’90s Teen Party Movies and the Golden Age™ of Feminist Film?

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Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

There ain’t no party like a parents-out-of-town, geek-gets-drunk, Seth-Green-gets-laid nineties teen movie party. Even if you weren’t old enough—or cool enough—to attend any such rager yourself, you could still party vicariously through revelrous classics like Clueless, Can’t Hardly Wait, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Craft, Empire Records, and oh-so-many more. Far from fluff, the parties in these films serve as ground zero for complex social negotiation—especially for young female characters struggling to navigate the chaotic and often messy project of adolescence. At once the site of drunken freedom and the stage for mean-girl showdowns, nineties party movies are perhaps best defined by their lack of definition: they are where anything—and everything—can happen.

In our second roundtable, we’ve gathered three writers who came of age on nineties teen party films: Anne T. Donahue, Durga Chew-Bose, and Sara Black McCulloch. In their lively conversation, they discuss the role of the party as a plot device, makeovers as monster-makers, and race. – the cléo editors

To get you started, cléo wants to ask: were the party movies of the nineties a golden age of teen girl feminist cinema?

Anne: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Parties were the catalyst for everything in nineties teen girl feminist cinema. Case in point: 10 Things I Hate About You saw Kat Stratford dancing on a table to Notorious B.I.G. before Patrick Verona took her home and did not act like a total creep; She’s All That gave us Laney Boggs being bullied by Queen Bee Taylor because she was…born? (Seriously, that school was fucked up.) And then Can’t Hardly Wait was just a movie about a party. And that’s only three. If we want to get technical—and believe me, I do—Empire Records ends with a party; Romeo meets Juliet at a costume party; Tai rolls with the homies in Clueless (at a party); and it was at a party where Nancy from The Craft fakes out that horrible guy and ends up killing him. (He dies, right? If not, forget I mentioned that detail and instead remember Nancy dragging herself across the floor on her toes before he fell out the window.) Honestly, a nineties teen movie was NONSENSE without a game-changing shindig.

Durga: Sure, why not. If for no other reason than that the character of Aldys in Never Been Kissed (played by a bespectacled Leelee Sobieski), whose flatline tone and jean-overall-slouched posture deemed her an outsider, was the first person to befriend Josie (Drew Barrymore). To me, that’s feminist. I coveted (and still do) her forest-green math club sweatshirt that read: “The Denominators.” I loved how she could be hopeful and carefree, drinking soda in her car and singing despite being marginalized as a nerd by her high school’s caste system of coolness. Finding her own nook of happiness, that’s feminist. But mostly what’s important is that no matter what, she had an angry-girl mien; it was her compass. I think that’s feminist. Dissatisfaction with the status quo—”Oh my god, like, there goes another lemming!”—that’s feminist. Sticking up for what makes your friends unique, that’s feminist. The most memorable scene in that movie is the party: their prom. Aldys dresses up as DNA and dances with the so-called cool dolt of a dude and almost gets pranked with dog-food sprayed all over her. But Josie pulls through and calls everyone on their bullshit. And calling everyone on their bullshit, that’s feminist.

Sara: In that particular scene in The Craft, Chris (the guy) tells Nancy Downs that she’s just jealous of Sarah—so typical to pin two women against each other. Nancy laughs and keeps repeating, “You don’t even exist. You are nothing. You are shit.” She scares him to the point of him apologizing to her. She screams “SORRY MY ASS” and then she kills him. These scenes were so much more insightful in terms of how some boys viewed girls and how girls called them on it. (Nancy tells Chris that the only way he treats girls is like whores. He’s the whore, she screams.) These were, at least for me, the earliest introductions to that double standard for women’s sexuality.

Parties in nineties movies were written off as social events—which just meant girls and guys hooking up. But with the films you two have listed, there was so much more going on and so much more you could pick up on. I remember particularly that in eighties party scenes you either had hot, bitchy cheerleaders who rejected nerds—or you had plain Janes who were ridiculed or rejected. With nineties movies, we still have the high school hierarchy in play, but instead we get so many different girls and different group dynamics. I remember especially with that Clueless party in the Valley. Dionne is talking about social capital or she’s tearing into Murray. Tai is rolling with Elton. Cher is orchestrating a teen romance and maintaining social order. But Cher also pushes off Elton at the end of the night and lectures him on being a snob because he refuses to date Tai. With nineties party scenes, we get more of the girls and the many different ways they navigate how they’re perceived.

Anne: It’s true! I think a lot about the party scene in 10 Things, but that entire subplot was the catalyst for, well, everything—especially in terms of how women are perceived. There are the women who are ultimately appalled by Michael and his attempts at charm. There’s the woman who just wants to make out with anyone (including Heath Ledger, who steers her towards some other guy). There’s Bianca, who arrives as arm candy—then leaves, completely abandoned by her friend. And there’s Bianca’s friend Chastity, who shows up as Bianca’s second-in-command then leaves as her successor. And all the while, Joey Donner is just using the party to re-establish his social and sexual clout, discontent until he goes home with someone.

Then there’s Kat, who is “approved” by her classmates and peers for the first time when she gets drunk at a party. She even says: “I’m getting trashed, man, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do at a party?” Patrick says she should do whatever she wants. To which she responds, “Funny, you’re the only one.” I mean, it’s true! He’s a white, hot, tough dude. He gets the privilege of choice, and Kat—to establish herself as someone who matters—has to sexualize herself. Then she’s shamed for it on Monday. But you’re right, Sara: these movies all tell such interesting stories about the way female characters are perceived and how they choose to deal with those perceptions. Nineties parties are like the ultimate background for either standing out or blending in/doing whatever. But it’s 100% possible to do both, successfully.

Durga: Cher’s insistence on “maintaining social order,” as Sara puts it, is in some ways the crux of every nineties teen movie party scene. Navigating it and maintaining it both required a few tenets. Namely: “the makeover.” Is “the makeover” feminist? Was it a move backwards? I’ve always loved makeover scenes because transformation is such a power move. I do recognize that in a high school ecosystem, changing yourself in order to be seen by less smart people, to fit in and traffic in whatever’s temporarily cool is probably not the most powerful tactic and can end up disastrously, but I’ve always enjoyed the grand entrance that follows the makeover. Entrances are magical—and yes, often supremely silly.

Like in She’s All That. The party is where Laney Boggs premieres her new look: short hair curled out at the tips so her head mimics a Lego character, paired with a platform-heeled outfit that’s very late-nineties dELiA*s. She looks doll-like, i.e. unsure of herself. She’s been Eliza Doolittled. Of course, Laney trips and falls into Freddie Prinze Jr.’s hands as she walks down the stairs. And of course, at the party the queen bee—a temper tantrum–prone girl named Taylor—drops a drink down Laney’s dress. And of course, Laney trips and falls again while running out of the party. While nineties teen movies were the golden age for the anti-cool-girl—or rather, a stage for whip-smart heroines with so-called bad attitudes—they were also rife with makeovers, which I can’t yet decide are an erasure of self or a bettering? Or simply just fun? Or wildly messed up and I’m still embarrassingly blinded by the opening of Sixpence None The Richer’s “Kiss Me.”

Sara: The makeover was definitely a power move. I can’t decide if it’s even an identity change—I always feel like it’s a physical change paired with an attitude change. And there is that familiar trajectory: the nerdy/tomboy girl is now pretty and she gets more attention. Soon, she abandons her crew—the people who accepted her for who she was. But she still feels bad! You can see her cringe when her old friends ignore her or if the popular kids make fun of them. Or she has to force herself to ignore all this. I think in a lot of ways, the girl still identifies with her old friends and that’s because she’s just performing an identity for the popular kids, which emphasizes how vapid and superficial they are.

The thing is, I can’t decide if it’s feminist, but it brings up these points: 1) in order to be popular, all you have to do is comb your hair/ wash out the Tai-red henna; set it; put on some makeup; etc. etc. 2) the things that make you a nerd are your glasses and love of learning. Ultimately, the makeover results in a blowout fight with the girl’s former friends: they tell her she’s changed and ask what’s gotten into her. Who is she? Obviously, this brings up identity, but these girls haven’t really changed drastically on the inside.

The makeover, at least the way it’s crafted, is not supposed to be a good thing. I mean Cher even says that with Tai, she’s created a monster. Also! When Cher decides she herself needs a makeover, the only good one, it seems, is a makeover of her soul, as she puts it. But here’s the thing: is it ultimately not feminist to be smart and pretty? I feel we’re forced to choose between the two, and that the choice is already made for us.

Durga: But maybe it’s okay to create monsters? I think monsters trump the binary of smart and pretty and instead adopt power as the ultimate makeover. Maybe I’m just living in a post Nicki [Minaj] “Monster”-verse era where I think it’s important to fully inhabit all of our many contradictions and missteps, and if doing so, we as women become so-called monsters, why not?

Another thing I wanted to bring up returns to the original question: Were nineties teen party movies the golden age of feminist movies? The problem with talking about nineties teens movies now in 2014 is that at the time, sure, they were awakening for me—but I never fully associated with them or “related” because of one big problem they all shared: they were entirely peopled with white girls. The characters’ problems and personal triumphs were ones that I experienced through a white-girl lens, and so at a deep remove that I wasn’t even aware of. These movies were peopled by typecasting, and even though there was the occasional black best friend or boyfriend, we cannot talk about a golden age of teen feminist movies if those movies were devoid of characters of colour. In that way, for me, these films were simply pure entertainment.

Sara: I am totally on board with both of you—there is such a lack of diversity and complexity in the girls of nineties teen movies. And to me, admitting that there is a Golden Age of anything implies that something was simply better because you were younger/the targeted demographic when you experienced it.

And that being said, there are teen movies/teen-girl dramas that I enjoy so much more as a woman, and I think it’s because the writing/conception of teen girls has improved (a bit—but definitely not in terms of diversity). As a teenage girl, I always felt distanced from the depictions of girlhood in nineties movies and I think a large part of that was because I got less of a look at these girls’ inner lives—their motivations, their contradictions, as Durga said. They were still ideals or tropes, even if they were less and less defined by boys. I never saw girls trying to deal with growing up but still being too young—the girls were either too mature or the total opposite. And so yes, these films were pure entertainment for me because I just couldn’t establish a connection to them in any way.

At TIFF, I saw Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood (Bande de filles) and there was this beautiful, pivotal moment when all these girls start singing Rihanna’s “Diamonds” together in a hotel room. Like they’ve set aside fears and concerns and they’re four girls in the moment just belting out a song and holding each other; telling each other they’re beautiful. I’ve never experienced that kind of joy from any coming-of-age/teen girl movie before. What was so different and powerful was how in Girlhood, the context for girls’ identities isn’t just at parties, walking through the hallways, or finding a lunch table—it’s how these girls wake up in the morning. It’s their inner monologue all day every single day. It’s their relationships to each other and themselves.

Anne: Yeah, I mean, as a white girl, it’s easy for me to say, “Oh, absolutely it was the Golden Age!” Because I was watching white suburban characters tell their white suburban stories as a white suburbanite. (And even in Save the Last Dance, the story is told through Julia Stiles’ character—not Kerry Washington’s, which is a buzzkill for 2925285 reasons.) So when I step back from my privilege (and out of the mindset I find myself in when watching these movies—which, admittedly, is very “those were the days”-esque), obviously they’re far more entertainment than a feminist mandate for everyone. And it’s impossible to cite them as a Golden Age™ in the definitive sense.

And this question, I realized by reading your really perceptive answers, is super subjective. Going into this, I was 100% sure about and ready to defend the Golden Age™ through and through. But over the course of this conversation, I’ve realized that because of where I was mentally and emotionally when these teen films were released, I will always think that teen films that came out before or after I was a teen are worse, less interesting, and even less feminist. And I think that’s a similar story for most people. Teens now may latch onto Spring Breakers more than they would to She’s All That (because who does know all the moves to the “Rockafeller Skank”), and they might think the pretty innocent party of 10 Things is unrealistic and lame.

So were party movies of the nineties part of a Golden Age of feminist cinema? For me, yes. Subjectively, yes. But in an objective sense, I don’t know if a Golden Age of anything can actually exist.

Anne T. Donahue is a writer and comedian from Cambridge, Ontario whose work’s shown up in and on The Guardian, Vulture, and NME. She’s currently the interim music editor at Rookie, and eating fries as she types this.

Durga Chew-Bose writes about film and other things. Her work can be found at The Hairpin, Adult, Hazlitt, The New Inquiry.

Sara Black McCulloch is a writer living in Toronto. She has written for The Hairpin, Gawker, Bitch, Broken Pencil, Little Brother Magazine, and The National Post.

A journal of film and feminism.

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A journal of film and feminism.