Everyone Has Reversals

Story Lessons, Big and Small (Warning: Spoilers!)

July 22, 2007

The Pretenders

I've been researching teen romantic comedies, because I'm fleshing out an outline for one of my own. In my travels (and, okay, over a number of months) I've watched and made notes on She's the Man, What a Girl Wants, Mean Girls, John Tucker Must Die, 13 Going on 30, and Freaky Friday. In case you're not on a similar mission (but have a passing interest?), here are a few things I've learned about the teen rom-com:
  • Setpieces are absolutely crucial in this genre. Whether it's a school dance, huge "popular crowd" party, the "big game", a concert, a debutante ball, a school play... these movies are structured around their "everybody's gonna be there" events.
  • The "right guy" is very often into music. Either he's a music geek (John Tucker) or a musician himself (What a Girl Wants).
  • The right guy is also an outsider - he's not part of the "cool" crowd, though is, of course, in his non-conformist way, incredibly cool.
  • This works out well, given that the heroine of these movies is almost always an outsider herself; she's not cool by conventional standards, and doesn't quite fit in, which is exactly what makes her cool - to us, and to the right guy.
  • Our heroine's friends tend to represent varying degrees of trying too hard to fit in (the key theme of all of these films).
  • The villain in these movies might be a rival girl (13 Going on 30, What a Girl Wants) or a jerkhead guy (John Tucker), but this physical presence is rarely the main source of antagonism in these movies, which is...
  • Our heroine herself. It blows my mind, but each and every one of these movies is about the exact same thing - a girl who tries to be something she's not. This is the archetypal story for the teen rom-com. A girl who's pretty great to begin with pretends to be something else, falls into the trap of wanting it all, has a dark moment in which she discovers her real self has been lost, and, in the climax, publicly reveals her true self (thereby earning the respect of worthy friends and crushes).
What I want to know is, why does this story speak so powerfully to teenage girls, presumably the target audience for these movies? Or does it, even? Is it possible this story is what we as adults wish for, for teenage girls? We hope that girls will reject what (wait for it) "society" tells them they should be, and instead be the brave "outsider" (who, by the way, always ends up with more friends than she started with; even popular ones)? Finally, I would really like to know if the average teen girl relates to this archetypal one - do all teen girls see themselves as outsiders? Never popular enough, but are trying to embrace what they do have?

Anybody got a teenage daughter we could ask?

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Blogger oneslackmartian said...

Oh wow, setpieces are the ideal venue to expose the “world” of the story. It provides a cross-section of characters who come from a “world divided” and are now thrust into interaction with each other. Goldmine for the screenwriter.

On to teenage girls (only trouble can come from this).

I have six more years until I have a teenage girl. I’ve already started the moat.

I’m about as opposite from a TG as one can get, but let toss out some unsubstantiated pop psychology.

I would surmise that the deviants in marketing (yes, I’m aware of the redundancy) are targeting the “outsider” girl. I think we can all connect to that a bit, but teen girls have cornered the market by either embracing it or running from it in abject fear. The message for adults . . . well, that would just be good writing.

Marginally related . . . there was once an article in WIRED magazine about how Japanese teen girls control the world and in particular America’s stock market because they are literally (no figuratively, or no . . . oh, I don’t know) on the cutting edge of every single techno advance and fashion trend on the planet.

Anyhow, good luck on your script.

Oh, yeah, I’ve tagged you with the latest meme. Give up 8 things about yourself.

9:41 p.m.  
Blogger m said...

It has been a LONG time since I've been a teenage girl, but I think I could speak with some authority in saying that all teenage girls feel like an outsider, even those who are popular. If you're popular, you feel like an outsider because "no one knows the 'real' you" and you're playing the game. If you're not popular you are inherently an outsider.

What I'd like to know is, are there any teen rom-coms in which the hero is the boy? Do we ever get it from his point of view? (I guess Say Anything is that, but anything more recent? And why not?)

7:33 p.m.  
Blogger annabel said...

I felt like an outsider as a teen. I embraced the Molly Ringwold characters in Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. My 15 year old daughter identifies with the outsider heroines. One of her favorite movies is 13 Going On 30. I think most teenage girls struggle with insecurity and fear of rejection.

4:52 p.m.  
Blogger Jennica said...

Hmm, I feel much further ahead given all your comments. Thanks, guys!

M, boy teen rom-coms are very rare, it seems... do the American Pies count?

OSM, because I don't want to break my carefully-established (however lame) blog format, I'll post my 8 points here.

8 Things You Never Knew About Jennica

1. I love filling out forms. The longer the better.

2. I've lived in Vancouver 9 years. And haven't once made it to Whistler. Meh.

3. I have a book of poetry out, called The Octopus and Other Poems, orderable through Amazon. Whoo! Shameless plug. Meme-tastic!

4. I feel it's rude to shut your eyes while the dentist is working in your mouth. Can't help it.

5. I can't seem to settle in to contact lenses. I'll always be a four-eyes.

6. I have a growing passion for Tupperware.

7. I still have my Cabbage Patch Kids. Their names are Steve Armand and Racquel Dinah.

8. I abandoned The Sopranos after one season.

10:26 p.m.  
Anonymous Joe Valdez said...

I'm printing your list of teenager movie cliches and keeping it in a dry place, Jennica.

I've often wondered what would happen if someone wrote one of those scripts that was actually intelligent - Save The Last Dance came close - and in case I ever do, I know I'll never have the patience to sit through She's The Man and John Tucker Must Die and take notes.

Your tolerances for pain are evidently quite high (keeping your eyes open at the dentist validates this).

1:33 a.m.  
Blogger m said...

Of course, American Pie! Although, I don't know if it is technically a teen rom com. (Weren't they put in the same category as the "gross out" comedies?) So my new question for you is, are the rules different for male protagonists? How do the worlds change depending on the gender of the protagonist?

10:11 a.m.  
Blogger Tavis said...

teen guy rom-coms: Some Kind of Wonderful and Weird Science

1:42 p.m.  

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