Was the 1970s a dormant period in American teenage films? Barbara Jane Brickman defies the notion of the 70s as an age devoid of youth culture in her book New American Teenagers: The Lost generation of Youth in 1970s Film. Instead, Brickman believes that the 70s provided a remake of the traditional teenager, most commonly defined as a white, middle-class and heterosexual male, as well as a revision of the general film narrative of previous decades.
The fascination with teenagers on screen is a fairly recent phenomenon, dominated by rather stereotypical depictions of white, male teenagers, the stories of fathers and sons, and a focus on the system of patriarchy. Brickman extends the knowledge of teen films while focusing on alternative depictions of teenagers and teen films, such as the "queer kid", dangerous or independent females and insular peer culture that can be unsafe and violent, while focusing less on parental influences.
The new on-screen teenage identities came about during a time of social, political and economical upheaval in America. The 1970s is often described as the age of disco, consumerism, drugs, and the end of prosperity. As much focus has been placed on the economic crisis and political and military trials of the 70s, alternative narratives discussing new spiritual movements, political activism and gay and lesbian rights have been overlooked as part of film analysis. Brickman discusses the climate of the 1970s while using psychoanalysis and feminists theory to describe and analyze teen films and teen stars from the 70s.
First, Brickman provides a historical discussion of the portrayal of teenagers in films from the 1920s to the 1960s in order to provide the framework of her discussion. Some films during the 70s go back in time to focus on an era that did not include the upheavals of the 1970s, again focusing mostly on teenage males. At the same time, many films "...parody, revise, and deconstruct the values or codes of the genre..." (p. 50). These films provide a critique of compulsory heterosexuality, and of gender roles and romantic relationships while including more female protagonists. Brickman compares two very popular films, American Graffiti and Badlands, to describe and explain the difference between the eras of teen film.
The "queer kid" is a major part of the 1970s teen film identities. Not only is attention diverted from the father-son bond to the mother-child bond, the "queer kid" defies the strict gender norms common of earlier film eras. Actors such as Robbie Benson and Leif Garrett came to symbolize sensitive, shy, pretty and androgynous teen stars starring in films that engaged with women's rights while questioning heteronormativity. It was however, not only male actors who embraced androgyny. Jodie Foster became the feminist poster child during the 70s as an androgynous "adult child" both off and on the screen. In her films, Jodie did not conform to normative gender roles, in terms of clothing, demeanor, or the leisurely activities featured in movies such as Freaky Friday.
Teen slasher films became increasingly popular during the 1970s, while focusing on sibling relationships, foremost that of a brother and sister. Brickman states that movies such as Halloween and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre depict a form of competition between young people in response to finding one's unique self or identity when faced with peer or sibling competition, similar to Freud's analysis of the uncanny double.
Through her analysis of certain teen film from the 1970s, Brickman argues that "...the screen teens of the 1970s who truly symbolize the historical moments in the United States and the evolutionary moments for the genre are those that forge new alliances and construct counter-discourses around issues of gender, generation, and sexuality that no other era of teen film has offered" (p. 212). Brickman ends with a discussion of whether or not the teen films from the 1970s impacted teen films of the 80s, especially as the 80s is described as an era of "restoration of the patriarch" (p. 212). Depending on the films chosen, the 1970s did impact the 80s by focusing less on traditional codes and values, but the change was more apparent in the 1990s, where there was an explosion of queer teens, girl gangs and African American filmmakers.
Even though Brickman is able to captivate the reader with her analysis and examination of teenage movies and teen stars, the language used can be difficult for readers to understand. Since Brickman utilizes both psychoanalysis and feminists theory, a basic understanding of such methodology is advantageous when reading the book. Also, a basic knowledge of the films and teen stars discussed is beneficial throughout the chapters. It may be helpful for readers to look up clips or view the films discussed when going through the chapters, as well as familiarize oneself with some basic film terminology. The main audience would be students and teachers of film studies, and other academics in the field, although a more general audience may certainly find the book interesting and useful.
© 2012 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.