by Michelle King
When I was a kid, my favorite games to play were the ones I referred to simply as “imagination games.” Prone to asthma and allergies, I was forced to use my brain, not my body, to entertain myself. I did not play softball. I did not play kickball. I did not pass Go and accept orange slices and tiny Dixie cups of water. Instead, my friends and I—though, admittedly, sometimes just me—played games with titles such as “Mermaids,” or “Fairies,” or, my personal favorite, “High School Kids.”
“High School Kids” was my own creation. It was also the one I played alone most often; my friends did not quite understand the appeal. While they seemed content in their ten-year-old world of handstand contests and tree climbing, I was infatuated with the idea of being in high school. Nowadays, this is hilarious to me. High school? A point of obsession? Ha! That’s not to say that my own high school experience was particularly terrible, it’s just that nothing could have ever lived up to my impossibly high expectations for it. In my childhood view of things, high school meant colossal house parties and a caste system ruled by cheerleaders and football players (I imagined myself as a cheerleader, a dream terminated by my double-jointed arms and overall lack of rhythm). But in reality, parties were normally broken up before anybody could scream “fist fight”—and they never once included a dance sequence. As far as social order goes, my theater friends and I were not forced to sit at the designated “nerd table,” simply because there was no designated nerd table. There was, yes, some sort of vague social class, but the popular kids mostly minded their own business and were usually more likely to be smoking in their cars than they were to be playing football. I was also convinced, at ten, that everyone in high school looked about 25 years old.
Clearly, my past delusions regarding the realities of high school have one obvious culprit: 1990s teen movies.
Movies centered around and targeted at teenagers certainly did not begin in the 1990s. The teen films of the 80s—Heathers, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and just about every John Hughes movie—remain modern classics for good reason, but it wasn’t until the late 90s that teen movies started being churned out by Hollywood with an heretofore unparalleled frequency. That is not to say that thebest teen movies came out between 1997 and 1999, but it is to say that the most teen movies came out during those three years. Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie, 10 Things I Hate About You, Never Been Kissed, Varsity Blues, Jawbreaker, Drop Dead Gorgeous, The Faculty, I Know What You Did Last Summer, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Cruel Intentions, Drive Me Crazy, Dick, Teaching Mrs. Tingle—the list unfurls like the Magna Carta. As far as I was concerned, though, there was one movie that outshone the rest, emerging as the ne plus ultra of 90s teen cinema: She’s All That.
She’s All That stars Freddie Prinze Jr. as Zach Siler, the guy you would have hated in high school, if only guys like him actually existed in high school. Zach is the captain of the soccer team, has the third best grade point average in his entire class, and is dating the most popular girl in school, Taylor Vaughan (Jodi O’Keefe). But—to borrow from the vernacular of far too many theatrical trailer voice-overs—Zach’s luck is about to change.
It takes less than ten minutes for us to learn that Taylor is leaving Zach for Brock Hudson, a star from The Real World who she met at MTV’s Spring Break Beach House. “Don’t worry,” she tells Zach. “I’ll still totally go to prom with you." But Taylor’s promise of prom isn’t enough to appease Zach. Self-esteem sufficiently bruised, but ego still firmly intact, Zach tells his friends that Taylor Vaughan is merely a “C minus GPA with a Wonderbra.” In short, she’s replaceable, and to prove just how easily Taylor Vaughan can be replaced, Zach agrees to a bet with his friend Dean (Paul Walker). The terms of their bet are simple: Zach has six weeks to turn The Geekiest Girl in School into The Prom Queen. The "geek" in question is bespectacled art student Laney Boggs (Rachel Leigh Cook), who, after some convincing from her brother (Kieran Culkin), agrees to trust Zach and go along with his sudden interest in her.
One of the most memorable scenes in the film is a makeover sequence; it’s a scene that still excites me, albeit in the most simplistic of ways. It’s not that the makeover Laney undergoes is particularly remarkable. In fact, the whole thing is not really even so much a “makeover” as it is “Laney got contacts and a haircut.” But there is something special there, something ineffable. The saccharine sweet magic of the makeover scene actually begins before we even see Laney, with the first few simply strummed chords of She’s All That’s defacto theme song,“This Kiss”. Even now, fifteen years after I saw the film for the first time (in the theater, with my mom covering my ears during the infamous “Am I a fucking bet?” line), I find myself having an almost Pavlovian response to the song. I’ll hear it at the grocery store, or at the drugstore, or while being put on hold by an operator, and I’m instantly ten-years-old again, anxious for the model high school life I’ve imagined.
If the plot of She’s All That sounds familiar, it’s likely because the film closely follows the formula of My Fair Lady, and, well before that, Pygmalion. Still, for all its derivative traits, there remains something distinctive about She’s All That, even among the storm of films released around the same time featuring similar costumes, sets, and equally attractive casts. For starters, She’s All That is genuinely funny and self-aware. It’s also rather dark. Not in its entirety, perhaps, but with enough darkness sprinkled throughout to lend a rather strange, dismal tone to its sunny Southern California setting. Between all this and its ultra-famous cast (Cook was essentially a no-name at the time, but the film also featured Usher, Lil Kim, Paul Walker, and Anna Paquin), it’s no wonder that the film shot to No. 1 at the box office and earned a grand total of $103 million worldwide, about 17 times its budget.
Still, I do not know if any of this makes She’s All That a “good movie.” I honestly don’t. I become so flush with nostalgia anytime I see the film that it’s become difficult for me to discern whether or not this is actually a good 90s teen film (see: 10 Things I Hate About Youand Clueless) or if it is just simply a fun 90s teen film (see: Jawbreaker and Drop Dead Gorgeous). What I can tell you, though, is that as I’ve grown up, I no longer think of She’s All That as simply being an entertaining film. Yes, it’s fun and frothy. Yes, it’s ballasted in deeply sexist ideology (The nerd can get the prom king...but only when she becomes beautiful!). And, yes, there is a three-minute long dance sequence for reasons that remain inexplicable. But in recent viewings, I’ve become more aware of how emblematic She’s All That was of being a teenager in the late 1990s—not thereality of being a teenager per se, but the idea of what a teenager was at that particular cultural moment in time.
When the film was first released in 1999, teenagers were spending more cash than ever before (about $99 per week, according to Teenage Research Unlimited). Suddenly, kids had cash to blow, well beyond a basic allowance. Not surprisingly, companies soon began to target teenagers much more aggressively. MTV’s Total Request Live launched in 1998, the same year the first Now That’s What I Call Music! album was released. Mailboxes filled with catalogs for Alloys and Delia’s. You couldn’t swing your Sony Discman without knocking down five Motorola Beepers.
She’s All That satirizes this kind of consumer culture (“I have major Diet Coke breath. Does anybody have any gum?” is one of Taylor’s first lines), but it also embraces it. The film seems to suggest that you, too, can be beautiful and loved, just so long as you have a red velvet mini-dress and matching platforms.
There’s an argument to be made for why teenagers, with their malleable brains and virtually nonexistent savings accounts, should not be the top target of capitalism. I’m skeptical, though, to paint the producers of She’s All That as nothing more than acquisitive, manipulative adults, just cogs in a machine created to get teenagers to buy, buy, buy. What seems closer to the truth is this: the ideas depicted in She’s All That were simply demonstrative of what it meant to be a teenager living within the burgeoning economy of the 1990s.
You can argue that the changing landscape of cinema was the main reason that the mini-genre into which She’s All That fell ended when the twentieth century did, but that’s not quite correct. After all, movies that depicted a frothy, unrealistic version of high school were still being churned out well into the aughts. They might not have been part of that same magical, cult-classic-worthy era of the late 90s, but they certainly emerged from a similar ethos (Bring it On, Sugar & Spice, EuroTrip, A Cinderella Story, John Tucker Must Die, andShe’s the Man, to name but a few).
It wasn’t until 2007—when the most recent recession began and teenagers no longer had $99 a week to shell out—that films with insanely unrealistic depictions of high school stopped being mass produced, slowly replaced by high school movies that didn’t focus their lens nearly as much on the popular, wealthy kids. Films such as Juno, Superbad, Pitch Perfect, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Spectacular Now and, most recently, The Fault in Our Stars provide for a much wider range of teen-centered cinema than She’s All That and its Equal-sweet counterparts ever strove for. This shifting tide in what it means to be a teenager today isn’t just reflected in cinema, of course. It’s Rookie overSeventeen. It’s Lorde over Britney Spears. It’s in their clothes. It’s in their dialect. It’s in their goals, and their aspirations, and the things they talk about and the things they think about.
I have long outgrown my own “imagination games.” I no longer fantasize about what it would be like to walk down the stairs to “Kiss Me.” It’s been over five years since I turned my graduation tassel from left to right, and a lot of my day-to-day concerns are more of the “paying rent” and “buying groceries” variety. Movies like She’s All That—clever teen comedies that make no real effort to show what it’s actually like to be a teenager—seem mostly like a relic of the past. It’s a Walkman. It’s a flip-phone. It’s an AOL email account. Quite simply: it’s 90’s nostalgia.
I watch She’s All That about once a year. It’s a sick day movie or the movie I watch while folding my laundry. At this point, I’m so familiar with the plot that I need to devote only about 25 percent of my attention to the screen at any given moment. Whereas I used to watch it obsessively and think, “Oh wow. I hope high school is like that!”, whenever it’s on now I’m actually quite thankful that high school is essentially nothing like that, and that the films targeted at teens nowadays are a bit more discerning. But then that scene starts up, the one that begins with the soft strums of “This Kiss” and ends with the camera panning all the way up a young Rachel Leigh Cook’s body, to her freshly made-over face, and I can hardly breathe. It’s such a jejune response: oh, let’s all stop to stare at the beautiful, skinny girl as she walks down a set of stairs to a pretty song. But I can’t help myself. That’s what these kind of teen movies do. They don’t beget empathy; instead, when they work, they turn us back into those gawking teenagers that we never even really were to begin with.
Michelle King lives in Brooklyn. She spends her days working at Black Balloon Publishing and her nights writing and reading Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl to her cat, who seems to be enjoying it.