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Teen steam

The rules of engagement for youth exploitation movies



The problem with youth, to quote George Bernard Shaw, is that it’s wasted on the young. The problem with teen movies, on the other hand, is that they’re made perforce by people who are well out of high school, and thus rarely present an accurate picture of teenage life. I remember, man—I was there. And it was not like American Pie.

Broadly speaking, the term “teensploitation” describes movies geared toward immediate teenage consumption, crammed with spontaneous synchronized-dance numbers arranged around Top 40 radio hits with nine-month half-lives and romantic entanglements calculated to play on idealized romantic sentiments in young audience members. In most cases, however, particularly with regards to the post-John Hughes, late-’90s resurgence of teensploitation movies, the term itself is apropos of the general feeling you get from watching these movies, which is that aging Hollywood producers will never tire of fantasizing about sex with 17-year-olds.

The American Pie trilogy currently winding down in theaters nationwide is undoubtedly the most financially successful series of teensploitation comedies ever made. A closer look, however, reveals that the particular genius of the franchise is to resurrect and concentrate many of the same themes and conventions that have been echoed in teen films since American Graffiti or earlier. It is, indeed, a genre reassuringly bound by convention. The following is a partial list of such themes, and the movies that exploit them.

Class warfare
Class is often an issue in teensploitation—most of the John Hughes movies, for example, are set against the upper-middle-class gentility of suburban Chicago. Not coincidentally, many teensploitation films derive their dramatic animus from class conflict between, for example, children from single-parent families who work at gyros shops and vintage clothing stores to support themselves, and pampered bourgeois piglets who drive Ferraris to school. See also: Pretty in Pink (1986) and She’s All That (1999), both featuring girls from modest upbringings nursing crushes on more affluent, popular boys—leading to predictably class-conscious confrontations. Sample sosh names : Zach, Jake, Blaine (male); Sloane, Taylor, Mackenzie (female).

Nearly all the movies in the New Wave of teensploitation feature a scene in which a character is singled out and publicly humiliated. In American Pie, the posh Finch is brutally ranked out after an explosive case of diarrhea in the girls’ bathroom. In She’s All That, a bully gets his just desserts when he is forced to eat a wad of pubic hair in front of a full cafeteria. Humiliation serves a number of functions in teensploitation movies, with the most savage public (always public) comeuppances reserved for jerks and bullies. Various transgressions of lesser importance, humorously enough, are often marked with the sound of a needle being dragged roughly across a record album—a classic motif in teen film that has survived intact into the age of CDs. A recent example: Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, in which a (Caucasian) suburban gangster wannabe unadvisedly greets a group of actual African-Americans with, “Yo, whassup with my niggas, man?” Skreeeek!

Revenge of the Nerds
Serial viewers have probably noticed that the more tech-savvy high school outcasts in teensploitation movies are organized and mobilized to a degree that suggests a paramilitary force, e.g. Sixteen Candles (1984) and Can’t Hardly Wait, in which a crack team of nerd equalizers inadvertently chloroform one of their own while trying to even the score with the jocks on graduation night. Though nerds often play an important role in the final outcome of teen movies, they mask their intentions by trying to appear as inept as possible, for example by wearing jockstraps on their heads. Also, it usually devolves to teen-movie nerds to prove the old adage that there’s someone for everyone, and they, too, usually find romance, like Ducky in Pretty in Pink.

Parents just don’t understand
For their own good, parents in teensploitation movies must be presented as generally good-natured but either hapless or clueless—at least until the end of the movie, where they can generally be counted on to provide touching reassurance and at least one piece of good advice. See also: Sixteen Candles (Molly Ringwald’s dad), Pretty in Pink (Molly Ringwald’s dad), She’s All That (Rachel Leigh Cook’s dad), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999; Julia Stiles’ dad). Elsewhere, authority figures are painted mostly as caricatures both repressed and repressive. For example: Truancy-obsessed principal Ed “Nine Times” Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986); TP-trailing principal Richard “You mess with the bull, you’re gonna get the horns” Vernon in The Breakfast Club (1985); tough (and later tender) women’s gym teacher Beulah Balbricker in Porky’s parts one, two and three.

That’s Inga, the Swedish exchange student.”
Exchange students are a popular feature of teensploitation movies. It makes sense—many high schools have at least one, and they’re often at the center of much assumption and sexual speculation. Generally, however, exchange students are not the echolalic airheads (Can’t Hardly Wait), vaguely Slavic-sounding silicone-implanted runway models (American Pie), Swedish sex kittens (Porky’s III) or deranged Long Duk Dongs (Sixteen Candles) of teen-movie stereotype. In real life, they’re generally the kids who come to the country knowing more about American history and government than a lot of people who have lived here their whole lives. In the annals of teensploitation, the exchange student who comes closest to being a real human character is probably Monique, John Cusack’s love interest in Better Off Dead (1985).

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