Amy Heckerling and Beyond: The Evolution of Teen Girls On Screen

With some great women at the helm, teenage girls are anything but overlooked.
Clueless Cher
By  · Published on August 15th, 2017

With some great women at the helm, teenage girls are anything but overlooked.

Picture the 1980s for a minute. It heralded the vast popularization of the blockbuster in full force. Horror films prevailed. Kevin Bacon/dancing movies were undoubtedly a thing. And then there’s John Hughes. Hughes solidified many a filmgoer’s ideal expression of teenage life. Judd Nelson’s triumph is palpable in our marrow when he throws his fist in the air at the end of The Breakfast Club. Everyone probably still secretly wants to be Ferris Bueller for a day.

The 80s teen movie has a rather special inclusion in its arsenal: Amy Heckerling, who burst onto the scene with the Cameron Crowe-penned Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The film celebrates its 35th anniversary this week, and it is considered quintessential in its portrayals of teenage concerns. Heckerling navigates baby-faced future Hollywood mainstays through the trials of growing up and makes a particularly lasting impression with the young women in the film.

So many of our memorable teen girls are directed by men, which made Heckerling and the mainstream appeal of Fast Times… all the more historic. There is constant warranted pushback against pervasive masculinity in media, from print to broadcast to cinema and digital screens of today. Particularly in the male-infused film scene of the 80s, Heckerling provided a kind of alternative to constructing teen girl identity.

Here, we examine a brief timeline of women’s portrayals of teen girls over the last 35 years. This is not an exhaustive study. Instead, it is a selection of some of the most memorable of films in that time period – and perhaps those that deserve more recognition – and finding a pattern of teen girl identity within them.

1980s: Popularity Contests

Let’s start with a meaty quote here because it’s a kind of sentiment that is often repeated. The debate over the presence of women in art and media rages on, and rightly so:

“…the exclusion of a female imaginary certainly puts women in the position of experiencing herself only fragmentarily…as waste, or excess, what is left of a mirror invested by the (masculine) subject, to reflect himself, to copy himself.” (Irigaray as in Bainbridge, 130)

There are many things about teen movies that are stereotypical – you don’t need us to tell you that. But more prevalent in the 80s was the constant reinforcement of reductive tropes characterizing young women as boy-obsessed and not much else. In Fast Times…, Stacy Hamilton’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) only concern is sex and dating. As a virginal 15-year-old sophomore, she constantly wonders what her “first time” will be like. Unfortunately for Stacy, each of her sexual encounters leaves her underwhelmed. One even leads to an abortion. However, she finally realizes that a relationship is what she’s after and ends the movie in a “passionate love affair” with Mark (Brian Backer) – one good guy in a sea of inconsiderate, terrible ones.

Universal Pictures

It’s easy to be dismissive about teenagers’ lives given the general presumptions people have about them in the first place. Watch enough teen films and you’ll know that the quest for a straight romance is usually treated with the utmost importance. In 1961, Jessie Bernard published a journal article titled “Teen-age Culture.” The abstract alone classifies such culture as “a product of affluence,” with specific material concerns (clothes, cars, recreation) and nonmaterial concerns (language and customs). There is an assumption of nonchalance and even vapidity when it comes to teen culture, with the era of high school being the pinnacle of teen existence.

That is evident in films like Fast Times…. At the very least, Stacy has her best friend, Linda (Phoebe Cates), to go to for advice. While Linda very much enables Stacy’s quest for sexual fulfilment and truthfully, both girls don’t talk about anything besides boys, Heckerling builds a sense of amity between them. They’re positive forces and support systems in each other’s lives no matter the boy trouble.

Universal Pictures

In contrast, there’s a film like Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl – a flat-out fairytale of a movie. Loosely based on “Romeo and Juliet,” the premise is simple: Girl meets Boy, but they are tragically from different worlds. Boy introduces Girl to brand new, exhilarating experiences, and widens her worldview. They are the only ones who can make each other happy.

This is an “against all odds” kind of story. Julie Richman (Deborah Foreman) isn’t supported by her clique. They instead tease her about wanting to hang out with someone so “urban” and dangerous. For a moment, Julie actually caves under that pressure and returns to her obnoxious, unappreciative high school boyfriend.

The film ends with Julie and her new beau, Randy (Nicolas Cage), riding off into the distance after literally causing a food fight as a distraction, ostensibly leaving the mess of high school and popularity contests behind. True love conquers all and viewers are left feeling as fulfilled as Julie supposedly is. However, if ending up in a relationship is the only thing these young girls seem to care about, it’s easy to question the legitimacy of that freedom too.

Atlantic Releasing

1990s: A Crack in the Dream

The chick flick is on the rise and that includes a bunch of Shakespeare adaptations. Anything between Heckerling’s own Clueless and Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You prove to be a commodity between their modern take on classic literature and highly attractive casting decisions. In the case of Clueless – a film often included in many ‘best of the 90s’ lists – Heckerling continues to lead by example by bringing the fashion-conscious, well-intentioned, but painfully obtuse Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) to life.

Cher is a Popular Girl in the vein of Julie Richman. Rather than focus solely on boyfriends and dating (although she does obsess about them), she is very headstrong and possibly takes too much pride in her talents and achievements. Cher believes herself to be a good Samaritan, setting up her teachers on dates and trying to “rehabilitate” the awkward new girl, Tai (Brittany Murphy), by bringing her into the inner circle of affluent popularity. However, Cher treats people as projects until it backfires completely. Tai’s popularity begins to eclipse her own and so begins an avalanche of bad luck, in her eyes.

Cher may not be the most likable girl on campus, but she is certainly someone we learn to empathize with over the course of Clueless. Her romance with Josh (Paul Rudd) figures in a more incidental fashion than the ones in most teen films – he playfully mocks her for her superficiality but that in itself doesn’t push her towards the change she needs to make in her life. Self-reflection and an investment in her good intentions do it for Cher.

Paramount Pictures

Yet on an abruptly darker note, another of the decade’s most prominent woman-directed films was Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. Coppola’s film introduces a variety of contradictory perceptions of teen girls. It is told from the perspective of a group of boys observing the comings and goings of the reclusive Lisbon family. Confined and constrained by deeply religious parents, the Lisbon sisters try to secretly navigate the teen experience, including sneaking out, going to a school dance and having sex. But their isolation eventually causes them meet dire ends.

Everything is portrayed through Coppola’s surreal and dreamy filmic gaze. The camera pans softly over the girls who are both idealized and brutalized. The boys end up admitting that they did not actually know the Lisbon sisters, but could only guess from the legends that they came to be. This along with the film’s structure of telling and retelling provides apt commentary about how young girls themselves are viewed, reshaped for consumption by men without having voices of their own.

Paramount Classics

2000s: From Lindsay Lohan to the Supernatural

It would be remiss to talk about powerful cinematic images of young women of the early 2000s without mentioning Lindsay Lohan. She steadily worked on a wide variety of pictures directed by women and men for the first five years of the decade bringing teen girls to life. The Disney Channel Original Movie, Get a Clue (directed by Maggie Greenwald), featured Lohan as a teen detective investigating a teacher’s disappearance. Sarah Sugarman’s Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen is a teen rom-com with a touch of personal drive and female friendship goals. Finally, Angela Robinson’s Herbie: Fully Loaded sees Lohan as the newest driver of the famous sentient Volkswagon Beetle. As an actress, Lohan portrayed feisty go-getting characters throughout most of her teen idol career, those ranging from petulant to bubbly but never scrimping on likability. It sealed her status as a poster child of the modern teenage girl.

Meanwhile, across the Pond, Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham further brought inclusion to the table. In the film, 18-year-old Jess Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) desperately wants to play football despite her parents’ disapproval. But despite their protestations, she manages to strike a balance between upholding culture and chasing her dreams, eventually moving away from home on a sports scholarship to university. Chadha’s later effort, Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, riffs on similar themes to Clueless. 14-year-old Georgia (Georgia Groome) ostensibly stresses out over her 15th birthday party while awkwardly trying to woo the boy of her dreams (baby-faced Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But ultimately, the film’s emotional crutch hinges on acquired self-awareness and a commitment to be a better person.

The 2000s also brought the supernatural to a fever pitch. Yes, we’re talking about Twilight. Catherine Hardwicke’s adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling novel was perhaps the only film in its four-part life cycle in which Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) had any regard for herself outside of her relationship with Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Twilight is the epitome of grand fantasy wherein its protagonist falls in love and uncontrollably so. Bella is willing to sacrifice a lot for Edward, and it is debatable whether she is ultimately strong or weak in her decisions.

On the flipside, there is Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body, which has thankfully gained cult classic status since its lukewarm initial release. It’s a movie that allows a teenage girl to take her power back in every sense of the word. Girls and horror have long been associated with each other, whether it’s the so-called “inherent” horror of girlhood (see: Carrie) or the final girl trope in its many iterations. In Jennifer’s Body, Needy (Amanda Seyfried) – bookish and shy – has to contend with her popular, supernaturally-imbued, literally boy-hungry best friend, Jennifer (Megan Fox). They face off towards the end of the film but overall the narrative celebrates female friendships – albeit to an extreme– with Needy eventually taking on supernatural capabilities and being able to fend for herself without Jennifer.

Paramount Pictures Summit Entertainment

2010s: Arthouse Buzz, Wider Appeal

“Strong female characters” continue to permeate blockbusters as the YA adaptation craze reignited with films such as The Hunger Games and Divergent. (These were still directed by men.) Despite this, consistent calls for industry inclusion have brought more arthouse efforts to the forefront. As a result, noteworthy women-led and women-directed films have appeared at a higher frequency in recent years.

Dee Rees’ Pariah tells the story of a lesbian African-American girl, Alike (Adepero Oduye), and depicts the struggles she faces coming to terms with her identity and cultivating relationships with the people around her, including family and friends. While not every relationship is mendable and not everyone is accepting of her, Alike chooses her destiny as best as she can.

The French drama Girlhood follows 16-year-old Marieme, a working-class girl longing for a life away from her abusive brother and vocational training. The film is a sobering look at developing identity, friendship and loyalty. Marieme greatly depends on the sisterhood she forms with Lady (Assa Sylla) and her girl gang, however questionable their activities were. A particularly iconic scene – one celebrating excess and female camaraderie set to “Diamonds” by Rihanna – is as carefree as she gets. Marieme ends the film at a crossroads after realizing she never attained the independence she was after in the first place.

Mustang, directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, is essentially a more positive Virgin Suicides situation. Five Turkish girls fight for autonomy of their actions. Not a single boy tells their story for them, and most of them live. The film is far from devoid of the dark recesses of violence and oppression, but it importantly gives its girls a much sweeter, warmer ending.

Andrea Arnold consistently deals with realism onscreen and is regularly concerned with teenage girls. Fish Tank and American Honey focus on young women in the throes of poverty trying to pave their way to stability. Arnold’s teenage girls display both worldliness and naivete, allowing them to boldly go for what they want but without necessarily letting them land on their feet completely. Their revelations about themselves are heartbreaking but life-affirming in the long run.

And coming full circle and looking back at the 80s is Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen. Fremon Craig has described the film as an homage to John Hughes movies “for this age.” The film tracks its deeply troubled protagonist, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), as she struggles with issues of self-discovery. She attempts to deal with the fast-paced changes happening in her life involving her brother, her best friend and two potential love interests, while juggling feelings of self-loathing and jealousy. It’s not a pretty film in the slightest, which is what’s amazing about it. But it does so without perpetuating harmful stereotypes. In the end, Nadine begins to willingly open up to others, and there’s a genuine sense of hope for her as a person.

Focus Features STX Entertainment

These weren’t 35 wasted years in the slightest, even if many films aimed at women – including those helmed by women – continue to operate on face value. The quest for women paving the way for themselves looks promising regardless. It is definitely much easier to appreciate the simple and the feel-good when it’s tempered by realism and even heartbreak. If anything, the trends of the last three and a half decades prove that women’s cinema is slowly but surely moving out of the shadows, finding a middle ground of much-needed representation and respect for teen girls.

Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)