I’m reading Robert Bulman’s 2005 book, Hollywood Goes to High School, which is not, as I expected, about the impact of Hollywood movies on teen-agers. Instead, it’s about the stories that scriptwriters invent about high school students. Still, it’s a provocative analysis of 144 American films and, for comparison, 41 foreign films.
Bulman believes that myths are ways of reconciling cultural contradictions, and that movies are the myths of contemporary society. He quickly discovered that the Hollywood plots differ markedly according to the kind of schools that they depict. His analysis compared three types of stories: those about urban, working-class schools, those about middle-class suburban schools, and those about elite private schools. He assumed that the stories contained moral messages aimed specifically at the three categories of American kids in these particular settings. Each film supposedly teaches teens of a certain social class who they are, what special challenges probably confront them, and how they can best handle their problems. In formulating this advice, it also reflects existing assumptions that pervade the culture.
First, there are movies (e.g. Blackboard Jungle) about poor and working-class students in city schools, who are depicted as low-achievers beset with many social problems. Their teachers and administrators have previously failed to reach them, and the kids are lost in despair when a mysterious new teacher arrives, someone of middle-class origin, little teaching experience, and an unconventional approach. This heroic newcomer becomes the savior of these students where other teachers have failed. He tells the kids that they do have options and that it is up to them to choose whether to make something of themselves. Under his guidance, the pupils become hard-working achievers, rational, and eagerly beginning their long climb of the social ladder into the middle class. Bulman calls their new ethic “utilitarian individualism.” It is, he says, a conservative political message. “There is,” he writes, “no suggestion that a longer-term solution to the problems in urban public high schools must address employment in the inner city, equitable school funding, sensitivity to racial and class differences, or the restructuring of urban schools.”
Second, there are quite different movies about middle-class suburban kids. In these stories (e.g. Pump Up the Volume) the issue is not to encourage the students’ academic success, as was the case in the first group of films. Instead of homework, these bland, white youngsters are already feeling empty because of the pressure of peers and adults to conform. Their challenge is not to become good students but rather to find and express their true inner selves. As rebels without a cause, they feel suffocated by their dependent status and long to get out of school and become adults. They too are influenced by a hero – in this case not an adult teacher but usually one of the students, someone like Ferris Bueller (see photo) who is able to avoid the individual competitiveness and conformity of narrow-minded, achievement-oriented middle-class life by discovering and expressing his own identity. Bulman calls this ethic “expressive individualism.” He says that these films reflect the American middle-class fear that their creativity may be squelched by the demands of their managerial or bureaucratic careers.
Third, there are films (such as School Ties) about private school students. Generally, Hollywood takes a negative view of wealth, as these movies indicate. Here, privileged upper-class kids are also pressured to conform to the cultural expectations of their elite families. And here again we have a hero entering the scene– this time a working- or middle-class outsider, almost always a student who has to prove that he belongs by demonstrating his academic qualifications. In doing so he challenges the other students to find their own true identity by disregarding their inherited privilege or family status. Instead of being the victim, this underprivileged but gifted student is the one who has lessons to teach the rich kids and their teachers. He teaches them to follow their heart and recognize that happiness and individual integrity are more important than material success. Bulman writes,
“There is a tension in the elite private schools between the material value of an elite education and the resentment of such an education by those individuals normally denied access to it. These films resolve such tension by both emphasizing the utilitarian value of an elite private education (it can be an avenue of upward social mobility for meritorious members of the working and middle classes if they have access to it) and by stressing the importance of expressive individualism…The hero of these films is always a nonelite student who succeeds as both a meritorious academic scholar and an expressive individual. In Hollywood, achievement trumps ascription every time.”
Finally, Bulman compares these Hollywood films to a smaller sample of films about high school life from 15 other countries. He wanted to determine whether the American stories resembled those from other countries. He concluded that they did not; Hollywood movies about teenagers reflect an unmistakably distinctive American culture, tending to “resolve the dramatic tension in neat fashion, look optimistically toward the future, depict an unambiguous triumph of the individual, and suggest that social problems can be solved and society can be reformed…”
Whereas the American movies generally have happy endings, the foreign films are dark. The characters are morally complicated and have ambiguous endings, full of discord. The hero often does not resolve the problems but runs away from society. Rarely does an individual successfully overcome the antagonistic social forces. The future for the protagonist is murky, if not tragic. None of these qualities are found in the American film about high school students. Hollywood culture is far from universal; it reflects specifically American issues and concerns.
But Bulman acknowledges the limitations of his (to my mind remarkable) book: that it does not attempt to determine what message the viewer takes from these films. It is clear to him what messages Hollywood is sending. It is not clear, however, what messages the audience actually receives. There can be a wide discrepancy between the message sent and the message received. What Hollywood intends to teach may not be what American youths are learning. I would love to know more about the impact of these films on the young people who are, presumably, the intended audience. I hope someone will show a sample of each type of film to a focus group of American youths, and tape record their comments for comparison to Bulman’s own analysis.
I know of no other study besides my own analysis of the television series Street Time in Two Aspirins and a Comedy that explores the intentions of the production team and compares them with the actual perceptions of the viewers. Insofar as there is a gap, one could say that the producers, writers, and actors made a mistake; they did not affect the audience as they meant to do. I had the privilege of watching the production of the show throughout two seasons, and then was able to show all the tapes to a group of six friends in my own living room, recording their discussion of each episode.
Often I found that the viewers did not interpret the stories as they were expected to do. Indeed, I suspect that if I had shown the show to four or five other groups of six, there would have been remarkable variations among their responses. The only thing that would have narrowed the variation would have been for the writers to “spell out” their intended meanings fairly explicitly. However, writers in general do not admire this kind of neatness and clarity, which they regard as “spoon feeding” the audience instead of making them think. Sophisticated writers (I’m not sure why) admire ambiguity and open endings rather than discursive clarity. What they usually do not realize, however, is that the viewers actually do not absorb the subtle message that has been sent. This may be a price that they are willing to pay, but they should at least know what effects they are having.
So what are American kids learning from these movies?