Gary Kern

The Triumph of Teen-Prop: Terminator II and the End of History

From a talk given at the Eaton Conference on Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, April 1993

By a happy coincidence, the local newspaper announcing the Easton Conference on Children in the Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror" contains an article on people between the ages of twelve and twenty, and reports a boom in their numbers. By the year 2000, according to federal demographers, there will be 3.2 million additional teenagers in America, or 27.6 million strong. The article goes on to offer some views on the youngsters:

For the most part, young people today are more street savvy than the adolescents of the Baby Boom era, those born between 1946 and 1964... Kids these days have never known a world without computers, compact discs, MTV, fast food or Nintendo. But their world has also been a place with drive-by shootings, AIDS and tough economic times.

"These kids are much more grounded in reality," said Peter Zollo, President of Teen-age Research Unlimited, a market research firm in Northbrook, Illinois. "They have a high sense of personal responsibility, and they are coming from a very different place than those who are even just a few years older." (1)

The article reflects a recent and rather remarkable attitude toward kids. At no time in the past did adults hope to learn anything from children, except perhaps for the location of their hurts and the nature of their needs. But today teenagers are studied by market research analysts and polled for their opinions on world affairs. Whenever a television interviewer asks a question of the man or woman on the street, at least one of the interviewees will be a teen, and that teen's opinion, by the process of selection, will sound as wise as, and often smarter than, those of his or her seniors. Kids on the street, kids in the classroom, kids in special discussion groups have become an integral part of every political campaign. We trust the kids. We suspect that they are brighter, hipper than we--we, who are no longer teens. Our promise is spent, theirs--invested. We messed up the past and can't handle the present. They will do better. "The children are our future"--so runs the sentiment of the day.

But wait a minute. Are teens of today really "more grounded in reality" than teens of the past? Reality, after all, is not a temporal category; it does not change from generation to generation, but remains fixed forever. To be "more grounded in reality" than someone else, one must know not only Nintendo, but what is real and illusory, and know it better than that other person. So then, can we say that the teens of the 1990s are more grounded in reality than, say, the teens of the 1940s who went to war, or the teens of the 1950s who went to work to help support their families, or the teens of the 1960s who went to protest rallies, or the teens of the 1970s who went to school and, again, to work? Or, for that matter, to the teens of the 1930s who ran a hoe over the ground and picked peas, or to immigrant teens at the turn of the century who grew up in New York, Chicago, or Kalamazoo? Is it meaningful to say that the teens of today, because they watch MTV and know AIDS, are more grounded in reality than the teens of yesterday who watched cars pass their window and knew polio, or to any teens doing anything at any time? Or can reality be defined by a market research analyst living off of teens?

Certainly we are impressed by the bright teens we see on TV, but what do we see in real life? Aren't kids today a lot like kids in the past? That is to say, likable in many ways, but irritating in others? Promising--yes, but an uncultivated field has promise. Aren't they self-centered, ignorant, ungrateful, disruptive, rebellious--like juveniles of all times the world over? And as for their brightness, aren't a good many of them unable to find the United States of America on a map of the world, incapable of reading above the level of street signs, ignorant of everything besides media pap? Aren't America's youth hitting rock bottom in all international measures of educational achievement? Aren't they setting new national records in crime, pregnancy and sexual diseases? Or are these statistics somehow related to their grounding in reality?

The glorification of teens is an aberration of our time. It is a hidden revolution that few have noticed or commented upon, yet one that has transformed relations between parents and children, teachers and students, older and younger generations. This hidden revolution has no name, although the term youth culture comes close. It is the new relationship between adults and children, beginning after World War II, in which the adults projected onto children, especially teenagers, qualities and abilities they never before were imagined to have. It is also a revolution manufactured by cynical adults working for a profit, and tolerated, even accepted, by spiritually exhausted adults who blame themselves for social maladies and lack confidence in their own values. The presumed superiority of teens to adults, and even their accepted equality, is not simply a historical delusion that grew up on its own and will be outgrown in time, but a multi-billion dollar industry that intends to survive by creating a false world for children, protecting it fiercely against criticism, and perpetuating it worldwide for financial and psychological gain.

This false world has many playgrounds, with entertainments to excite every sense. We are going to look at just one: the teen-propaganda film, or teen-prop, which arose in the 1950s, grew up in the '60s and '70s, enjoyed its golden age in the '80s, and became universal and well-nigh invisible in the '90s. As its high point we shall examine the film Terminator II, the teen-prop sequel to the teenless epic, The Terminator.

1. The Innocent Years Before Teen-Prop

The first films about teens and pre-teens, appearing in the 1930s and '40s, did not advocate an adolescent point of view. They presented young people in their own world, doing things that young people might do, but as seen, remembered or imagined by adults. For the most part, these kids were innocent and wholesome, either because that is the way they were in real life, or because that is the way the adults filmmakers wanted to see them. In any event, they were not fully formed human beings; they did not call into question the authority of adults or the validity of adult society, but rather displayed themselves in their sometimes awkward, sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous progress toward maturity. The few among them who lost a portion of their innocence and wholesomeness still remained pretty darn good kids; they were just momentarily caught under a bad influence and had to learn a valuable lesson. Such were the Andy Hardy films with Mickey Rooney, the Shirley Temple cutsie-poo tales, Jackie Moran and Marcie Mae Jones as all-American boy and his girlfriend next door; and, on the other hand, the Dead End Kids, the Little Tough Guys and other picturesque and innocuous hoodlums and juvenile delinquents.(2)

Evidently the filmmakers assumed that real kids would find these pictures fun to watch simply because of the young actors, the youthful situations and the sheer novelty of a youth-oriented entertainment. The assumption proved correct: the films enjoyed an immediate and phenomenal box-office success, challenging the preeminence of films made exclusively for grown-ups. In a rush for the gold, Hollywood made more and more "kid pix," copying one after the other without much regard for cinema verité. "The continued success of films featuring young stars led to an excessive dependence upon formula in the hope of continuing the box-office bonanza," writes one movie critic. "The result was that the years between 1940 and 1949 saw the most uniform, repetitious and unrepresentative set of adolescent images in the history of the American screen." (3)

At the same time a sort of antithesis to the clean-cut kids was forming. During World War II, Hollywood naturally devoted most of its energies to military subjects, but it also produced escapist fare and some films on juvenile delinquency. These films were geared chiefly to an adult audience and betrayed something of a prurient interest, as their titles indicate: Good-Time Girls, Girls in the Night, Prison Girls, Girls on Probation, Girls in Chains, The Weak and the Wicked, The Young and the Damned, Bad Boy, Hot Rod, Curse of a Teenage Nazi. Apparently, the adult filmmakers suspected that the youth were doing what they, the filmmakers, had wanted to do when they were teens, and they looked upon them both with envy and moral reproach. (4)

Whatever may be said about the falsification of young people in wholesome kid films or wild teen films, one thing held true to reality: the teen world was always subordinate to the adult world. Even when the film focused entirely on teens, the heroes by their speech and actions implied an outer world that they had not yet entered, and they were never put in a position to judge that world. Most often they interacted with the adult world, seeking the support of the good grown-ups against the machinations of the bad, so that both teens and adults could watch these films with a degree of mutual sympathy and satisfaction. Moreover, the teens appearing in adult films were of the same sort as those appearing in teen pictures. When Mr. Smith went to Washington (1939) and ran into government corruption, he was helped by swarms of kids serving papers that reported his heroic filibuster. The kids contributed to society by helping the right adults, not by routing the whole older generation and sending them running into the streets, stripped naked and shaved bald, as would happen in a typical teen-prop film of a later day. (Porky's II, 1983)

But even by the early 1940s, the cinematic harmony between teens and adults had begun to erode. In 1942, as the same critic notes, a Variety headline announced:


World War II was taking away moviegoers of the twenty-one to forty-five-year-old group, and a public relations campaign was launched to attract teen patrons. It worked. After the war, nineteen-year-olders were found to be the most frequent and faithful ticket buyers. Hollywood, as always, opted for the easy buck, increasing its production for the most dependable group. Inevitably the pitch to the audience had to change from the adult-idealized image of cute kids to something a little rougher and closer to home. And so, through the 1950s and '60s, kid pix turned increasingly to teen relationships, generational conflict, and the passions of youth.

A particularly troublesome item was rock 'n' roll music, since it promised millions of teen bucks, but bore an obvious message of teen rebelliousness against the older society, to which the filmmakers belonged. For the time being Hollywood contained the problem by combining rock 'n' roll with its standard version of wholesome kids (Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon) in a series of nauseating beach films. Likewise Elvis the Pelvis was twisted from a vulgarian rabble-rouser into a Mama's pretty boy who likes to babysit and sing to puppets (G.I. Blues, 1960). As a final ploy, Hollywood tried to present this most incendiary brand of music in the role of a unifier of all ages and peoples. (5) But here, as well as in the beginning, the harmony was forced and worked against Hollywood's ultimate goal: total sell-out.

2. Teen Exploitation

The war was over, and with it the wartime films. Kids formed a larger percentage of the population than previously and had money earned from after-school jobs. With the advent of television, a drop in adult attendance at theaters, rising costs of high-quality filmmaking and the divestiture of movie-theater chains, the movie industry turned to the kids as to its salvation, producing quick, cheap double-features suitable for showing in drive-in theaters. Most of these films, contrary to the old formula, did not show idealized pictures of scrubbed-clean youths, but rather shocking portrayals of kids on the edge, driven by uncontrollable urges, or thrown into unusual situations, such as encounters with space creatures. Sensationalism worked for adults; it ought to work for teens. The kids ate it up. They recognized the films as cheap and ludicrous, but nevertheless made for them; they knew that the fantastic situations distorted their lives, but nevertheless saw accurate representations of themselves in the clothes, speech and manners of the actors. Aside from running into werewolves and monsters, the kids in these films did ordinary things: they drove cars, competed with other kids, made out and got into trouble. From 1954 to 1969 hundreds of such films were made, and few failed to turn in a profit. The teens, now constituting between fifty and ninety percent of the moviegoing audience, kept the industry rolling.

Alan Betrock gives a nostalgic account of all this in his study, The I Was a Teenage Juvenile Delinquent Rock 'n' Roll Horror Beach Party Movie Book: A Complete Guide to the Teen Exploitation Film, 1954-1969. The book's facetious title follows the chronological phases of the teen-exploitation film, from juvenile deliquent film to rock 'n' roll film to horror film to beach-party film. Let's look at some titles in the pantheon along with some marque blurbs.

Juvenile delinquents appear in such films as The Blackboard Jungle (called "nightmarish and bloodcurdling" by the New York Times, it promoted Bill Haley's song, "Rock around the Clock"), The Cool and the Crazy ("Seven savage punks on a weekend binge of violence!"), Crybaby Killer ("Yesterday a teenage rebel, today a mad-dog slayer!"--Jack Nicholson's first film), The Delinquents, Dragstrip Girl, Dragstrip Riot, Eighteen and Anxious ("Parents may be shocked, but youth will understand!"), Girls on the Loose ("Trigger tough and ready for anything! Crime-crazy girl gangs... looting... lying... living only for thrills!"), High School Hellcats, The Restless Years ("The story of a town with a 'dirty' mind! Where evil gossip threatened disgrace to two decent youngsters in love!"), Teenage Bad Girl, Teenage Crime Wave, Teenage Doll, Teen-age Menace, Teenage Rebel, Teenage Wolfpack.

Rock 'n' roll films include such hits as Carnival Rock ("Hold onto your seat. It's got a heat-beat!"); Dangerous Youth; Rock All Night; Rock Baby, Rock It; Rock, Pretty Baby; Untamed Youth ("Youth turned rock 'n' roll wild and the punishment farm that makes them wilder... Starring the girl built like a platinum powerhouse--Mamie Van Doren").

Teenage horror is found in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (Michael Landon's most embarrassing role), I Was a Teenage Frankenstein ("Body of a boy! Mind of a monster! Soul of an unearthly thing!"), Invasion of the Saucer Men, The Curse of the Living Corpse, The Blob, Teenage Caveman, Teenage Monster, Teenage Zombies, Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary (also released as The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Crazy Mixed-up Zombies, "not for sissies") and Village of the Giants (based loosely on H.G. Wells).

The beach party films, a retrograde movement, originated in the early sixties, when other teen-exploitation films were growing stale. American International Pictures, run by Samuel Z. Arkoff, called in William Asher, who had directed I Love Lucy and Make Room for Daddy on TV. Asher wanted clean-cut kids, not delinquents, and Arkoff let him have his way. The result was a bland concoction of healthy kids cavorting on the beach with grown-up celebrities like Vincent Price stolling by: Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Beach Blanket Bingo and How To Stuff a Wild Bikini. To Arkoff's surprise, the films were a big hit and spawned many imitations. Betrock explains their appeal:

Why were the pictures so successful? Well, they moved fast and were escapist fun. There were no parents. They were ridiculous. They were, despite AIP's claims of cleanliness, sexy. All those bodies and bikinis churning away to twangy rock 'n' roll offered a fantasy vision of life without serious problems. (6)

As Betrock sees it, the exploitation factor in all these films--juvenile delinquent to beach party--consisted in their sensationalism. Kids were brought into the theaters and drive-ins by advertisements, billboards and publicity gimmicks that promised more than they delivered. Nevertheless, looking back on these films, he finds them endearing--for their camp, nostalgia, pop-culture values, attention to teen issues and their interaction with the teen audience as a two-way street of influence. For him, they were harmless fun.

Arkoff was the chief producer; his AIP made over 500 movies. As one might expect, he was a baldheaded man with a big cigar. For him, exploitation was a practical consideration:

People sneer at exploitation. This is unmitigated bullshit. The fact is, we didn't have any stars, we didn't have any star directors, we didn't have any star producers, we didn't have any star plays, we didn't have any star--whatever it was. So we had to depend upon a title and exploitation. (7)

What needs to be said is that exploitation is not a good or even harmless thing--especially of kids by adults. At first the kids were lured into the carnival by the colors, the lights and the carneys; they spent their money, they had a good time, but they knew that they had been cheated. Still, they went back, expecting less, having less of a good time, until it stopped being fun. At that point something more than hype was needed to bring them in. Hollywood had to give them what they wanted--or what it thought they wanted. For kid pix this meant giving them their own truths. Moviemakers had to assure them that their rebellious instincts were not a social problem, but a valid point of view: the problems in the world were caused by adults, not kids; the kids, in fact, were better than their elders in every respect, and if only the adults would leave them alone they could work things out for the best. This was a new type of exploitation, psychological exploitation. This was teen-prop.

3. The Birth of Teen-Prop

The trend had been growing all along through the early teen films, but had not yet attained dominance. Recall the blurb for Eighteen and Anxious: "Parents may be shocked, but youth will understand." The same sentiment appears in a review of Cynthia (1947), starring Elizabeth Taylor: "Cynthia's mother and father learn a thing or two about dignity from their daughter." A publicity blurb for the phenomenally popular Rebel without a Cause (1955): "Jim Stark, a kid in the year 1955. What makes him tick like a time bomb? Maybe the police should have arrested his parents instead." (8) In Don't Knock the Rock (1956), the kids show the adult opponents of rock 'n' roll how stodgy and stupid they are by staging a pageant at high school; it contains classical paintings, traditional dances and a demonstration of the Charleston. One old square eventually gets the point and jumps up to confess: "You're right, we're really a bunch of narrow-minded fools." (9) A Time review of Blue Denim (1959) observes: "The fault here seems to lie not so much with the youngsters... as with the obtuse parents who are never properly plugged into the problems of their young." (10)

After so much advance publicity, the cause of the young finally broke out into the open with a landmark film of the mid-1960s. Although not a teen film per se, since it featured a fresh bachelor of arts, The Graduate (1967) nevertheless pitted a world of good kids with sincere and honest motives against a conformist world of corrupt and disgusting adults. The hero, played by Dustin Hoffman in his first starring role, rejects the advances of a lascivious older woman--Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft--and falls in love with her daughter, who has the decent impulses of youth but the wrong example of her parents. The two youngsters, graduate and girl, must oppose the false values of their elders and seek a better way. The film was a smash hit; director Mike Nichols won an Oscar. For the youth of the 1960s, Simon and Garfunkel's mocking lyric, sung throughout the movie, became something of a badge of honor, almost a national anthem: "And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know. Ho, ho, ho." The idea that the grown-up world, the establishment, the military-industrial complex that produced the war in Vietnam, parents, everyone over 30, had anything believable to say was finished.

But we should not pass too quickly by Don't Knock the Rock, which in its own way set a landmark. By exposing the older opponents of rock 'n' roll music as "narrow-minded fools," the film provided a formula for dealing with anyone who stood in the way of the ballooning youth culture. Henceforth all critics of rock music, recreational drugs, teen sex and total teen liberty, as well as of the industries profiting from them, would be portrayed as ridiculous bigots, squares, sex-starved hypocrites, reactionaries, obscurantists and meddlesome fools. Not only the teen films, but popular music, youth-oriented publications, television shows and spokespersons making money off of teens picked up the tactic. It is a simple, but devastating device that effectively prevents any serious discussion in this country of the ethics, morality and sensibility of the teen trade, since the various groups of mothers and politicians who periodically try to oppose it cannot remove the established context and end up looking like old fogies whatever they do. Further, they cannot produce even one-millionth of the sounds and images routinely manufactured by the teen-prop media. They appear like mice on the Serengeti plains, complaining about the herds and proposing various systems for rating the destructiveness of their hooves.

The Graduate gave the youth perspective validity. No one watching the film, whatever his or her age, would want to side with the Robinsons--smug, snobbish, conventional, consumerist, hypocritical. The youth perspective harkens us all back to our early hopes and dreams, to our comparative innocence and optimism. We don't want to be made mean and nasty by society; we can recover our pure motives by listening to the kids. Such a message ran its course through the films of the 1960s and '70s without setting any major trends. But it was still a tame message and did not capitalize on the market. Only in the 1980s were the edges sharpened, when the college graduate of the '60s himself passed the age of believability, but started making his own movies.

Risky Business (1983), starring Tom Cruise and Rebecca de Mornay, set the style for the decade. Here the parents, represented as dunderheads, take a trip and leave their son, Joel Goodsen, alone in a big house with a Porsche in the garage. A good boy worrried about his grades and chances of getting into college, Goodsen is reluctant to take advantage of the situation, but his buddy Miles, an intellectual sort, gives him a piece of advice:

"Every now and then say 'What the fuck!' 'What the fuck' gives you freedom, freedom brings opportunity, opportunity makes your future... So your folks are going out of town? Got the place all to yourself? What the fuck! If you can't say it, you can't do it."

Miles's philosophy opens the door to a series of adventures in which the teens drink, drive, smoke, wreck things, get laid and wind up running a whorehouse out of Joel's home. Joel buys off the Princeton University recruiter with a sample of the goods and patches up the place in time for his parents' return. They, of course, haven't a clue. "Sometimes," the father tells his son in the last scene, "you just have to say, `What the heck.'" Dad is thereby exposed as a hopeless boob. The work he does is not mentioned, and the fact that he provides the house, the car, the money and all the conditions for Joel's adventure does not earn him one jot of credit in the viewer's account, because in each of his three scenes he proves himself a washout as a human being. The movie, in sum, puts forward five lessons:

1. Parents are a joke.

2. School is a drag.

3. Sex, booze, pot, obscenity and what the fuck are good.

4. The system sucks.

5. If you're smart or lucky, you can beat it.

Risky Business is a well-made film with excellent photography, inventive dialogue and real bursts of humor. Actor Tom Cruise, at the beginning of his career, is adept at personifying the raw youth coming to maturity--here hesitant and shy, there determined and tough. Without question the film deals with real adolescent issues (such as competition for college admission) and accurately depicts details of adolescent behavior (such as a card game with cursing and cigars). Nor are up-tight parents entirely a product of fictional imagination, though here they are shown from the floor up, as though Joel were an infant. Yet the realistic features of the film by no means mitigate its teen-prop structure; instead, they work within it. Details of real life are true within the context of real life; taken from that context and made a sole and exclusive reality, they are converted to half-truths and lies.

For example, the reason for Joel's adventure is that he can't enjoy sex with a proper partner--a girl from his own circle of friends, who is willing. His and her parents, the authorities, are strictly opposed. He has to go elsewhere--outside the high school, to a prostitute, the heroine of the film. His parents drove him into the arms of a prostitute--that's the underlying premise. Even more preposterous is the thrill the virginal high-schooler gives the hardened hooker--a product, by the way, of an abusive step-father. Yet this unbelievable commingling of schoolboy and whore was sufficient to give birth to a hundred similar kids, all bawling for attention.

4. The Golden Age of Teen-Prop

By the eighties the youth culture was so well established, the industry thriving on it so firmly entrenched and the mechanisms for ridiculing its critics so automatic and effective, that filmmakers could exploit teen attitudes without remorse or fear of interference. Once constituted as an independent entity--an artistic genre, if you will--the teen-prop film could function without connection to reality, seeking to top itself with each new venture, spreading out to embrace different types of films, becoming overblown, outrageous and ludicrous in the process, but surviving so long as it could fuel itself with big bucks. Just like the Frankenstein film of an earlier decade, which sold horror, or a pretense of it, so the teen-prop film sold rebellion, or a pretense of it: proof that the kids were right and the authority figures were wrong in each and every instance. So many films drove home this argument that we have space barely to list them by category and title


Teens romp in vulgar escapades involving sex, booze and close scrapes; they outwit their teachers and other adults, and show them up as bigots, lechers and hypocrites. Titles: Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979), Porky's (1981), Porky's II: The Next Day (1983), Porky's Revenge (1985), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Mischief (1985).


Teens experience something important, such as the goodness of sex or the evil of adults, grow up and prepare for the hard road ahead: Losing It (1982), Risky Business (1983), All the Right Moves (1983), Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989).

As the greatest I-hate-parents film of all time, The Breakfast Club deserves special mention. The premise is that five kids must spend Saturday in detention hall. Their monitor, a kid-hating gym teacher, sets them the assignment of writing an essay on the subject, "Who am I?" Rather than do the assignment, the kids tease and taunt each other, then enter into a psychodrama in which each bares his or her soul, revealing the source of agony in each case to be an abominable parent: (1) Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez), the athlete--forced to be a wrestler and number-one tough guy by his super-jock father, "the son of a bitch." (2) Bender (Judd Nelson), the angry young man--yelled-at, abused and tortured with burning cigars by his boozing, brawling old man. (3) Claire (Molly Ringwald), the beautiful red-haired princess--not loved by her parents, who are "both screwed," but used by them as a pawn in their marital battles. (4) Bryan (Anthony Michael Hall), the brain--driven to contemplate suicide by his parents' obsessive insistence on his making straight A's. (5) Kooky (Ally Sheedy), the mischievous and mysterious artist--reserved for a special torture by her parents: indifference. The kids discover teen truths: "It's unavoidable. It just happens... When you grow up, your heart dies." They expose their monitor as a burned-out cynic looking forward to retirement. They trash the library detention hall, smoke pot and learn to love one another. Andrew falls for Kooky. Bender humps Claire in the closet. Bryan, lacking girl, writes a short essay for them all: "We are what you make of us." The five leave the school at last as rebels with a cause: to love each other and detest their parents.


Teens break away from the limitations imposed upon them by adults and take their place, proving themselves better mentally, physically and sexually: A Night in Heaven (1983), Class (1983), Angel (1983), Teachers (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Back to the Future II (1989), Back to the Future III (1990).


Teens take a break from the rigors of school and enjoy a fanciful adventure: The Sure Thing (1983), Spring Break (1984), Summer Lovers (1984), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), Career Opportunities (1991).


Teens and pre-teens get away from the adult world and live like grown-ups without restrictions: The Blue Lagoon (1981), Lord of the Flies (1990), Return to the Blue Lagoon (1991). The original Lord of the Flies (1963) located the growing savagery of the island schoolboys in the uncivilized human heart; the remake (1990)--in their religious schooling by adults.


Teens kill and get killed. A throwback to I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1958), but also to Carrie (1976), whose religious-fanatic mother was the original source of evil, teen horror advances the values of teen-prop, but inconsistently, so that often other teens are the object of hatred, and sometimes the monster is not a characteristic adult, but a deranged one, as in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1982). Other titles: The Initiation of Sarah (1978), Sweet Sixteen (1981), Splatter University (1983), Sleep Away Camp (1984), A Nightmare on Elm Street (I, II, III, etc.), Friday the Thirteenth (I,II,III, etc.).


Teens are superior to adults, especially in military and technical matters. Teens save the world. Teens save the universe. Titles: War Games (1983), Red Dawn (1984), Night of the Comet (1984), Real Genius (1985), The Last Star Fighter (1985).


Teens become magical, realize their dreams, or live after death. Magic permits them to release violent impulses without immediate punishment. Titles: Christine (1983), Heavenly Kid (1985), Teen Wolf (1985), Weird Science (1985).


Pre-teens demonstrate their innate superiority by outwitting, tormenting and sometimes physically torturing adults. Titles: Uncle Buck (1989), Home Alone (1990), Problem Child (1990), Problem Child II (1991), Home Alone II: Lost in New York (1992), Dennis the Menace (1993).


An infant proves smarter than bumbling kipnappers: Baby's Day Out (1993), hopefully the only example.

Such is a partial list of titles in the golden age of teen-prop--a full decade of pitiless propaganda directed against the older generation by teen-exploiting members of the same generation. More titles and possibly more categories could be described. But at a certain point it becomes impossible to count or to catalogue them all: teen-prop films sprang up everywhere, yet were not quite the same. What happened was that at the beginning of the nineties any film that had anything to do with kids became teen-prop.

5. The Universalization of Teen-Prop

A striking indication of the change in the times can be seen in remakes of old films, where not only the details and technology may differ, but also the attitudes and values. In Psycho II (1983), the schizophrenic killer Norman Bates is pronounced cured after more than twenty years in an insane asylum and sent home to reopen his defunct motel, the setting for paralyzing horror in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). People start getting murdered again, but Bates is innocent this time, for the focus in the remake is not on his mental imbalance, but rather on generational conflict, so that toward the end, in a grotesque appeal to the younger audience, an overly talkative mother gets pinned to the floor with a butcher knife--stabbed right through her gibbering mouth. Like other distinguished actors in the fading twilight of their careers (Lesley Ann Warren, Dick Shawn, Rory Calhoun, Lee Grant), Anthony Perkins, the original Norman Bates, rode out teen-prop to an ignominious end, making yet Psycho III (1986) and Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990), the last in the series finally explaining how Bates got so mixed up: his mother was oversexed.

What happened between 1960 and 1990 to turn even Norman Bates from a shrieking monster into a good kid with a legitimate point of view? In a remarkably prescient book of 1982, social critic Neil Postman announced The Disappearance of Childhood. His thesis is that childhood did not always exist in the history of mankind as a clear-cut stage of life, but emerged only after the advent of printing in the fifteenth century. The print culture fostered literacy, learning, sequential thinking, protestantism, secularism and a separation of literate and learned people from illiterate and unlearned people, hence the development of education, schooling, training and childhood. The concept of childhood, in turn, demarcated the stage of maturity as one containing secret knowledge, social privileges, personal responsibilities and a humane concern for the young. So childhood developed over the course of centuries up to the present century. But, Postman's argument goes on, the advent of the telegraph in the nineteenth century, plus the radio and television in the twentieth, set the conditions for a new type of culture--visually and aurally oriented, non-sequential, filled with images, instantaneous impressions, entertainment and universally accessible knowledge. Thus the two groups, once demarcated by a gap in knowledge, skills and tastes, collapse, and kids and grown-ups merge into one, an "adult-child." Today, as in the Middle Ages, children see everything grown-ups see, both the refined and the raw; they know intimacy like adults, commit crimes like adults, play the same games, tell the same dirty jokes.

Postman adduces a series of compelling examples in support of his thesis: the same sports (little league and big league), the same clothes (kids in fine threads, grown-ups in jeans), the same crimes and punishments (murders and executions). And, more to the point here, the same tastes in television programs and movies: the ABC Saturday Night Movie, M*A*S*H and Three's Company scored high among all age groups in the Nielsen ratings for 1980. Increasingly there was no need for separate entertainments. (11)

I take Postman's thesis as true, yet regret one oversight. Nowhere does he note that younger people, whatever their delightful qualities and unlimited potentials, whatever their adaptability and openness to new technology, are doomed in the Middle Ages, today and in the next millennium to be inferior to older people in experience and understanding of the world; they may in some instances better their elders in intelligence and wisdom, but on the whole cannot be superior or even equal to them, and for the most part must suffer a great disadvantage to them, or else there is no point in living. If the early years are the best and wisest in life, then we would be fools to strive for anything beyond them, such as learning, understanding, or self-improvement--fools, in fact, to do anything at all but remember our glorious days as teens. But if, on the contrary, we can learn in life, then the older, more learned and more thoughtful members of society, whatever its technology, may have a duty to understand the young, but by no means should betray themselves and their humanity by adopting the juvenile perspective. This stands for filmmakers, critics, educators, parents and presidents of the United States. The present study is dedicated to this simple proposition.

However, like it or not, kids and grown-ups are merging in America today, so we may assume that after a decade-long run of pure teen-prop, filmmakers began to realize that they did not have to pitch exclusively to the kids. They could diversify their investments and insert teen-prop motifs into broader-based projects. The grown-ups themselves were willing to accept that the kids knew best and to admit them into the standard "adult" fare. Mutating into overgrown kids themselves, they preferred to side with the juvenile point of view and not to identify with the objects of the kids' scorn, the detested authority figures. We should also consider the possibility that the teen-prop image had become so pervasive and successful that filmmakers were mentally incapable of conceiving of any other type.

Whatever the reason, super teens, wiser by far than their fumbling elders, became the norm for movies and television programs in the 1990s, whether targeted for kids, grown-ups, or the hybrid "adult-child." One example must stand for all the rest: the incredibly smart and exceptionally snotty brat of Terminator II.

6. The Terminators

The Terminator (1984, hereafter called Terminator I), co-authored and directed by James Cameron, is not at all interested in teens. Rather, it concerns the contest between men and machines. Its premise is similar to War Games (1983). NORAD turns against people, like Karel Capek's robots and Stanley Kubrick's HAL; people try to shut it down and trigger a nuclear holocaust. Afterwards the command, reconstituted as a computer center called Skynet, hunts down the human survivors with killer machines, exterminating some and keeping others as slave-servicers. Among the latter arises a hero named John Connor (hereafter JC), who leads a slave revolt. Unable to stop him, on the verge of losing, Skynet fashions a cyborg--the Terminator, flesh on the outside and steel underneath--and sends him back through time to assassinate JC's mother before he was born. JC finds out and sends a volunteer from his ranks--Kyle Reese--back through time to stop the cyborg. The film opens in the year 2029 with primitive scenes of soldiers fighting tractors.

Since Terminator I relies on a time-machine device, it inevitably hatches a plot with logical impossibilities. After the Terminator (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Kyle (Michael Biehn) have returned to 1984, JC (never seen) blows up the time machine in 2029 so that they cannot return. Thus he and his commandos will be free to finish off Skynet unless the Terminator kills his mother in the past, after which, presumably, he--and all history associated with him--will suddenly vanish. She, however, is not yet pregnant with him. With remarkable foresight (or hindsight), JC provides Kyle before his leaving with a photo of the "legendary" Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) so that he can find her, protect her, fall in love with her and do his manly duty. In other words, although he already has a father, JC wants to be re-fathered in the past by his present comrade. The original father therefore must vanish, along with all related history, such as Sarah Connor, or else we are in a time loop, in which case the battle of men and machines will just keep repeating.

So the premise is impossible, but allows for an extended chase. The Terminator tries to kill Sarah, slaughtering everyone near and far; Kyle protects her but gets killed in the process; so she saves herself, crushing the cyborg in a robot factory with appropriate obscenities. Kyle, however, was successful in his second task. The film ends as a pregnant Sarah leaves Los Angeles in anticipation of the nuclear holocaust, heading south to Mexico, which is presumably less of a target for hydrogen bombs. She has a note from JC, handed her by Kyle, instructing her to hang tough: "If you don't survive, I will never be." She gets a Polaroid photo of herself to give to her son, pointedly the same one he will hand to Kyle in the future. (Kyle is dead, but does not have to survive directly into the future, since, as a young man, he will be born afresh later.) She makes a tape recording to explain things to her boy, confident that she will not deliver a girl, though the chances are supposed to be even, and tells him who his father was. "If you don't send Kyle, you will never be. God, a person could go crazy thinking about this!"

Terminator I is anti-war, anti-machine and anti-police. It glorifies the average young woman of the 1980s, a waitress without special attributes, an Everywoman singled out by fate for a heroic role. All she has to do is get laid by the right man, escape a superhuman killer and survive the coming nuclear war, and she will become a legend. Whether this story was meant to appeal to a feminine audience is anybody's guess.

Yet Sarah's mission is higher than mere legend. Although not exactly the Virgin Mary, she is appointed by a higher power to bear the savior of the world. An angel of the Lord appears to announce the glad tidings--and does double duty by filling her with the Holy Spirit. The worldly kingdom, threatened, perpetrates a massacre of innocents, but she escapes and carries the babe to safety--the future JC. That he bears the same initials as his creator, James Cameron, must be considered a coincidence.

Terminator II: Judgment Day (1992), again co-authored and directed by Cameron, carries the story along with little John Connor, now ten years old in the year 1995. Although chronologically not a teen, JC (played by Edward Furlong) is indistinguishable from the species, particularly from Marty, hero of Steven Spielberg's Back to the Future, who takes a time machine ride from the 1980s back to the '50s to straighten out his future parents and also to get them to meet, so that he can still exist. Likewise JC shares with David Lightman of War Games, Ferris Bueller of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Alex of The Last Star Fighter and Gary and Wyatt of Weird Science a facility with video games, computers and all sorts of mechanical devices, which he rigs for his own purposes. And although the adventure film is made for a general audience, young JC has got an attitude as bad as the chronic sufferers of The Breakfast Club, a full measure of teen-prop resentment.

The reason: he doesn't buy the story his mother tells him about his brilliant destiny. He thinks she's nuts. He sees her consorting--"shacking up," he calls it--with paramilitary types who can help her train her boy to be a warrior. Then she gets another crazy idea: to blow up the central computer factory and prevent nuclear war. (She doesn't know it, but modern computer technology is based entirely on the hand of the cyborg she crushed--incompletely, we learn--in Terminator I.) Captured in the attempt, she is deposited in a psycho ward. Little JC is placed with foster parents--"dickheads," he calls them--who are foulmouthed lowlifes, typical inferior adults of the most rabid teen-prop pamphlets.

We need consider only two more elements of the plot before the kid can strut his stuff. In 2030, one year after it sent out Terminator I, Skynet realizes somehow that its terminator T-800 model has failed; so it fixes the time machine and sends out a more advanced model T-1000 to terminate little JC. (Unaccountably it sets the time machine to the year 1995, not 1985. Nor does it conceive the plan of going back to 1983 and eliminating Sarah Connor a full year before Kyle will arrive. Why not? Because then we wouldn't have a kid in the sequel.) The T-1000 can change its shape--it can "morph," but most of the time it's dressed like a cop--the typical bad guy of teen-prop. Once again, the slave rebel John Connor finds out about Skynet's move and dispatches his own envoy to stop the terminator, but he can only find an old model T-800 (Schwarzenegger again). He programs it to do whatever little JC tells it. By this mechanism he ensures that in Terminator II the kid will be boss.

Now here's what the little darling does. He:

* humanizes the steel-frame, robotic cyborg by showing him how to curse, crack jokes and cry;

* modifies the cyborg's violent streak by teaching him to mame, not kill, human beings;

* helps his distraught, buffed-out, militarized mother break out of the psycho ward;

* eases her crippling emotional problems, much in the role of equal or husband;

* uses a little device he has rigged up for cracking automatic teller machines to break into the computer lab, guarded by high-tech security;

* secures the old Terminator's robotic arm and destroys it so that its technology is lost to NORAD;

* leads the adults in exploding the computer works without killing anybody (the sympathetic black lab director is killed by the cops);

* dispenses useful advice, wit and obscenities ("holy shit! bullshit! you jock! douche-bag! dipshit! eat me! dickwad!") wherever needed.

While the kid is busy solving all the problems, the grown-ups have their chases and smashing cars. The super-terminator T-1000, sent out like King Herod's messengers to slay the newborn Messiah, is cast into a hellfire of molten ore, then the protector T-800, taking on the role of sacrifice, lowers himself into the same ore to destroy his dangerous technology. Sarah, impressed by the scene, closes the film by expressing the hope that perhaps machines can be humanized--the bold message of Capek's R.U.R. (1920).

7. The End of History

So the kid did it all: he prevented nuclear war, suspended the machine age and, paradoxically, precluded all the conditions that made for his existence. Thus little JC ends history by becoming an eternal Möbius strip of himself, now protecting his past by sending warriors from the future, now safeguarding his future by destroying evils in the past, now negating both past and future by his successful performance in the present. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, containing all hope and no hope, all meaning and no meaning, living in a present that is endlessly repeating itself, a never-never land where a juvenile delinquent becomes Jesus Christ, a cinematic heaven where teen becomes God.

Of course, the entire genre of teen-prop with all of its box-office blockbusters has less intellectual substance than a wad of bubblegum. But nothing that anyone might propose can do anything about it. One would have to repeal television, take away teen employment and return the kids to a paltry weekly allowance to make the movie jackals go away. Since no such things will happen, there is no point in attempting an anti-teen-prop campaign. The only consolation for me, and for anyone who might agree with me, is the conviction that the kids, along with the prostitutes who pander to them, do not know best.


1. Ramon G. McLeod and Shann Nix (San Francisco Chronicle), "Boom in teens to put squeeze on state's means," The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA.), 4/12/93, A1, A8. Announcement of the conference: Bob Sokolsky, "Planning sci-fi event takes some imagination," A6.

2. These films are listed in Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide 1995 (New York: Signet, 1995). See especially the entries for Andy Hardy and the Bowery Boys.

3. David M. Considine, "The Cinema of Adolescence," Journal of Popular Film and Television 9: 3 (1981): 125.

4. See Alan Betrock, The I Was a Teenage Juvenile Delinquent Rock 'n' Roll Horror Beach Party Movie Book: A Complete Guide to the Teen Exploitation Film, 1954-1969 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), 2-15.

5. The discussion is based on Barry K. Grant, "The Classic Hollywood musical and the 'Problem' of Rock 'n' Roll," Journal of Popular Film and Television, 13:4 (1986): 195-205.

6. Betrock, 102.

7. Euroquest, a syndicated program of Radio Netherlands, No. 9307, 3/31/93.

8. Considine, 130-131.

9. Grant, 200.

10. Examples taken from Considine, 131.

11. Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (New York: Delacorte, 1982), 131.

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