I’ll be the first to admit that I’m 30 years old and way past the socially acceptable age to be wrapped up in the petty drama and day-to-day lives of party-going, teenage rebels. That doesn’t make me any less obsessed with teen media, though. From my earliest cognitive memories to my most recent levels of semi-consciousness, I have always been a fan of any stories based around teenagers and their struggles.
While the 80s had John Hughes movies and the Brat Pack alongside landmark series like Degrassi, the beginnings of Saved By The Bell, and The Wonder Years, the 90s are where I did my bulk of adolescent entertainment consumption. That doesn’t mean that the 80s stuff was overlooked, however, I just got the spillover and the syndication instead of the first runs.
The 90s film and TV landscape provided a really colorful, slacker-centric, radical look at the elusive teenage creature. The most memorable series like Beverly Hills, 90210 and My So-Called Life gave us a voyeuristic look into the 90s high school microcosm and provided endless hours of engaging plot developments. There were also shows like Boy Meets World, Salute Your Shorts, Hey Dude, Party of Five and the oft-forgotten Sweet Valley High and the Secret World of Alex Mack, among others. Movies like Angus, Encino Man, Airborne, Dazed and Confused, 10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless, Can’t Hardly Wait, Varsity Blues, Kids, Hackers, and countless others gave us tears and laughter as they punctuated both our awkward weekend movie dates and our lives.
But what was it about these television shows and movies that made us so hopelessly addicted and forever wanting more? What was the secret formula? That’s what I aim to find out, and maybe we’ll even learn a little something about ourselves along the way.
We’ll start with the surface-level reasons for our love affair with teen culture. The clothing is fucking amazing, especially when referring to the 90s. 90s clothes are unmatched in terms of being functional, fashionable, and unforgettable.
Straight-legged, acid wash jeans were a staple of closets, Chuck Taylors donned every shoe rack, and plaid shirts were a fashion accessory. Neon sunglasses weren’t just for hip hop artists trying to be ironic, high waisted jeans weren’t just for suburban moms, and fanny packs weren’t just for vacationing dads.
These were outfits that inspired our own best ensembles from the first day of school to the end-of-year prom mega party. Girls always had an emergency supply of snap bracelets, Lisa Frank earring stickers, and velvet chokers. Guys were outfitted with high tops and neon green Bugle Boy t-shirts. If you weren’t in on the fun, you were so far out that you weren’t even relevant.
These movies and TV shows didn’t just give us characters to watch, they were providing something to wear and emulate. They were something to aspire to. They were the pinnacle of cool and you’d be a complete dweeb if you didn’t agree.
Like Bart Simpson so prophetically summed up, “Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel.” It wasn’t hard for Claire Danes’ hopeless interactions with the men in her social world in My So-Called Life to resonate with the droves of loveless ladies going through the same self-pity across America. We understood the harsh reality of that kid in 90210 who accidentally shot his own face off. When Winnie’s brother was killed in Vietnam shortly after being drafted, we felt Kevin’s empathy as he shared his first, tear-soaked kiss with her in the woods. It’s undeniable that a big slice of teenage culture has to do with feeling shitty about your situation.
Whether you’re relating to a character locked up in their dark, poster-covered room listening to Smashing Pumpkins and Mazzy Star or you’re a fat kid who sympathizes with Angus and his seemingly impossible task of wooing the most beautiful girl at school, angst is an important part of the teenage experience.
Everyone has gone through some stints of depression in their life and it’s comforting to watch movies and TV shows that reinforce the idea that there’s an end in sight. There’s always something bright and sunny on the other side of that gray and desolate sky. It gives us hope.
Have you ever felt different or like there’s no one else who understands you in the world? Thus is the twisted world of the teenage identity. So many changes are being thrown at you from all angles. You’re having to work shitty, menial jobs instead of getting money from your parents, you’re falling in love, you’re on a constant search for newer and better pornography, and you’re trying every drug you can get your hands on.
The developing brain often feels very alone and misunderstood, and this is only natural. You may have to befriend a caveman like Sean Astin in Encino Man or find a way for your surfer personality to shine via rollerblades in the bitter cold of winter like Mitchell Goosen in Airborne. You may be a fat kid who’s good at science and okay at football like Angus. Your life is constantly being turned upside-down.
I think everyone feels alienated at different times in their lives and this is a common motif that draws many of us to the glorious world of teen media. We don’t feel so alone when we’re watching someone onscreen going through the same kinds of things that we feel. Our hopes, our dreams, and our doubts are all wrapped up in the same befuddling emotions that a thirteen-year-old goes through. Trust me when I say that this feeling never goes away entirely.
With angst and alienation comes an end to the suffering, however. There has to be some kind of happy ending. I think this nice, speedy resolution of conflicts throughout the story gives teen movies and TV shows an edge over other, bleaker types of media. As much as we like to convince ourselves otherwise, we all crave a happy ending.
Teen movies are really good at giving us that kind of satisfaction. So many examples of the quintessential prom scene where the underdog stands up for himself against the vengeful jock or the fat loser gets the pretty girl. The dumpy girl is transformed into the beauty queen. The rag tag sports team that no one thought would make it wins the championship. The old reality is forgotten and the new horizons are so much happier.
We love these kinds of stories because we’re all looking for that Full House moral lesson with the introspective piano tune. We want to be able to look back and say that everything ended up in its rightful place.
Love is not cynical when you’re a teenager. You believe that your first kiss with the girl or guy of your dreams is just the first step in a fulfilling, lifelong relationship. You don’t care that you don’t know the person that well or that your lives are completely opposite. You don’t care that you’re only basing it on looks and the delusional way you put everything they do on a pedestal. It doesn’t matter when you’re a teenager. You’re in love and you’re obsessed.
Everyone remembers their first love. Everyone has a myriad of crushes through their lives that don’t pan out. When that one does, you remember it forever. There’s nothing quite like the romantic way teen movies make you feel about young love. There’s poetry that makes us vulnerable like in 10 Things I Hate About You and drunken party hook-ups like Can’t Hardly Wait. We’d all love to be able to make out with someone special under the Moon Tower like we’re living in Dazed and Confused. We want to kiss on blankets under the moonlight. We want to roast marshmallows and tell ghost stories. We want water balloon fights and tickling and giggling, diving in mud puddles, hugging and twirling in the rain.
These examples all seem so corny and contrived, but they awaken a kind of warmth in the human heart that can’t be easily described without feeling totally silly. I’ve never let go of my childhood sense of imagination, and I think there are many people out there just like me. This simple kind of magic is what makes the teenage experience such an attractive medium for self-expression and such a cathartic viewing experience. We’re feeling so much more than we’re socially allowed to express in real life and it gives us a place to let it flow freely.
From the tremendously nerve-wracking and heartbreaking disappointments of high school dances to competitive sports failures, unrequited love, alienation, self-deprecation, boredom, rebellion against authority figures, and identity crises, there’s a common and central theme among all of the climactic drama:
All of these 90s teen TV shows and movies used tropes of the common teenage experience that left their viewers completely empathetic of the protagonist’s despair and confusion in the wake of such monumental hormonal and life obstacles.
It’s not easy being a teenager, just finally starting to see what kind of harsh realities life can present you with, but it’s also a necessary part of growing up and probably the most exciting and confusing times in each of our individual lives. That’s what makes teen entertainment so exciting, palpable, and enthralling—the fact that we can all relate.