Shannen Doherty as Heather Duke in the film that killed ’80s teen movies. She’d later play the iconic Brenda Walsh on the ’90s teen soap Beverly Hills 90210.
I’m in the middle of prepping for my next episode, which is going to be about the 1995 film Clueless. It’s a movie that is culturally significant because it was one of a number of movies that started a teen movie boom in the mid- to late-1990s and early 200s after a period that didn’t see many successful films in the genre, at least on the level that we saw in the previous decade with the Brat Pack films. If we take what Jonathan Bernstein says in Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies and say that 1989 is a benchmark for the end of the movie genre’s initial success because, as he puts it, Heathers killed it “stone dead” and that 1995 was the beginning of what was looking like a revival, we have a period where teen movies of many genres–comedy, drama, and horror–saw very little success.
This period also happens to coincide with most of my adolescence. I began junior high in the fall of 1989 and graduated high school in June of 1995, which meant that I was the target audience for what wound up being a dearth of flicks. Now, I can tell you that I spent a lot of time going to the comic store and my adolescence also coincides with the boom and subsequent bust of that particular collector’s market, but not everyone I knew was into superheroes and comics on the level that I was, so this long intro and cultural context does beg the question: what were we doing if we weren’t going to the movies in the early 1990s? I’m going to try and plumb the depths of my fuzzy memories of this period to give you … some sort of explanation, and it starts with the very place we were supposedly avoiding.
Because we were going to the movies; we just weren’t seeing those movies. I remember seeing most of those classic teen flicks like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink when I was in junior high and high school because they were rerun on television quite a bit and if what I saw seemed interesting enough, I’d hit up Video Empire so I could see the whole thing instead of the 45 minutes or so I caught on WPIX (or in the case of movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the whole, uncensored thing). But trips to the theater were, at least for me, reserved for Batman movies, Terminator sequels, Van Damme and Seagal action flicks, and blockbusters like Jurassic Park. The closest that I think I ever got to seeing a movie aimed directly at me and people my age in the theater were the two Wayne’s World movies and even then, those were SNL-based.
Starring Christian Slater, Pump Up the Volume was one of the few movies of the early Nineties with an impact.
Not that we didn’t have stuff like Pump Up the Volume (an episode that I swear is coming at some point) and Reality Bites (which I covered back in 1994), but when looking at what came out during that time period, most of the movies had characters who were slightly older or younger than me. Pump Up the Volume and two Brendan Fraser movies–Encino Man and School Ties–were probably exceptions to this rule, as they did take place in a high school. But when I watched Singles or Reality Bites, I was watching movies aimed at the heart of Generation X, which was the core audience for most of the original wave of teen movies and whom by then had more or less grown tired or grown out of the genre. These two movies, while they did moderately well, did underperform and are more on the edge of the “cult classic” than bona fide cultural touchstones. And there was always a “looking at the older kids” aspect to them. Concurrently, there were a number of movies that were made for the early Millennial set–Now and Then, The Mighty Ducks, Man in the Moon, My Girl–and were a nice set-up for movies like Clueless, Scream, and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Even the few that did match right up appropriate with my age, such as PCU (again, I covered this in 1994) and Dazed & Confused (another episode I will eventually do) were box office bombs that got new life on video and cable.
Besides, we were watching ourselves more on television. While the WB, which began in 1994, would unlock the secret to the teen audience in the latter part of the decade with Buffy and Dawson’s Creek, credit where credit is due needs to go to Fox and MTV for what they did in the early 1990s. MTV had already been around for a decade by the time I was finishing junior high and was the default station for teenagers; Fox was just starting out and had realized that they could use what was then a more “edgy” tone to some of its programming to attract audiences that the big three networks were more or less ignoring. So, you have stuff like Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, 21 Jump Street, and Beverly Hills 90210 on Fox and MTV’s seminal reality show, The Real World. And while ABC would throw its hat in the ring with My So-Called Life in 1994, Fox and MTV had more of an impact–in fact, MSCL got a second life in reruns on MTV way into the later part of the decade.
The cast of season 3 (San Francisco) of The Real World, which premiered in 1994.
90210 and The Real World really are the shows to consider because to people my age they were aspirational in a sense–90210 was full of the glamorous life and The Real World showed teenagers how cool it was going to be when you finally left home. Yes, there was drama on The Real World and in those first few seasons, people were dealing with serious issues and problems, but we all wanted to live in that house at one point or another (at least until we hit our twenties and realized that the real world was a lot more boring). There also wasn’t much beyond that as far as programming was concerned. Outside of what I’ve listed, we were kind of stuck between Full House and Seinfeld and usually chose the latter, even if we didn’t get all of the jokes. That is, until Beavis and Butthead came along.
Now, I realize that I’m simplifying for the sake of argument here and probably could do an entire series of posts or a book on this teen entertainment desert (which isn’t that half bad of an idea, tbh), so there were other shows and movies out there, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Beavis and Butthead was a seminal show. Like I said, there was an “older kid” aspiration to a lot of the leftovers from the Eighties or what was on screen in the early Nineties. Watching the Hughes flicks or any other movies from that era sometimes felt like you were rifling through the room of your older brother or sister who had gone away to college and left everything unguarded, or that you were Judy in American Graffiti or Mitch Kramer in Dazed & Confused hanging out with the older kids. But watching an episode of Beavis and Butthead was like looking around your own high school. No, I didn’t do nearly any of the crazy crap those two did, but I know plenty of people who were just as idiotic; furthermore, there was a lot of sitting around and watching random crap on TV at my house and my friends’ houses while making snarky comments at what was on television. Plus, they were often watching music videos and while MTV would taper off playing videos throughout the decade, this was around the time–at least in my life–that music seemed important.
Based on the content of my last episode, it’s not revelatory to say that music is important to teenagers–it has been since my parents’ generation–but after the latter part of the Eighties and its vapid pop-rock and hair metal, the pendulum swung back to music that took itself more seriously. Oh, there was plenty of vapid crap in the early 1990s (nobody is comparing “Baby Got Back” to The Beatles), but the messages (if there were any) in “Girls Girls Girls” and “Nothin’ But a Good Time” see seemed pretty empty considering how deep we were into a recession. The gloom of alternative and the anger of punk fit what many of us were going through or at least thought we were going through (in a Holden Caulfield sort of way) as opposed to songs about strippers and blow on the Sunset Strip. Plus, this was a time when you couldn’t access a song unless it was released as a single, so you had to make the conscious choice to buy an entire album on cassette or CD and that meant being smart about where exactly you put your disposable income and that also meant that the purchase held more weight and you sought out things that really did mean something.
Mortal Kombat fatalities such as this one caused quite a bit of hand-wringing.
That is, if you weren’t bathing in the blood of Mortal Kombat opponents. If there’s one thing I have learned from being a late-period Gen-Xer (especially one with a tween of my own), it’s that video games are huge and can be all-consuming. The older part of my generation did play video games and they certainly had gaming systems in the house, but those of us who were tweens and teens in the late 1980s and early 1990s were really the first to take it to a level beyond novelty or something we would outgrow. Video games and systems were just as expensive in the early Nineties as they are now, and that meant an investment of money and time, and they began to reflect those costs. Games were become more complex and more adult–by 1994, they even had ratings on the packages to reflect that not all of them were for little kids–so fewer people were abandoning them as the novelty wore off or they got older. While I didn’t own my own system after playing on my NES, I spent countless hours at friends’ houses playing Street Fighter, F-Zero, Mortal Kombat, Madden, NHL, and a number of other games.
And in a few paragraphs, I just listed everything we were doing in lieu of watching the latest iteration of The Breakfast Club. And at the heart of it is that when I was a teenager, my friends and I were doing what we wanted and really didn’t care. We kind of shrugged at what was offered to us, which caused hand-wringing among a number of companies because teenagers and twentysomethings weren’t taking everything offered to them. The “Generation X” label tended to be a negative reaction to those groups’ unwillingness to part with all of their money after a decade of teenagers buying all of the shiny things corporations had to offer. It’s almost as if people forgot how adolescents tended to act.
As I look at my students and what they are into, I don’t know if things with teen movies have cycled back to the desert of the early Nineties or if things have diversified so much–after all, there are multiple platforms now on which to view or listen to things. I believe it’s somewhere in between, although my hitting middle age definitely doesn’t help.