The ‘80s Caste System
In Breakfast Club, John Hughes contrasted the poise and self-assurance of Claire Standish, the rich, popular girl played by Molly Ringwald, with the awkwardness of nerdy Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall), and the disaffection of rebellious John Bender (Judd Nelson), who both came from impoverished families. While the movie made the case that wealth and poverty alike could make life difficult for teenagers, it didn’t make a convincing case that Claire would ever abandon the privileges of popularity to pursue a real romance with Bender, or that Brian would actually be able to escape the stigma conferred on him by his outsize intellect. On this single, out-of-the-ordinary day, the students may have found the gumption to tell off a teacher who's overly eager to pigeonhole them, but there’s little indication that they’re willing to go further and buck the parents who pressure and misunderstand them.
In Pretty In Pink, another Hughes classic, poverty-stricken but creative Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald) wins the love of a rich, popular boy with her looks and integrity. Yet it’s clear that this development isn’t intended to imply that the caste system isn’t so rigid after all: at the end of the movie, Andie’s best friend Duckie remains an outcast.
Other ‘80s directors were even more insistent on this point. In Michael Lehmann’s black comedy Heathers, the clique system can only be dismantled by murder.
The Rise of the Band Geek
While the social stakes are still high, the next generation of classic teen flicks has taken a decidedly more relaxed attitude toward cliques. In 10 Things I Hate About You, a 1999 riff on Taming of the Shrew, the movie’s creators suggest that cliques are artificial, rather than the natural order, by making them out to be absurd: instead of jocks and cheerleaders, the movie’s peripheral characters sort themselves into esoteric groups like the Cowboys, the Coffee Kids, the White Rastas, and the Future MBAs. Mean Girls, too, offered an absurd litany of cliques—listed at one point by a supporting character as, “ROTC guys, preps, J.V. jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, Varsity jocks, unfriendly black hotties, girls who eat their feelings, girls who don't eat anything, desperate wannabes, burnouts, sexually active band geeks.”
These movies don’t deny that groups are important to the self-image of the characters. But the groups in question clearly aren’t predetermined—you aren’t automatically sorted into one of them based on your parents’ jobs. Rather, the new groupings are largely a matter of choice, and there’s not a clear divide between acceptable and mortifyingly unacceptable categories. Being a sexually active band geek might not make you popular, but it does mean you’re getting laid.
There’s also a newfound emphasis on social groups based on after-school activities, and a new measure of respect for those who are good at and committed to something– whatever it might be. In Mean Girls, one appealing character treats math meets like prize fights, raps about his sexual prowess at a school talent show, and hands out business cards that describe him as a “Math Enthusiast—Bad-Ass M.C.” Another character finds true happiness only upon giving up tormenting others and learning to take out her aggression on the lacrosse field. Even the otherwise lackluster She’s All That (1999) makes the case that a jock can find a home in the avant-garde performance art community.