The evolution of diversity in teen movies

From the ‘80s to the present: how the coming-of-age films grow with new generations

There is a timeless appeal to films and television shows that are geared towards teenage audiences. Perhaps the most notable factor about teen movies is how much they can grow with modern audiences. Much has changed since the John Hughes era of the 1980s and despite what some movie buffs would say, it has probably been for the better.

Early coming-of-age films tackled subjects often explored during adolescence: relationships, sex, drugs and alcohol. They dealt with issues such as understanding one’s self-identity or dealing with bullying and peer pressure. 

Films like The Breakfast Club (1985) and Sixteen Candles (1984) have been hailed by audiences for the accurate portrayal of the teenage experience. This was all thanks to director John Hughes’ signature narrative that focused primarily on quirky, unusual misfits who embark on journeys that shift their understanding of self.

However, there are certain aspects of Hughes’ films that would definitely not bode well by today’s standards. 

The theme of The Breakfast Club is learning to accept those who are different from you—yet the entire main cast is made up of straight, conventionally attractive white actors.

Racialized characters in early teen movies were often portrayed stereotypically and played for laughs. An example of this is Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, in which the character of Long Duk Dong is cast aside and played as comic relief. The character speaks with a thick Japanese accent and sports an exaggeratedly emasculated appearance. 

“Even critics who praise Hughes’s sensitivity to adolescent drama acknowledge that his is a very partial picture of adolescence,” said author Catherine Driscoll in her book Teen Film: A Critical Introduction. “The Hughes teen is white, suburban, and normatively middle-class… non-white characters appear in the background or are crass caricatures like Sixteen Candles‘ Long Duk Dong.”

LGBTQ themes and issues were also hardly ever acknowledged in teen movies in the 1980s. Homophobic slurs were thrown around as casual insults towards one character from another, such as in The Breakfast Club, Teen Wolf (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986) and Heathers (1988).

By the late 1990s, the teen movie genre became particularly repetitive. These films took cues from their predecessors with straight, white protagonists and a particular focus on the romantic comedy trope of a guy who falls in love with a girl due to a dare or a bet. Examples of this include 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That, both released in 1999.

The recycled nature of these films even resulted in some self-aware parodies, like the satirical Not Another Teen Movie (2001).

By the early 2000s and into the 2010s, the teen movie genre grew with less focus on romance and more focus on self-understanding. Leading films of this era include Mean Girls (2004) and Superbad (2007), which both focused on the themes of social hierarchies in high schools and the importance of maintaining friendships.

With these films came the slow subversion of common stereotypes associated with the LGBTQ community. Gay characters, although still usually side-lined, became more than simple caricatures and were more well-rounded, such as Brandon in Easy A (2010) and Patrick in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012).

The Perks of Being a Wallflower was one of the first teen movies to explicitly tackle the subject of mental health, with the protagonist Charlie grappling with clinical depression as he enters high school for the first time. 

By the mid to late 2010s, the coming-of-age genre expanded with a more welcome approach to diverse characters. Everything, Everything (2017) and The Hate U Give (2018) both featured an interracial relationship between a Black girl and a white boy. Love, Simon (2018) became the first major Hollywood film to feature a gay protagonist. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) was the first Hollywood film to feature an Asian American female lead in a teen romantic comedy.

Additionally, Booksmart (2019) featured an openly lesbian lead, but her character was not reduced to her sexuality. 

The transition from exclusivity to inclusivity in the teen genre has opened doors to a wide array of storytelling. Teen-centric shows such as 13 Reasons Why, Sex Education, Euphoria and the new Gossip Girl reboot have included diverse casts of characters from different racial backgrounds and sexualities.

It is no secret that Hollywood still persistently struggles with steering away from straight, white protagonists. But the small steps that have been taken towards diversity and inclusivity have been reasonably successful. With that, there is hope that every young, unique individual will see themselves represented on screen.

About the author

Alyssa Bravo is a former reporter for Youth Mind. She is a coffee fiend and likes music, movies and food. She wishes to travel to Italy and Greece, and hopes she’ll live to see the day the Toronto Maple Leafs win their 14th championship. When she’s not writing, you can probably find her watching videos of dogs or baby pandas.

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