Teen Movie Times: Mean Girls

Hello, internets! Been a while, hasn’t it?

The truth is that keeping up with these is taking more time than I thought from paying work, so I think it’s going to have to backburner these essays for a while, unless I can come up with some way to make them paying work. Tipjar? E-book with bonus material and some book-only essays, maybe? I’ll have a think. Any suggestions welcome.

Today’s teen movie is a recent classic, and possibly the most quoted movie in the circles in which I move, ie, on tumblr.

Yes, that’s right, it’s four for you, Glen Coco, with:

Mean Girls

Mean Girls movie poster

What Happens:

Cady Heron, the only child of two research zoologists, has spent most of her life in “Africa*” being homeschooled. Her first day of American high school is thus as a junior, where she is adopted first by art freaks Janis and Damien and then by the terrifying Queen Bee leader of the Mean Girl clique, the Plastics. Cady is convinced by Janis to observe and report on the antics of Regina George, but finds herself seduced by Regina’s charm and charisma, until Regina decides to reclaim her ex-boyfriend Aaron – who is also Cady’s new crush.

Aaron Samuels is kinda boring

Furious, Cady vows revenge, and Damien and Janis assist as she begins her campaign. But Girl World is a treacherous place, and Cady’s shift from observer to participant has major consequences. As she deprives Regina of her “Hot Body”, “Army of Skanks”, and Aaron, Cady herself becomes a Plastic Mean Girl, losing Janis and Damien – and her sense of self – in the process.

When Regina discovers the extent of Cady’s machinations, she gets her own revenge. Blaming Cady and her two former allies for the creation of the horrific “Burn Book”, Regina spreads copies of the book’s vicious slurs and lies everywhere – and the school’s girls go wild, physically attacking each other. Cady’s feminist maths teacher Ms Norbury manages to give the girls some perspective, but one of the lies in the book is that Ms Norbury was a drug pusher – and that lie was Cady’s own.

To save Ms Norbury from the consequences of Cady’s lie, Cady finally confesses to writing the book, and takes all the heat. She regains a sense of priorities, and after winning the championship for the Mathletes attends the Spring Fling, where she gains back her friends, her self-respect and the boy. And as they become seniors, Girl World is at peace; the cliques have settled down and moved around and Cady has gained wisdom through painful experience.

The Message:

“Objective” observational ethnography is a crock.

Get in loser we're going shopping

Cady’s first mistake isn’t throwing the party at her place. It isn’t faking being maths stupid instead of the brilliant mathematician she actually is. It isn’t wearing pink on Wednesdays. Cady’s first mistake is believing Janis when Janis says that all she has to do is observe Regina and report back – as if it’s possible to be an objective reporter of a human cultural group once you’ve embedded yourself in it.

At first Cady manages to keep some form of objectivity, both externally and internally. She recounts the words and actions of the Plastics to Janis and Damien (without more than a momentary hesitation over whether this is an ethical thing to do) and tells the audience, via voiceover, the rules of Girl World that she is discerning – both the spoken rules, like only being able to wear your hair in a ponytail once a week, and the unspoken ones, like that Halloween is the one time girls can dress as sexy as they like without being other girls calling them a slut.

Jingle Bell Rock

In Cady’s quest to destroy Regina, however, she abandons self-assessment and becomes more involved with the group she was originally observing. Despite having herself been hurt by their tactics, Cady uncritically adopts Plastic customs: a genuine interest in being Spring Fling Queen, the three-way emotional sabotage call, manipulating her parents, lying to her friends, and endless word vomit about Regina George. She also adopts their vocabulary; initially with her outraged “SLUT!!!” at Regina kissing Aaron, which also echoes Janis’s assessment. Later she goes uncompromisingly Plastic with “beyotch”, “shut up”, and Regina’s own catchphrase, “I know, right?”.

In abandoning her own subjectivity, Cady loses control of her external and internal situation (most significantly when her “get together” becomes a massive party and word vomit becomes actual vomit – all over her crush) and her self-respect. When Ms Norbury encourages the girls to assess their own “girl-on-girl crime”, Cady regains some of her critical thinking abilities. Though it means losing her fame (and, she believes, her crush) she is eventually able to own her actions and make amends.

The movie does a great job in demonstrating how objective ethnography isn’t, and sideways demonstrates that critical self-ethnography is an essential part of ethical research. But I think there’s some problematic stuff in the way we see this played in the movie.

Cady’s couched as being “from Africa”, which 1) way to be specific there and, 2) way to class Africa as being as far away from sophisticated, “civilised”, socially complex America as possible (“She’s like a Martian!”), and 3) is I think trying to play with the gross thing where usually white researchers go to usually not white pure unspoiled native cultures and record all their pure unspoiled native ways of being mystically in touch with nature or their proud noble savagery or their hilarious quaint ethnic customs ugh ugh ew.

So instead of someone from the USA going to an African culture and trying to observe the customs as an “objective” outside ethnographer, Cady is placed as coming “from Africa” to be an objective “outside” ethnographer (or really, because of her parents’ occupations, a “research zoologist”, but that gets gross in a whole other way I don’t want to go into) of Girl World. But she’s still a white American girl with a mid-western “neutral” American accent, and she’s still a “regulation hottie”.

Cafeteria conundrums

“Foreign” researchers can’t ever entirely fit in; unless they’re passing, they’re always situated as Outsiders to the culture, as Cady Heron would be if she were a Namibian girl trying to understand the rules of American Girl World. But the actual Cady does fit in, almost instantly – she’s befriended by both the art freaks and the Plastics, and quickly starts reaping the benefits of Plasticdom, including increased social cachet and notoriety. Cady is able to be a participant researcher in a way that neither a white American observer of an “African” culture nor the reversal of that with a real African immigrant observing Girl World can adopt. And, not incidentally, a black Namibian girl researcher in the USA would be much lower down her environment’s hierarchy of power than a white American researcher in Africa observing cultures there would be.

It’s hard to make fun of gross foreign observer bullshit when your protagonist is both not actually foreign and ultimately sympathetic. I think having this participant researcher subject makes the movie super interesting (obviously), but I don’t think the movie gets to play it both ways, and it tries.

But what the movie does do very well is demonstrate the complexities of teen relationships. Regina’s fascination is not just her social power – it’s also her not inconsiderable charisma. Cady hates Regina, but can’t stop wanting Regina to like her. Gretchen tries to get closer to Regina even as she’s pushed away. Karen will talk about how Gretchen is “so annoying”, but she’s still the only one who will stand there, smiling, to catch Gretchen as she falls backwards. And all of these relationships can be resolved happily – not without conflict, but the movie’s ending points to these girls all finding something that works for them.

Janis and Damien

And then there’s the complex Janis+Damien/Cady relationship. Cady is, of course, entirely responsible for her own actions. But Janis, despite liking Cady, is not a particularly good friend to her at the beginning of their relationship. Instead, she treats Cady as a tool she can manipulate for her own amusement with little thought to the consequences for Cady herself, whether it be blowing off class so Janis can get to know the new girl better or joining the Plastics so that Cady can entertain her with “all the dumb stuff Regina said”. And Damien, though he doesn’t instigate any of these activities, actively abets them, by confirming that Health is taking place in “the back building” and lending Cady his pink shirt.

Janis justifies her actions by claiming that, unlike Cady, at least she’s upfront about being a mean girl, but she’s really not in the right here, and Cady is right to call her on it – although immediately destroys her case by claiming it’s because Janis is “in love with [her]”.

So all is not black and white in Girl World. The Mean Girls aren’t entirely Mean, and the friendly people aren’t entirely on your side. You can’t just be an observer, and it’s not wise to be an uncritical participant. What’s needed in Girl World (and every world) is critical thinking about what you want, and why, and how you can ethically get it.

Don't let the haters stop you from doing your thang

Other Things:

The book the movie is based on is called Queen Bees and Wannabes. I’ve read it, and I think it comes across as really good ethnography wrapped in a self-help package: Rosalind Wiseman, despite not being a teen girl herself any more, approaches the subject with compassion and empathy. She foregrounds the book with auto-ethnography (which I think is the first step of a decent ethnographer) recounting her own teenage experiences as a member of a popular clique, an experience that trained her for her first longterm – and abusive – romantic relationship. She doesn’t shy away from admitting she doesn’t have all the answers for every situation, and she treats her subjects (teen girls) with respect and understanding, including a number of statements in their own words.

Wiseman also pays attention to the way class, race, and sexuality intersect with impossible beauty standards and social power among teenage girls (not so much as regards how they intersect with levels of ability, which is a shame). She wants girls to grow up as critical thinkers, making smart choices based upon an understanding of their desires, interests, and options. And she encourages parents to engage in auto-ethnography and “check their baggage”; to consider how their own teen experiences might be impacting their parenting. So, you know, I love her and I want to marry her, but failing that I am cool with buying all her books and heroically stealing character points from them for my work.

– Can I get a shoutout for Kevin Gnapoor? He knows exactly who he is and what he wants, and is consequently the most secure person in the entire movie – and the one who is calmest about his position as a sexual being (Damien being a close second – he’s fine being queer, and only reacts angrily to other people being assholes about it). Despite Ms Norbury claiming that she wants Cady to join Mathletes so that they can “meet a girl”, Kevin is not only secure enough in himself to turn down one of the most popular and prettiest girls in the school, he has firm ideas about what he wants, which he has articulated to himself and others – including a personal policy to only date women of colour. Also he is a badass MC.

What have I missed, Internets? What have I got wrong? Let’s talk teen movies!

* You know, that really big country with the tigers.

**I found what looks an awful lot to me like the original script online, which isn’t nearly so problematic in this “Africa is a country” respect. There it says that Cady had actually spent the last four years in “a hut in Namibia”***, and also reveals that Cady had “lived in nine countries on three continents”.

*** The hut part, kind of problematic. Real estate listings in Namibia, y’all.

Teen Movie Times: Empire Records

So far:

Clueless,
But I’m a Cheerleader,
Saved!,
Bring It On.

The thing about this next movie is that it’s really kind of a mess. The emotional tone’s all over the place, there are big continuity errors, there are about four plotlines too many (and thus they all get shortchanged), some problems get solved way too easily (suicidal depression and drug addiction don’t just stop), and people get away with things they really shouldn’t in any kind of vaguely realistic world. It’s essentially a great soundtrack held together with some snappy and infinitely quotable one-liners in a decent script, and a cast much, much better than their one-note scripted characterization deserved.

It’s good, but not a great teen movie.

But man, the first time I saw it, I was 19 and staying at a friend’s house while we were putting together a play. We drank a bottle of wine, and watched the movie. Then she went to bed and I rewound it to the beginning (on VHS. Eleven years ago we still watched movies on VHS) and watched the whole thing again.

Because damn. I wanted to work there.

Empire Records.

Empire Records poster

What Happens?

Oh boy. Okay.

Everyone works at Empire Records, an independent music store in New Jersey owned by jerk Mitchell, but managed by awesome Joe. Lucas, Joe’s employee (and, we later discover, foster son) is entrusted with the responsibility of closing for the first time. When Lucas discovers that Mitchell is about to make the store a franchise of chain Musictown, he grabs the day’s take of $9000, and heads off for Atlantic City, because, “in the immortal words of the Doors, the time to hesitate is through.”

He loses it all. Joe covers for him to Mitchell, and the Empire crew rally around, handing over anything they have to give. Finally, amiable stoner Mark gets the brilliant idea to have a fundraising party at the store, they raise enough money to cover the loss, and Joe tells Mitchell that he quits, and intends to open his own store – which would be in direct competition with Mitchell’s. Mitchell instead offers to sell Empire Records to Joe instead, cheap. Real cheap. Joe accepts, and the Empire is saved!

MEANWHILE, it’s Rex Manning Day! Former teen heartthrob Rex Manning is now a middle-aged poser desperately clinging to relevance, visiting Empire to sign records. While he seems to still have a number of fans, it’s all that worthy assistant Jane can do just to get him to sit in the chair. He’s offered sex by the virginal, Harvard-bound Corey, but manages to disgust her before her red bra comes off. Corey then slutshames her more knowledgeable friend Gina, who retaliates by offering Rex sex. When they come out of the copy room to the audience of Empire workers, he’s not even greeted with applause! Then some little punk called AJ tries to beat him up, everyone says they hate his record, it turns out Jane quit, and he tells them all to just fade away. But no! They will not, because they are relevant hip kids, and he’s a has-been. Jane comes back and asks Joe out.

AJ watches Cory

MEANWHILE, sensitive artist AJ has been in love with Corey for years, but has resolved to tell her so at 1.37 exactly, that being an excellent time. When he does, however, she reveals that she just threw herself at Rex Manning, and he freaks out a bit because that is not how he thought this conversation would go in his head. Later, he gets to punch Rex for being an ass, but the day isn’t over until Corey tells him that she loves him too, and he’s stupid, and why isn’t he going to art school because he is SO talented? He reveals that he is! In Boston! So he can be near her. And she seriously swoons a little bit and they dance around and then they look nervously at each other for a really long time before they kiss, like the knowledge that they’re actually going to do this may be even better than the kiss itself, and my first real boyfriend’s name was AJ and he was not like this at all, movie, you betrayed me.

MEANWHILE, Deb, having had a bad time last night, and a bad time the night before and a bad time for a really long time, comes into work with a bandaged wound on her wrist and shaves off all her hair. She deflects all compassion and concern (but actually smiles when snarky Gina is just as snarky at her as ever, which I rather liked, because Gina takes a considered approach to treating Deb as she normally would, ie, a person who is mean to her, instead of as a fragile and pitiful thing), but when Corey rages at Gina for sleeping with Rex and Gina retaliates by revealing Corey’s amphetamine addiction, Corey starts screaming and throwing things around the store.

Deb's funeral

Deb steps up, and demands to be allowed to take care of Corey. She sticks Corey’s face in a sink full of water and apparently fixes the speed problem, seriously, movie, come on. Corey holds a “funeral” for Deb in the breakroom, where her friends and co-workers can let her know how much they miss her and want her to stay, which apparently helps fix Deb’s suicidal depression, SERIOUSLY, movie, COME ON. During the funeral, Gina confesses to wanting to sing in a band, and Lucas admits to wetting his bed until he was ten and then spending three years in the system until Joe came and got him out.

MEANWHILE, Lucas catches a young shoplifter (“What’s your name?” “Warren Beatty.”) who is taken away by police but probably just issued a really serious warning since the next thing you know he comes back and interrupts the funeral by waving a gun around and shooting up the store. Because these people are idiots, but really loyal idiots, they all come out onto the store floor. Deb talks to the gun, and Warren reveals that he’s really just sore that Lucas gets to stay at Empire despite stealing nine grand, and yet Joe will never give Warren a job. Except he totally will, after Warren is taken away by police again, because, heck, if the screwups can’t work at Empire, where CAN they work?

MEANWHILE Mark eats brownies made to Eddie’s special recipe (“And you know what that means! Extra sugar.”), Eddie serves pizza and records, and Berko stalks around being a guitar player and being not even ten percent good enough for Deb, who is my favourite. Gina sings at the party to save Empire, fulfilling her Dream.

And then everyone dances on the roof to “This is the Day”, by The The, (which is the best band name ever) in singles and duos and groups, mixing the genders up all over the place, and it’s beautiful and you forgive the movie for everything it did wrong.

The Message?

Resist corporate monopoly.

We’re not talking subtle here – the tag on the poster is “They’re selling music, but not selling out.” The movie is very much in favour of the expression of individual identity, especially creatively, whether that be in dress, art, or music. The characters are all instantly recognisable archetypes, but there are a wide range of them, and the one thing that these disparate people can all agree on is that Musictown, which in the movie stands in for the most heinous form of selling out, will have no room at all for individualism.

This is probably best typified when Gina and Deb, the two employees who dislike each other the most, go over their new Musictown employee conduct sheets:

Gina and Deb prefer to rip

Deb: “No visible tattoos”.
Gina: “No revealing clothing”.
Deb: We’re both screwed. At least you’re used to it.
Gina: Now, Debra, don’t be bitter. Certainly with your ever-growing collection of flesh-mutilating silver appendages, and your brand new, neo-Nazi boot-camp makeover, the boys will come a-running.
Deb: Let’s not fight – let’s just rip.

And they do, for once in perfect accord.

Rex Manning is another symbol of selling out – his slick, soulless music video and obsession with personal appearance have much more to do with what music can get him – fame, money, sex with young women – than the music itself. Gina sleeping with him doesn’t just appall her friends because it was a mean thing obviously done in revenge for Corey slutshaming her, but because Rex Manning is a sellout who doesn’t deserve to be rewarded with sex with Gina.

Unlike Clueless, which came out in the same year, Empire Records fully embraces the grunge aesthetic, and – despite the wide range of musical genres actually employed in the movie – the grunge garage-band ideal of putting together a group with your friends and saying what you really feel. Participating in making music directly is key to three characters’ dreams: Gina, Mark (who wants to call his band ‘Marc’ for “that psychedelic, you know, trip thing”) and Joe, who used to be in a band and, at his most frustrated, turns on the stereo, sits at his drums and pounds out AC/DC’s “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)”. Berko already has a band. And everyone else loves music, as consumers and as critics.

AJ and Lucas dance

“This music is the glue of the world, Mark,” Eddie tells his compatriot, solemnly handing over a primer mixtape of classic rock. “It’s what holds it all together. Without this, life would be meaningless.”

Musictown is the Man, the enemy of teenagers, that smug suit who wants us all to be the same and hand over our money in drone-like accord. The phrase “Damn the Man” is a repeated motif. It comes up first when AJ mentions that his rent has been raised, so he could use the extra money. “Damn the man,” Lucas intones solemnly, from his place of disgrace on the couch. Later, owner Mitchell is directly associated with the menace of individualism and creativity being stamped out in the name of profit, with weary Joe explaining that the Man usually wins:

Lucas: Mitchell’s the Man, Joe.
Joe: And the Man calls all the shots.
Lucas: Damn the Man.
Joe: Let me explain it to you. Mitchell’s the Man. I’m the idiot. You’re the screw-up. And we are all losers. Welcome to Musictown.

And finally, Mark, with his inspired idea of a party, yells directly into the TV camera, “Damn the Man! Save the Empire!”

After that, the phrase turns up in posters and on buttons as assorted free spirits – visually associated to several musical sub-cultures – show up to damn the Man and save the Empire in the face of such niggling things as necessary permits to sell beer on the street and play live music outside.

And, having asserted their right to individual expression, the group can come together to dance on the roof: the dumb stoner and the Harvard-bound teen queen, the sensitive artist and the music executive, the hypersexualised girl with the short skirts and the hardcore “Sinead O’Rebellion” with the shaved head, the mystifying beatnik and the shoplifting juvenile delinquent. They’re all dancing, and making their boss, the man who made the place where they can all be together, join in the fun. Because places where you can be yourself are important.

And damn, for a little while, don’t we all want to work there?

Roofs are for dancing

Other Things:

– I seriously don’t like that the girl archetypes are “slutty”, “virginal speed freak” and “damaged”. Because the girls in question are played by Renee Zellweger, Liv Tyler and the absolutely amazing Robin Tunney, they each inject these characters with real presence and impressive depth, so that they come across as more than these archetypes. But I think the movie got very lucky with that casting. It could so easily have been terrible.

– I’ve bought this movie at least three times, and then left it behind as I travelled to various countries and Region codes. This time I bought it on iTunes, where I was FOOLED, fooled I say, into purchasing the extended edition cut, which, having seen before, I did not want. It adds ten minutes, and a few scenes that paper over some of the continuity holes (like why Corey is wearing that red bra), but apart from extended sexy AJ and Deb dancing (yes, please!) it slows down the movie’s pace. I recommend the original theatre showing. Damn the iTunes man.

– Do you want to see the full video of “Say No More”, by Sexy Rexy Manning? Yes. You do.

Teen Movie Time: Clueless

So far:

But I’m a Cheerleader,
Bring It On,
Saved!.

Internets, you know I’m a Jane Austen nut. But before I read a word of Austen, I saw the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and Amy Heckerling’s adaptation of Emma. They both came out in 1995, the year I turned fourteen.

Yes, Internets, my very first teen movie was:

Clueless.

Clueless whatever edition DVD cover

I was not alone. Clueless was almost effortlessly influential on teenage fashion and vernacular for years to come.

Hahaha, what am I saying, effortlessly? Amy Heckerling, who wrote as well as directed and is not incidentally a massive role model for me, sat in high school classes for weeks researching teen interactions, not to mention the literal years she spent on vocabulary. But she didn’t like the mid-90s grunge fest that was the fashion of the time, so Mona May, the costume designer, worked her ass off designing a specific colour palette and style chart for each major character, taking inspiration from European catwalks, rather than American sidewalks.

Sportswear

Those costumes were awesome, and suddenly every girl at my school with pretensions of cool was wearing knee-high socks. That was about as much as we could get away with, given we were all in uniform, but at least our skirts had plaid.

What Happens?

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her…

Like you don’t all know, although I tended to shock people when I told them I hadn’t seen Heathers*, so there’s probably someone.

Valley queen Cher is fifteen years old, and, along with her best friend Dionne, named after “singers who used to be popular and now do infomercials”, rules her Beverley Hills high school. Chic, rich, and beautiful, Cher is ready to make anyone do what she wants, despite the sardonic commentary of ex-stepbrother Josh, who keeps suggesting there might be more to life than being charming and popular. As if!

Cher successfully argues her way to better grades, matchmakes her teachers, makes over a slobby new girl into a valley princess, and manages her father’s eating, but she can’t charm her way into a gay boy’s bed nor out of a failed driver’s license test. She’s losing her grip on popularity, and she’s starting to think that maybe… just possibly… she’s clueless. Worse, she has fallen majorly totally butt crazy in love with Josh! What if she’s lost his good opinion forever?

Whatever! All is revealed, a happy ending results, and Cher has finally found the boy to whom she’s going to lose her virginity. You can’t be too careful about these things – she’s way picky about her shoes, and those only go on her feet.

The Message?

Other people are real.

Okay, so you’re probably going, “Is this like a Noxzema commercial or what?” But seriously, I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl.

Cher goes shopping

It’s worth noting that, like Emma, Cher is really not stupid. Her debates may be “unresearched”, but they are hardly unstructured, and she has an excellent memory – even for the parts of Hamlet that Mel Gibson didn’t say. She just, as her father points out, lacks direction and the motivation to apply herself – much as Emma makes lists of reading material to improve her mind, and then never reads them, and neglects to practice the piano when a little more time would make her really good at it.

So Cher is smart, charming, sweet, and largely well-mannered, but Josh is not wrong when he names her a “superficial space cadet”. Cher “lives for makeovers” and views befriending a new girl and raising her social status as a “project” to be accomplished with clothing, makeup, and hairdye. She’s not entirely wrong to pay attention to appearances. A concern with the superficial is vital to Cher’s social success – in her milieu, what people wear, their makeup, hairstyles, homes and cars are all important messages that Cher can read and manipulate. But as her unsuccessful seduction of Christian shows, she might not have enough life experience to decode all of them. And Cher’s charm can’t win over an unimpressed DMV tester who will not overlook her driving deficiencies, no matter how serious a shirt she wears.

Tai's makeover

Moreover, this superficiality can be dangerous when applied to matters of the heart, where a deeper connection is usually thought of as a better deal. She got lucky with Miss Geist and Mr Hall, who clearly have genuine mutual respect on their side. But Cher sets her sights on Christian because he is “brutally hot”, fitting her own sense of aesthetics. This isn’t to say she doesn’t genuinely like him, but it’s clear that her decision to make him her first lover is based on superficial concerns – and hasn’t got as far as considering something as basic as whether he’s actually into girls.

“Would you call me selfish?” “No, not to your face.”

Even worse is her manipulation of Tai’s heart. Cher decides to set Elton up with Tai because he dresses well and is in the right social crowd. She engages in real manipulation here, lying to Tai that Elton thinks she’s sweet and giving her instructions as to how to attract his attention (“Pretend Travis is saying something really funny!”). But despite Cher’s hopes, Elton is a shallow snob who betrays his own unsuitability for anyone at all by hitting on Cher and rejecting even the idea of Tai – “Don’t you even know who my father is?” he demands, before sexually harassing Cher and then abandoning her in a parking lot, where she is consequently mugged**. Cher then has to pass on the news that he doesn’t like Tai after all, and after all the work she’s done to make Tai interested in Elton, Tai is devastated.

In fact, Cher’s disdain of Travis’s stoner style and status have temporarily prevented Tai from seeing the nice guy with whom she hit it off right away. Inspired by Cher’s own superficial assessment of Travis’ clique, Tai brutally rejects him, and tells him to join the stoners “on the grassy knoll over there” – the phrasing Cher had formerly used to point out where Travis “belonged”.

Computer closet-matcher

Cher has such a loose grasp on her own interiority that it’s little surprise that she largely treats other people like puppets to be maneuvered for her own interest and entertainment. As Roz Kaveney puts it: “There is genuine kindness in the way Cher takes Tai on as a project – and yet there is also a fundamental lack of respect. Cher is someone who selects her own outfits by using a computerised dress-up doll of herself, so it could hardly be expected that she entirely acknowledge another person’s autonomy.” She misreads Elton’s attraction to her and Christian’s lack of it, but crucially, it is Cher’s inability to recognise her own feelings for Josh until the last moment that provides the impetus she needs to realise that she is totally clueless.

You’re a virgin who can’t drive.

In thinking about Josh, and trying to puzzle out why she’s buggin’ about the potential Josh/Tai relationship, Cher sticks to the surface at first: “What does she want with Josh anyway? He dresses funny, he listens to complaint rock, he’s not even cute – in a conventional way***.” But then she considers what Josh might want, on a less than superficial level: “Josh needs someone with imagination, someone to take care of him, someone to laugh at his jokes… in case he ever makes any. Then, suddenly: Oh my god! I love Josh!”

Because she is sweet and well-intentioned, having recognised the superficiality problem, Cher does what she can to fix it: “I decided I needed a complete makeover. Except this time, I’d makeover my soul.” She tries to work out what makes someone a better person, and assesses the people around her on more than a surface level.

Dionne and Cher, with fabulous Dionne headwear

This time, instead of giving Dionne “snaps for her courageous fashion sense”, she praises how considerate Dionne and her boyfriend are of each other. Instead of assessing Christian’s personal style, she likes the way he “always wants everything to be beautiful and interesting.” And the subject of her first setup, social do-gooder Miss Geist, formerly assessed as a mess with lipstick on her teeth and a slip that’s always showing, is noted as someone who always tries to get her students involved in the world, “no matter how much we resist.”

And Cher stops resisting. Watching Miss Geist talk about the (fictional) Pismo Beach Disaster, Cher announces that she wants to help. As captain of the school’s Pismo Beach Disaster Relief fundraising efforts, Cher leverages her good looks and popularity to rally the troops and gather vital supplies. “This your influence, Josh?” her father asks, watching Cher give up her clothes and sporting equipment to the cause. Josh shrugs – and he’s right to do so, because, although he’s pointed out Cher’s superficiality many times, it took her own awakening to really make the change. While that awakening was inspired by Cher’s own feelings for Josh, he doesn’t know that yet.

He finds out, though, when a nasty lawyer yells at Cher’s attempts to help with her father’s case and storms out. Comforting Cher, Josh lets slip that he thinks Cher’s father is the only one who care about him. “That’s not true,” Cher says. “Are you saying that you care about me?” Josh asks, and then THERE IS KISSING and it’s adorable and then she catches the bouquet at Miss Geist’s wedding and it’s pretty clear that they’re going to have sex although Cher is now sixteen and I think that’s still not legal age in California so no one actually SAYS it.

Anyway, Cher is still not totally clued up, but she is certainly less clueless, and for a rich, white, beautiful sixteen-year-old, that is not an insignificant step. So she gets rewarded with a cute boy with more clues, and, major bonus, since her father was hardly even married to his mother, my incest squick is triggered not at all. Happy ending for everyone!

Nawwww first kiss

Other Things:

– Amy Heckerling’s insistence that the cast speak in complex, multi-syllablic, slang-laden sentences proved frustrating for a few of them. Donald Faison had particular trouble with, “Okay, but street slang is an increasingly valid form of expression. Most of the feminine pronouns do have mocking, but not necessarily misogynistic undertones.” In the special features of the Whatever special edition, which I super recommend, he wonders, “How come I can’t just say, ‘My bad?’ ‘My bad, baby, kiss me.'” But I have little sympathy, because in the movie, he spits it out, smirks, and pokes his tongue out, and it’s SO CUTE.

– Stacy Dash, who plays Dionne, was 28 when the movie was shot. She played Dionne in the series, and later turns up in the ALSO awesome Amy Heckerling movie, the romantic comedy I Could Never Be Your Woman, where Dash plays… an adult actress playing a teenager on a popular high school comedy (where Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, Rosie, is a writer). Dash’s character is romanced by a dweeby nerd PLAYED BY PAUL RUDD. I nearly fell off the couch. I Could Never Be Your Woman was never theatrically released in the US because of distribution bullshit. I highly recommend it. There is a great scene where- wait, footnote ****

– For the longest time I thought that was how you said “Haitians”.

– God, I could talk about this movie forever, but I want to include two secondary sources: This archived People article that talks about Cher’s style and makes fun of other young stars (gross). And this essay about Emma vs Clueless by Suzanne Ferriss (I don’t agree entirely with her conclusions, but it’s a fun comparison piece.)

– Heck, one more: this AFI interview/panel with Amy Heckerling:

The movie, Fox movies, bought the pilot from the TV company for me to develop as a film. And then I went back and read Emma and started to work out the structure. They were really worried about girls being the main characters. They kept saying, Let’s see more about what the boys are doing, let’s see this boy in his home and this boy with his car and this boy doing this and that. And I said, But this is an inner monologue in the girl’s head, so what does her head know about what’s going on with him at his house with his car?

What have I missed, Internets? What have I got wrong? Let’s talk teen movies!

Lots of lady action in this movie

* I watched Heathers a couple of days ago. I don’t like it, but now I know where “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” and “I love my dead gay son” come from!

** I just realised I fully stole the structure of that scene for one in Guardian of the Dead, complete with love interest turning up to be helpful, only with would-be rapists and creepy patupaiarehe instead of a mugger. AHAHAHAHAHA, GO ME, GOOD TASTE IN THIEVERY.

*** Yeah, this doesn’t work when you’ve cast the very cute Paul Rudd (currently being hilarious and handsome on Parks and Recreation)

**** This happens:

Older TV exec: Courtney Love?
Producer: Drugged-out hag.
Older TV exec: Faye Dunaway?
Producer: Don’t call us, we’ll call you!
Older TV exec: Sharon Stone?
Producer: Hag.
Older TV exec: Geena Davis?
Producer: Hag.
Older TV exec: Sigourney Weaver?
Producer: Hag.
Older TV exec: Kim Basinger?
Producer: Hag.
Older TV exec: Emma Thompson?
Producer: Brit hag.
Older TV exec: Susan Sarandon?
Producer: Red-state-alienating hag!
Older TV exec: Meg Ryan?
Producer: Too much plastic surgery.
Older TV exec: Melanie Griffith?
Producer: WAY too much plastic surgery.
Older TV exec: Patricia Heaton?
Producer: *Pointless* plastic surgery.
Older TV exec: CHER.
Producer: *Insurmountable* amount of plastic surgery!
Rosie: [who’s been overhearing all this from the next chair & getting increasingly annoyed, swings round & grabs the Producer by the chin] Listen, you little bird of a man, where do you come off insulting these women? How many hit songs did you sing? How many Oscars do *you* have? Could you look cute next to Warren Beatty? Or live with Don Johnson? Or act with Ted Danson? You’re not worthy of kissing Cher’s tattooed ass!

Oh man, I wonder if it’s on iTunes?

Teen Movie Times: But I’m a Cheerleader

So far:
Bring It On
Saved!

And today, But I’m a Cheerleader!

Poster image

What Happens?

But I’m a Cheerleader is almost the other half of Saved!. Where that movie has a boy sent to a Christian rehab centre that fixes gay, and focuses on the girl he leaves behind, But I’m a Cheerleader follows the story of a girl sent to True Directions, a gay rehab centre based on the AA “steps” and “higher power” rehabilitation.

Megan is a cheerleader, a pretty blonde with a jock boyfriend and a collection of adorable dresses. Her friends and family host a gay intervention, tell her she’s a lesbian, and send her to True Directions, where Mary and “ex-gay” Mike try to straighten her out, along with other boys and girls whose families think they’re queer.

Megan quickly falls for sardonic Graham, and during a sneak-out to the local gay bar, Cocksuckers, the two girls kiss. Later, they make love, but are informed upon by an envious fellow inmate. Megan is kicked out, while Graham, frightened of her dad’s threats, makes amends to stay in the program. Megan seeks help from a gay couple and returns on graduation day to convince Graham of her love. The two girls run away together.

The Message?

Gender roles are constructed choices. Sexuality is not.

The evidence Megan’s friends and family produce for her being queer is ludicrous. She’s a vegetarian! She has a Melissa Etheridge poster on her wall! She likes to hug her friends! She doesn’t want to kiss her boyfriend, who is hilariously inept at it. Therefore, she must be gay.

They’re right, but that’s purely coincidence.

What the movie says, over and over, is that sexual orientation is neither a choice, nor a lifestyle – whether you’re gay or straight (bi, as disappointingly usual, is left right out of the equation. The movie’s mockery of strict binary gender roles doesn’t extend to the het/homo binary, nor acknowledge that there are more than two genders available). “You are who you are,” Graham says. “The trick is not to get caught.” When Andre is kicked out, having failed his test, he says, “Congratulations, liars! You know who you are and you know who you want. Aint nothin’ gonna change that, shit! ”

Instead, the movie suggests the true choice queer kids make is whether to come out or keep quiet. Larry and Lloyd, two ex-True Directions followers say it best:

Lloyd: We’re just trying to provide you all with a balanced perspective, to see that there are options. In the end, it’s up to you whether you choose to live a…
Larry: Lie.
Lloyd: Whether you want to be who you are or keep it hidden is really more what we’re about.

At True Directions, heterosexuality is amazingly camp. Boys wear blue uniforms, and girls wear pink ones. Their straightening exercises are based entirely on practicing 50s ideals of what “real men” and “real women” do. Real men work on cars, chop wood, and play war. Real women diaper babies, practice their vacuuming, and scrub dishes. And in the cringe-inducing final exam, they simulate sex.

Flowers and fig leafs

Women lie on their backs and “open their legs like a flower”. Men insert themselves and pump up and down in a passionless pushup.

“What about foreplay?” Joel asks, and Mary snarls: “Foreplay is for sissies! Real men go in, unload and pull out!”

Which, no, and also, ew.

For Mary, the “roots” of homosexuality are based in any confusion of these rigid and limited gender roles. She has the kids parrot their “roots” at her, which, as well as being hilarious, are incredibly sad – because this is what some people really think “makes” kids gay:

The girls:
“My mom got married in pants’.”
“Born in France.”
“All-girl boarding school.”

The boys:
“My mom let me play in her pumps.”
“Too many locker room showers with the varsity team.”
“Traumatic bris.”

Vacuuming practice

The actual origin stories of the kids are diverse, in both ethnicity and interests. They are athletes (a cheerleader and a varsity wrestler) and artists (“actor, dancer, homosexual”), naive (Megan) and knowing (Graham). One girl likes pain, one boy works in retail. Most interesting is softball player Jan, the most overtly butch girl, who has a moustache and shaves the sides of her head.

She’s actually straight:

“Everyone thinks I’m this big dyke because I wear baggy pants and play sports and I’m not pretty like other girls but that doesn’t make me gay,” she says. “I mean, I like guys. I can’t help it. I just want a big, fat weiner up my-” “Amen, sister,” Andre says, and she leaves.

Megan, with her soft voice, her styled hair and her ensemble of sundresses and Mary Janes, fits right into the aesthetic of this ideal womanhood. “You were supposed to be the role model!” Mary hisses at her.

Natasha Lyonne looking femme in "But Im A Cheerleader."

The truth is, of course, there’s no right way to be straight. There’s no right way to be gay. You can’t tell someone’s sexuality by what they do, what they eat, or how they dress.

But until nearly the end of the movie, Megan is still confused. When she’s kicked out of True Directions, and runs to Larry and Lloyd for help, she says, “I was hoping you could teach me how to be a lesbian. What they wear, where they live.”

It’s Lloyd, compassionate and sincere, who breaks it to her: “Megan, there’s no one way to be a lesbian. You just have to continue to be who you are.”

And Megan does. She’s a cheerleader, she’s gay, and she loves Graham. So she shows up at the graduation ceremony for the “former homosexuals”, and, after an aborted attempt to rescue Graham in camo gear, puts on her uniform, picks up her pompoms, and cheers her heart out: “One, two, three, four, I won’t take no anymore. 5,6,7,8 – I want you to be my mate. 1,2,3,4 – you’re the one that I adore. 5,6,7,8 – don’t run from me cause this is fate.”

And Graham, who graduated as a hetero barely ten seconds earlier, runs not from her, but towards her.

The movie acknowledges that for many kids, there can be serious consequences to coming out, although, being lighthearted fare, it doesn’t go into the physical dangers of being out in a homophobic society – the one instance of physical bullying involves Graham throwing a stone at a queer boy during a picket Mary drags them to.

Mary and her picket sign: Silly faggots, dicks are for chicks

But the movie does make it clear that Megan and Graham face ostracization at school and parents who won’t have them in the house if they refuse to conceal their sexuality. Megan’s father has a change of heart – the last scene in the movie, partway through the credits, is of him proudly introducing himself at a PFLAG meeting. However, Megan and Graham proceed on the understanding that in choosing to openly love each other, they are giving up their families forever.

And coming out is portrayed as being up to the individual.

“She’s scared, and she’s maybe making the wrong choice,” Dolph tells Megan. “But it’s her wrong choice to make. You have to be willing to walk away.” And if his lover Clayton “can’t make a stand, he just can’t make a stand.”

Ultimately, if improbably, both of their lovers do make that stand. And in the film’s final fuck you to gender colour-coding, the credits first give the major contributors a variety – indeed, a rainbow – of colours, and then the cast, crew, and music credits scroll by in pink and blue sections – whatever their gender.

Graham and Megan hold hands in the happy ending

Other Things:

– Dolph is played by the ever-excellent Dante Basco. If you don’t think I didn’t cackle at Prince Zuko’s voice introducing himself as a “homosexual varsity wrestler” you possibly don’t know me so well.

– I cannot at all overemphasise how camp these heterosexual exercises are, nor how queered up they get. Mary, on demonstrating how to use a vacuum cleaner, makes sure that the girls know how to get into “every little crevice”.