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Test screenings are standard in Hollywood now, but they were not quite as widely employed in the mid-1980s, which makes all the more remarkable what happened to John Hughes’ 1986 teen classic, Pretty in Pink. Pretty in Pink is a fairy tale of Andie (Molly Ringwald), a girl from the literal wrong side of the tracks, who attempts a relationship with the wealthy Blaine (Andrew McCarthy), much to the chagrin of her poor friend, Duckie (Jon Cryer). Succumbing to the pressure of his rich friends, Blaine breaks his date with Andie for the prom. As the ending was originally shot – reserved today only in the tie-in novel, which had been pressed before the screenings – Andie attends the prom anyway, out of defiance. She meets Duckie outside, and they enter together. H.B. Gilmour writes:

All activity on the dance floor stopped. . . . Andie and Duckie stood proud in the silent ballroom, all eyes on them. And then, finally, someone moved. The crowd parted. And Blaine McDonough walked slowly toward them. . . . Andie took [Duckie’s] hand and walked him out to the dance floor. The crowd separated around them again, leaving Andie and Duckie alone at the center of the floor. . . . Blaine thought Andie had made this night a real graduation night for him. He watched her, his eyes brimming with pleasure at her graceful beauty.

According to Jonathan Bernstein in Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies, test audiences were upset by an ending in which Andie’s and Duckie’s “poor but honest moral superiority gnawed deep into the corrupt souls of the richies who were forced to deal with their own worthlessness.” Weaned on optimistic Reagan-era perceptions of social mobility, the audience “wanted to see the poor girl get the rich boy of her dreams. They didn’t care about the dignity of the oppressed.” Hughes caved in and changed the ending, and the poor girl got the rich boy. A year later, though, the downtrodden of the American high school got their revenge in Hughes’ Some Kind of Wonderful, marking a shift in attitudes toward the rich, the poor, and the possibility of their peaceful coexistence.

In the year between Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful, something made it permissible for a poor boy to choose a poor girl and acceptable, even heroic, for people to keep their “proper” station. This trend downward, visible in the difference between these films but indicative of the era’s teen cinema in general, coincided with a burgeoning public cynicism that clouded usually positive perceptions of upward mobility and the attainment of wealth in America. The interplay between the cinema and the economic landscape of the Reagan years is deepened by virtue of Reagan’s own very personal ties to acting and show-business. Movies had made Reagan, and his image was in turn indelibly stamped on American cinema during his tenure in office. First in the guise of economic conservatism and relentless optimism, representations of class and social mobility evolved considerably in films of this period, often mirroring the economic and political landscape at the time. The unbridled optimism of Wall Street during Reagan’s first years in office, followed by problems that arose after the start of his second term – insider-trading scandals, record-level unemployment, Iran-Contra – find themselves reproduced in an increasingly cynical, cinematic portrayal of class, wealth, and social mobility toward the end of the decade. Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful offer a convenient focal point for reading this national and representational rupture, a moment that illuminates what will later be seen as the malaise of Generation X, the pivotal point at which it became creditable not to rise.

I. Reaganomic Optimism and the
National Fantasy of Upward Mobility

When I was in grade school, they told me that when I grew up I could be whatever I wanted. And I believed them.

— Emilio Estevez in Wisdom (1987)

“The people love Ronald Reagan,” wrote journalist Max Hastings of the London Times in 1986. He went on to quote one of his colleagues, British journalist Steve Hayward: “Reagan understands, as our media and intellectual elite do not, that the most prevalent feature of American character is forward-looking optimism.” Reagan himself personified the central tenets of the economic policy that would win the trust of most Americans: a firm belief in the possibility of social advancement, the inevitable reward of hard work, and the virtuous pursuit of wealth. Reagan was his own narrative of upward mobility, having grown up in a family that was, in his own words, “poor,” and his autobiography details his rise. Reagan’s embodiment of the fairy-tale rise prompted Lou Cannon of the Washington Post to write that the “obligatory mythology for modern Republican Presidents requires that they be of humble origin, preferably born in a small town, and that they share a vision of an America redeemed by the values of hard work and upward striving. Ronald Wilson Reagan qualifies.” Despite his family’s poverty, Reagan “believed that success was there for the taking,” and he carried with him from the outset the optimism that would characterize his presidency.

This optimism bolstered a positive perception of wealth from the first moments of Reagan’s inauguration on January 20, 1981, an inauguration made all the more captivating because of political circumstances (American hostages in Iran had been guaranteed release that very day). Haynes Johnson points out that “never in all the previous inaugurations had a president come to power under such intensely publicized circumstances.” Reaganites unanimously delivered a clear message of glitter and gold, and The Washington Post’s extensive coverage of the inaugural weekend pointed repeatedly to the opulence that characterized the events. Donnie Radcliffe wrote, “The Republican aristocracy took over Washington this weekend, making it safe again to put on diamonds and designer gowns.” Elisabeth Bumiller added, “Forget the Republican cloth coat. This year: mink.”

But the inauguration masked a darker national truth. One week prior, Newsweek had proclaimed in enormous letters on its front cover, “Economy in Crisis.” A public opinion poll from ABC News on February 20th, one month to the day after Reagan’s inauguration, revealed heightened public awareness of the dire state of the American economy. Despite the acknowledgement that conditions were worsening, though, the polls indicated an even firmer belief that it would strengthen in the coming months. Responses to other questions on the same survey situate the attitudes of those polled within the rubric of American class perceptions. Fully 89% of those polled claimed familiarity with Reagan’s proposed economic policy, which involved a series of three tax cuts for those in higher income brackets. Respondents overwhelmingly opined that the proposed cuts would hurt the poor and benefit the wealthy. Despite this imbalance, a vast majority of 72% approved of these measures regardless of who would be hurt. Reaganomics, if the polls are to be believed, was embraced by a count of about three-to-one, numbers that offer key insights into the perception of class and the public’s class allegiance at the outset of Reagan’s first term.

The optimism reflected by Reagan and by the poll numbers was initially bolstered by an actual improvement in the nation’s economy. Six months into his first term, Fortune magazine contentedly reported that “after-tax incomes should climb briskly over the period ahead – 4% a year in real terms compared with a 1% rate in the last year and a half.” The outlook was even stronger by the end of 1981, and Fortune’s year-end panel of experts on the economy, including Fed. Chairman Alan Greenspan, prophesied a “robust recovery.” Given the rosy path envisioned by economists, it is no coincidence that, according to Haynes Johnson, “the Reagan years saw the reemergence of luxury as a national goal.” The desire to rise, which some consider a staple characteristic of American culture, had an emboldened authority reflected in the films of this period.

II. Cinematic Optimism and the Narrated Fantasy of Upward Mobility

I’ve never seen such a vulgar display of wealth in my life! How do I get one?

— Andrew McCarthy to Rob Lowe in Class (1983)

In her 1986 review of Pretty in Pink, Pauline Kael makes a statement that usefully frames the cinematic portrayal of social mobility during the Reagan years:

In the movies of the twenties and thirties, it was common for heroines (and heroes) to be ashamed of their poverty and to feel a vast social gap between them and the secure rich. But in the years after the Second World War, as people moved up in the society, the movie fantasy of marrying rich lost its romantic appeal. Has this fantasy been returning in eighties movies such as “Flashdance,” “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Valley Girl,” and “Pretty in Pink” . . . ? Whatever the reason, class consciousness has been making a comeback, but not in any kind of realistic or political context; what we’re getting is strictly the fantasy theme of love bridging the gap.

Outside of the marriage plot, upward mobility organizes a multitude of other films from the 1980s: All the Right Moves (1983), Trading Places (1983), Risky Business (1983), Class (1983), The Breakfast Club (1985), Brewster’s Millions (1985), Back to School (1986), and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986). In these films, questions of social mobility are raised, but the optimism (what Kael calls “fantasy”) proves too strong, and any real issues broached are either blatantly ignored or thoroughly sugared over.

Studios made numerous movies for teens in the 1980s, largely due to what Bernstein terms a sudden rise in “adolescent spending power,” the side-effect of a general economic boom. (The PG-13 rating, introduced in 1985, testifies to an increase in movie-going teens at the time.) Narratives depicting an upward rise often focus the age at which we make life-impacting decisions about our future, the Bildungsroman story leached through the Horatio Alger bedrock. Bruce Robbins’ work on what narratives of upward mobility reveal about class relations and perceptions is particularly instructive. Robbins’ reading of Good Will Hunting makes the lingering presence of Alger in the film quite clear, but his attention to structural specifics provides a foundation for reading social mobility in various contexts. For example, the character identified as “the therapist” in Good Will Hunting is a pivotal one in that story and others. Robbins refers elsewhere to “mentors, counselors, benefactors, fairy godmothers, gatekeepers, surrogate parents,” the donors adduced by Vladimir Propp as crucial elements of folktales. Robbins also considers larger social contexts of the upward rise and measures the gap between fantasies of national advancement and the harsher realities. Such narratives are important, Robbins argues, because they disclose perceptions of class relations and ultimately testify to the permanence or permeability of class.

Upward-mobility films in the early 1980s tend toward either industrial escape or metropolitan finance. All the Right Moves, Flashdance, and An Officer and a Gentleman all emerge within this first framework and laud the movement from industry to middle-class comfort, or at least the prospect of it. In All the Right Moves, a high-school football player (Tom Cruise) wants out of his small Pennsylvania steel town, and his key to escape is a college athletic scholarship. He explicitly details his desire for realignment within the process of production, from proletarian to managerial class, from steel-mill worker to engineer, and, though the usual hurdles are employed, the conclusion makes everything right. All the Right Moves and similar films that followed it, like Flashdance and An Officer and a Gentleman, register their disgust with manual labor. The films’ approbation of upward mobility is explicit, usually in the positive reactions of those who remain behind. In perhaps the most gratuitous example of this, the spontaneous applause of Debra Winger’s co-workers in the factory, when Richard Gere walks in and quite literally carries her out to a better life, reassures the audience that the rise is good.

On Wall Street, a film like Trading Places typifies the optimistic depiction of such possibilities. In Trading Places, two wealthy brothers, the Dukes (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche), simultaneously engineer the downfall of one of their brightest brokers (Dan Aykroyd) and the rise of a homeless con-man (Eddie Murphy), all for a one-dollar bet. When the two victims anticipate the scheme and exact revenge, their weapon of choice is the stock market. Using inside information, they bankrupt the Dukes on the trading floor, simultaneously making millions for themselves with capital provided by a butler (Denholm Elliott) and a prostitute (Jamie Lee Curtis). Perhaps most telling is that the worst punishment the film can devise for the Dukes is impoverishment. Trading Places was prescient in its portrayal of insider trading, a plague that would be exposed only later in Reagan’s presidency, but its general fixation on finance is typical for its time. On Ferris Bueller’s (Matthew Broderick) day off from school, for example, one of the few places he chooses to hang out, right after Wrigley Field and the Sears Tower, is the stock exchange. The camera lingers, transfixed, on the changing numbers, while Ferris and his friends discuss their future. In other movies of 1986 and 1987 – e.g., Quicksilver and The Secret of My Success – as in Hollywood in general, the market provides the means of punishing evil, rewarding good, and offering a ladder to social climbers.

Reagan-era Wall Street was dominated by flamboyant arbitrageurs like Ivan Boesky, a bestselling author (Merger Mania) and a vocal fan of greed. In a 1985 commencement address at Berkeley, Haynes Johnson reports that Boesky “was cheered as he said, ‘Greed is alright.’” Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) considered the possibility that Boesky’s gains were ill-gotten. Boesky was not formally charged with insider trading until November of 1986, but it is clear that insider trader Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is modeled on him, right down to Gekko’s speech on the virtues of greed. Wall Street is not Gekko’s story, though, but that of Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a young, upwardly-mobile broker with working-class roots who, at one point, informs his working-class father (Martin Sheen) that “there is no nobility in poverty anymore.” Gekko takes Fox under his wing and pressures him to gather illegal information. The market is Fox’s downfall, once he is caught, but it is also still his savior; Fox’s own network of investors successfully defeats Gekko’s buyout of the airline that employs Fox’s father. Wall Street still trembles at the power of the market, but its message is slightly muddled and its morality more complex. It is miles away from the absolute glorification of trading in Trading Places, or even in Quicksilver one year prior, but it clearly comes at a conflicted time. By 1987, public opinion of Reagan and what he represented was in flux. Faith in the almighty market as an engine for upward mobility, and fantasies of class-permeability in general, pervade American cinema in the early 1980s, and John Hughes enters this dynamic when he lets the poor guy get the rich prom queen in The Breakfast Club (1985), and the poor girl get the rich guy in Pretty in Pink. However, the differences between Pretty in Pink and Hughes’ next movie, Some Kind of Wonderful, chart the starker pessimism of the decade’s end.

III. Reality Bites

You want the truth? You want the plain truth? You’re over.

— Eric Stoltz to rich rival in Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)

Pretty in Pink
and Some Kind of Wonderful bookend a rupture in the portrayal of class in American cinema of the 1980s. Pretty in Pink was released in February 1986, and Some Kind of Wonderful opened exactly a year later. Without insisting on a strict equation of public mood swings and cinematic trends, it appears that, somewhere in between these two films, the Reagan sheen had worn thin. The economic disillusionment that took hold became a constitutive element of the very teenage generation that many of the movies of the 1980s – and certainly those of John Hughes – targeted.

In May 1986, Wall Street received the first of several blows that would change its course. According to Gordon Henry writing for Time, a 33-year-old mergers-and-acquisitions specialist named Dennis Levine became the subject of “the largest insider-trading complaint ever filed by the SEC.” Wall Street envisioned a scandal on par with Watergate, because investigators – and the press – publicly concluded that, as Susan Dentzer reported in Newsweek, he “may have plugged into a network of financial community tipsters, possibly arbitrageurs…or other sources with access to material nonpublic information.” Everything indicated that the cheating was widespread, and it was Levine who ultimately fingered Boesky that fall. The fate of the stock market during the following year spelled disaster for public confidence in Reagan’s economic stewardship, as it was generally agreed that the administration had let the market run out of control. The Dow wavered early in 1987, finally climbing to record heights in September. The following Monday, however, it suffered the largest single-day loss in its history, roughly twice the drop of 1929 that had ushered in the Great Depression. Reagan’s approval ratings of 68% at the outset of his first term fell to 57% when the Levine scandal broke, and they continued to slide. By mid-1987, the Iran-Contra scandal – broken when an American cargo plane was shot down over Nicaragua in October of 1986 – and the collapsing market had eviscerated the president’s numbers, which ended a full 20% lower than they were when he entered the White House. Polls in November 1987 equated Iran-Contra with Watergate, the same terms Wall Street had used to describe its own scandals.

Bernstein’s assessment of teen movies in the 1980s contrasts the optimism of that decade with the pessimism of its predecessor, with “the fear, paranoia, frustration and uncertainty of America post-JFK, post-Vietnam and post-Watergate” (3). The 1980s certainly began on an optimistic note, but American cinema after about 1986 records a different story.

IV. To Rise or Not to Rise?

To be honest, trying to look like a yuppie is pretty exhausting. I think I might even give up the whole ruse – there’s no payoff. I might even become a bohemian like these three. Maybe move into a cardboard box on top of the RCA building; stop eating protein; work as live bait at Gator World. Why, I might even move out here to the desert.

— Douglas Coupland, Generation X (emphases his)

David Ansen pulls no punches in his review of Some Kind of Wonderful. John Hughes, he writes, “must have written Some Kind of Wonderful so fast he failed to notice he’d written it once before, under the title, ‘Pretty in Pink.’ Only the sexes have been changed.” Benjamin DeMott, in The Imperial Middle, makes a similar pronouncement, claiming that “the story is the same.” In many ways, Ansen and DeMott are correct: the number of obvious parallels between the two films demonstrates that Hughes is simply cashing in on an established formula. Both movies feature an outcast high-schooler vying for the affections of someone from the other side of the tracks, tracks which are actually included in the opening shots of both films. The parallels in question underscore some fundamental differences, though, and these differences ultimately speak to a clear shift in perspective. They begin even with the films’ soundtracks and the role that the soundtracks play in the construction of the narrative. The soundtrack of Pretty in Pink, for example, prizes wistful tunes like OMD’s “If You Leave,” Nick Kershaw’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (“Wouldn’t it be nice to be on your side/Even if it was for just one day?”), and the Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want.” The title track – “Pretty in Pink” by The Psychedelic Furs – thematizes class difference, telling of a poor woman and her wealthy lover. The soundtrack to Some Kind of Wonderful, by contrast, revolves around the Rolling Stones song, “Miss Amanda Jones,” from which the lower-class protagonist’s love interest takes her name. The tune is ubiquitous in the film and chronicles a wealthy girl’s movement down the social ladder.

Some Kind of Wonderful clearly represents Amanda’s (Lea Thompson) involvement with Keith (Eric Stoltz) as a movement downward, and, because of this, we can categorize her as “rich,” as Ansen and DeMott also do, even if her social status is deliberately ambiguous. The situation is already more complex than in Pretty in Pink; Some Kind of Wonderful is not the fairy tale of a poor boy courting a rich girl, but rather of a poor boy courting a similarly poor girl doing her best to escape poverty. The wealthy Blaine in Pretty in Pink ultimately proves himself worthy of Andie, but Some Kind of Wonderful refuses to redeem any of its more comfortable students. Despite her perceived status, Amanda Jones is poor. “Do you know where she’s from?” Keith asks, and Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) acknowledges that Amanda is indeed from “our sector, but she runs with the rich and the beautiful, which is guilt by association.” The ending of the film resolves the ambiguity by having Amanda abandon her upward social mobility in favor of individual strength. This final act justifies the unmediated scorn of upward struggle embodied by Watts throughout the film. As DeMott points out, the film’s conclusion permits both Keith and Amanda to win, but DeMott’s reading of this conclusion as an erasure of class misses the important point that the only class erased is the upper one, the same class that Pretty in Pink’s ending embraced one year earlier. This crucial difference is, on closer examination, reflected in every possible point of comparison between the two films and relentlessly troubles the notion that Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful reflect similar paradigms of social class and mobility.

If we read these two films as stories of upward mobility – as the fairy tales whose pattern such stories follow – then the role of the mentors or donor figures in Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful becomes important. In both movies, these enablers encapsulate the film’s overall conception of class and its rigidity. Andie’s mentor in Pretty in Pink is Iona (Annie Potts), the Protean manager of the record store at which Andie works; she is Andie’s constant friend and source of advice. The first shot of Iona shows her in punker leather gear, her hair spiked, but she next sports a towering beehive hairdo as she croons along with the Association’s “Cherish.” Finally, as she gives Andie a gown for the prom, Iona is dressed conservatively, readying herself for a date whom she admits is a “yuppie.” This transformation mimics Andie’s own romantic aspirations even as it encapsulates the entire movie. Keith’s facilitator in Some Kind of Wonderful, the skin-headed delinquent Duncan (Elias Koteas), remains, for the duration of the movie, precisely as we first see Iona in Pretty in Pink, clad in punker leather and looking intimidating. After meeting him in detention, Duncan ultimately engineers Keith’s entire date with Amanda Jones, gaining the couple entrance into the art museum where his father is a security guard, and having one of his henchmen break open the gate to the Hollywood Bowl for them. Duncan magically appears at the party of Amanda’s wealthy ex-boyfriend, Hardy Jenns (Craig Sheffer), the film’s climax, where he physically intervenes to help Keith and Amanda against her rich friends’ interference. Duncan and Iona perform similar narrative functions, but Duncan never becomes a yuppie. His presence in Some Kind of Wonderful is a constant nod to the high school’s disgruntled untouchables.

The final showdown in Some Kind of Wonderful further separates it from Pretty in Pink and signals another departure from the upward-mobility format. Apart from the protagonists and their close friends (Duckie and Watts), the other members of their social class involve themselves to different degrees. Andie’s friends – save Duckie – mysteriously disappear thirty minutes into the movie, obviating the need to include them in the conclusion of the film. All the audience hears from them is, “Andie are you going out with a rich man?” before they vanish and Andie stands oddly alone. Duckie, unimpressed with her decision to cross the class barrier, protests, “They’re gonna use everybody, including you,” but by the end he admits, “You’re right, Andie, he’s not like the others.” In Some Kind of Wonderful, Keith has no friends but Watts as the movie starts, but the disenfranchised come out in full support once he is linked with Amanda Jones. Issues of class segregation give way to vicarious male sexual fulfillment (“Hey, by the way, congratulations, dude, man, she’s smoking”) and pure class revenge, as when Duncan crudely says to Keith, “Congratulations on your latest coup…Anytime somebody from the outside lifts a woman from a guat like Jenns, man, we can all find cause to rejoice…Punch her apron one time for me.” A riot-like class frustration animates the small army that supports Duncan at Jenns’ party, where they intervene to protect Keith. Whereas, in Pretty in Pink, Andie’s fellow working-class students simply disappear, Some Kind of Wonderful paints the working-class support for Keith in vengeful terms. The poor do not want to become or even avoid the rich in Hughes’ version of 1987; rather, they want to destroy them. The irremediable anger is commensurate with a plot structure that refuses to resolve class conflict. If the final showdown and reconciliation in Pretty in Pink occur at the very institutional prom, the adult institutions are powerless to mediate in Some Kind of Wonderful. What remains is a private party with no supervision.

The imaginary geography of upward mobility, the physical space in which the romantic coupling of the poor protagonist and her or his rich love interest is permitted to occur, also shifts between 1986 and 1987. In Pretty in Pink, neutral space is the only locale for inter-class romance. On their first date, Blaine and Andie attempt a party at his wealthy friend’s enormous house and a working-class nightclub, and both crowds refuse them. Blaine takes Andie home, where the goodnight kiss and their first real connection take place not on Andie’s porch or in Blaine’s BMW, but on the street, between the two zones. For their next on-screen meeting, they are banished to the stables of Blaine’s parents’ country club. When Blaine approaches Andie in her corner of the schoolyard, he feels uncomfortable, saying, “I don’t think I’m very popular out here.” Likewise, when Andie confronts him in the hallways of the school, he asks, “Can we talk about this later?” This trend, built up throughout the film, relaxes in the re-shot ending, when Duckie is romantically approached by a rich girl on the dance floor at the prom. Conversely, when Duncan’s working-class army attempts a similar move at Jenns’ party at the end of Some Kind of Wonderful, the rich girls roll their eyes in disgust, and – however humorous the presentation – there will be no conciliation, no common ground. Significantly, the only kiss that Keith and Amanda share takes place on the stage of the empty Hollywood Bowl, all emphasis on the supreme superficiality of the event in a space of performance, in a city of illusion and transitory celebrity. By the film’s end, the link between the poor boy and the apparently rich girl is erased when Keith chooses to close the film out with his lower-class, tomboy friend Watts in his arms.

Some Kind of Wonderful’s moratorium on upward mobility reverses the happy ending of Pretty in Pink and is echoed unendingly in the decade that follows. This rupture was partnered, at the time of its filming, with another change in John Hughes’ usual mode of operation. Until Some Kind of Wonderful, every movie Hughes had made had been shot in or around Chicago, Illinois, where he was raised. “Chicago is what I am,” Hughes said during interviews to promote Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the summer of 1986, as Sharon Barrett reported in the Chicago Times; Hughes went on to reiterate that he would continue filming his movies in Chicago. However, within weeks of that interview, locations for Some Kind of Wonderful were finalized in San Pedro and Hollywood, California. This move may not seem significant, but it represented a stunning change from established form, since the vast majority of upward-mobility stories mentioned above focus on the Steel Belt or the Big Apple, loci of blue-collar industry or of white-collar Wall Street. Once Hughes stepped westward, he abandoned the teen-film genre completely, but the films and music that soon emerged did so in the western states. The dark comedy, Heathers (1989), a classic of teen anger that launched the careers of both Shannen Doherty and Christian Slater, takes place in southern California. Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything (1989) and Singles (1993), and the emergence of grunge music and its slacker ethos in the form of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains took place in Seattle. Songwriter Beck wrote the Generation X anthem, “Loser,” in Los Angeles in 1992, after moving back there from New York City (its classic chorus repeats: “Soy un perdedor/I’m a loser, baby”). Richard Linklater chronicled the X-ers of Slacker (1991) and the X-er prototypes of Dazed and Confused (1993) in Austin, and Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites (1994) was also set there. Teen movies generally stayed west, until Kevin Smith moved them to the Garden State in Clerks (1994) and Mallrats (1995), and Larry Clark’s disturbing Kids (1995) took place in New York City. Hughes’ move to Los Angeles for Some Kind of Wonderful somehow coincided with the extrication of the teen movie from the upward mobility story.

Ultimately, reading Some Kind of Wonderful as a narrative of upward mobility emphasizes the manner in which it refuses such mobility. The ending to Some Kind of Wonderful is so different from the final moments of Pretty in Pink that we have to wonder how Newsweek’s David Ansen actually could have watched both films to their conclusion and still insisted that they were the same. In two works so evidently about class and the lines between classes, it matters very much that in one, the poor girl gets the rich boy, and in the other, the poor boy selects instead a member of his own class. DeMott, who ignores the narrative structure of the two films, likewise misses this key distinction. The ending that Hughes had tried to hitch to Pretty in Pink in 1986 had been shot down by his test audiences; one year later, it was given the green light, grossing a respectable $19 million on a miniscule production budget.

Bernstein opines, in his comments on Some Kind of Wonderful, that it lacked the “youthful naiveté” of its predecessor: “The picture just seems a little tired.” Typically, films that dealt with social mobility or inter-class romance into the early 1990s did so either cynically or in a manner that empowered the lower-class characters. Consider Say Anything, in which an entire scholastic rise is rendered dubious when the protagonist’s father is incarcerated for having supported her with embezzled money. In Mystic Pizza (1989), Julia Roberts, a waitress, informs her Porsche-driving lover that he is “not good enough” for her; at the end of the film, she leaves him in the kitchen to perform assembly-line cooking tasks while she relaxes on the porch. Pretty Woman (1990) sees Roberts forcing the acrophobic Richard Gere to climb her fire escape to win her back. These pictures play on the same wish-fulfillment fantasies omnipresent in the films examined above from the early years of Reagan’s presidency, but class relations have shifted. The rich boys are made to work for the love of their poor girlfriends, who dictate the terms.

When measured against the economic and political background that informed them, American cinematic representations of class and social mobility in the early 1980s appear generally to mirror their environment. The critical blindness to a crucial difference between two of the more prominent examples of such representation in the teen subgenre – Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful – whitewashes a moment of national rupture and misses a critical opportunity. In and around 1986, the national psyche had shifted from the money-driven optimism and positive perception of the rich that prevailed during the early Reagan years to a pessimistic economic outlook and lost trust in the very president who had embodied the former optimism and materialism. The mid- to late-1980s approached the topic of wealth and its attainment with a great deal more suspicion. This jaded perspective of upward mobility becomes an integral part of the ethos of Generation X, the generation raised on movies like those of John Hughes; the so-called “slacker” culture of the early 1990s represents just the most extreme example of this disillusion.

September 2006

From guest contributor Geoffrey Baker

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