The Dinner Table, a Battle Field.
Adolescence and Family in American Teen Films
In my paper, I will investigate how the notion of ‘family’ has been approached in the so-called teen film genre since the 1950s. The genre is a vast, and genuinely American body of film and television productions which is targeted towards an audience of adolescents, employs them as protagonists and portrays their typical settings. One of its most important tropes is the adolescent’s search for identity and independence. This quest is often played out in the way adolescents relate to adults — as inhabitants of mostly adult-defined spaces (family homes, schools). Therefore, the genre’s texts are often a mediation of the meaning and function of the American (nuclear) family.
The dinner table as signifier for the family home is a generic locale and a staple of teen films. It acts as the cinematic locale for discussions or fights between adolescents and their parents; such interactions are an integral means to define the family dynamics and the respective attitudes of both adolescents and adults — from Rebel Without a Cause to The Cosby Show to recent productions like the TV series The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Even (sometimes especially) when parents are completely absent from the screen they still retain their power over the lives and identities of their children, like for instance in John Hughes‘ seminal teen drama The Breakfast Club.
My analysis will deal with perspectives on and the importance of ‘family’ in the teen film genre on several layers:
– How is the nuclear family and also its deterioration (e.g. divorce, single parents, absent parents, gay parents) depicted — and how do these depictions change over the years?
– How is the teen film’s portrayal of family linked to societal or political shifts and discourse (e.g. the neo-conservative ‘Family Values’ perpetuated during the Reagan and both Bush administrations)?
– Do arrangements such as gangs (especially in ‘juvenile delinquent’ films from the 1950s like The Wild One, or ‘hood’ films which deal with a mostly African American urban culture of poverty and destabilized family structures), bands (such as The Partridge Family), or even a clan of vampires and werewolves (as in the Twilight saga) simply negotiate an adolescent’s alleged need for family via alternative models?
– Is the family shown as a safe place for on-screen adolescents where they find trust, understanding, love, and security or is it a stifling, frustrating, and restrictive obstacle in their search for identity, indepence, and individuality?
– How is the cinematic representation of families concerned with race, class, and gender? For instance, are attitudes towards single mothers different than those towards single fathers? Do black families have the same values as white families, working class families the same as middle-class families?
My tentative sample includes following films and television shows:
Beverly Hills, 90210 (1990-2000)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996-2003)
The Cosby Show (1984-1992)
Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)
The Secret Life of the American Teenager (2008-2013)
Suburgatory (since 2011)
Twilight Saga (various dir., 2008-2012)
The Wild One (dir. László Benedek, 1953)