When I was a girl, I searched the cineplex for a depiction of resemblance, an echo of myself, how I felt about the process of growing up. There were few enough roles for teenage girls, even in films geared towards that audience. For example, Molly Ringwald’s much celebrated triumvirate revolves around her relationships with boys; the other girls who do appear show up in adversarial, tangential roles as the token blonde bitch or the nutcase. Ringwald’s movies tell us that even when a film features a girl, it’s still all about the boys and trying to impress one. Friendship between teen girls was a non-event at the theatre. Ringwald played the exception, the one girl who you were supposed to aspire to or root for, and she had little time for other girls, as the viewer should have taken note.
Among the surfeit of celluloid devoted to the adolescent experience released during my youth, the selection from 1983 reflects my fruitless search for verisimilitude of girls on film. Why 1983? No specific reason other than that’s the year when weekly trips to the cinema began and friends who had VCRs came to pass, in what was the beginning of my appetite for film. Looking back over the trajectory of my taste in movies, it’s all too clear that I was fed on a steady diet of how much guys mattered and girls did not. Each facet of pop culture told me this, from movies, music, television, magazines, novels all of it told me to care about what boys wanted on top of how amazing they were. When I talk about male privilege, one of the fundamental concepts men often overlook is that there’s never a shortage of their point of view taking up the creative landscape.
At the cinema in 1983, teenage girls were rarely seen onscreen. It was a lonely age made further forlorn at the movies. Teenage boys onscreen preferred to date older women instead of girls their own age. Both “Class” (which marked the film debut of Andrew McCarthy and John Cusack) and “My Tutor” released that year presented plots where the handsome guys overlook the immature and boring female peers in order to have a debauched affair with older women. The rationale asked why guys would waste their time with inexperienced and prudish girls their own age when they could be bedding an older hottie who could show them the ropes. “Screwballs,” released the same year reserved faux porn allegorical roles for the girls of T&A High School, including Purity Busch, Bootsie Goodhead, and Miss Boudoir. Jailbait sex romps are a theatrical mainstay, despite the older lady sex kitten plot that the 1983 films made in lowbrow versions of “The Graduate.” “Porky’s II”also debuted that year, a sleaze ball franchise bent of scopophilia without any degree of humanity extended to the girls onscreen.
1983 was truly all about the guys, the angst quotient afforded by thoughtful films about boys struggling to make it in the world never transferred over to the girls, who routinely appear as subordinate, marginal figures. Everyone my age went to see “The Outsiders,” from what I recall, the film opened not long after my fourteenth birthday. Cherry Valance appears more like a soulless marionette than a real character; all she can manage is to bat her eyes at boys and pout. She’s such a stock reliquary of historic cultural misogyny which holds that girls should opt for eye candy status but are hardly interesting in and of themselves. She’s a cheerleader without pom-poms. Cherry didn’t have adventures and had nothing to look forward to other than pissing off her jerk of a boyfriend by slumming with some poor boys. “The Outsiders,” like the rest of S.E. Hinton’s canon tells us that boys do stuff and girls only watch.
Teen boys were all over the box office in 1983. I watched “Bad Boys” with friends and a bunch of parents, all of whom predicted the star in the making when Sean Penn turned up, in the drama about the tough Irish American kid who learns how to survive a juvenile detention centre. Ally Sheedy plays the girlfriend, and is charged with a grim rape scene and the foil slot to serve as the motive for Mick’s revenge. Ally Sheedy turned up in the same year in the box office hit “War Games.” She didn’t get raped in this one, although she had little more to do than tremble as her boyfriend courted nuclear Armageddon. “Risky Business” was in the top ten of the box office revenue for 1983. It served as the breakthrough role for Tom Cruise, in a film where the best teen girls could hope for was to be sex workers for the consummate Reagan-era adolescent entrepreneur. Girls could help a boy get to Princeton, which was about the extent of our utility or motivation at the cinema.
Indeed, for the bulk of 80s cinema, boys dominated the plot lines. “Ferris Bueller” was the ultimate “boys will be boys” exercise. “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Loverboy,” “Less Than Zero,” “River’s Edge,” “Back to the Future,” “Weird Science,””Star Wars,” “Repo Man,” “Teen Wolf,” “Fright Night,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Pump up the Volume,” are just some of the era’s standard point of view wherein boys and men are the story, the headliners. Boys could do anything, they could travel time, fight evil, the undead, stick it to the man, explore their sexuality, experiment, have adventures. Hell, they could even take pills to make themselves pass as African American to win a Harvard scholarship, as with C. Thomas Howell in “Soul Man.” Girls orbited the central story as trophies, ice queens, spectacle, token, sidekick or are absent altogether. Or else when they did appear it was as the prey of some maniac such as Jason, Michael or Freddy.
The sole film from the 80s that spends time on a girl growing up and a friendship between two of us is “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” which may explain why I watch it again every year. Stacey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) learns the hard way that trying to impress an older guy leads to bad sex, an abortion without a ride or financial help, just so they can dump you with the caprice she or her friend Linda (Phoebe Cates) came to understand. (But by 1989, Jennifer Jason Leigh was featured in one of the most repulsive gang rape scenes in film history in “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” so there goes the victim role for women onscreen.) No doubt this is why “Heathers” was such novelty in addition to being a film to relish, when it was released also in 1989, because audiences had rarely seen so many teen girls onscreen before. But “Heathers” came too late. I was already living with a boyfriend by the time this premiered.
My younger self would have taken tremendous cheer with “Hard Candy,” “Fish Tank,” or the recent Sundance winner “Winter’s Bone,” a film about a sixteen year-old girl from a family in the meth trade set in the Ozarks. I’m chomping at the bit to see the last film. Finally, we’re getting to see girls as fully dimensional characters at the theatre. These three films may limit the point of view to lone girls onscreen, but at least they have an agenda to speak of and a goal.