The semiotic language in teen films markets “Youth” as a commodity. Youth is portrayed as a transitional space; a time of flux; a rite of passage. The adolescent struggles with establishing their identity. They fight puberty, and must adjust with the loss of childhood stability. As such, they embrace several meaningful symbols and modes of expression to piece together their subjectivity, and also gain mutual acceptance from their peers. Such ‘sings of mutual recognition’ may be clothing, territory, music, language and modalities of behaviour (Guattari:1996:70), all of which are the essence to the semiotic language in teen films. The discussion at present then revolves around the role these signs of consumption play in both the cinema, and in our daily life. Using Clueless (1995) as an example, this blog will illustrate how the semiotic language constructs the notion of adolescence, and how these items of consumption mediate the cinema and reality. It will also explore the trajectory of the teen machine, and how the signs and semiologies within teen texts have remained stable. Finally, this blog will signpost how teen films have a multi-generational audience, and thus resolve our discussion that the notion of “Youth” has become a cherished commodity.
Adolescence as a construction
It has been premised that adolescence is a constructed period of time, and youth culture has emerged due to various marketing forces. The increasing spending power of teenagers since the 1950’s meant that several goods and services have become targeted at young people (Bennett:2007:25). Oblivious to teenagers who are desperate for acceptance, these “items of mutual recognition” are simply ‘commodified, packaged and sold back to the youth’ (Varner:2007:171). Hall and Whannel support this by stating that, ‘Teenage culture is a contradictory mixture of the authentic and the manufactures: it is an area of self expression for the young, and a lush grazing pasture for the commercial providers’ (1964:276). Teen films basically draw on these commodities to construct the teenage paradigm, and as a result, young people view these text, absorb the artefacts and rituals, and graph them into their own lives (White and Wyn:1997). In fact, popular media ‘teach the proper mannerisms for teenagers to behave’ (Shary: 2002:32). Evidently, youth culture has develloped as a result of the semiotic language we are exposed to in teen films.
Guattari similarly puts forward that adolescent revolution is only a constructed time in adults minds, a ‘segretive social practice’ that has been dictated to operate between the ages of 13-19 (1996). He bases this argument on what he refers to as ‘becomings’, which are processes of change; the essential energy of flux. These becomings can happen at any time though, as they are not based on genetics or hormones, but via multiple components and modes of communication. “Becoming adolescent” is not based on age then—instead, if one adopts the essential “signs of mutual recognition”, then one can effectively be socialised into youth culture.
Tai’s subjective modelling
Albeit tongue in check, Clueless symbolises how one can be assimilated into youth culture when taking on board meaningful symbols and semiologies. This occurs when the popular blond Cher Horowitz introduces a new student Tai Fraiser to the school, and gives her a “make over”. Once undertaking these rituals and ceremonies, Tai has effectively been moulded into the quintessential cool American schoolgirl.
Tai is firstly introduced to groups at school and their area in the school ground. Bauman refers to this process as ‘territorial separation’, where groups carve out their own space, ‘let in only people of “the same” identity and bar access to anyone else’ (2000:107). Teenagers often do this on the school ground because they want to take ownership on space that is essentially owned and controlled by adults (Varner:2007). This process is what Deluze and Guattari refer to as ‘deterritorialization’, as the youths take space and reuse it as their own. Apart from resisting authority, the reterritorialised space also provides them with a sense of acceptance and belonging within their group (1987:318). Tai then must learn her boundaries in order to understand what group she belongs to.
Following, Tai undergoes a “makeover” to facilitate her socialisation into Cher’s group. According to Maniscalco, ‘Being in fashion determines whether an individual is “in” or “out” within a particular group”’(cited in Locher:1998:99). In this case, designer outfits and make-up are currency for Cher’s group of friends. Via a montage sequence, Tai’s “farmer” clothes are binned and red hair rinsed. The end product is a more aesthetically pleasing Tai, whom is much more content. This montage effect allows us to see how easy it is socialise into a youth group when adopting the valued items of clothing.
Clueless also illustrates how valuable clothing and material items are for the young person. Marx proposed that a fetish occurs when the exchange surplus value of a commodity exceeds its use value (1864). Cher’s fetish for material objects is epitomised in the scene when she is mugged and held at gun point. Despite risking her life, she refuses to lie on the ground and ruin her dress. For Cher, the designer dress crystallises her mode of being, and being forced to ruin her outfit denigrates who she is as a teenage girl. From this we see the crucial role items of consumption play in confirming the teenager’s identity.
Language is indispensable in this “signifying system”, as it validates ones presence in the group, enables accurate communication within the group, and more importantly acts as a barrier for exterior people (Epstein:1998). In fact, youth cultures develop their own linguistics to exclude older generations who cannot understand their jargon. To effectively communicate within group then, Tai must learn the Southern Californian sociolect (also called “Valspeak”). We see this in the scene when Cher teaches her the word “Sporadic”, and in the following scene she reuses it in a sentence, proving to Cher her participation in the group.
Semiologies- Partying and Drug use
Rituals such as clubbing and partying are quintessential modalities of behaviour for young people, and we see this in Clueless also (Tomlinson:1998:204). At the house party, the youths are dancing, drinking alcohol, playing sexual games such as “suck and blow”, and smoking marijuana. Hall and Whannel propose that teenagers engage in such activities to emphasise their ‘social noncomformity and rebelliousness’ (1964:282). Additionally, parties act as a form of release, a carnivalesque space where teenagers can ‘escape the problems of growing up’ (Tomlinson:1998:204). Moreover, it is at these house parties where all the different groups from the school come together; they are a community, united together, and issues at school pertaining to race, class and background are forgotten. Being rebellious in the family home, the youth are united in resistance to family structure they are bound in. For Tai, although she is familiar with alcohol and drugs, she has never attended a house party, and therefore this ceremony then can be seen as Tai’s baptism into the Los Angeles youth culture.
More than anything else, young people predomidantly use music to establish their identity (Hall and Whannel:1964). Musical preferences not only help reflect the individuals’ style, values and attitudes, but can also facilitate ones acceptance with a group. Teenagers in particular are attracted to popular music because it makes them appear fresh and fashionable, and hence more likable amongst their peers. At the house party, Elton teaches Tai the Coolio song, Rolling with the Hommies, which was extremely popular at the time. Once she learns the lyrics, the two have formed a frienship. This shows how particular music is another crucial “sign of mutual recognition”, essential in fostering the bonds between young people.
Finally, the loss of virginity is an unequivocal rite of passage for young adults (Shary:2002). It is here though that the roles have been subverted—Cher is still a virgin, whereas Tai is not. However, Cher’s virginity is not based on morals, religion or crudeness, but simply because she is searching for “Mr Right”. Roz Kaveney proposes that during the 1990’s Hollywood was more interested in offskiriting issues of virginity than providing sex education (2006). Therefore, the topic of sexual relations in the film is often avoided, instead placing emphasis on the girls’ search for love. Thus, the film uses its adored protagonist Cher to advocate virginity. In a sense then, Tai is still positioned to be in the dark, learning from Cher that love is more important then sex.
Tai acts as a metaphor for how teenagers lift the semiotic language from the screen, and graft it into their own lives. However in reality this process isn’t quite as simple. Not only is it difficult to measure the influence of televisual texts, nor assume the vulnerability of teenagers, but also because it is difficult to know whether these signs of consumption have originated on the screen or in reality.
Much of the semiotic language I have so far described emulates society. Rituals such as shopping, partying, school life and learning to drive that we see in the film occur in real life. Director Amy Heckerling also researched the teenage slang in Los Angeles before writing the script, ensuring the language was accurate and credible. Moreover, the extensive use of product placement (Diet Coke, Mentos, Alia, Calvin Klien) and pop culture referencing (icons such as Cher, Cindy Crawford, Ren and Stimpy, and Tina Turner) also collapses the distinction between reality and the screen by using figures that are recognisable and accessible in the real world.
On the contrary, the films satirical nature makes clear that this is a mockery of the superficial lifestyle of rich Californian teenagers. The opening line of the film, “So you’re probably thinking, is this like a commercial or what?” prompts the films satirical tone, and moreover acknowledges that this movie is a construction.
Teenagers though are quite vulnerable, and unable to strip away the hyperbole. They see the spectacle fashions, the spectacle lifestyle, and mimic it by purchasing similar items of consumption (Varner:2007). So although Clueless is suppose to comment on a superfluous consumer lifestyle, it also reiterates it. Evidence of this is the fact the grunge music was popular during the early nineties, but the soundtrack with hip hop artists such as Coolio and the Supergrass upturned this crazy. During a time of grunge and minimalist clothing, Cher’s knee high socks and plaid suits spawned the advent of change in 1990’s fashion. Finally, expressions introduced in the film such as “As if!” and “Whatever” have since been used by young people universally (Kaverney: 2006).
Perhaps then, there is constant interplay—a push and pull—between the screen and reality. It is for this reason that Adorno and Horkeimer state that ‘real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies’ (1993:34), as the two worlds are in continual evolution and interaction; co-existing; feeding each other.
The Life of the Teen Screen Machine
Subjectivity is constanly morphing and evolving with temporal and spacial zones, and this is certainly the case with the teen machine. Scared of being viewed as “unoriginal and conformist”, teenagers don’t want to be associated with outdated fashions, and as a result, the teen screen machine constantly adapts to remain appealing (Shary:2002). They do this by updating the signs of expression, and consequently stay current or even one step ahead of the youth market.
The way in which the Clueless machine has morphed gives evidence of this. Firstly, the narrative was adapted from Jane Austin’s story Emma. In reworking the 1800 English novel to a cinematic version of Los Angeles school life, teenagers could thus identify with the narrative in a medium that is more effective in the present day (Kaverney: 2006). Clueless also took inspiration from 1989 film Heathers (1989), which similarly is about a clique popular girls at high school (Kaverney:2006). Notably the fashions, hairstyles and technology have been modernised in Clueless. Additionally, the 2004 film Mean Girls can be seen as the modern day reworking, where again, a new student undergoes rituals and ceremonies to assimilate in youth culture.
All these rewritings have a similar skeleton plot though, and all conform to the same “signifying system” to construct an image of youth; the signs have only been modernised. Guattari’s insight on mechinic heterogenesis is useful here with his metaphor of the hammer; “if we take a hammer apart by removing its handle, it is still a hammer but in a “mutilated state” (Chaosmosis:1995:35). He suggests here that although a machine has been mutated, the fundamentals to the machine and its regime remain the same. Therefore, the regime of the teen film—to construct a teenage paradigm with items of consumption—has also remained rigid. This further articulates the influential role teen films play in commodity culture.
The New Meaning of Youth
Albeit having great impact on teen markets, teen films have appeals for all. This is because the meaning of youth has shifted from a “coming of age” to a “free spirited nature” (Bennett:2007). Teen films have become a “celebration of adolescence” (Shary:2002), setting up a sensationalised lifestyle of liberty and rebellion. As such the imbedded notions of having a good time have carried over to the term ‘youth’. Elder generations don’t view these texts as “Teen films”, but more so a film of spectacle and fantasy. Especially in the case of Clueless, the use of parody, witty script and intertexuality smartened up the teen movie, making it enjoyable for all. This celebration of life though, generates desire for “Youth”. However, you cannot buy “Youth”; it is not a tangible commodity. Consequently, individuals fall back on the same “signifying system” to recapture the essence of youth.
More than ever, consumers are catered for in terms of goods and services that express notions of liberty and youthfulness (Bennett: 2007). Clubs for “Over 28 year olds”, extreme sports, and adventure holidays are marketed to elder generations as youthful activities. Youth music genres such as Punk and Hip Hop now have multi-generational following. Technology items such as ipods and mobile—which have once been seen as a young person’s tool—have been specifically crafted around the simpler needs and wants of older generations. Additionally, there are many goods and services that help control the aging process. For example, plastic surgery, skin treatments, exercise regimes, hair loss creams, and premature ejaculation sprays.
Youth is now accessible for all. Guattari states that “we have all turned into children by mass media society and various apparatuses producing subjectivity” (Guattari:1996:69). Thus, in romanticising the notion of youth in teen films, it is clear that people of all ages draw on the same items of consumption to create a youthful subjectivity.
The notion of “Youth” has become quite an elastic term. It cannot be defined by age; nor pinpointed to a feeling; nor does it have any tangibility to grab hold of. As such, the signs and semiologies mentioned here act as reference points, giving shape to the idea of youth. Given that the binaries between real life and the cinema are quite leaky, perhaps we are all prone to constructing this artificial paradigm. Nonetheless, Adorno and Horkeimer state that in commodity culture, “Something is provided so that none may escape” (1993:32). Regardles then of who is to reproach for this construction of adolesence, youth has become a commodity in its own right, and it is almost impossible to avoid the impact of the youth machine.
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Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995)
Mean Girls ( Mark Waters, 2004)
Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1989)