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How the teen rom-com genre came of age in 2018

Bolu Babalola reflects on what it is about 90s and 00s heroines that still resonates today, and how new Netflix gems are shaking up the status quo

In our new column THE BINGE WATCH, TV writer and critic Bolu Babalola takes a deep dive into what’s streaming, and tells you what should be on your watch list. 

Ariana Grande’s video for “thank u, next” – arguably the seminal pop cultural moment of 2018 – was, ironically, a retro homage to iconic teen movies of the 00s (Mean Girls, Bring It On, and through technicalities, 13 Going On 30 and Legally Blonde). Its teased-out release generated as much buzz as vodka-spiked punch at a high school rager. Though it would be easy to attribute the video’s success to the warmth of nostalgia – which on its own has a fair merit – it was more than that. We’re in the midst of of a re-embracing, and re-configuring, of the teen rom-com.

The genre is resuming the important place it takes up in our cultural landscape, and in some cases, with a crucial update: it’s now actively seeking to venture out of the white, slim teen queen package we’ve traditionally been offered. Though a lack of diversity is by no means unique to the genre, it is particularly notable considering that canonically, the core tenets of a high school movie include acceptance of the marginalised and the triumph of those typically unseen (i.e., the embrace of the kids who eat their lunch in the bathroom). With movies such as To All The Boys I Loved Before and Dumplin’ providing us with sparkling stars such as Lana Condor and Danielle Macdonald, we’re seeing a transformation of what teen queens look like and represent, reflecting a crucial progression in the genre, and switching up who we’re seeing on the popular table of teen movies.

Like most actors in teen movies, Ariana is not a teenager, but that’s effectively irrelevant to what screen queens in teen movies represent. Adolescence is the period where we’re first cognizant of the fact that we don’t have shit all figured out – that indeed, there is shit to figure out at all – which is why the genre provides a perfect conceit for larger life metaphors and experiences. That state of transmutation, growth, trying to navigate your place in a world, figuring yourself out while being expected to have some sort of plan for the future, is universal.

These movies provide the perfect canvas to project ourselves onto. Teen movie heroines are often attractive – but not alienatingly so – warm, intelligent (emotionally and intellectually), and crucially, they are fallible. In them, we often find a mould that we can pour ourselves into for about 100 minutes. We root for them, not because they are perfect, but because, like us, they fumble while trying to find their way and their voices. Cady Heron vomits on her crush, abandons her friends, and falls down the high school social ladder before she has her come-to-Jesus moment. Teen screen queens are how we want to see ourselves: triumphing through the odds, falling and then getting back up, making mistakes and then learning from them. Their allure is neither perfection or indestructibility, but rather the fact that shit happens to them and they can still survive, even thrive, while remaining themselves.

The idea that the inner bad bitch resides within you all along is key. This is why, as a rule, their crush is often someone posited as unattainable – i.e., a jock if you’re a little nerdy (Mean Girls), cool and edgy if you’re a little uptight (10 Things I Hate About You), and hyper-intellectual if you’re more easy-going (Clueless). This is crucial to the overall satisfying message of the teen rom-com: you are enough as you are. You are charming and cute enough to get a love interest that high school clique ecology says is out of your remit.

Though romance is obviously an important factor, friendships are of foundational, equal importance – if not even more – in pivotal character development. In Mean Girls, Cady making up with Janis and Damien is just as important as her Happily Ever After kiss with Aaron Samuels. (Hot guys in teen movies are always known by their first and last names. It is almost a cardinal rule.) In Clueless, we want Tai and Cher to reconcile as much as we root for her and Josh to get their shit together and realise what we already know. The importance of friendship, a good squad holding you down, is elemental. A screen queen is nothing without an army of equals supporting her.  

“If the beauty of the teen rom-com is its universality – the fact that anyone should be able to watch it and relate to feelings of insecurity, romance, friendship – then the lack of non-white faces says a lot about the size of the universe according to the genre’s content creators”

Though these films are at least a decade old (In the case of Clueless, two decades old), online we see constant affectionate reference to them, through gifs, quotes and tribute accounts. It’s not surprising: there has been a notable decline in the teen rom-com, and the drought has created a thirst for the pure joy that comes from rooting for a teen queen, to live and win their battles with them, to kiss the crush. In an increasingly dark societal climate, the refreshing escapism that comes from living through awkward, cute heroines is a necessary component of a pop culture survival kit – which explains why we drank up the “thank u, next” video like we were obnoxious jocks and it was keg of beer.

However, it’s crucial to note that all of the teen queens honoured in Ariana’s video are white as fuck – because screen teen queens are usually white as fuck. The only representation of black women in seminal teen movie Mean Girls comes via the “Unfriendly Black Hotties” – a group specifically defined by their race. Cady has moved to her new American high school from the homogenous mass known as “Africa”. Gabrielle Union played a ditzy sidekick to a secondary character in 10 Things I Hate About You. Though Clueless gave us Stacey Dash’s Dionne Davenport, who was charming, brown-skinned and braided – a nuanced character with her own arc – she still remained The Best Friend. The 90s and 00s never gave us a Dionne Davenport as the central character. If the beauty of the teen rom-com is its universality – the fact that anyone should be able to watch it and relate to feelings of insecurity, the first blush of romance, the joy of friendship – then the lack of non-white faces says a lot about the size of the universe according to the genre’s content creators. Diversity is less of a blind spot in the teen rom-com genre, but rather a gaping black hole.

This is why the burgeoning evolution of the teen screen queen that we have seen in recent years – and particularly in 2018 – is so exciting. In the underrated late 2017 Netflix teen rom-com #RealityHigh (yes, with the hashtag), we see the adorably awkward Dani Barnes (a black girl!) fall for the hot sweet jock (a black boy!), and have a taste of popularity before realising that friendship >> retweets. It’s cute, it’s charming, and it’s a classic tale of a girl realising that she shouldn’t have to change herself for anyone – the people right for her will like her the way she is.

This summer, we saw the Netflix hit To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, the sparky, emotionally sophisticated rom-com starring Lana Condor, an Asian-American woman as Lara-Jean Covey, witty, endearing teenager with a strong sense of self. As in most teen movies, the jock, Peter Kavinsky is quickly charmed by her – but unlike many, Lara isn’t reverent of him. She may be flattered by his affection, but it’s made clear that she sees herself as his match. She initiates their first proper kiss. Their romance is quite literally on her terms. It’s a stronger iteration of the feminism lite we’ve seen in the film’s predecessors, and it means more that it comes from an Asian-American young woman – a direct confrontation to racist stereotypes of Asian women being subservient and timid.

“High school movies have always been so popular because they really are just a microcosm of life: everybody’s just trying to figure out where the fuck they’re going”

More recently, Netflix released the delightful Dumplin’. The charming tale follows Willowdean Dixon, sarcastic, smart high school student with a slightly brusque demeanour that, like some kind of teen-queen crème brûlée,  soon gives way to a soft heart with a few strategic narrative taps. Willowdean is a plus-size girl who decides to tackle the world of Southern pageants under the shadow of her ex beauty-queen mother (a pitch perfect Jennifer Aniston) as she processes her grief for her beloved aunt. The film will make your heart glow. Though the story follows Willowdean challenging societal norms of beauty, it skillfully avoids centering her weight and treating it as something negative (as some of Netflix’s recent output featuring plus-size protagonists has been guilty of). Instead, Dumplin’ focuses on the determined, witty young woman Willowdean is.

Willowdean has her insecurities, but it’s clear that even when she doesn’t like herself, she loves herself. This gives us space to experience the beauty of her female friendships, both old and nascent, and her memories of the vivacious role model that was her aunt. And of course, we get to experience young love with the cute boy she works with at the diner, who adores her just the way she is. Notably, though, her journey of acceptance is never about getting the boy. Her pageantry path is – more than anything – about embracing herself, and making her aunt proud. Here, our teen queen becomes defiant and unapologetic about who she is; the only voices that matter are her own and the women she admires.

High school movies have always been so popular because they really are just a microcosm of life: everybody’s just trying to figure out where the fuck they’re going without losing themselves on the way – doing it, if not with grace, at least with good humour, a squad and possibly a peng-ting to flirt with. A classic teen movie trope is a makeover, and in 2018, the genre underwent one of its own. Not only is increased diversity in the genre important because it is simply the right thing to do, but it also allows deeper stories to develop, and bigger conversations to happen. This year, teen movies have corrected the lens through which people who have been typically otherised are seen, and enriched cultural discourse – and as a result, they’ve been better than they have in years. With the great To All the Boys...  and Dumplin’ leading the way as the current Queen Bees of the Class of 2018, I cannot wait to see what the evolution brings in 2019, and what more these movies have to teach us.