Teen Films


By the mid-1990s, the visibility of teen films clearly increased from the previous ten years, with successful

John Hughes.

television shows providing Hollywood with new teen stars, and with a renewed comfort in the industry for handling adolescent issues. Teen films of the mid- to late-1990s began looking at sexual orientation, gender discrimination, and the postmodern nature of teen culture in general. In the surest sign of change since the 1980s, teens on screen began having sex again, and even liking it, as they learned to explore their sexual practices and endeavored to educate themselves about the subject.

Curiously, the topic that became the most sensitive, and then essentially forbidden, was juvenile delinquency. From the mid-1990s onward, the real-life violence of numerous school shootings by students made onscreen teen violence increasingly difficult to handle. With rare exceptions like Light It Up (1999) and O (2001), Hollywood chose to ignore issues of juvenile delinquency rather than risk being blamed for encouraging it. One form of teen film that did take up issues of delinquency in politicized terms was that based on a new "tough girl" persona. Films like Mi vida loca ( My Crazy Life , 1994), Freeway (1996), Foxfire (1996), and Wild Things (1998) focused on an exhilarating, if not liberating, sense of rebellion among girls. The roles of many girls in American movies such as Girls Town (1996), The Opposite of Sex (1998), Girlfight (2000), and Mean Girls (2004) began to reflect a potent image of young femininity. These films and their characters pursued the full range of girls' identities, ensuring that young women in cinema will no longer need to derive power from delinquency.

Films about teenage homosexuality became more common in the 1990s as well. Most queer youth depictions in the 1990s tended to deal with tensions around both sexual experience and romantic longing—in other words, the same tensions that heterosexual teens are shown dealing with in other films. Early examples included My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Anything for Love (also known as Just One of the Girls , 1993); but the first film to boldly portray teenage characters as a queer group was Totally Fucked Up (1993), which remains to date the most complete depiction of a queer teen ensemble, in this case four boys and two girls. Since then, the most prominent queer teen roles have been lesbian characters, raising the question of whether young male homosexuality is generally more difficult to depict, or more culturally problematic, than young female homosexuality. The few movies about gay boys generally gained less attention than movies about lesbian girls, such as The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995), All Over Me (1997), and Boys Don't Cry (1999). Queer teen characters have also appeared in Election (1999), But I'm a Cheerleader (2000), L.I.E . (2001), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), and Saved! (2004). Depictions of gay youth have grown increasingly fair and realistic, though occasionally neutralized by negative representations in some films (like Scary Movie , 2000). Films that portray (and even celebrate) teenagers adapting to gay lifestyles may affect cultural attitudes toward gays.

After a dormancy of nearly a decade, teen sex in general returned to movies by the mid-1990s, most notoriously through the controversial and degrading Kids (1995), and through other dark portraits like Wild Things , The Opposite of Sex , Cruel Intentions (1999), The Virgin Suicides (1999), and Thirteen (2003). At the same time, Hollywood found itself more comfortable dealing with the comic and lighthearted aspects of teenage sexuality, as was evident in Clueless (1995), Trojan War (1997), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), and most successfully, American Pie (1999). For the first time, teen films were now taking sex seriously not only for boys, but for the girl characters who want more out of it; the comical Coming Soon (1999) was a celebration of girls discovering orgasm, with or without boys. A few other independent films have continued to represent more sexually mature and confident girls, such as Real Women Have Curves (2002) and Raising Victor Vargas (2002), but these films tend not to reach mainstream audiences.

Hollywood has in many ways improved its image of teens through films that show young people confronting race, religion, body image, romance, drugs, family, friendships, sex, sexual preference, and crime, all the while allowing their characters to explore their youth. Yet many of the most heavily promoted films, like The Princess Diaries (2001), What a Girl Wants (2003), and Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004), insult the intelligence of the very teens to whom these films are directed by giving them the illusion that their troubles are merely entertaining foibles and not legitimate concerns. The film industry is still seeking ways to speak to teens at their own level and exploit them for profit at the same time. History has shown this to be a difficult balance.


Considine, David. The Cinema of Adolescence . Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1985.

Doherty, Thomas. Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s . Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988.

Gateward, Frances, and Murray Pomerance, eds. Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: Cinemas of Girlhood . Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2002.

Lewis, Jon. The Road to Romance and Ruin: Teen Films and Youth Culture . New York: Routledge, 1992.

Pomerance, Murray, and Frances Gateward, eds. Where the Boys Are: Cinema of Masculinity and Youth . Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2005.

Scheiner, Georganne. Signifying Female Adolescence: Film Representations and Fans, 1920–1950 . Westport, CT: Praeger,2000.

Shary, Timothy. Generation Multiplex: The Image of Youth in Contemporary American Cinema . Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Timothy Shary

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