American Youth Culture In American Writing – Books vs Screen

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Our books and screens are filled with tales of growing up, missing buses, getting dumped, being cheated, winning at sports and realising dreams. In fact there’s so much that sometimes I forget how I grew up, then I remember evil dinner ladies and wet play – you weren’t there man. You weren’t there.

Scene from 90210

Portrayals of youth on screen are everywhere; the young sexy cast of Friends still graces British screens on a constant loop, Scrubs (although not all young) began life portraying the lives and times of junior doctors with references to college and med school. Also, let us not forget Hollywood after Hollywood blockbuster of high school proms, art students, vampires and the kid that always misses the bus that are written regularly to a formula, showing a tough American upbringing. On top of this, TV shows such as My Super Sweet Sixteen, Jersey Shore and 90210 show wealthy teenagers, big dresses, tears and fast cars as their representation of a young America. Seeing these from a more ‘average’ background makes these shows interesting – ‘let’s put the TV on and see a rich girl get hurt’.

Within literature we see writers such as Bret Easton Ellis, Chad Kultgen and Chelsea Handler (with her memoirs) portray a youth of wrong-doings, one-night stands, broken hearts and feeling awkward in social situations. The TV shows are entertaining in their own way; personally I love nothing more than seeing a stroppy fifteen year old not get the $1200 shoes she was after, but then again I also have a soft spot for Handler’s superb delivery of her late night encounters.

Bret Easton Ellis wrote Less Than Zero in 1985. As monetary backgrounds go, Clay, the main character, his close group of friends and pretty much every character of ‘that’ 90210 postcode are very similar. Well-off, houses with pools, the latest gadgets, such as iPod touch’s for the current 90210 clan and the constant playing of MTV and cassettes for Clay and his group.

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

This is where the similarities end though. Less Than Zero portrays a much darker side to the wealthy American youth with drug abuse, un-aspiring actors, casual sex and a few more horrific scenarios involving dead bodies, pimps and very young girls. I would imagine that the very latter of the list would be a metaphor for the youth that gets exactly what they want, going one step too far. There is a certain curiousness about the addition of such extreme situations, as well as the inclusion, in graphic detail, of drug abuse from not only Clay and his friends – but his younger siblings too. These sorts of storylines, or more so these approaches, are nowhere to be seen on our screens. Less Than Zero itself was subject to being made more moralistic, and swaying vastly away from the original in the 1987 film adaptation, with drug abuse, sex and pimping being removed, leaving an obvious scratch in the paintwork of Ellis’ book.

90210 offers a completely different character set up; all the kids are eager to study, are embarrassed by their parents like any sweet teenager would be, have the latest dreams and goals that seem to update with fashion, and already have the perfect after-college job lined up. This is almost the perfect life, even the nerdy kids are cool – they just have comic book fetishes that intrigue the hot girl and score them big boy status before the series ends.

Friends and Scrubs work similar to 90210 in the sense they offer the almost perfect life, and a low price with seemingly easy achievable goals and promotion throughout respective companies, such as JD’s promotion to leading the residents through training and Rachel’s climb through Ralph Lauren. Neither of which would be possible in Ellis’ world – whether this be decided by society, the lack of talent and ambition of the characters, or maybe the highlight that most of them seem to have had everything put on a plate for them.

Chad Kultgen, in his novel The Lie, outlines the overall message that in college it’s dog-eat-dog, you get what you work for and sometimes working for it could mean stabbing people in the back. Both Scrubs and Friends have similar views on sex, masking sexual moments with innuendos, whereas Chelsea Handler offers a much more frank and open view about what happens when the door closes and the covers roll back – sometimes not even getting this far. It should be noted that Handler is writing for a different audience and Friends for a watershed, but would we want to watch Rachel talk in-depth about certain elements of love-making, even though we know her and Ross must have done something at least once?

A truly realistic view of growing up in America probably lies somewhere in the middle; there’s most likely an Xbox, a half-beaten car and the American dream somewhere in the future. Literary work does seem to offer more flexibility to say what the screen misses out, taking a reader on a longer, individual journey through the eyes of a sweaty, hormonal teenager and out the other side into adulthood – via a few mishaps of course.

Keith Hodges 

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