas Howell (Mark) becomes black in Soul Man in order to get his scholarship to Harvard: “A Harvard law graduate, now that’s power.” Mark realizes that the school he attends is essential to attaining the financial goals and expectations he has set for himself. When his father tells him that he will not support him through law school, Mark realizes that his future is doomed. Attending a school in Los Angeles is not even considered; Mark wants the status that only Harvard can provide. By falsifying his records and race, he is given a scholarship. Even after being discovered, he is able to stay at Harvard and attain his dream. This is entitlement; this is patriarchal privilege. In The Breakfast Club, Brian is continually concerned with his future. As his mother drops him off at the school, she nags him about college entrance. As the day progresses, he confesses to the other kids that he is considering suicide because he had failed shop. He starts to cry: “I can’t have an F, everything is ruined for me, even with a B.” This young man is obsessed with the accomplishment that his mother expects of him. The nerds in Revenge of the Nerds are appalled when they can’t find a fraternity: “We have the highest GPA. We are open to all races and sexual orientations.” They can’t believe that their grades are not immediate admission into a fraternity. Mark snaps at his parents when they question him about the pirate radio station in Pump up the Volume: “The deal is, I get decent grades, you guys leave me alone.” Behind him on the wall is a sign: ONLY 200 DAYS TO SATs. His father reminds him that he has an interview with Yale the next day.
Socio-economic class elitism is central to the themes in Class. As a middle class male, Jonathan is considered deprived. He goes to a prep academy with very wealthy friends. He is unable to understand their cavalier attitude about money; however, he quickly learns to enjoy it. When he meets Ellen (Jacqueline Bisset) he loses a $100 bill over the side of a building. She reminds him that “It’s only money.” The purpose of attending this prep school is to get into Harvard. Skip and Jonathan are obsessed with who will be the first one (they are in tenth grade) to be accepted to Harvard. “My whole life depends on me getting into Harvard,” Jonathan confesses to Skip. He also tells him that he cheated on the SATs. Skip’s father is fond of Jonathan; he celebrates Jonathan’s admission to Harvard and admonishes Skip because he is not yet accepted. “If you study hard at Harvard, you’ll be able to write your own ticket.” Skip’s father, like Jonathan, was the first in his school to be accepted to Harvard.
5. Trashing and Partying
“It ain’t a party till somethin ‘gets broken.” (St. Elmo’s Fire) Interestingly, in most of the films reviewed here, male privilege consistently exhibits itself in a vicious lack of regard for property. Almost every film has destruction of material goods woven throughout. In Risky Business and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, male protagonists throw items at their immense stereo systems in order to turn them off. The disregard for expensive goods continuously emerges in the films. We have already discussed the destruction of expensive cars. Along with cars, youth seem to have a desire to destroy their parents’ homes. In every party, a trashing occurs. From trashing the nerds’ frat house to destroying anyone’s house by an invited or uninvited guest. The important point within the trashing is that there is never a consequence to the destruction. Either the youth are rescued or create a scam by which they replace the goods. In the case of Ferris Bueller and the Ferrari, Cameron totally destroys his father’s car by beating it with a baseball bat. As he destroys the car, he first raves against himself: “I gotta take a stand. I’m bullshit, I put up with everything and my old man pushes me around. I never say anything. Well, he’s not the problem; I’m the problem. I gotta take a stand against him. I’m not going to sit on my ass as the events in my life unfold-I’m gonna take a stand.” He then identifies the car with his father: “I’m so sick of his shit. I can’t stand him-who do you love? (he kicks the car) Son of a bitch-dented the shit out of it-good. My father will come home, he’ll see what I did; I can’t hide this-he’ll have to deal with me. I don’t care, I really don’t. I’m just tired of being afraid, to hell with him. I can’t wait to see the look on the bastard’s face.” Cameron puts the car into gear and pushes it out of the building; it falls two stories and is destroyed. “What did I do?” Cameron asks. “You killed the car,” Ferris answers. The audience is to feel so appalled at the implied mistreatment of Cameron that they are there swinging the bat with him. Not only are there no consequences for the car’s destruction, but the audience feels at peace: Cameron did the right thing.
Film after film suggests that the ultimate teenage goal is “to party.” Evidently partying is impossible unless couches are destroyed, people are vomiting, and family heirlooms are destroyed. Represented in the movies’ attempt to problematize conspicuous consumption is the assertion that destruction of property leads to empowerment. There are no political questions asked concerning the ostentatious wealth the films display, only “innocent” statements about wealth remains. Wealth is easy to attain, and easy to regain-that is, of course, if you are white, male and middle-upper class. 6. Getting Away With “It”
The Entitlement to Lie, Steal and Cheat-even Kill
An observer is struck by the stark contrast between the punishment of female misbehavior in the films and the rewards males receive for their transgressions. Indeed, males suffer no consequences for theft, pimping, impersonation, violations of civic rights, rape, incitement of riots, bombings, or murder. The maverick hero in the youth films always gets away with it. Misbehavior, from cutting class to robbery and destruction, is considered part of what one does when young, white, and male. Reaction to such behavior differs from responses to females or non-whites who engage in similar behavior. One’s positionality is central to one’s ability to “get away with it.” The gang from Houseparty (1990Ssuburban middle to upper-class black men-would find it difficult to steal and kill in a comedic film. Indeed, theft and killing are “natural” to black men only in a dramain this context such behaviors are frightening largely because they challenge or threaten the priveleges of class, race, and gender. When racially- and classprivileged youth engage in such movie behavior, however, the misbehavior not only goes unpunished, it contributes directly to their desire to maintain their privileged socio-economic status.
A critical theory of patriarchal privilege enables students of cultural studies to rethink the disturbing aspects of these youth films. Informed by such a theoretical form, educators gain an improved understanding of gender identity as the focus of struggle. Boys’ experiences in schools and in the culture at large are diverse and contradictory. Any pedagogy that fails to understand this complexity and the lack of easy correspondence between patriarchal power and the production of male identity is doomed to fail. A critical pedagogy of patriarchy recognizes the opportunity allowed by the non-deterministic nature of identity formation, as it opens oppositional locales from which dominant masculinity, patriarchal power, and privilege can be challenged. At the end of the twentieth century the male struggle for identity is omnipresent and sometimes virulent in the effort to maintain the patriarchal privilege perceived to be under attack. Even the most mundane male activity is inscribed by this struggle: the way boys walk, communicate with one another, speak, interact with girls, react to humor, dress, etc. At some level most boys (and men) are more insecure with their masculinity than they let their peers, parents, and teachers know. Therefore, a central task of a critical pedagogy of patriarchy is to access this masculine uncertainty in ways that induce boys to think both logically and affectively about the nature of masculinity in general and their own masculinity in particular (Pagano; Miller; Grumet; McLean; Connell).
Using the analysis of the youth films pedagogically, critical teachers can open dialogues addressing masculinist uncertainty. Furthermore, if teachers are moved by a vision of greater justice, they may engage students in the analysis of their own actions. Such self-analysis in the class of white, middle-class males involves a serious confrontation with forms of privilege. It is crucial that the development of this ability to engage in a critical gender hermeneutics always take place in a context where boys interact with girls and women. Equally central to a critical pedagogy of patriarchy is the understanding that a primary cause of social pathology in the lives of many men involves their alienation from women. Thus, a pedagogy that analyzes privilege must take place in conjunction with women. Only then can the empowerment of women and minorities serve as one of its central objectives. Within the educational system such empowerment does not involve mere success in the existing patriarchal school system; rather, a reconceptualization of school organization and purpose in light of a critical critique and a critical constructivist theory of patriarchy is in order (McLean; Salisbury and Jackson; Yudice; Radford and Stanko). Such theoretical insights fix our attention on the relationship between the social domain and the construction of subjectivity. When carefully shared with privileged students, improved understanding can help them to appreciate the dynamics of consciousand unconsciousoppression. In an era when gay bashings and violence against women are everyday practices, the time has come to challenge the cultural imprints and educational practices that have defined dominant heterosexual masculinity and served to maintain the silence about privilege and everyday life. We are amazed by the way educational institutions, the media, and various social agencies can consistently ignore the pathological expressions of dominant masculinity that terrorize those who are viewed as weak and/or different (Kelly; Salisbury and Jackson). Until we are able to engage privileged youth in the development of an interpersonal intelligence that allows them to connect with the experience of others, violence will continue to be a significant part of daily life. Until we induce youth to understand and take action in opposition to inequitable power relations surrounding categories of race, class, gender, and sexual preference, social pathology will continue to be the order of the day. The analysis of privilege is just beginning to appear among scholars hip to addressing race, class, gender, and cultural studies. The discourse of the study of whiteness that has emerged over the last few years is tacitly grounded on the bracketing of privilege, its social construction and political function (Kincheloe; Steinberg; Rodriguez and Chennault). Our contention, of course, is that studies of privilege must be expanded beyond whiteness to other axes of power such as patriarchy, class elitism, religion, and geographic place, to name only a few. While these domains must be foregrounded for specific analysis, they must always be considered in relationship to their interactions-both their contradictions and confluences. In this manner, we will gain valuable insights into the workings of power and its relation to the formation of subjectivity-a central dynamic in any critical project.
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