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Teens on screen: In Teen Gothic genre, the kids aren’t all right


Life as a teenager has always been sort of hellish. Lately, on TV and in the movies, it’s become literally so.

Case in point is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the stylish drama that’s become a big ratings winner for the WB network (Tuesdays, 8 p.m. EST). The heroine is a lithesome high school girl who battles the demons, vampires and other supernatural fiends who flock to her hometown like Shriners to a convention hall. So many people have been disemboweled in Sunnydale that instead of streets they ought to install steel grates so the blood and gore can just sluice right through.

The genius of “Buffy” is that it’s a Stephen King novel built on top of the “Patty Duke Show” -- in other words, a horror story intertwined with a relatively conventional teen coming-of-age drama, where our girl has to struggle with dating and parents just like everybody else. It’s no accident that “Buffy’s” creator and executive producer is Josh Whedon, a third-generation TV writer whose grandfather wrote for the “Donna Reed Show.” Whedon knows just how to give those eternal family issues a ’90s twist.

Across the range of teen-oriented movies and television today, that twist is increasingly gothic. Whether it’s the vampires in “Buffy” or the evil, lobotomizing head counselor in last summer’s “Disturbing Behavior,” teen life as seen through the Hollywood lens is often full of menace.

Another example: last fall’s “The Faculty,” where aliens take the form of teachers at a suburban high school and carry on a campaign of terror and mayhem. The kids quickly surmise they can’t trust anyone except themselves -- and even then they gotta be choosy.

In the new Teen Gothic genre, adults are sometimes clueless, sometimes the enemy, but most often are not in the picture at all. Teens face their demons by themselves, a fitting motif for a generation with a 50-50 chance of being the product of a divorce. Even in stable two-parent families, both parents are likely to work outside the home, leaving kids to navigate lots of life’s challenges on their own.

In that sense, movies like “The Faculty” do resonate with actual teen experience. And, of course, the ubiquitous flirting in every one of these teen-ploitation flicks stirs the deepest emotional waters for adolescents.

Yet the great irony of most “teen dramas” is that real teenagers have little to do with them. The actors are generally in their 20s or early 30s, and the creators are much older. On the other end, the heaviest viewers are what marketers call “aspiring teens” -- 10- to 13-year-olds who watch more TV than actual teenagers because they have more free time. Studies show that the older teens get, the less TV they watch and the fewer movies they go to. Too much real life, such as school, work and relationships, gets in the way.

Thus to a great extent, images of teen life projected in TV shows like “Buffy,” or new movies such as “Jawbreaker” or “The Rage,” are a better barometer of what the culture thinks of teenagers than what teens think of themselves.

What do we see? Teens as dangerous, explosive, always bringing trouble in their wake. Of course this image goes back at least as far as “Rebel Without a Cause” (or for that matter “Romeo and Juliet”), but it’s even more pervasive now, reflecting the country’s mood. Anti-teen hysteria has never been more pronounced.

In his book Scapegoat Generation, Mike Males documents the crackdown on teens that has rippled through American culture in the last two decades, from laws authorizing paddling as a punishment for minor crimes like graffiti and loitering, to decisions by prosecutors to put kids as young as 12 or 13 on trial as adults.

The curfew laws adopted in virtually every city in America over the last decade are probably the clearest case in point. They deprive an entire class of citizens of such a basic civil liberty as the right to walk down a city street after dark. It’s a literal application of the “out of sight, out of mind” principle.

We are, it seems, afraid of our kids.

It’s no surprise that the central figure in the new release “Jawbreaker,” a ’90s update of the classic ’80s film “Heathers,” is a teen vixen so amoral that she doesn’t hesitate to cover up the accidental killing of her best friend in the most lurid possible fashion. She is deceitful, cruel, nasty -- the embodiment of what America believes many teens to be.

Or check out the new release “The Rage,” in which an isolated teen misfit cracks up and uses her latent supernatural powers to terrorize her community. If my only experience of teenagers came through this sort of movie, and I worried that the next sophomore I bump into at the mall is going send a shard of glass hurtling through my abdomen, I might be inclined to vote for a curfew myself.

True, adults by and large don’t go to these movies. We don’t have to. The images are already in our heads, which is how they get on the screen in the first place. This in turn is the picture of adolescence we present to preteens, making them even more nervous about leaving junior high -- perhaps the cruelest twist of all.

I used to spend 12 hours or more every day swimming in a sea of teenagers, teaching in a Catholic high school in Los Angeles. The kids I knew were intelligent and responsible. They had the standard teen weirdnesses (I never understood, for example, how they could amuse themselves for hours trading “worst zit” stories), but generally they were solid citizens, possessing a tremendous capacity for idealism and creativity. I wish Hollywood would figure out how to do a better job of telling their stories alongside those of the psycho loners and the femme fatales.

That’s what makes “Buffy” the best of this Teen Gothic lot, because Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character -- despite all the kung fu fighting with the undead -- is actually among the more realistic and appealing teenagers on TV. She struggles to do the right thing, and even when she fails, it’s for the right reasons. The show’s writing is sharp and perceptive, and the acting is generally terrific.

If more adults actually watched “Buffy,” we might feel less threatened. We might understand that most of our kids, like Buffy herself, would rather save us than destroy us.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR opinion editor. His E-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1999