“Little Darlings”: A Celebration of an Imperfect, Unidealized Adolescence

     The moment their eyes meet, they despise one another. An empty seat on a bus to summer camp turns into the site of a brawl, prompting hysterics from the surrounding girls. They are natural competitors—one athletic and scrappy, the other rich and aloof, and both with something to prove for they are at an age when every interaction is a chance to show yourself to be either more worldly or more worthy of admiration and terror. We are now entering the world of teenage girlhood where sophistication and cynicism are social currency. In Little Darlings (1980), the dialogue and poses of youth mirror the feigned sophistication of early adolescence, the posturing and one-upmanship of girlhood. Reminiscent of a Judy Blume novel, but with elements of summer camp farce, complete with food fights and a stolen condom machine, the film follows Angel, played by Kristy McNichol, and Ferris, Tatum O’Neal, as they compete to lose their virginity by the end of summer. 

     From their initial meeting, the bond between Ferris and Angel is one made up of competition, slights, and petty jealousies. It is a relationship charged by animosity. They are adversaries and the girls around them, excited by the rivalry, stoke this animosity. It begins, however, to evolve, ever so slowly, into esteem, respect, and mutual regard. They are the same; their fears, trepidation, joys, and envies are the same. What at first seemed to be the vast difference in their upbringing and personalities doesn’t seem by the end to be such an unbridgeable gap. Their competitive edge is dulled by the realization that being really truly known, seen, and understood by another person far outweighs the temporary credibility either of them could garner from winning the bet. 

     The poignancy of the film lies in its illustration of the bonds of girlhood, so obsessional, so immediate, convoluted, and melodramatic. These are the formative years when you are able for the first time to see a self differentiated from the bonds of your early life—a solitary self— at the same time that another person becomes a part of you so necessary as to be almost like air. Little Darlings creates this tension, this joyful abandon, this discovery of oneself within the world. Throughout the film, the girls navigate uncharted territory, discovering the contours and complications of the world and, as they grow up, who they are within that newly discovered world. Ostensibly a story about a bet between Ferris and Angel, the film deftly explores the nuances of female friendship, the subtle gradations and moments of enlightenment and trust that make up the basis of a new selfhood and a new deep bond. 

     As Ferris and Angel compete, the rest of the girls, an incongruous, clique-less group thrown together solely by summer camp, become divided as they vie for the position of confidante, the role of more knowledgeable older sister, counseling Ferris and Angel on how best to seduce the boys they have set their sights on. Of course, it’s all an act. It’s all just formidable teen girl bravado, a smoke-screen of dramatics to hide the vulnerability of youth and the all-consuming desire to be acknowledged and thought of as indispensable in a world of ever-changing enthusiasms. Quoting Shakespeare, claiming that your favorite movie is Last Tango in Paris, even going so far as to say that you’ve gone to the theater many times to see it, it’s all an elaborate act, a series of references that, to the girls, connote essential and yet forbidden knowledge; a kind of cultured, mimicked womanhood. But, in the process of coaching and competing against each other, they bond. This facade of faked sophistication begins to melt away as friendships between all of the girls begin to grow. They are restored to the giggly, mooning, deep introspection of early adolescence. The attempts to replicate what they see as femininity, attempts that have grown out of their obsessions with boys, sex, and their bodies, are left behind. Through their acceptance of themselves and one another, they are able to inhabit the carefree world of girlhood for a little while longer, fending off the adult world in favor of that of dreams and imagination. 

     When I watch this film, I can’t help but be reminded of the childhood and adolescence that Tatum O’Neal herself never had. By the time she was ten years old, she had starred in, been nominated, and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Paper Moon (1973), prompting the cruel resentment and retribution of her father, actor Ryan O’Neal. She was subjected to a world of abuse and neglect and forced to take on responsibilities such as the care of younger siblings. She was born into a family plagued by rampant drug addiction and a competitive edge that sometimes took the shape of physical violence. A place lacking in emotional support, Tatum was firmly on her own. She was born to a life that seemed, from the outside, to promise so much, to be a gilt edged dream, but that turned out to be an unending nightmare. She, unlike the girls in the film, was forced to contend with the trials of an adult life while still a child.

     I know, of course, in the more reflective, logical part of my brain, that there is no corollary between film and life; that an actor can summon reserves of empathy or emotion that he or she cannot muster or even fathom in real life. That is the beauty and the art of acting. I know this. Really, I do. But when I watch Tatum O’Neal in Little Darlings, when I see her opening up to her peers, when I see her bonding with other girls over camp related mischief, when I see the older coach she’s pining over carefully sending her on her way after she tries to seduce him, I can’t help but hope that it’s happening to the real Tatum, the one so beleaguered and isolated by the trauma inflicted on her by her parents and an exploitative community. I can’t help but feel a sliver of hope as I watch the film that, much as the girls’ sense of self begins to grow alongside the feeling of finally being seen for who they are, something similar may be happening to Tatum. I dream of her finding solace in the ways that Ferris and Angel find solace in that vulnerable time, with each other and within themselves. I imagine that I am seeing some sort of healing happen—that watching the film is offering her the chance at a safer narrative through some kind of impossible alchemy. It’s impractical and it’s absurd, trust me, I know. But, maybe there is something special about this film. Maybe it’s the feeling of hope that what is happening to the girls in the film could also be happening to some small, damaged, and partially forgotten part of ourselves; that it is making clear a formerly hidden piece of ourselves that is also striving for recognition and healing through the bonds we make with others. Maybe it’s reminding me that we cannot and should not be alone. Or maybe it is, after all, just a summer camp movie.

Switchblades, Drag Races, and Rumbles: On the Juvenile Delinquent in American Cinema

     I was young when I first saw West Side Story (1961). I was captivated by the colors, the romance, and the choreography that so elegantly depicted the inner turmoil of the characters. As much as I was drawn to the doomed romance, as much as I tried to will a happier ending with each viewing, the thing that always stuck with me were the juvenile delinquents themselves, their untamed anger and resentment, their pure passion. They were misfits and so I loved them. As I grew up, I became casually aware, through Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the James Dean infatuation required of my teenage years, that West Side Story was not a solitary case. Rather, it was a response to a larger social phenomena and a clear descendant of a genre of films made in the previous decade—the juvenile delinquent film. 

     During the 1950s, the juvenile delinquent became one of the most potent images of dissatisfaction and destruction. The era was filled with fear about what the juvenile delinquent meant and many films, in a bid for relevance, sought to tackle what was rapidly becoming one of the most pressing social issues. These films usually fell into one of two categories and had very different approaches to their subject matter. Big budget studio productions, which starred recognizable actors, took their subject matter very seriously, and saw it as their duty to educate the public on the growing threat of juvenile delinquency. Many of these films begin with an introduction that rolls onto the screen with the credits. In these introductions, the films assert that although the audience is watching a work of fiction, the problem of delinquency is real. They speak of juvenile delinquency as an “infection”, an illness or disease spreading rampant throughout American communities. The alarmist rhetoric of these introductions thus position the film as a piece of almost documentary-type social realism, a public service announcement made for the benefit of its audience, all adults. But for all their moralizing and hand-wringing about the state of the youth of the country, what these films failed to do was adequately express the ways in which institutions, previously believed to be unshakable, were failing the youth. Contrary to the random and seemingly senseless violence that the juvenile delinquents of these films enacted, the reality was that the things that the older generations had previously regarded with respect and loyalty, praise and veneration, were failing them and they knew it. They were able, in that prescient way that adolescence has, to see that the institutions that their parents had respected almost to their own dissolution, were false, and they acted accordingly. In contrast to this attempt to document, condemn, and restore order, the low-budget B films on the same subject were meant for one thing only—entertainment. These films were marketed towards the very teenagers they depicted and their sole aim was money. Youth was a new market to tap into. These films were usually made as part of a double feature, the purview of the drive-in, and other places of mid-century adolescence. Juvenile delinquent movies thus served a dual purpose as both entertainment and as warning and signify disparate concerns: the delinquent as social ill in contrast to the booming commercial value of the delinquent and the teenager within society. 

     In Blackboard Jungle (1955), a young and idealistic teacher named Richard Dadier, played by Glenn Ford, joins the staff of a high school where juvenile delinquency runs rampant to the point that the other teachers have become resigned to their apathy. The film opens on a schoolyard, ringed by a wrought-iron gate. Within the gates, the students, mostly boys, are seen rough-housing and dancing. There is a frenetic, manic, and uncontrollable energy to them. A woman walks by. She is blonde. Dressed in a blouse buttoned up to her neck and a skirt. The boys instantly notice her. She is beautiful. They push themselves into the gate, hands reaching out to her, whistling. Her pace quickens, her fear palpable. She seeks escape from the scrutiny, the threat. So begins a trend within the film—exposing the predatory behavior of the boys and their threat as one specifically aimed towards women. This continues in a later scene when a young female teacher is almost raped by a student and again when Dadier’s wife goes into early labor because one of the boys is sending her anonymous letters insinuating that her husband is having an affair. Within this film, women stand for the trappings of society, the morals, the structures that appear to keep everything in place. They are wives and mothers or they work, but only if they are young and unmarried. They symbolize the home, the family, stability, respectability, purity—the very things that were so venerated by mid-century America. If the juvenile delinquent poses a threat to them it means that, by extension, he is posing a threat to the morals and ideals ingrained in our society. The juvenile delinquent thus becomes an existential threat to the very fabric of mid-century life. They were striking out violently at the most deeply held beliefs and structures and had to be, within the confines of this film, restrained and altered back into respectable boys. 

     But this was an alarmist film based on an alarmist principle—that there was a new random and senseless violence of the youth that led students to attack teachers in alleyways and steal full delivery trucks. And thus, everyone was frightened—the juvenile delinquent appeared to pose a threat to all the notions that the older generations had grown up with. But more than that, I think many of these films signify a shift in culture as represented by the juvenile delinquent. The juvenile delinquent is emblematic of changing social values, shifting demographics and interests, as can be seen, for example, in their veneration of rock ‘n’ roll, a music that shocked their parents. Rock ‘n’ roll is the ultimate symbol of rebellion, it always has been and it was for the juvenile delinquents. They heralded the beginning of a new conception of adolescence—the first true teenagers. Previously, teenagers had just been thought of as children who were believed to be children until they were adults. There was no in-between stage where they were regarded as anything else. As the 1950s wore on, a new set of pastimes and media was directed solely at them, and the youth of the era was able to express themselves in myriad ways that had never been available to them up until that point. And because of that, they became repression completely discarded. Refusing to remain unheard, the frustrations of an uptight era were now let out in a resounding howl that, in turn, shaped the way we, today, view an entire era.

Samantha Stevens: A Witch Stuck in Sitcom Suburbia

Bewitched seems almost destined to have become the perfect vehicle for nostalgia, a standard mid-century suburban sitcom that managed, through humor and the supernatural, to play on the very underpinnings of 1960s life. It exposed the things venerated for making a life worthwhile, that appeared to be synonymous with contentment; the hopes of a perfect life all wrapped up in and around the perfect home, the white picket fence, the loving husband, and a particularly boozy cocktail hour. It is into this world that our witch, Samantha Stevens, is thrown after her marriage to a mortal man, Darrin. When, on their wedding night, he finds out that Samantha is a witch, he makes her vow not to ever use magic again. He forces her to give up the thing that differentiates her from other wives, all in a bid for normalcy—that ever so sacred and amorphous thing that plagued the 1950s and 1960s. It is into this world that Samantha willingly goes, and it is through her that we see the folly and vapidity of the suburban American dream. 

     Socially and culturally, the witch has always been the perfect encapsulation of our society’s fears about womanhood and power. She functions outside of the norms of propriety. She is able to wield the kind of power that women are seldom allowed. She is a force that must be controlled and contained; something unusual that must be stripped of its authority, and rendered ineffective. It is through her that the conventions of society are undermined. It is in the form of Samantha, however, that we are given the opposite of this standard view of the witch. Samantha is typically feminine and demure. She is the perfect pastel wife, who appears to fit into this notion of the idyllic American life. She is the dream girl for the common man, with one small hitch; a hitch that threatens to expose the not-so-normal life that Samantha and Darrin have built for themselves. 

    Throughout Bewitched’s initial run, from 1964-1972, Samantha and Darrin’s dream of suburban abundance and normalcy was consistently undermined. The show functioned by putting a woman, who had extraordinary powers, into one of the most restrictive and uniform environments possible, and the writers knew that. This conflict was at the core of the show, with everything built up around it. Without these competing powers battling for dominance, there would be no friction. Samantha, a powerful witch, has decided, at the behest of her husband, to give up magic, to sacrifice a piece of what makes her unique, in order to have a normal life. And she agrees because, as she tells her mother, she wants that life; that world of normalcy and false appearances appeals to her, that world of Donna Reed and Leave it to Beaver-esque sitcoms, of which she has now become a part. She wants all of the trappings of the American dream, as it was understood in the 1950s and 1960s, but she is never quite able to give up witchcraft, it is as much or more a part of her as the drive towards conformity. The trappings and conventions of suburban life are put into relief by Samantha’s inability to adapt to them. This is not the world that she was raised to inhabit, as her family, and especially her mother, Endora, continually put into relief, seeing her new role as a kind of oppression and resenting her husband for it. Even as she wants these things—the husband, the children, the appliances and the attendant cooking and decorating that make a perfect home—she is not equal to the task of housewifedom: the menial, convoluted, and stifling tasks that signify in equal measure her privilege and her subjection. It is entirely too proscribed a life for her, as signaled by the situations she continuously finds herself in.

     An early episode opens on Samantha in the kitchen. She has been tasked with putting together a dinner party for Darrin, his boss, and a potential client. Even though she is uncomfortable in the kitchen, she never complains or resorts to magic. Even through this discomfort, she hosts the party with a steadied and performed ease, the transformation from witch to suburban housewife seemingly complete. She is now the image of desired womanhood and she functions for Darrin as such. She has become merely an ideal that he attempts to pass off onto the rest of the world, an image that lends him, as an advertising man, an air of legitimacy and it is clear that this is the thing most important to him. It is clear that his comfort, his joy, and his aspirations are the basis of Samantha’s new existence, and the conflict between that and her former life as a witch come into relief when a client begins to drunkenly harrass her. Knowing no one will believe or protect her, she turns him into a dog. Darrin eventually stands up to the client, but it is clear that Samantha knows on some level that she, as a woman, is on her own. It is what she represents that is so appealing to men, including Darrin, not who she is. The darker side of the 1960s is shown by the writers and, in their own alchemical way, turned into humor. Bewitched is a flawless piece of reinvention, where the dominant notions of existence and conformity are reinforced and the specter of empowered womanhood in the symbol of the witch is complicated and made more palatable. Samantha doesn’t relish her power, but rather, is embarrassed by it and the complications that arise because of it. She is still able to use witchcraft, but it is all under the guise of attempting to fit in. She does it for the sake of normalcy, for the sake of Darrin, and for the sake of the illusion that he has built. She has been made into the perfect suburban woman.