Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Jon Cryer and Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What pop culture prom would you want to attend?”

Babies do not want to hear about babies; they like to be told of giants and castles.

—Samuel Johnson

I know what he means. Growing up, I rarely, if ever, read books or watched movies with protagonists my own age. Even in grade school, after graduating past picture books, I was quickly devouring novels by the likes of Madeleine L’Engle and Zilpha Keatley Snyder, the characters of which tended to be five or so years older than I was. By middle school, I was reading books about the adult world that I desperately—and prematurely—longed to enter. I’m not saying that these were works of great literature; I consumed my share of bad thrillers, horror novels, and miscellaneous junk. But it was all junk about grownups, and even the most mundane novel of adulthood offered a promise of life that I didn’t see in stories about people my own age. (The big exception here is Stephen King’s It, which I did read when I was just about the same age as the protagonists for half the story, and I still think it’s the ultimate young adult novel, although the glimpses it gave of its characters at a later stage were equally revelatory. It isn’t exactly a book I’d give to a twelve-year-old to read, but I wouldn’t discourage it for a second.)

In some ways, my diet of adult novels was partially fueled by the historical moment in which I grew up, in which teenage readers were relatively underserved by publishers. These days, teens have entire sections of books devoted to escapist entertainment with protagonists their age, and if I were growing up now, I don’t doubt that I’d be reading the likes of Divergent. As disposable as many of them are, these books serve the same purpose for teenagers that Bruno Bettelheim identifies in fairy tales for younger kids: they’re fantasies of empowerment, stories that deliberately exaggerate the agency you have at a young age to encourage you to take ordinary risks. If there’s a common theme in these books—or at least the ones that have reached my radar thanks to their adaptations in other media—it’s that the fate of the world hangs in the balance due to the actions of one adolescent, whether named Harry or Katniss. In real life, a teenager has changed history maybe once, and it didn’t turn out so well for the girl involved. But there’s still a place for that kind of daydream: anyone under eighteen gets used to feelings of powerlessness, and sometimes it takes the fiction of a singular destiny that will shake entire civilizations to ignite that first cautious attempt at independence.

Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink

There’s another, more modest vein of fiction for teens, of course, and that’s the high school story. Some are overt fantasies as well: you could write a book or three on how Buffy, Twilight, or The Vampire Diaries use vampirism as a metaphor for a coming of age, and even a more “realistic” show like Beverly Hills 90210 presented an absurdly heightened vision of high school as a cauldron of glossy melodrama. That’s part of their appeal; like fairy stories, they gain much of their power from their displacement, which may be why we’re so willing to accept high school seniors being played by actors in their twenties. When I was in high school myself, I don’t remember latching onto any depictions of it for solace or escape, perhaps as another accident of timing: I was born too late for The Breakfast Club, too early for Freaks and Geeks, and in any case, I was already far down a strange cultural path of my own. Yet part of me wonders if I could have used it. Just as I sometimes feel that I discovered The Smiths ten years too late, I occasionally regret that I didn’t watch My So-Called Life on its first run, or make a point of catching up on John Hughes. I wanted to be told of giants and castles, but while I still feel that it’s important for young people to read slightly above their heads, I’ve also begun to appreciate the importance of a familiar face.

If young adult fiction has taken the place that traditional stories and tales once occupied in the minds of children, it’s no accident that so many center on the big dance: a prom may seem absurdly trivial in retrospect, but at the time, it feels like the royal ball in Cinderella. I had a pretty good time at my own senior prom, so my feelings about it aren’t as charged or ambivalent as they might be. And although I’d be tempted to attend Back to the Future‘s Enchantment Under the Sea, the first fictional prom that comes to mind is the one in Pretty in Pink, which is one of the few John Hughes movies I saw at around the right time. Not so much for the prom itself, but for the montage sequence that comes right before it, scored to the gorgeous instrumental version of New Order’s “Thieves Like Us,” as Molly Ringwald prepares her dress and we cut between the solitary faces of the rest of the cast. It captures something of how high school felt to me: tentative, full of hopes and plans, looking for fragments in beauty in an experience I was otherwise glad to move beyond. It’s about making the best of things when you’re on your own, and I almost didn’t wish it end so happily. Perhaps, as in a fairy tale, that happy ending is necessary to sweeten the rest of the experience, but the real message lies here, twenty minutes earlier, as we get ready for the big dance even if we’re afraid of a broken heart.

Written by nevalalee

May 2, 2014 at 9:51 am

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