Romance, like pollen and the sizzle of summer, is in the air. Grease rolls on film, popcorn pops, Coke fizzes, sexism and misogyny light up the theater, and enraptured audiences revel in the dramatization and disillusionment of teenage romance.
The classic sing-a-long Grease is one of the best known rom-coms that have shaped perceptions about what teen love is like, from “summer lovin’ ” to gender roles and stereotypes that endure to this day. Dictating who might be pursuing whom in the hopes of a casual summer romance and creating standards around love, beauty and sex, Grease — made in the 1970s but set in the 1950s — perpetuates unrealistic (and sometimes negative) stereotypes that fail to correctly portray the teenage experience, especially in our modern era.
Are modern representations of teen romance in pop culture any better than those in the classics? Do films, books and plays about teen relationships impact our experiences with love, and do we form preemptive expectations and misconceptions based on outdated, antiquated or inaccurate sources?
“All of those movies, Grease and Dirty Dancing and Sixteen Candles, were formative for us, and they told us the things we were supposed to care about,” said Amber Sealey , a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and director. “I slightly resent that the entertainment industry was pointing me towards being obsessed with relationships. It would’ve been nice to have movies about young girls with more cerebral interests.”
In 2019, Sealey wrote and directed How Does It Start?, a short film about a 12-year-old learning to understand the world of love and sex. Sealey told the story to combat the traditional portrayals of teenage romance.
“Movies of the ’80s are pretty sexist,” Sealey said. “The concept of consent was not even a thing. Date rape was laughed about. Some of those films look at sex and relationships in a really falsified way, and even nowadays, they put things in television that aren’t really based in reality.”
Since the 1980s, the most popular and highest-profiting movies about teen romance have involved a central idea that isn’t based in reality. For example, many of today’s teens grew up watching the films in the Twilight saga, each of which grossed between $200 million and $300 million. Many are inclined to base their notions of teen love around vampires and werewolves, but others are drawn to movies where the main characters face issues the majority of teens would never encounter. In both The Fault in Our Stars and Five Feet Apart, the protagonists face life-threatening diseases, and in Ally Condie’s Matched series, each novel is set in a dystopian world where teens must find a life partner at 17. While some prefer fantastical versions of teen love for their dramatic and exaggerated plotlines, others protest that more realistic representations allow for a shift away from the cliché storyline and delve into three-dimensional narratives.
Oliver Lehman, a junior at Santa Fe Prep, said some contemporary movies achieve this sense of three-dimensional reality.
“I’ve noticed that an overwhelming number of books and films follow a simple formula: An attractive girl is interested in an attractive guy, and the focus on that relationship makes up the entirety of the girl’s character,” Lehman said. “Recent works, such as Lady Bird, are moving away from this blueprint and are giving the female characters a much more in-depth personality and story.”
Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan, earned popular and critical acclaim for its unique and complex depiction of the awkward and turbulent years of young love.
Ezzy Flores, a junior at St. Michael’s High School, agreed that more contemporary movies like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before are more realistic than a lot of films she grew up on from a previous era. She said she prefers movies that show how real teen romances work, with the influence of peers, drugs and sex.
“[To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before] shows that relationships are often best when they are least expected,” Flores said. “This movie offers the message to not lose hope in love.”
Sealey said there is a push for more female storytellers, writers and directors, as well as a wider variety of stories that may better depict the way love is. “The more diverse storytellers we have, the more diverse stories we will have,” she said. “It won’t be such a narrow view of one way to think about sex or relationships.”
To add to the inaccuracies of Grease (which, granted, is a musical comedy) and other movies in the same vein, is the casting of adult actors to portray teenage characters. In contrast, 2018’s Eighth Grade, directed by Bo Burnham, does away with this inaccuracy and casts actual eighth grader, Elsie Fisher, to provide a realistic representation of life in middle school. Molly Ringwald, the teenage icon behind Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, praised Eighth Grade in a tweet, saying “… it was the best film about adolescence I’ve seen in a long time. Maybe ever.”
Santa Fe writer Rob Wilder, author of Nickel, a novel about two ninth graders who unexpectedly find love, said the idea of “types” in stories about teen love is “crazy” and “comes straight from film and television. It’s all so limiting and simplistic.”
Lehman agreed: “Romance can be messy and confusing, and the common fairy tale representation in media is misleading to youth,” he said.
But perhaps the recent wave of movies, books and plays that reflect the cringey and colorfully awkward universe of teenage romance will shape the way future generations think about love and relationships.
Emma Lawrence is a junior at Santa Fe Prep. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gabe Biadora is a junior at St. Michael’s High School. Contact him at email@example.com.