Best Coast: Teen Movies and the California Dream
May 23, 2011 § 2 Comments
When did the east coast versus west coast thing start? During the California gold rush, did moms try to persuade their sons to stay home in the east with arguments like, “Well, sure, the weather’s great and you can get rich out there, but it costs three dollars to buy an egg, an anyway, I hear all the women are shallow gold-diggers and prostitutes”?
I thought of this recently while I was watching Teenage Rebel, which played up the east coast versus west coast tug-of-war in a way that portended The Parent Trap. The Parent Trap, in turn, takes the rivalry almost as seriously as Biggie and Tupac. But these two films are far from the only offenders. (A more modern example: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) When I was growing up, I read a lot of really formulaic girls’ series fiction–and in every single series, there was usually a character meant to stand in for the coast opposite of wherever the story took place. In the Baby-sitters Club books, which are set in Connecticut, the west coast is represented by the transplanted-from-southern-California, beach-loving hippie Dawn, who only eats health food. Invariably, if a character is meant to stand in for the west coast, she is: a) blonde, b) laid-back, c) from California (Washington and Oregon do not exist in series fiction, point blank), and d) a natural beauty. In return, east coast girls are allowed a little more variety in home states (New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut are popular, but Vermont and New Hampshire are also allowed, as are the occasional appearances of Philadelphia and D.C.)–but they are consistently brunette and uptight. Alternately, for Sweet Valley High fans, it’s a running joke that if a female character from the east coast shows up, she will be a manipulative dark-haired snob whose entire purpose in the narrative was to ruin the (blonde, Californian, naturally beautiful) Wakefield twins’ lives. As a kid, I wondered where this trope had come from, and blamed it on the Beach Boys. Now I know better: it came from the movies. The Midwest, which had been the default setting for many movies in the 1930s and ’40s, was by the late ’50s being phased out in favor of an east/west culture war. And Hollywood, sick of the east coasters treating them like some backwards cow-town that knew nothing of class or elegance, came down pretty hard in favor of California–and convinced generations of movie-lovers of the certainty of Californian superiority as a result.
“Ohh . . . Boston.”
The Parent Trap is the quintessential realization of this trope. While the twins were, for the sake of the plot, required to have the same hair color, almost all other coastal stereotypes apply. Susan, the California twin, is the laid-back, outdoorsy, “modern” one (as evidenced by her short haircut) who lives with her father on one of the most gorgeous ranches ever committed to screen, where she enjoys activities like camping and horseback riding. Sharon, the Boston twin, is the “proper” one, as evidenced by her old-fashioned dresses and aversion to slang–as well as that fussily decorated Boston brownstone where she lives with her mother (whom you can bet she calls “Mother” rather than “Mom”). And while the point of the story is that the twins eventually rub off on each other and each reach a happy medium–while finagling and scheming to get their parents back together, naturally–it’s no surprise that they ultimately end up one big happy Californian family. (Of course, with that ranch, who can really blame them?)
The Parent Trap‘s California ranch.
That California wins out in most of these bi-coastal dilemmas was not always a given, but a device that coincides with the growth of Los Angeles and the rise of Hollywood itself. Prior to the 1960s, the Midwest was the American ideal. Back then, girls’ serial fiction heroines like Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames almost invariably called the Midwest home–as did big-screen serial leads like Andy Hardy. Even all-American beauty Barbie originally hailed from the dairy state. But starting in the 1950s, Midwestern heroine Nancy Drew was replaced with a new ideal: Gidget. In the Gidget films and follow-ups like the beach party movies, teenage culture and California culture are depicted as being virtually synonymous. Old teenage film cliches like the big dance and the malt shop were replaced by the bonfire on the beach and the surfing lesson. California was shown as some sort of latter-day Garden of Eden, and teenagers were its Adam and Eve. Most of this was simply due to laziness: screenwriters wrote what they knew, and there was no reason to head off to Idaho or Iowa to see what teenagers do in locales where surfboards are scarce. But certainly there was an element of self-satisfaction, too.
Unfortunately, this has led to a lack of balance. Midwestern teenage protagonists have all but disappeared from the screen since John Hughes stopped featuring the Brat Pack, and even east coast adolescents have been increasingly marginalized, mostly only popping up in darker teen films like Cruel Intentions where sunny California would ruin the carefully cultivated atmosphere. Your best bet for a non-California setting is one where the movie’s based on source material that dictates otherwise. And even that doesn’t always work–the 2007 Nancy Drew movie relocated the girl sleuth and her father from Midwestern River Heights, where they’d lived for three-quarters of a century, to boring ol’ southern California.
Filmmakers, I’m begging you: bring back the Midwestern heroines! I won’t even complain if you take the lazy way out and use “Midwestern” as shorthand for “naive” or “average” and “east coast” as a synonym for “sophisticated.” Just give us some face time. At this point, I might not even cringe too hard if they’re shown doing nothing more exciting than riding on tractors. Just leave Nancy Drew out of this.