January 11, 2012 — When the film "Rebel Without a Cause," starring the hot new actor James Dean, wowed moviegoers and critics in 1955, the word "teenager" was just coming into popular usage.
In pre-industrial Western societies, people quickly jumped from childhood to adulthood, and the adolescent stage as we know it today was pretty much nonexistent. With the growth of the middle class in the U.S. from the 1940s through the 20th century, the period between childhood and adulthood grew into a separate stage of life – the teen years.
In "Sexuality, Gender, Class, Race in the Teen Film," a course being taught during the University of Virginia's intensive, two-week January Term, Andrea Press, a media studies and sociology professor in the College of Arts & Sciences, encourages her 18 students to delve into the cultural history of films describing teenagers.
Looking below the surface of popular teen movies is proving to be a new experience for the students, she said, and the films get them thinking about and analyzing their own popular culture, she said.
"They're rethinking films they know," she said, such as "Clueless" (1995), already recognized as a teen "classic," which also happens to be a contemporary adaptation of Jane Austen's "Emma."
The course examines "the power of films to spark what has been termed in the cultural studies literature 'subcultures of resistance' to the dominant culture, particularly amongst adolescent fans and viewers," according to Press' description.
Comparing "Clueless," which takes place in an affluent Beverly Hills high school, to "Rebel Without a Cause," Press pointed out to her students that the stereotype of rebellious teenagers who get into trouble – whether true or not – resulted from the growth of leisure time among the middle class. Teens who didn't have to spend all of their time working and going to school didn't have as much to do.
In addition to those two films, the class has looked at other teen characters, from gang leader Johnny Strabler, portrayed by Marlon Brando, in "The Wild One," to Ferris Bueller, portrayed by Matthew Broderick, in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," from Judy Garland's Betty Booth in "Love Finds Andy Hardy" to Ellen Page's Juno MacGuff in "Juno."
Current-day teens "don't think of resistance as much in today's youth culture," Press said. In the first class, when she asked, "What would teens do if they ruled the world?" the students couldn't come up with a consensus. These days, she said, they don't identify themselves as belonging to one cohesive cultural group.
The teenagers in both "Clueless" and "Rebel Without a Cause" are wrapped up in their social scenes. In "Clueless," a preoccupation with material goods, which the characters accept as crucial to popularity, rises to the level of parody. In "Rebel," there's an unspoken level of prosperity.
Dean's character, Jim Stark, occupies the status of teen rebel icon, but the film's story actually reinforces traditional ideas about the nuclear family. Jim is upset with his parents, who are fighting a lot, the mother browbeating the father. Jim yells at his father to stand up to her and show him how to be a man. His friend, Plato, has wealthy parents who basically abandon him.
In one important scene, Jim goes to an abandoned mansion with Judy (played by Natalie Wood), who has just become his girlfriend, and Plato, a misfit played by Sal Mineo, whom they befriend. The three of them "play house" with Jim and Judy being the parents and Plato their child.
How is their rebellion resolved?, Press asked the class. She and the students concluded that it ended with a return to the upper-middle class status quo and traditional roles that men should be strong and reliable and women should be feminine and dependent on men.
This is the first time Press has taught a J-term course, having previously only offered the teen film course in the summer. During the fall or spring semester, she teaches "Sex and Gender Go to the Movies," cross-listed with Studies in Women and Gender.
The J-term's daily format of several hours of class sandwiching a lunch break allows time to screen movies or show long excerpts and for her to stop and discuss certain ideas and scenes, she said.
Several students said they enjoyed analyzing the films in depth, watching and talking about them together. For an all-day class, they prefer discussions to lectures, said Danielle Burger, a second-year student who is interested in majoring in media studies, and Sydnie Soyka, a fourth-year anthropology major in the College.
Fourth-year drama major Paul Truitt, said he is learning to look deeper in films instead of taking them at face value.
Press said she believes Hollywood film is probably the last truly mass medium in our culture and is particularly influential on the lives of teens. She is currently working on a project about how women are responding to ideas of current-day feminism as applied to new and old media, in particular film and TV.