Analysis of Teen Musical Films of the 1980s

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According to Jane Feuer, the teen musicals of the 1980s represent a reconstruction.  The reconstruction is based on the observation that they are not parodic or deconstructive according to the conventions of the classic musicals.  Indeed they lead to the introduction of new conventions.  Teen musicals of the 1980s deviate from the formal classical ways and represent more of the coming of age process. The teen musicals, therefore, tend to explore the aspects such sexuality, adolescent identity, relationships gender, class and the generational difference. Drawing from two teen movies, Flashdance 1983 and Dirty Dancing 1987, this paper seeks to explore the new conventions that have been introduced by teem musicals of the 1980s. Also, the paper examines the various themes that have been brought out by the two films which caused changes in the conventional teen films.

The 1980s can be considered as the golden age of popular teen musicals including Flashdance

and Dirty Dancing. The films are acted by teenagers on their points of view. Therefore, this review is meant to explore the differences and similarities of the adolescent themes that are observed between classical themes and the upcoming themes of the teen musicals of this time (Boyd 67). Furthermore, there is the need to consider the implication of such teen films in the society considering that they marked an era of change in the setting and representation of the teen film introducing new themes as well as understanding.  It is evident that teen films of the 80s represent a gap in literature pertaining to Hollywood genre. Certainly, the teen musicals of this time resonate with the generation of today considering the fact that it marked a particular transition from the common classical themes to a new era of teen musical that addressed issues in the society including feminism. Notably, the teen films of the 80s represented what is seen as comedies which portrayed the teens with a great deal of nuance as they strived to understand various complex themes that had been missing in the previous movies. The films are for the teens, target the teens, but were written and directed by adults. Evidently, the teen genre proved to be unique in that it marked a period that depicted the reality of the era that they were made.

Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing is an American film which can be considered to be a romantic film that is written and based on the life of Eleanor Bergstein. The film tells a story of coming to age of a teenager namely Francis “Baby‟ Houseman who comes from an affluent Jewish family. When they vacation at a resort away from home, the naïve girls finds herself in a position of changing the lives of those around her. Transitioning in an area different from her life she falls in love with a boy who is from a different type of society. The film takes a different approach by introducing gender-reversed roles to show the stature and ideological hierarchies that in the American society. Indeed the struggle within the classes that are acted out by the characters shows the social climate in America previously(Boyd 77). In some cases, the characters even allude to the tense state of affairs in the country.



is a popular teen movie that is has a representation of the feminist view.  The idea of the film is about a woman surviving in a male-dominated world. The film, therefore, features an eye candy for men with the explicit dances that portray cinematic inventions. Also, it is evident that most of the moves have been brought about by cinema editing which indeed connects some of the dance double making them into one lead character. Nevertheless, the appeals of the film still flourished resulting in a considerable impact of the film at the time and even in the present. The film is based on the story about female fantasy that plays out in a feministic yet provocative approach. One theme that is readily brought out is the ability of the characters to exert full control in moments of exhilarating fantasy

Films as a representation of coming to age

The making of the teen musicals was in such a time that adolescence a topic that was just gaining both sociological and psychological background. Since the characters are mostly teenagers, it is evident that they bring out an authentic representation of the youth which in turn reinforce the distinctiveness of the genre. One can confirm therefore that the films express the contemporary genre which is mostly focussed on the time and place in which the film is made (McRobbie 58). In this regard, the films represent the behavioral conflicts which are experienced in cinematic teens. For instance, Flashdance demonstrates the ability of the Flashdancers to have and use seductive fantasy as portrayed by Alex in her attempt to exert control.

The issues and developments that are experienced in the teen musicals include mood disruptions, conflicts with the parents and imminent risk-taking. These are the common behavior that is expected to be demonstrated by people in this age group as they encounter the phase of storm and stress. Indeed, the filmmakers use the extreme emotions that are exhibited by teens at this age to demonstrate the teenage behavior. A related example in the films is the display of the female bodies in the films. For instance, in Flashdance, there is purposeful display of the female bodies which could have different explanation. One is that it could imply that it is meant for sexual objectification for male pleasure. On the other hand, it could imply that it was a way of expression as opposed to the previous meaning of sexual objectification and exploitation (McRobbie 106).  Analysis of this film, however, indicates that in conjunction with the charisma relinquished by the women the display of their bodies goes in line with their talent seen in the camera.  The women show effective dancing techniques such as tap dancing, sins, leaps, kicks and movements of both hips and arms which are performed autonomously. Therefore, the objectification could have been used to show the power of the women, and at the same time, it could have been done to derive visual pleasure owing to the nature and use of the cameras.

Sex and relationships

 The films are also made in the context of sex and relationships. This is one of recurring theme which is also a representation of the coming to age process that in most cases features a protagonist who will suffer emotionally. In the same regard, sex and relationships feature sexual curiosity accompanied with romantic longing as the characters in the film strive to acknowledge and identify with the psychological and emotional changes that occur.  Both the characters and their part of the story appear to be connected with sexual initiation and the concept of loss of virginity which is one of the ever-present topics in the films of this time. In the same regard, the films go against the notion of how male teens tend to possess masculine strength and therefore exploit this energy in the teen musicals(Boyd 77). There has been reverse of roles in Dirty Dancing with male characters as Johnny appearing to be vulnerable while females such as baby and Vivian take control. Similarly, the female teens are portrayed in such a way that they negotiate their feelings which may result in adverse consequences.

The emphasis in the teen musicals is not placed on the aspect of sex and the implications rather it is a demonstration of how the actors may react emotionally when they are confronted with other serious issues such as socioeconomic difference accompanied by cultural differences. In the same way teen musicals of this time appear to deviate from the classical conventions of portraying stereotypical teen characters. The gender divide that once was present seems to be overlooked by disregarding the ideas of the ideal male and female. Also, the other shadow characters that are expected to make an impact in the context of the films are also neglected. Indeed the role of the teens in the films tends to shift considerably from the conventional stereotypical way into the adoption of archetypical one (McRobbie 52). Similarly, the teen’s body may have been exploited to derive pornographic hooks for the audience as evident in Flashdance. The erotic movements that are portrayed by the dancers in the streets of Zanzibar accompanied by erotic poses amidst catcalls and glances show the coming of age of the women.

Some other themes that have been exploited in the teen’s musicals and are associated with sex and relationships include the issue of conformity, the teenage clique, peer pressure as well as teen anxiety. Teen anxiety is mainly associated with issues such as anxiety and bodily change. The characters become explicitly concerned with the appearance of their bodies. Sexuality is another main concern in these musicals with the teens trying to figure out their sexuality. Usually, the Hollywood films portray various outrageous social pairings (Boyd 68). This is the same case for Flashdance where nick the owner of a steel firm pursues and woes Alex only because of her charms. The same romantic implausibility is seen in Dirty Dancing where Johnny is seduced by a baby a girl from an affluent Jewish family.

Generational Divide

The generational divide in the making of the teen musicals is one of the unifying factors between classic movies and the contemporary movies. One of the differences that can be noticed is the changes in the issues such as iconography. In this regard, the choice of scenes is considerably different from the classical scenes of the teen bedroom, the high school college, the family home or even the shopping mall. Rather different ambiguous settings have been selected to bring out neutrality, and therefore this causes a considerable deviation from the conventional settings.  Other sites have been chosen to replace the commonly selected scenes. For instance, outdoor locales and the city have been selected in this case signifying the coming to age process. The selection of the spaces is a symbolic representation of the social and economic status of the people in the society (Boyd 67).  In the same regard, this aspect represents an opportunity to bring in comparison between the affluent and those that are not affluent in the society. There is a thin boundary between teen stereotypes as depicted by the sporting rituals in the films. The genre has been developed by positioning it in the context of the 1980s.

Feministic approach

The representation of the dancers in Flashdance depicts some feministic approach. For instance, the women characters in the film did not dance with the aim of stripping. Instead, they did so because it was their will to be dancers. Indeed they had developed their dance routines and had their dance moves. The dance moves that are applied in this film also represent a deviation from the common classical dances. In this regard, there is the jazz dance style from which most of the moves are based. The dance is appropriate for small space, and at the same time, it portrays the advantage of not aging. This is unlike the disco style that is portrayed in Dirty Dancing. The jazz style of dance has ever since maintained its popularity to date which makes the film to be relevant to the audiences of today. Perhaps the popularity is obtained from the fact that the dance is characterized with sharp and defined body movements that create an overwhelming impact both on cinema and television.  Flashdance also prominently features instances of breakdance which is well coordinated with the ballet dance(McRobbie 112). Unlike in the classical conventions, the dance moves, in this case, have been chosen with particular virtuosity. The main aim of this election of dance moves is to express the feelings and ideas in particular appealing motion. Evidently, the display of emotion is evident and is demonstrated by the movement of the diaphragms and the resultant shape. Additionally, the emotional contents of the dances, in this case, are recorded with some aspect of modern dances. The overall effect is to portray the fight of a woman to be accepted in a male-dominated world. At some point in the movie, one can perceive the likelihood and will of the women to be empowered through the triumphant climatic dance. A ritual gesture is performed at the end of the film intends to depict the empowerment of the young women.

Evidently, Flashdance also takes a feministic approach in the way that control is exerted me the film.  Female’s characters in the film demonstrate an exhilarating control over their bodies.  However, it is evident that the Flash dancers are caught in a moment of the oblivion of masculine gaze which also shows power (McRobbie 52). In the end, there is a notion that the film indeed frustrated the female characters by restricting their psychic energy and power. The concept of flash dancing is demonstrated by the ability of the women to train rigorously, with persistence and conscientiously. As a result, it is evident that the women are in good shape showing ecstasy in the way that they move their bodies. At some point, the women ignore the audience and dance for themselves.

Indeed Flashdance initially appears to be a form of non-dancing, but rather it is a form of abandonment for the characters limiting their self-expression.  At first one cannot tell whether the dancers are out of control as shown by their impulsive moves, they disregard the choreography that had been earlier developed and only seems to abandon the music. It is the speed of the music that then shows their spontaneity and makes the viewer realize that the characters are only creating an illusion of uncontrollability (McRobbie 40). The effect is that there is development of tension of the abandonment accompanied by the audience’s knowledge.

Similarly, Dirty Dancing can be seen as one of a feminist masterpiece of the time featuring the story that demonstrates divide race relations and social, economic status of people. Indeed the movie portrays what is seen as sexual liberation which was crucial at this time. One of the issues that make Dirty Dancing a feminist film is the incorporation of issues such as abortion. Indeed one can notice that it is one of those special movies in which the lead character is a female. Additionally, the lead character has been developed in such a way that she is awkward and opinionated.  More so the character is a virgin, and she has possessed the agency the lives of the people that she encounters in her life. In this regard the potent message that is revealed by this film makes it have relevance even in the modern day setting.

Notably, there are reversed gender roles in Dirty Dancing with regard to the norms that have been set by the social, economic status. This notion is acted out through the relationship between Johnny and both baby and Vivian. Even though Johnny demonstrates no romantic feelings for Vivian, he does not seem to have the capacity to reject her sexual advances. In the same regard, Vivian possesses both the money and the power to purchase his romantic interest. Also, she is at liberty and power of ensuring that he is removed from his job permanently. The reversal of gender roles is also seen in the case of Johnny and baby where also he is the one who is sexually experienced and older; baby is the one who is seen seducing him. As a result, we can see that the man is placed in a weaker position which in another way depicts the social, economic class. Placing the male lead character in an inferior position as compared to the female character denies man the power and results in his demeanor.

In both the films, the reflections of the society at the time are depicted.  In most cases, films have been used to show the norms that are socially acceptable in the society. However, in this case, we can see a change in the common tendency. There is a deviation of propagation of the teen stereotypes Dirty Dancing, in particular, is one of the movies that show the hierarchical nature of the American society played out in reversal of gender roles which was unexpected. Similarly, the dances in the films have been used symbolically to either show the ability of women to take control of their bodies in what is seen as feministic stances.

Works Cited

Boyd, Jade. "Dance, culture, and popular film." Feminist Media Studies 4.1 (2004): 67-83.

Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical. Indiana University Press, 1993.

McRobbie, Angela. "Dance and social fantasy." Gender and generation. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1984. 130-161.

McRobbie, Angela. "Fame, Flashdance, and Fantasies of Achievement." Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body(1990): 39-58.

August 01, 2023

Entertainment Music



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