Teenage romantic comedies have certainly come a long, long way without so much as tweaking the format a smidge. The Duff, released in 2015, is certainly very aware of the tropes that it’s rooted in, but nevertheless uses those tropes endlessly.
High school romantic comedies, in particular, seem to have a very explicit agenda in mind: showing you how a social outcast can find their place through the traditional make over, a rumour that gives them social acceptance, or a romance that makes them more desirable in a dog-eats-dog world of popularity. However, this idea of finding social acceptance through transforming yourself and eventually realizing, “I am perfect the way I am,” seems to be reserved for women. I know it’s a broad generalization to make, but Bianca Piper of The Duff appears to be facing many more esteem issues than Wesley Rush of the same movie does.
And when the male protagonist has anxiety issues about his position in the school social hierarchy, he doesn’t need to undergo a physical re-evaluation to be accepted into its highest echelons.
Bianca from The Duff is your typical high school heroine – she is average, funny, has quirky habits, and is in love with someone she can’t talk to due to crippling social anxiety. Not only is this image very common, it is very specific. For instance, Georgia Nicholson of Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging is characterized in a very similar way, though tending a lot more towards narcissism and melodrama. Likewise, The Breakfast Club is very particular in outlining the five categories that are the entire focus of high school movies – the Jocks, the Basketcases, the Criminals, the Prom Queens, and the Brains.
The quintessential element of a teenage rom-com is almost always a girl, generally aged fourteen to seventeen, who feels curiously out of place in a world of blonde-haired Barbies. The Duff is not different – it uses this stereotype to paint Bianca Piper the designated Ugly-Fat-Friend in her clique. However, the exploration of self-esteem in teenagers takes very different turns when the perspective changes from a female to a male one. The idea of naming the film after a social category considered typical of high school groups pokes fun at its origin, the people who are placed in it, and the audience that continues to enjoy such fare.
Since self-esteem (or lack thereof) among teenagers is a very important aspect of growing up, almost all teen-focused fiction has a lot to say about it. The young, plain-Jane, Bianca Pipers of the world resist conventional ideas of beauty by nestling instead into their own world of the quirky. But what a girl should do to be accepted in society follows another set of quite specific patterns. First, she needs to be a social outcast – or, preferably ignored. Second, the popular guy that everyone likes has to be her crush. ‘Bianca Pipers’, thus, will be in love with the ‘Toby Tuckers’ of the school – the blonde, blue-eyed boys who sing to their beloved. Dreamy is the word we are going for here. And, she will obviously be seeking help from an unconventional figure. In She’s All That, Lanie is helped into getting a grand “make-over,” by the school’s most popular boy, which is traditionally supposed to make him double back and stare at her in awe. In The Duff, this trope is intelligently subverted when, unexpectedly, the figure of the Jock decides to bring Bianca the right-sized bra.
High school romantic comedies also play a lot with the idea of traditional beauty – the blonde-and-awful Madison of The Duff is an archetypal figure found in just about every teenage movie. For instance, Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries will wade through ‘princess-hood’ while heroically battling against the Queen Bee, Lana. Nobody really questions why someone at the bottom of the social hierarchy is even being noticed by someone at the top, but who cares? The high school heroine has to face such awfulness, you know.
Also, no film questions what happens to the high school heroine when she is at the top of the hierarchy. Well, none except Mean Girls, which not only shows you what happens to every girl looking for a makeover for social acceptance, but also portrays a culture of female against female, fighting for a common male prize. When Cady Heron becomes a part of the Queen Bee clique of Regina George, the movie exposes the hollowness of the inadequacy that teenage girls feel, along with the horrible culture that high school movies create – one based on competition for resources a.k.a. possessing the popular boy or the popular clique.
The qualities of the female who supposedly “deserves” the man in question are almost always her being socially awkward and untouched by other boys. It stems from a teenage social anxiety of not being popular enough, and troublingly demonstrates a Bianca Piper who has never been on a date being portrayed in a positive light as opposed to a Madison, who has dated a lot of people and is willing to date more.
For all intents and purposes, John Bender from The Breakfast Club doesn’t fit into school society any more than Bianca Piper of The Duff does. And eventually, the movie addresses this phenomenon, one which colours Katerina from 10 Things I Hate About You as a bitch because she doesn’t try to fit in, and bothers even less about what people think of her. There’s an interesting gendering of inadequacy, particularly in romantic comedies. The end result is always achieved via the tried, tested and basically exhausted route of the female undertaking a journey towards becoming a more confident and socially accepted version of herself, whereas the man does not have to go through the same. Bianca understands where the inadequacy comes from, realizes that not only is everyone a designated Ugly-Fat-Friend but that it’s not a bad place to be.
T in a Cup
A Cup of T
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Written by Tanvi
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