The issues of the past generation are not so different than those of the present. All that changes really is the environment, how people react to it, and what changes in both the individual and the world around them. Identity development among teenagers, who only gained that title in the 1950’s, has for decades been an ongoing and highly debated issue. The loss of cultural identity, traditional values, and even the idea of a nuclear family have been under constant change and revision for many upon many years. What has changed in the last five to six decades is how such a thing is portrayed in the media, and how the public has reacted to what they see. Media throughout the last sixty years has had a strong influence upon teenagers and how they behave and react to the world around them.
A good example of this would be the film, Rebel Without a Cause, starring the iconic James Dean. Interestingly enough the star actor died in a car crash only a month before the film was released, ending his life at the young age of 24. The story of Rebel Without a Cause focuses upon three individual teenagers who are seen as troubled teens, suffering from public drunkenness, being mistaken as a streetwalker, and cruelty to animals. All three are prime cases of parental neglect in some form, as all three share the unenviable result of parents who simply do not care. This is a trend that is seen to begin, or at least be first noticed in the 1950’s as delinquency amongst youth began to rise. Films such as Rebel Without a Cause were seen as catalysts to show young people the way to speak to their elders, and how to react to authority.
In the film Dean, who plays youth Jim Stark, has just arrived in a new town and as most young people would find he is forced to find a way to fit in. Having moved from their previous home because of his youthful misadventures, Jim soon finds that his former habits begin to define him as he soon begins to flirt with danger once again. Drinking, fighting, and performing dangerous acts such as “chickie games” in which two teenagers race their cars towards the edge of a cliff to see who chickens out first, are among the acts he takes to fit in, though it is not what he wants.
This film speaks to the desires of youth to have a stable and balanced home life, where, in this time period, the father is the head of house and the mother is the obedient wife who cooks and cleans. In this movie however the father is an absentee presence, as the mother is the more dominant of the two. Within the American culture at the time this seemed to breed defiance and in turn contributed to delinquency.
As it’s been seen in the 1950’s and even now, adolescence is generally seen to feature increased stress within the relationships that exist between parents and adolescents. This leads to conflict, which can further the problem and eventually cause a rift between parents and their children. ( Ehrlich, Richards, Lejuez, Cassidy, 2015) In Rebel Without a Cause there is undoubtedly stress that is inflicted upon the relationship between Jim Stark and his family, caused by the changing dynamic that has been set into place since his coming of age. Generally such problems will arise from such things as lack of proper or adequate communication, substance abuse, or other psychological matters that are not so easily diagnosed. In the case of Jim Stark he has a father who is rendered almost completely ineffective and a sick mother who is far more dominant than her husband. This confusion of role swapping is among the many reasons why youths in the 50’s might have turned to delinquency.
A similar film was created in 1985 titled The Breakfast Club, in which the setting, the plot, and the characters are quite different, introducing an entirely different environment and set of issues, but still continuing the plight of the American teenager. Considered a classic among teenage and other films, The Breakfast Club is set within a fictional high school in the fictional town of Shermer, Illinois. While the place and the school are falsified it is without a doubt that the issues presented by the teenagers within the film are not. Nearly every teen can at some point and time relate to the identities created within the film, be it one or more.
Starring several iconic actors of the 80’s, The Breakfast Club is a story centered around the social dynamic that exists between teenagers, how they view themselves, and how they view one another. Between the socioeconomic status that exists between them and the other psychological barriers that separate them it is fair to say that this film is based upon the American teenager as a collective, a means by which to define every adolescent at some point and time. It showcases the feelings that many teens go through in relation to their parents, to one another, and to the world around them in a manner that expresses deepest desire, greatest fears, and the unknown quantity of what it means to be a teenager.
Like Rebel Without a Cause there is distance and conflict with their parents, but it is a mere explanation within this film, a story told by the characters and only viewed in the beginning of the film. Where Rebel Without a Cause shows the absolute distance between parent and adolescent, The Breakfast Club implies it more than shows, using that parent-adolescent dynamic as a reason behind why they must spend a Saturday in detention. The various problems that each student expresses in a time of vulnerability explains a great deal about the sociocultural worlds in which they exist, and the social issues that they must deal with between home and school.
In this movie there are seen obvious differences between the students, mostly being that they all come from different backgrounds, both socioeconomic and sociocultural, and that they each have devised a means of protecting themselves from the opinions and shortcomings that are noticed by their peers. (Brown, Manning, Stykes, 2015) Once they open up the lines of communication between them however they find that they have far more in common than they might have initially believed, and that their interpersonal relationship is a far more natural occurrence than the distance they kept in the beginning.
Between the two films there are many differences and similarities, and in truth they both depict the plight of the average American teenager. What is different is the manner in which the teenagers are depicted and what they must do in order to resolve their own issues. Within both films the parents seem largely absent in some manner, be it the lack of communication or the lack of caring, but there is an issue that begs resolving in either one. Despite the great gap of time that is present between the two movies the general feeling of not being understood or listened to pervades the adolescent mind, creating a void between the average teenager and their parent that, while quite natural, can be turned inward to create a decidedly negative outlook if not properly treated or otherwise recognized.
Parents and teenagers will quarrel, that much is as common as anything, but the feeling both films leaves the matter all but settled that the youth of America have for a long time been feeling underrepresented, underrated, and altogether unappreciated. While old models of family and sociocultural biases might well have claimed that such an attitude would best be handled by forcing the teenager to grow up and assume their adult responsibilities, this new era makes room for teenagers to continue to grow and develop within their individual identities in a manner that at times is greatly disruptive to society and their own individual worlds.
As teenagers continue to grow in this current era the problems and issues they must face grow with each passing day, and as it was in the 1950’s so it was in the 80’s, much as it still is now. Teenagers feel that they are not listened to, that their words fall on the deaf ears of adults and are thus still considered the words of children. The two films that have been listed above and the research used to compare them is proof that communication between adults and adolescents is very vital to the well-being of a household and to the adolescent as an individual.
In both films there are examples of teenagers rebelling, causing trouble, and otherwise disobeying and vexing adults, and in both there are eventual resolutions that are both negative and positive. In Rebel Without a Cause, Jim Starks eventually reconciles with his parents at the end of the film after spending the entirety of the movie quarreling and openly defying them. In The Breakfast Club the scene that opens the movie shows each individual teen, save for two, having a frank discussion of why they are there and what went wrong, and in effect shows the disparity between teenager and parent.
An added note to The Breakfast Club is that also shows the disparity between the teens and the principal of the school, who is an iron-fisted educator with a no-nonsense policy regarding delinquency. At the end of the film the teens have reconciled with one another, with their parents, except for one, and in effect they have also opened a line of communication with their teacher, who comes to understand that his initial thinking of each teenager was quite wrong.
Communication is key in any relationship, be it parent and teenager, or educator and teenager. Without a line of communication and the correspondent understanding of why a teen feels the way they do and how it must be treated, there is no resolution that can be reached without a great deal of conflict and consequent loss. In a teenager’s world, communication is everything.
Brown, Susan L.; Manning, Wendy D.; Stykes, J. Bart. (2015) Family Structure and Child Well
being: Integrating Family Complexity. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77(1).
Ehrlich, Katherine B.; Richards, Jessica M.; Lejuez, C.W.; Cassidy, Jude. (2015). When Parents
and Adolescents Disagree About Disagreeing: Observed Parent–Adolescent
Communication Predicts Informant Discrepancies About Conflict. Journal of Research on Adolescence. Retrieved from