November 23, 2009

Eight movies all high school girls should see

The current wave of Twilight-mania has got me thinking. I didn't read the books or see the films, but I've read a great deal about them and what I know has me worried. Arguably, Twilight is the number one voice getting through to teenage girls these days (and their mothers, apparently). Whereas past teen girl obsessions such as boy bands were relatively harmless and neutral (their message? love is fun and everybody dance!), Twilight gives us a "heroine" whose sole interest in life is a guy. She allegedly says she would die without him and has no other interests, hobbies, or aspirations.

Now, this is hardly unprecedented in art or culture. Shakespeare was cooking up the same stuff with Romeo and Juliet, which needless to say is considered a classic of literature. But there's three key differences here. The first is that, in my opinion, the ol Bard doesn't exactly condone the young lovers' behavior and attitudes, whereas in Twilight it kinds of seems like the reader is the idiot if she, too, wouldn't give her life for Edward. The second is that there was no mass media in Shakespeare's time, and at no point were posters of Romeo plastered across teenage walls and girls would come out in droves to see the play. The third is that at the time the play was written, women's role in society was just to be mothers and wives. They actually did not have interests, hobbies, or aspirations. It's a little hypocritical, then, to still be pushing that type of character in a day and age where the media is at least attempting (not always successfully, of course) to push the opposite.

So what's the antidote? Well, I hardly have the persuasive powers of the Twilight franchise, but I've comprised a list of movies that I think have good messages for the teen girls of today. Now, before you think these are hokey picks, I fully understand that today's teens are savvy and cynical (except perhaps when it comes to sparkly vampires). When I was younger (and I'm talking single-digits age here), my mom would always rent me this VHS from the library called "Free To Be You And Me!" It was basically Sesame Street with a lot more moralizing and a lot less puppets - a deliberately multicultural group of kids spouting life lessons about how you should be yourself. While I understand that that video was aimed at a much younger age group, that type of film doesn't speak to teens. It just sounds like health class bullshit. In a similar vein, I also excluded films like Thirteen, which go to such lengths to discourage every dangerous youth behavior imaginable that it just gets ridiculous and you end up tuning it out.

The films on this list are good films in their own right and can be enjoyed by both genders. Similarly, there are great films that spread gender-neutral messages, so I didn't feel the need to include them. And in terms of artistic merit, every person alive should see Citizen Kane, The Godfather, etc. etc. In summary, this a list of really good and solid movies that send good and solid messages specific to today's female youth.

Mean Girls (2004)
A high school flick starring Lindsay Lohan? The uninformed may roll their eyes, but those in the know are aware that this packs the one-two punch of being based on a nonfiction book and being written by Tina Fey. It manages to warn girls of the dangers of being seduced by the in-crowd and why you shouldn't be a bitch while maintaining a killer sense of humor and never being preachy. Ironically, I first saw this in high school and thought to myself, "Gee, I'm really grateful that my female friends aren't mean like that." In college, I realized that I actually had had mean friends who were systematically destroying my self-esteem without me even realizing it. If you take nothing else from this film, consider these wise lines: "Calling somebody else fat won't make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn't make you any smarter."

Superbad (2007)
This film, in addition to being hilarious, is like a field guide to the adolescent male. They're horny and stupid, but they're also loyal and have ultimately good intentions. And yes, I have actual men who completely agree with me on this.

Jezebel (1938)
At first glance, this movie is just about Bette Davis acting her heart out in an antebellum period piece. If that's all it is for you, that's fine, and it's a solid drama. But upon closer inspection, I actually find the film to have a rather complex message. Southern belle Julie keeps men hooked by being high-maintenance and difficult, which young girls even today often feel they must do to keep men interested. BUT - then her fiancee gets fed up with it and leaves, and since that doesn't cause her to change her ways her behavior goes on to more disastrous consequences. By the end, it's when she is humble and selfless - even though her prized looks are marred by a dangerous journey - that she becomes a true woman. In short: ladies, cut the drama. It piques men's attention but doesn't make them stay, and you're not doing yourself any favors.

An Education (2009)
The main moral of this film applies to both genders: education is good for you. While that may seem obvious and preachy, it comes via the tale of a girl who took the long way around to find out. Education is more than books and rote memorization; it's learning about things beyond yourself and your world. Calculus, while not applicable to anything outside of a few select careers, teaches you to stretch your brain and think logically. Ancient history, which you may never think about again, opens your eyes to the origin of your civilization. My point is that education can teach you who you are, what you want and what you can do. The film's protagonist, Jenny, laments that her schooling is interfering with what she wants to do, like explore French culture. But the desire to do that would never have existed if it wasn't for her education. The gender-specific part is that she almost throws everything away for a man, which is never, ever, worth it. On the TV show "Boy Meets World" (big fan, won't lie), the super-smart Topanga turns down a chance to go to Yale so she can accompany her fiancee Cory to a community college. I never forgave her. It may be less romantic to audiences, but if Cory truly loves her then he can understand and be waiting for her when she graduates. Maybe you sacrifice a career or a lifestyle choice for a guy, but an education is a groundwork that you often can't make up later. (You can go back to school, of course, but it's different outside of your formative years.)

Whip It (2009)
Usually, a young girl's only hope for seeing a girl-power sports movie is some formulaic family-friendly junk on ABC Family. I can't say in good faith that Whip It isn't formulaic, but it provides some welcome deviations from the formula, such as the cute guy not being the main goal and solving everything, the best friend having her own life, the sport in question being pretty brutal and kickass and most importantly, the parents not being fundamentally incorrect fascists because they disagree with their daughter's choices. There are plenty of movies out there reinforcing the idea that parents just don't understand, but this is the only one I can think of (where the daughter is the protagonist) and the parents are said to have a good point.

Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Sex is healthy, and a desire to have sex is healthy - even for women! This may seem really obvious to some people, but depending on where you grew up and how you were raised, it may come as a shock. Elia Kazan's heartbreaking film communicates this by showing how horrible things can become when young lovers are not allowed to express this natural impulse, but mostly from the female perspective. The film was made in 1961 and takes place in 1929, but the same battle rages on today. I'm not saying that young girls should just give it up for anyone, but this was a committed and truly loving couple who were still kept apart due to arbitrary moral rules. The film also underscores a point I read in an article once: that while many parents and authorities automatically discredit young love because they don't want their children getting hurt, they may actually cause more harm by doing so because it creates a cycle of teens being told that their feelings aren't valid until a certain age. And then how could you explain all the high school sweethearts that stay married for years?

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1981)
Okay, so now that we've established that sex is normal, Fast Times reminds us that sex isn't everything. It has the unique distinction of being a high school sex romp directed by a woman, and while it offers plenty of goofy delights not the least of which is a future two-time Oscar winner starring as a stoner named Spicoli, it never completely loses sight of reality. Most impressive is that a first sexual encounter is depicted as both unimpressive and rather physically uncomfortable for the woman (it came as harsh news to me that all intercourse did not result in screaming orgasms for the woman regardless of her level of experience, arousal, etc.) and that later that same woman gets pregnant and gets an abortion. Basically, the main character goes through a lot of really mature and serious stuff before realizing that she just wants to be a teen. It shows consequences without being condescending and after school special-y, and yet is still somehow a lot of fun and sorta deep.

Not Another Teen Movie (2001)
Lest you think this has any ties to later imitators such as Date Movie and Epic Movie, well, it doesn't. It came first and is actually a really funny parody of teen movie cliches that effectively exposes how absurd they are. It bears perhaps the most important message of all: movies are not real life.

For a similar list for the lads, check out my boyfriend's corresponding post here.

What movies would you add? Or, if you were a teen girl at one point yourself, what movies did you see in your formative years that effectively schooled you on life lessons?