Screen Teens: From Materialism to “Twilight-ification”

Posted on 05 May 2010 by Quaid

It all started in the ’80′s.  That’s when these damn teenagers started to come to power.

Well, that’s a lie.  Any good sociologist will tell you that the “teenager” really came to be in the 1950′s along with the proliferation of mass media.  Angst-ridden youngsters wanted to carve out their little niche–to band together and define themselves as “different” than their immature younger siblings and their career-bound elders.  Teens established an identity all their own.

But in the 80′s, the game really changed.  The Reagan era brought with it a ridiculous amount of materialism and excess.  MTV took over the air waves, and cable television invaded every American home.  Teens not only had their own identity, they had their own magazines, television shows and movies.  And this mass media existed for one purpose: to sell useless crap to an audience that, all of a sudden, found themselves with a huge amount of parentally secured disposable income.

This is the time when movies for and about teenagers really came into their own. Sure we had the occasional slasher film in the 70′s but not really until the second half of the decade, and those films still felt like they were searching for their own identities.  Halloween is arguably the first slasher film to throw everyday teen life into the limelight, its story revolving around a group of middle American teenage babysitters being stalked on Halloween night.  It wasn’t released until 1978, though, and while it was infused with sex and teen chatter, the movie still felt like it was going for a “realistic” teen identity, not the stylized version that emerged in the decade that followed.

The 80′s, however, brought us the films of John Hughes and a cadre of slasher films including the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises.  Filmmakers began to create a new version of a teenager, one that didn’t strictly exist in real life.  John Hughes created wildly interesting and complicated characters, tapping into teen angst and identity crises.  The characters in The Breakfast Club saw the world in a more honest and complex way than their adult counterparts.  They were struggling to “fit in” to the artificially created sub-culture being sold to them  via mass media while also trying to subvert this bold-faced lie and look beyond it to the “deeper” value of relationships and their own emotions.

This was the beginning of the little emo kid.  And I say that with an overwhelming amount of affection.

The slasher movies, however, seemed to embrace the visceral, over-the-top feel of the decade.  The kids camping out at Crystal Lake seemed to have very little going on between the ears and were mostly concerned with taking clothes off and having as much sex as possible.  Then when the knife finally came down, we got a taste of the gory indulgence of the decade.  The ’80′s was all about “more is more,” and the themes of teen horror certainly fit in with that mantra.

But the most defining teen series, for me, was A Nightmare on Elm Street. Between 1984 and 1989, 1986 was the only year that didn’t see a Nightmare release.  The franchise really owned the second half of the decade, and it typified what it was to be a 1980′s teenager.

From the pop music to the weight lifting and the constant struggle for sex, the Nightmare series consistently showed us every element of teenage culture with almost textbook precision.  Part 3 even went so far as to make “teen empowerment” a central theme.  The kids of Springwood were products of dysfunctional families who wouldn’t believe their suffering.  They fought against adversity while still buying into the pop-cultural elements of the moment.  They were strong and independent and popular and rich…a perfect mirror of what teens of the decades, right or wrong, saw in themselves.

In the mid ’90′s, everything changed.  Scream and the following sequels and ripoffs gave us a whole different kind of teenager.  These kids were smart, funny, witty (almost to the point of annoyance) and wildly self-aware of both pop culture and their place within it.  In 1995, Clueless blew the lid off the concept of the “realistic” teenager, instead presenting audiences with a world of glamour and fashion.  These kids weren’t real in any way shape or form, even in the non-horror cadre of Freddy Prinze Jr. rom-coms.  While the ’80′s gave us, in general, a reflection of how teens saw themselves, the mid and late ’90′s showed teens what they wanted to be.  This trend continued right into the mid 2000′s with movies like Freddy vs. Jason; it really started to get old.

The modern screen idea of teenage-dom was an attempt to reject all that–without rejecting it at all.  With the recent slew of horror remakes, starting with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, teenagers were presented in a much harsher, “realistic” light.  At first they had the same carnal desires and youthful weaknesses of their 80′s and 90′s counterparts.  There was a little bit of sex and joking in act one, then once the killing started the teens became deadly serious.  In fact, “serious” is the best word to describe this trend.  Almost all teen characters were given complicated issues and backstories they were dealing with.  They had the problems of adults, and they no longer wore their emotions on their sleeves.

They also seemed to have a lot less fun.  While the Friday the 13th remake had raunchy sex and goofy characters (otherwise it couldn’t be called Friday the 13th), our main characters fit the “serious teen” bill perfectly.  The core push of the movie was a brother trying to find his lost sister, and romance amongst our principles was understated.

Rob Zombie’s Halloween, however, steps away from this a bit, giving us frivolous, promiscuous teens having fun.  Still, these kids have serious issues, and by the end of the movie (and the terrible sequel) we’re into a more straightforward version of the “serious teen” formula.

So this shift, unlike the hard-and-fast changeover brought by the Scream franchise, is more gradual.  Now, though, I think the idea of a late 2000′s teen is pretty well defined due to one game-changing movie: Twilight.

The Twilight movie brought in elements of the “serious teen” archetype and added the magic ingredient that teens need in order to connect with a movie–angst.  Kristen Stewart’s Bella is a quiet, emo, brooding girl who wants to be much older than she is.  She has family issues she’s dealing with, and she’s super sexy but doesn’t seem to know it.  Instead of searching for cheap thrills and sex, she’s fighting for love, survival and meaning…in other words, she’s rejecting the materialistic and carnal ideas of the 80′s teen and focusing on more “mature” and “serious” goals.”

But she’s still a whiny, hot teenager, so it all comes together nicely for the teen and pre-teen fans of the movie.

See, that’s where this incarnation of the screen teen fails slightly.  While it’s going for a significantly more “real” depiction of the teenager, foregoing the overly witty dialogue and stylized lifestyle, it still manages to make teens more important and serious than they really are.  Instead of flippant, overly intelligent kids, they’re quiet, stoic, emotionally complicated adults with the world on their shoulders.

And, of course, there’s still one area that the “realistic” approach hasn’t touched–the look.  Almost all teens in modern movies have perfect faces and bodies exquisitely accented by form-fitting clothing.  While the fashion has been toned down from the over-the-top approach of the 80′s, each outfit is still carefully chosen to be sexy and understated.  Low-rise jeans  and simple tank tops replace mini skirts and leather jackets, but the point is still the same–show off those unrealistically hot bodies.

In fact, this issue has gotten more pronounced.  Whereas the teens in A Nightmare on Elm Street were attractive actors, the teens in the remake of the same movie are unabashed supermodels who quite obviously work out daily.  The attempt at gritty realism hasn’t been an honest attempt at all.

The Nightmare remake marks another slight shift of this teen archetype.  It takes elements from the “serious teen” formula and blends it with the Twilight approach to teenage-dom.  Whereas most teen horror movies to this point were barebones and emotionally raw, Nightmare is dripping with emo angst.  Our main character points out that she “doesn’t exactly fit in,” and our main male lead finds himself shivering nearly naked while he watches a man burned alive.  The kids always look tortured and emotionally distraught, and there’s really never a moment of levity in the whole movie.

Not to mention the fact that the “relationship” is understated and surprisingly mature.  Never once do we get the feeling that these teens are fighting for sex.  In fact, a sex scene in the original is replaced with a couple breaking down crying in each others’ arms as the girl begs the boy to stay with her…not for sex, but just to cuddle.

Yes, these are characters straight out of a Twilight movie dealing with the traditional problems of a slasher film.  Throw in some The Ring style amateur mystery investigation and you have a move that is really pulling in all the horror and teen elements of the last 5-10 years.

Unfortunately, it isn’t very good.  In the attempt to reject the idea of “teen” from previous decades, I feel like recent movies have squeezed all the fun out of the genre.  If you’re going to make a movie about overly-serious adults dealing with issues, just go ahead and make them adults.  With the new Nightmare film, the kids are in no way kids, and their total independence is broken only on the rare occasion that a parent peaks his or her head in with mild concern.

In 2011, Kevin Williamson and scream-maestro Wes Craven will release Scream 4.  The tagline for the movie is “New Decade, New Rules,” and while I roll my eyes at the idea of another Scream movie, I can’t help but be a little curious about what they will do with that concept.  How does one take adult characters who used to be pop-savvy teens and throw them into a world of new horror rules?  I’m guessing the movie will focus on the Saw (and other torture porn) movies, but I really hope they find a way to tackle the changing landscape of teen screams.  I mean, what would happen if Gail Weathers ran into emo Nancy from the Nightmare on Elm Street remake?

Well, she’d probably punch her in the face and tell her to write a song about it.  I can’t say I totally disagree with the sentiment.

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