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Let's Go To The Mall: Staking Out the Teen Movie's House of Worship

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tumblr_mgfjpcpLFS1rxl8oro1_500.gifThe American shopping mall is an arena that would impress even ancient Rome. It's one of the first places in which teens try and transform themselves outside the comforts of home, school, or supervised extracurricular activities, which is why they're some of the most important locations in any bankable teen movie. (And why some of us still shop in them.)

This month, Mallrats turned 20. Upon its release in 1995, the movie painted the mall as less of a commercial mecca and more of a backdrop for adolescent adventure. Sure, its story was built on the woes of two guys who failed to navigate the ins and outs of dating (and were arguably nightmare boyfriends), but it also embodied the youth culture that thrived in shopping malls during the time. Social rules were faster, looser, and less likely to be enforced, which gave characters -- or anyone, actually -- the room to become the type of people they wanted to be, outside the confines of day-to-day hierarchies. It was Twitter before Twitter -- the place youth flocked to say and do whatever they wanted. Or, at least that's the idea movies like Mallrats helped perpetuate.

Screen-Shot-08-03-14-at-03.03-PM.jpg Like the Kevin Smith comedy, Clueless also helped glamorize the mall, but it also boosted shopping culture. Cher seemed grown-up for being able to go somewhere and buy whatever she wanted without the presence of her father -- especially when she used shopping to help Tai get over Elton, as a means of girl bonding. The mall was also the setting for teen love, romance, and courting 101, where Mark Ratner pined for his beloved Stacy Hamilton in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Can't Buy Me Love's Ronald offered to buy Cindy a new suede fringe blazer if she would only tell people they were dating. Even after learning Christian is gay, Cher forges a friendship with him via shopping.

Mean-girls-03.jpgMeanwhile, movies like Mean Girls used the mall to provide Cady's introduction to the teen world, allowing her to better understand the social hierarchy the mall helped uphold. She and the Plastics roam the mall, free to shop, observe, and wreak havoc on the personal lives of their enemies, while Janis (a mall employee) can only observe from behind the register, limiting her perspective.

enhanced-buzz-24178-1389644192-0.jpgAnd in that way, the mall also serves as a token teen movie villain. While lending itself to the cruelties of teen life, its alliances with queen bees (and wannabes) establish it as an enabler for bad behavior or stupidity. In 10 Things I Hate About You, Kat mocks her sister for her penchant for shopping, while Paul Rudd's character makes countless digs at Cher in Clueless for her mall-centric lifestyle. Which is why the mall also strikes back. In Mean Girls, its familiar walls reject Regina after she gets too fat to shop at 5, 3, 1, cementing its safety as conditional. What you put into the mall, you get back. (Which is why a character like Cher, who uses shopping to help and to bond, is always welcome.)

In this sense, the mall becomes the teen world's Wild West. In The Duff, Bianca is confronted and blackmailed by her enemy after being videotaped trying on clothes with Wesley, her nemesis-turned-friend (and the ex-girlfriend of said nemesis). In Clueless, Tai almost dies after two random boys nearly flip her over a banister. Weird Science sees its protagonists attacked by Robert Downey Jr.'s character (who covers them in sugary beverages), and in Back to the Future, the mall parking lot becomes the setting for literal time traveling. It's the stepping stone from childhood play forts to grown-up life lessons.

Which might be why adult depictions of the mall tend to be so bleak.



Whether it's because of the (alleged) death of the American mall or theories on its inevitable extinction, the mall -- in adult-centered films -- has become less a mecca of adventure and opportunity, and more of a reminder of lost youth. In Gone Girl, the bankrupt and abandoned mall not only destroys the town's economy, but its remnants become a hotbed of drug abuse, black market trade, and even violence. In Dawn of the Dead, a small group of people are trapped in a dark, desolate mall while escaping zombies attempting to eat and kill them, while a comedy like Bad Santa depicts mall life as dire, with Willie (the main character) in no way enjoying his holiday season spent as a mall-employed St. Nick.

bad-santa-2003-08.pngFrom this standpoint, outside the gaze of youth, the mall is devoid of life, a betrayer of promise, and the symbol of death and irrelevance. It embodies the end of the American dream, our flailing economy, and the realities of classism (which we also see glimpses of in teen films). Like an abandoned theme park, it's proof that everything ends; that everything is replaceable -- kind of like how online shopping has replaced age-old methods of consumerism that require, you know, talking to people or leaving one's house. Adults have seen the instability of once-reigning societal staples. Teens, however, are a lot less familiar with it.

The divide between teen and adult culture is an important one; one the mall provides both in real life and in film. We see kids hanging out in the food court, congregating in masses after school, or before and after their retail shifts (which can act as social currency in themselves, depending on which store you work at). While adults rush through stores, complaining, teens relish in their freedom to move and shop and socialize. And while malls are currently less common in teen movies than dystopian futures, there's still a place for them -- much like there's still a place for them in real-life communities, too. Teen films may currently revolve around mazes, Hunger Games, and the end of the world, but that doesn't signal the end of malls or teen culture as we knew it. Instead, it proves that movies have created more space for teens in general. Which is fair: there can be more than one wild west. Just like there can be more than one brand of teen culture.






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