Longform

The Teen Commandments

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Of course, the dramatic core of any good teen romance, from Romeo and Juliet to Grease, is a hot, class-conflict love affair. Cliques are therefore necessary, but the new films make the division between classes less a monetary issue and more a factor of personality. All borders between social circles are transparent, and with enough self-confidence, you can leap over them. Kat straddles the world of popular girls, lesbian nightclubbers and motorheads. The brooding, artistic weirdo Laney in She's All That almost becomes prom queen. Seth Green's hip-hopper wanna-be in Can't Hardly Wait somehow makes the white kid empathetic.

The classic stereotypes of jocks and nerds and prom kings have survived, though each in a more acceptable, watered-down version. Geeks are kind of hip. Math chicks are cute. Jocks can be smart. (Beefy boys Van Der Beek in Varsity Blues and Tobias Mehler in Disturbing Behavior both carry around a copy of Slaughterhouse Five.) A few new stereotypes have been added to the mix, too: hot lesbians (Election, 10 Things . . . ); white kids who want to be black (Go, Can't Hardly Wait, 10 Things . . . ); gay kids who flaunt it (Go, Cruel Intentions). But, as always, being popular makes you shallow, being awkward makes you weak, being smart makes you a total dork, being an unfairly maligned outcast makes you a hero. Same as before, same as always.

The one recent "backward" approach to cliques was in Drew Barrymore's miserably sappy Never Been Kissed, which is less a product of the New Teen Cinema than it is a fungus launched from the corpse of a bad '80s Jon Cryer film. Her Josie character, once a pimply laughingstock at her high school, goes back at age 25 and learns how great and fun and meaningful life is when you're popular, and that her life would have been better had she been popular way back then. How did this get made? Hel-lo?

LESSON 6: The star doesn't matter. Just take a look at the recent box office, evidence that who's in a big movie doesn't make it big. The most star power the New Teen Cinema boasts are castings like "the kid from 3rd Rock" or "that guy from Dawson's Creek." The films don't rely on marquee names, and even though some might start to sound familiar (Jennifer Love Hewitt, Reese Witherspoon, Katie Holmes, James Van Der Beek), not one of them can sell a film unless surrounded by a half-dozen of their best-looking buddies. And this young talent comes really cheap. Huge vehicles for Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery and expensive old white men do so-so business these days, but good high school pop flies off the ticket counter, no matter who's in it, so long as it feels good, it looks right, and, oh, yeah--it's got girls in it.

LESSON 7: Girls rule! This couldn't be more clear. It's written on every chalkboard in some sort of permanent chalk. It's scrawled on the rest-room stall doors. It's painted on a banner that the football players run through. It's the prom theme. By reinventing the world for broadcast to the new teens, the structures of society have shifted, and the female lands on top.

Economics is easy; it's all numbers: Today's teens spend nearly $80 billion a year, with girls dishing out more than half of that, according to Teenage Research Unlimited Inc., which tracks that sort of thing. Teens are only 12 percent of the population (now), but buy 27 percent of movie tickets, spending about $5 billion on entertainment. And this is only the beginning. The generation of kids born between 1977 and 1994 (roughly) is packed with 60 million bodies, three times the size of Generation X, and most of them haven't even hit puberty yet. The current feeding frenzy is meant to capture only the oldest of them, particularly the girls who announced themselves by making Titanic the biggest thing ever by watching Leo over and over again and proving that, for the first time, they are a box-office force, perhaps the box-office force. Clearly, we've entered an era of girl-happy pop that still hasn't maxed out on the number of manufactured pretty-boy bands it can support: the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync and 98 degrees and C Note, and more arriving every day.

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Glenn Gaslin