Call for Comments: Generation X and Coming of Age Movies

From Mav: If you know me, you know I love movies. It’s one of the reasons I do this. If you know me, then you might also know that maybe my favorite movie last year was Lady Bird (I even wrote a review about it… cheap plug for my other site). Wayne watched it recently and we got to talking about it. In particular we found it interesting that a movie about a 17 year old girl in Catholic school learning to deal with her changing relationship with her mother as she transitions to adulthood could be so meaningful to two middle aged men.

This made me think about another of my favorite movies from last year, The Edge of Seventeen (which I also reviewed). And furthermore, I started thinking about some thought about a lot of my other favorite movies that we talked about some of the stuff I said about The Breakfast Club in the call for comments for our nostalgia episode. I also love a lot of other 80s movies like Pretty in PinkSome Kind of Wonderful, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Say Anything, Better Off Dead, The Sure Thing and pretty much anything else that ever came from the minds or talents of either John Hughes or John Cusack (so dreamy) in that decade. Really, I just love coming of age movies.

Wayne asked me if there’s a possibility that the coming of age movie was dead. Or moreover, since we both loved Lady Bird, maybe there’s the possibility that it’s not dead… but it’s moved on to being a genre for adults to remember the vigor and excitement of their youth. Perhaps, the actual youth of America have turned to other styles of YA fiction…. you know with your Harry Potters and your Divergents and your Hunger Games and what not. They’re still coming of age movies, but they’re mixed in with a healthy dose of fantasy or sci-fi genre-ness. Maybe the story of youth for the sake of being a story of youth is only appealing if you aren’t one anymore.

But then, I got to thinking about our Riverdale episode. Clearly, if we learned anything there, it was that some YA content does have crossover appeal between young people and old fogies like us. And, as I said during that episode, I’m a massive fan of most of the CW‘s lineup, with the Arrowverse shows and The 100 especially (and stuff I don’t care as much for like Vampire Diaries). So that made me wonder.  And I’m certainly not alone on those shows. But there’s definitely a whole string of similar, less scifi/fantasy shows that tend to get only teen viewers like Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars and… well, basically everything on the Freeform network. (What’s Freeform? Well, if you don’t know that means you’re and older listener, so go ask your kids! If you’re embarrassed to ask, or if they won’t tell you because you’re old and lame…. basically, it’s the rebranded ABC Family channel, where the success of Pretty Little Liars made them realize that teens like sexy TV shows, and so now ALL shows are Melrose Place!) But even those shows aren’t really “coming of age stories.” At least not exactly. They’re just other genres (sci-fi, that are mixed in with a sexy teen format. They’re superheroes, dystopian futures, vampires, or good old fashioned murder mystery suspense thrillers… just with young people.

That “good old fashioned” part is key.

So now I’m toying with a thought. Maybe it’s not so much that the coming of age movie genre is dead… maybe it was just that the 80s craze for them was an anomaly. I’m thinking back to the associated genre in this old fashioned dead media format that we used to call “books.” (What’s a book? If you’re not familiar with books, that’s because you’re a younger listener, so go ask your parents. They certainly won’t think you’re lame because they’ll just be happy you’re talking to them at all… so be nice, pay attention for a couple minutes and then pretend you’ve got important things to do, so just walk away and… I dunno… smoke some jazz cigarettes or got netflix and chill or whatever it is the young people do today.) When I’m being a hoity-toity professional English major, I like to use the term bildungsroman to describe them. There’s a long tradition of these types of novels; and as I was thinking of some of my favorites — Great Expectations, Pride & Prejudice, This Side of Paradise, Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, On the Road, Huckleberry FinnThe Virgin Suicides, Girl and others — I realized none of them are really “targeted at teens” (even if I read some of them at that age). They’re all books that were “meant to be read by adults (and often adult men).” Most of them were the authors (and readers) looking back and trying to make sense of a completed and lapsed portion of their life.

So I’m kind of wondering if this is a generational thing. Was there something about the Gen-X demographic that made it special, to the point where we have been obsessed with ruminating on our own self-absorption, while other generations have traditionally been focused on external issues and needed to dress up the monotony of youth with… you know… some story other than “this is what it’s like to be young?” Comparing the YA television and films of my teens and twenties, like Wonder Years or 90210 to the Freeform or CW shows I mentioned earlier makes the Gen-X content look absolutely self-obsessed. We still do make American Pie style movies about “just being a teen” that are aimed at teens, but no one watches them… I’m pretty sure no one reading this, young or old bothered to see Good KidsNow Is Good, If I Stay, or Very Good Girls other than me, and I loved all of those movies (I didn’t bother to review any of them because I figured no one would care). I feel like perhaps Millennials and younger generations got all they needed to get out of the pure bildungsroman aimed directly at them with Mean Girls.  And even that was sort of “on the cusp” of Xennialdom.  And BEFORE the Gen-X content boom, YA film content was focused on other genres as well, the beach movie of the 60s or the slashers of the 70s. It’s only really, the twenty year period of 80s and 90s where “being a teen” was the sole focus of most teen movies.

So maybe the reason coming of age movies appeal to Gen-Xers is because that’s what the bildungsroman was always supposed to do. And we were just too self-obsessed at the time that we were kids to know that we were SUPPOSED to be interested in something else. And now that we’re old… well, we’re still looking back at youth and “trying to figure it out.” So, what are your thoughts? Who are these movies for? Is there a film we should be discussing? Is there a question we should be asking? And who wants to be on this episode with us so that it’s not just old guys talking about teen movies…. of course, maybe it should be.

1 Comment and 1 Webmention for “Call for Comments: Generation X and Coming of Age Movies”

  1. So one thing that I’ve been thinking about is the difference between girls’ and boys’ coming of age stories. It seems to me that women/girl’s coming of age stories are a fairly new phenomenon or else heavily steeped in romance/sexual awakening. I just watched Picnic at Hanging Rock and OMGILOVEDITSOMUCH, but it was very much a sexual awakening movie, and I’m also thinking of Thirteen, or Virgin Suicides or literally anything Sofia Coppola has ever done. Even YA stuff like Hunger Games isn’t really a “coming of age” story so much as a dystopia. For girls’ coming of age stories there just seems to be massive anxiety about sex, whereas men’s coming of age stories seem to be more about responsibility and leaving childish things behind and going on adventures.

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