It’s always fascinating to view an American pop culture phenomenon through another country’s eyes. At the moment I’m sitting in on a Tsukuba University undergraduate course on the theme of gender and American film / TV, with a focus on teen-centered drama. For several weeks the students have been giving presentations on Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Ten Things I Hate About You. A lot of the focus has been on language–technically the class has an English language component, so the students often choose a few interesting phrases and break down their meaning. Beyond that, I’ve been intrigued by the themes and characters they’ve chosen to focus on. Here are a few examples:
1. Prom. They’re obsessed with prom. Which isn’t surprising, given the quasi-religious status that prom usually has in teen movies and TV shows. Viewing it from outside the U.S., it must seem like the single most important event in any teenager’s life. In Kuala Lumpur I had a conversation with a Malaysian man who told me that it was his impression that all American girls lost their virginity on prom night, and that after that their lives were a crazy sex free-for all (I don’t know what the prom-virginity-loss statistics are, but my guess is that by prom age a lot of teenagers have already crossed the v-line, depending on your definition of “virginity”). Growing up, I remember prom having a sort of unearthly quality about it, something so magical that it seemed impossible that I might actually participate in it one day. This American Life recently ran a story about a small town that for years has been broadcasting the local prom–the red-carpet arrivals of the couples, the dancing, the after-prom parties–on the local news channel. Talk about building up expectations.
In reality (as I gently tried to explain to the students), prom for me was just one random night out of many. Sure, it was fun, but not exactly a rite of passage. I wore a dress that I would never wear again (looking at the photos, I think most of my girlfriends would say the same). I had a boyfriend to go with, but he hated to dance, so I didn’t do much of that. I was voted “Most Likely to Win An Oscar,” which was fun. It kind of had the feeling of kids playing dress-up, maybe not so different from the Japanese tradition of seijinshiki (coming-of-age day), where 20-year-olds officially become “adults” and wear elaborate kimono.
The students in the class had some really interesting insights into various film & TV depictions of prom. They pointed out that in Ten Things I Hate About You, an heirloom pearl necklace plays an important role in determining who’s the “pure” character. For the Twilight movie prom scene, they noted that Bella, imagined as an anti-girly, anti-prom type, was allowed to maintain her dignity by going to prom in a dress with sneakers.
Mixed into all this was a clear fascination with prom as a concept. One student even had a Japanese book that I’m dying to read called “Everything You Need to Know About American High Schools,” which explained things like football, cheerleading, cliques, etc. It’s kind of weird to see the humdrum life you lived turned into an object of anthropological fascination, but I guess a lot of American teenagers are just as fascinated by Japanese high schools.
2. Teenage slang. Another thing I had to explain to the students: real-life American teenagers are not nearly as clever as their film and TV counterparts. I’m not saying that teenagers are dumb–they’re not–but judging by my own not-too-distant teenage experience, the last thing I ever felt was linguistically clever or witty. In movies and TV shows created for teenagers–as in teen magazines–the language is a bizarre construct: adults writing in a way that tries to sound teenager-ish, but that usually comes off as just a little too polished. And man, explaining teenage slang to non-native speakers is HARD. Students would often take five or ten minutes just to analyze a few words. Example: from Ten Things I Hate About You, two dudes checking out the girls: “Hey, virgin alert. There’s your favorite.” Or from Twilight, when Bella’s friend is asking her if it’s weird that a guy they both like is asking her to the prom, and Bella responds, “No, not weird at all. Zero weirdness.” Just explaining the very loaded nature of the word “virgin,” or the phenomenon of turning adjectives into nouns by adding a “ness” to them eats up plenty of time.
3. Fashion. When you most likely attended a high school where everyone had to wear a uniform, the subject of fashion and how it divides teenagers into groups is a source of endless discussion. Again, I had to explain that teenagers in movies and tv are a lot more expensively dressed than your average American teen, but still, the varieties of styles and the cliques they identify are pretty endless. This also prompted an interesting discussion of goth vs. emo (a term the students had never heard), and how the goth vs. emo authenticity battle seemed to mirror a lot of the fashion clique battles in Japan (goth, gothic lolita, rococco, visual kei, gyaru, yamamba, etc.)
I’m giving a lecture in the class in a couple of weeks entitled “Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Concept of the Gender Outlaw,” which I’m really looking forward to (partially because it’s on a subject that I almost never get to talk about in an academic sense, partially because it allows me to show clips of Johnny Weir, and mainly because it’s BUFFY!!!). Who of course would have dispensed with pouty Edward in a nanosecond. Though really, has there ever been a cheerily optimistic male vampire character?