In the final section of her 2002 book, Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory (1), Catherine Driscoll begins exploring teen film as youth culture – or, more specifically, as girl culture. A compelling argument is put forth: teen films are particularly aligned with girl culture “because of the transience of their form and content – their romantic narratives of transformation mediated by overt commodification” (p. 217). The genre’s firm investment in girl culture – from fashion and makeup to girly pop music and an interest in romance narratives (p. 219) – renders it unworthy of critical attention. Additionally, despite of – or perhaps because of – teen film’s popularity and enormous commercial success, these films are usually considered “unremarkable” and therefore few critical readings exist (p. 216). But meanwhile, the rise in visibility of girl culture and girls as media consumers – evident in the enormous popularity of films like the Twilight Saga (2008-2012), the High School Musical franchise (2006-2010), television shows like Gossip Girl (Schwartz and Savage 2007-) and Pretty Little Liars (I. Marlene King 2010-) – means that teen screen media is increasingly addressed to and created for a girl audience. The study refuses the dominant attitude in film criticism that considers this heightened address and commodification as extremely suspect and potentially harmful to the teen viewer (p. 221). In opposition to this dominant attitude of dismissal and suspicion, Driscoll studies the teen film text in historical detail, finding that they can not only reveal some of the ways in which adolescence has been culturally constructed, but also how these constructions have operated, circulated and created meaning throughout film history. This undercuts the assumption that teen screen cultures are unworthy of critical attention, or only worthy of attention insofar as they could reveal teen cinema’s intrinsic harmfulness to a young audience. She echoes film historian Georganne Scheiner’s (2) assertion that “it is productive to use film to understand history, history to understand film, and both to understand adolescence” (p. 4).

Pretty Little Liars

Pretty Little Liars (I. Marlene King 2010-)

Teen Film: A Critical Introduction continues Driscoll’s inquiry into the teen film genre that began in Girls, expanding the discussion to include a wider survey of historical and cultural contexts and generic conventions. The study welcomes the fact that “it is actually as difficult to establish the boundaries of ‘teen film’ as it is to specify when ‘adolescence’ begins or ends” (p. 3), emphasising the elasticity and hybridity of the genre. The teen genre is generally described as a “discourse on adolescence” for adolescents (p.3), and this discourse is mediated by institutions and structures like censorship and classification, and targeted film advertising (pp. 12-13). The first section performs a critical historiography of teen film by situating debates about the ‘invention’ of teen film within its larger historical context. Part two then turns to the films themselves, examining key generic conventions and themes, and how these shape representations of the adolescent. Part three reveals the inherent liminality of the genre, citing its fluid ability to incorporate and appropriate aspects of other genres to create new breeds of teen film (p. 135) and its transmedia circulation across the globe. The book follows on from Girls in its use of the teen film to understand cultural constructions of adolescence, though not solely or explicitly concerned with film as girl culture. However, what emerges in Teen Film, despite a lack of explicit pronouncement, is a new way of reading and expanding the field of knowledge of teen girl films in particular.

The book works towards a more expansive theorisation of teen film than has been considered previously. Indeed, Driscoll finds that the genre is (like adolescence itself) “diverse and shifting” (p. 4). This expansive view of the genre works to open up the field of criticism to new ways of understanding the genre. Each section challenges key, potentially limiting, assumptions that underlie many of the major works on teen cinema, including those of Thomas Doherty (2002) (3) and Timothy Shary (2002; 2005) (4). These challenges include whether we can accept current assumptions about the invention of teen cinema as a phenomenon of 1950s Hollywood, as Doherty claims, or whether the incredibly elastic and hybrid nature of the genre evades such strict historicisation (p. 27). The second challenge asks whether we can accept the moralising discourse that circulates around criticisms of the genre, a discourse that considers the adolescent as a figure of extreme crisis (p. 12) and in need of constant surveillance and management (p. 121). And the third challenge asks whether the conventional inquiries of critical historiography and genre studies actually “exhaust the questions of what teen film is”, and whether a new model for defining these films can be proposed (p. 121). Interestingly, these three threads in Driscoll’s inquiry crucially hark back to her work in Girls, alluding to the question of girl cultures in teen film: the influential yet under-examined girls’ films of pre-1950s teen cinema discussed in part one of the book; the discourse of the girl-at-risk of media influence; and finally, the question of what conventional inquiries into the genre miss, especially in relation to girl cultures and aesthetics.

Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith 1919)

Driscoll contributes to the growing body of work on teen film that challenges the assumption that the genre only emerged as a recognisable form in 1950s Hollywood. As she argues, “[w]hat we define as teen film depends on very particular historical vantage points” (p. 10). A central question is posited: how was adolescence represented before the 1950s, and how did these representations impact those to come? Driscoll, along with critics such as Georganne Scheiner (2000) (5) and Kelly Schrum (2008) (6), reveal teen cinema’s considerably longer (and interestingly, girl-centric) cinematic heritage. The birth of the cinema as popular entertainment and the concept of modern adolescence are intrinsically bound together, for both emerged at the same point in history and “have consistently influenced each other” (p. 5). Therefore, Driscoll seeks to include early twentieth-century cinema’s adolescent icons like Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and even Shirley Temple, and their ingénue films like Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith 1919), Stowaway (Seiter 1936) and Love Finds Andy Hardy (Seitz 1938), as part of an early, pre-1950s teen cinema (p. 25). In addition to these ‘clean teen’ examples, Driscoll argues that even the pre-Code flapper film of the 1920s can also be considered teen cinema. With its thematisation of the adolescent conflict between rebellion and conformity (p. 22), experimentation with sex and drugs (p. 23), and even a makeover plot (p. 24), the flapper film “foreshadows the high-school film” of the contemporary teen genre (p. 24). Including the pre-Code flapper film, as well as the pre-1950s adolescent ingénue film in the history of the teen cinema not only expands our understanding of the dynamics of the genre; it also reinstates these under-discussed girls’ texts as central to film history. Driscoll’s reassessment and expansion of the canon reveals how previously steadfast and rigid definitions of the boundaries of teen film work to ignore important and influential female-centred texts from its history.

Ginger Snaps (Fawcett 2000)

The final section of Teen Film is the most innovative and compelling, for it presents new ways of defining the genre beyond a reading of generic conventions. Driscoll posits that it is perhaps the moralising discourse of censorship – a discourse centred on what young people should be permitted to see and what they should be prohibited from seeing – that defines the limits of how teen films are constructed, and therefore what teen cinema can and cannot be (pp. 122-126). The teenager as “a social problem in need of management” and training (p. 121) emerges as the central figure within the debate about censorship. One of Driscoll’s accomplishments in this book is to interrogate, criticise, and dismantle the moralising tendency of many academic commentaries on censorship and the teen film genre. The moral panic about whether teen film texts are “good for” teens is rife throughout academic commentaries on the genre – including the major studies, such as Doherty’s, Shary’s and Roz Kaveny’s (7) (p. 4). This argument should be taken further to suggest that this moralising discourse is a pointedly gendered one: greater concern circulates around the ways in which teen girls consume and interpret screen media. The fantasy screen worlds of fairy-tale romance, for example, in their apparent retrograde anti-feminism, compulsory heterosexual couplings, and prioritisation of feminine sexuality, are consistently understood as somehow harmful to the real-world beliefs of the naïve dupe that is the teen girl media-consumer (8). Driscoll rejects such mimetic claims, and, much more productively, investigates how teen film organises itself around the prescribed boundaries of censorship, and how it simultaneously tests and interrogates these thresholds.

Despite investigating and overturning these limiting critical paradigms, the study nevertheless follows the overwhelmingly dominant approach to teen cinema, which adopts a discursive/sociological reading of the films and film history. In such a reading, the aesthetic surface of the film is not taken into account as a site of significant meaning making. As Driscoll points out, “[t]een film is generally thought more interesting for what it says about youth than for any aesthetic innovations, and is represented as closely tied to the historically changing experience of adolescence” (p. 2). In recent years, however, the sensuous film theory of writers such as Laura U. Marks (1999, 2002, 2010) (9), Jennifer M. Barker (2009) (10), and Giuliana Bruno (2002, 2007, 2011) (11), has called us to turn our attention to the surface of the screen image as a site of affective power and meaning making. Given that teen cinema delights in the surface of the image – its investment in the sartorial (Clueless (Heckerling 1995), Pretty in Pink (Deutch 1986)), its fascination with erotic touch and the body (Twilight (Hardwicke 2008), Ginger Snaps (Fawcett 2000)), and its grounding in textured teen interiors like the girl’s bedroom (Ghost World (Zwigoff 2001), Sixteen Candles (Hughes 1984)) – it is curious that a sensuous reading of the teen screen surface is yet to emerge. Indeed, the surface is actively rejected as a site of meaning and affective significance in the major, current studies of teen cinema as the above quote demonstrates. Perhaps this is because the teen screen surface – so heavily textured with feminine fabrics, objects, and ornaments – is dismissed and derided as frivolously girly, and therefore devoid of meaning. Such steadfast dismissal leaves a significant gap in the discourse surrounding teen cinema, and presents the opportunity for new readings of the genre. By interrogating many of the underlying assumptions about the interrelation between girl culture and the pleasures of teen cinema, Driscoll’s work gives us the opportunity to further excavate how youth and girl culture plays out across the surface of the teen screen.

Catherine Driscoll, Teen Film: A Critical Introduction, Berg Oxford and New York, 2011.

Endnotes

  1. Catherine Driscoll, Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory, Columbia University Press, New York, 2002.
  2. Georganne Scheiner, Signifying Female Adolescence: Film Representations and Fans 1920-1950, Praeger, Westport, 2000.
  3. Thomas Doherty, Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s (2nd ed), Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2002.
  4. Timothy Shary, Generation Multiplex: The Image of Youth in Contemporary Cinema, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2002 and Timothy Shary, Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen. Wallflower Press, New York, 2005.
  5. Schrum (2008) and Scheiner (2000) are particularly interested in the genesis of teen girl movie-fan cultures from the early to mid-twentieth century.
  6. Kelly Schrum, Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls’ Culture: 1920-1945, Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2004.
  7. Roz Kaveney, Teen Dreams: Reading Teen Film from Heathers to Veronica Mars, I. B. Tauris, London and New York, 2006.
  8. More in-depth interrogations of this moral panic include: Melissa A. Click, Jennifer S. Aubrey, Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz (Eds.), Bitten By Twilight: Youth, Media, and the Vampire Franchise, Peter Lang Publishing, New York, 2010; Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young (Eds.), Chick Flicks: Contemporary Women at the Movies, Routledge New York and London, 2008.
  9. Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, Duke University Press, Durham, 1999; Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2002; Laura U Marks, Enfoldment and Infinity: an Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art. MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2010.
  10. Jennifer M Barker, The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience, University of California Press Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 2009.
  11. Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film, Verso, New York, 2002; Giuliana Bruno, Public Intimacy: Architecture and the Visual Arts, MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 2007; Giuliana Bruno, “Surface, Fabric, Weave: The Fashioned World of Wong Kar-Wai.” In: Fashion in Film. Ed. Adrienne Munich, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2011, pp.83-105.

Filmography

Broken Blossoms. Dir. D. W. Griffith. 1919.

Clueless. Dir. Amy Heckerling. 1995.

Ghost World. Dir. Terry Zwigoff. 2001.

Ginger Snaps. Dir. John Fawcett. 2000.

Gossip Girl. Executive Prod. Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage. 2007-

High School Musical. Dir. Kenny Ortega. 2006.

Love Finds Andy Hardy. Dir. George B. Seitz. 1938.

Pretty in Pink. Dir. Howard Deutch. 1986.

Pretty Little Liars. Executive Prod. I. Marlene King. 2010-

Stowaway. Dir. William A. Seiter. 1936.

Sixteen Candles. Dir. John Hughes. 1984.

Twilight. Dir. Catherine Hardwicke. 2008.

About The Author

Athena Bellas is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. Her dissertation explores the use of sensuous fairy tale aesthetics in contemporary teen-girl screen media. She is currently co-editing an issue of Refractory, a peer-reviewed screen journal published by the School of Culture and Communications at the University of Melbourne.