8/13/09

Cinema #3: Just One of the Guys: A Lesson in 1980's Teen Movie Clichés



It would be pretty hard to pick a type of film more predictable than the 1980’s teen movie, especially the romantic comedy variety. These movies rarely strayed far from the template and generally managed to include all of the following commandments:

1. There will be a school dance and/or party
2. There will be alcohol and/or drug abuse
3. There will be a love story with obstacles to be overcome
4. There will be gratuitous nudity
5. There will be the act or discussion of losing ones virginity
6. At least 5 of the following 7 stock characters will be present: a popular jock, a school diva, a rebel, a geek, a misfit, a new kid, and an average girl/boy


It’s actually kind of fun trying to recall these 80’s teen movies and see how well they meet the above criteria. For instance, Sixteen Candles and Fast Times at Ridgemont High would appear to meet all 6, while Better Off Dead scores a 5, and The Breakfast Club scores only a 4.

One of my favorites, Just One of the Guys (1985), is a textbook example of a formula totally free of any creative contamination. This is the formula in its purest most pristine form, unencumbered by originality. Let’s examine how faithful it is to the code, shall we?

The movie stars Joyce Hyser (a girlfriend of Bruce Springsteen at one time) as Terry, a girl who feels she's not taken seriously because of her good looks. So, she enrolls in a rival school disguised as a boy (that's what anyone would do, right?) and writes a journalism paper on the experience. Along the way, she falls in love with a fellow high school student - the only problem is, he thinks she's a guy.

1. There will be a school dance and/or party
Just One of the Guys can’t boast of both a party and a dance like Sixteen Candles and Pretty In Pink, but it does meet the requirement. The dance scene is the climax of the film…. and, yes, that is Sherilyn Fenn on the front row.

2. There will be alcohol and/or drug use
Alcohol abuse occurs when Terry comes home wasted after a night out with her boyfriend, and she has to crawl up the stairs. No weed in this one though, as in Fast Times and The Breakfast Club.

3. There will be a love story with obstacles to be overcome
There’s a love story: Terry falls in love with the “new kid”. The obstacle is that she is disguised as a guy. Usually the obstacle is class difference (Valley Girl, Pretty in Pink) or a popularity difference (Can’t Buy Me Love, Sixteen Candles), so this one does have a tiny bit of originality by making perceived gender be the obstacle .

4. There will be gratuitous nudity
Movies rated PG in the 80’s often snuck in brief female nudity. Clash of the Titans, Doc Hollywood, The Woman in Red, and Weird Science all had it, and Just One of the Guys is no exception. [spoiler alert] This is about as gratuitous as it gets: to convince the guy she likes that she is really a girl, she shows him her breasts. (!) Seems like she could have just shown him a driver's license or maybe just told him later while not in disguise.... something other than exposing herself.


5. There will be the act or discussion of losing ones virginity
Terri's little brother meets this criteria with gusto - his every word is about the subject. Although, the actual act is never shown (as in Fast Times and The Last American Virgin)

6. At least 5 of the following 7 stock characters will be present: a popular jock, a school diva, a rebel, a geek, a misfit, a new kid, and an average girl/boy

Allow me to introduce you to the 6 stock characters:

(1) No one could play an asshole jock quite like William Zabka. Here he's basically playing the exact same character as he did in The Karate Kid.

(2) Denise is nowhere near as stuck up and tyrannical as Heather Thomas in Zapped! or Steff's girlfriend in Pretty in Pink , but she's still the diva of the school and is always surrounded by a clique of admiring girls. She's more like Jake's girlfriend in Sixteen Candles- she seems bitchy at first, but turns out she's got a heart of gold.

(3) Although Terry is dressed up as a guy, she qualifies as the average girl-next-door which Molly Ringwald typified.

(4) and (5) Her love interest, Rick, I think meets the criteria for both "new kid" and "rebel". This is his first year at the school, so he's friendless. Plus, he gets in fights and is not afraid to confront the jock, Zabka - sort of reminiscent of the mother-of-all-teen-movies, Rebel Without a Cause. Of course, that's where the similarity ends - in RWAC, Natalie Wood never whipped out her breasts to show James Dean.

(6) The two geeks in this movie are so abnormal, they defy plausibility. They speak in an alien tongue and their shrill laugh has to be heard to be believed. Anthony Michael Hall was at least likeable - these guys are freaking scary.

Whether the guy in the cafeteria with the snakes qualifies as "the misfit" is up for debate. Either way, Just One of the Guys is a stellar example of fulfilling nearly all of the conventions of an 80's teen romantic comedy. It was fun to compare it against "the code". Next time, maybe I'll look at conventions in 80's slasher movies.... might be interesting.

12 comments:

  1. Ferris Bueller's Day Off completely bucks the trend then :)

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  2. Yeah, Ferris Bueller was more of a teenage "caper" type movie - like, Adventures in Babysitting, The Sure Thing and Hot Pursuit.

    I should also mention that I actually wrote this post BEFORE the recent death of John Hughes. Reading this post now is kinda sad. We all gotta go sometime, I guess. :-(

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  3. Is the guy in thick glasses Tom Cruise?

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  4. I totally thought the geek in the glasses was Tom Cruise!

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  5. Once again you present an informative, well researched, well presented, essay on a pop culture subject.

    I am amazed at your consistency, and that is no small complement.

    You nailed the teen movie on its head. "Just one of the Guys" is my favorite of the era though I must point out one minor flaw.

    You stated, "to convince the guy she likes that she is really a girl, she shows him her breasts," and then, "Seems like she could have just shown him a driver's license or maybe just told him later while not in disguise.... something other than exposing herself."

    Apparently you are not familiar with standard modes of identification in the 1980 film noir. Joyce Hyser was just following the lead of Barbra Streisand in that penultimate teen movie of the 1980's,

    Yentl.


    Keep up the good work.

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  6. Love love love this flick. And the guy who reviewed the soundtrack must an absolute genius. Ahem.

    http://allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:gzfexq9hldae

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  7. No, it's not Tom Cruise - I thought the same thing initially.

    Wendel- As always, I enjoyed your comment... although, I really wish you hadn't reminded me of Yentl.

    feo mateo- I enjoyed your review. I love ridiculously obscure trivia, so finding the song at the end is performed by Brock Davis (?)was rather interesting.

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  8. My wife pointed out to me that the "geek in the glasses" happens to be none other than Arye Gross, who was John Travolta's business partner in the 1989 movie "The Experts". The same movie where Travolta met his present wife, Kelly Preston.

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  9. I loved this movie. Oh yeah. Most of these movies were so predictable. They were still fun to watch though. Great post. Hope you've had a good weekend. Cheers!

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  10. Even though these movies are formulated... I still love them as I grew up with watching them :)I didn't see the formulation as a kid.

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  11. Way to come to through, Hitch! I knew he looked familiar, but I just couldn't place him.

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  12. Love this flick,have it on dvd,wheres Joyce these days?

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