[With pre-season sports practices beginning this week, I’ve officially got two sons in high school (!!!!). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy pop culture representations of American teens—share the teen texts & contexts that stand out to you in comments, fellow kids!]
On contextualizing and challenging 80s texts that feature boys who are adrift and endangered.
An interesting aspect that links many of the youthful protagonists about whom I wrote in this post is that they are the children of divorce and single parents. That detail is particularly overt when it comes to E.T.’s Elliott, both because his storyline opens with a discussion of where his absent father is and because the film’s threatening scientist character (played by Peter Coyote) is also a potential romantic interest for Elliott’s single mother (played by Dee Wallace). But I would argue that it’s even more central to the film that gives today’s post its title, The Lost Boys (1987): not only are protagonists Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) the sons of a recently single mother Lucy (Dianne Wiest) who finds herself in a relationship with a threatening new man (Edward Herrmann), but that man turns out to be the leader of the same group of vampires with which Michael and Sam find themselves entangled. This clan of vampires represent one version of the title’s “lost boys,” a misfit clan of teenage outcasts for whom Herrmann’s dangerous father figure is looking for a mother; but Michael and Sam are clearly positioned as another pair of potentially lots boys, an overt parallel to the vampire clan that inspires its youthful leader (Kiefer Sutherland) to pursue Michael as a new member of the group.
Will Byers, the character whose disappearance sets off the events of Stranger Things, is likewise the child of a divorced single mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) with a social outcast older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) who is explicitly linked to 80s counter-culture (represented in short-hand through his love for the British punk rock band The Clash). As with the 80s film characters, I think both of those social and cultural contexts offer valuable and interconnected ways to understand these character types and their meanings. That is, the more obvious and clearly salient social context would be the significant late 20th century uptick in divorce, a trend that has been at times overstated (at least in our collective inability to recognize the longstanding presence of divorce in American culture and society) but that nonetheless both occurred historically and became and remains to this day a key part of our cultural narratives. Yet just as relevant to these lost youthful characters and their experiences and communities are the voices and lives on which Donna Gaines focuses in her vital sociological oral history Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids (1991). Like Jonathan Byers, Gaines’s 1980s teenagers were social outcasts who found solace in the counter-culture community of punk rock, yet whose future remained as uncertain and threatened as those of an overtly lost boy like Will.
There’s one important difference between Gaines’s focal individuals and those in most of the cultural texts on which I’m focusing here, though: gender. That is, Gaines features both boys and girls in her sociological purview, whereas in most of the 1980s films the protagonists were overtly and importantly boys, with young women generally present only as (as in The Lost Boys) romantic interests or (as in E.T.) cute younger sisters. Stranger Things certainly does include a number of complex and interesting female characters, as I analyzed in this post; yet nonetheless, the show’s originating character remains a lost boy, one pursued by a quartet of fellow outcast boys (his older brother and his three best friends). As a result, it’d be important to link these texts to one additional cultural context: our longstanding narratives of boys and men who depart civilization, stories that lead them toward dangers (Rip’s 20-year nap, the White Whale, the violence of the river world Huck encounters) yet also allow them to escape for a time a society that is often overtly linked to mother figures (Rip’s wife, Huck’s pair of maternal influences). Recognizing that connection could help us not only contextualize but also challenge the emphasis on lost boys in these cultural texts.
Next teen texts tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other teen texts & contexts you’d share?