Friday, December 28, 2012

The philosophy behind 80's teen movies - Can't buy me love

(this text is the english version of the text "Filosofia da Sessão da Tarde - Namorada de Aluguel", originally written in portuguese.)

Dear Readers:

In the past month, through the "for dummies" texts, I tried to facilitate the understanding of big ideas from great thinkers of the human sciences. I wrote posts about the great masters of philosophy, psychology, sociology and economics, while making fun of them all, of course (not all of them are translated to English yet, but I hope I will be able to do it soon).

Now I'm taking the opposite approach and showing how some movies, which apparently did't tackle any serious issues, were in fact based on peculiar characteristics of human behaviour.  That is why we identified so much with them.  They would fall in the category "80's teen movies" and before cable (which in Brazil only arrived at the late 1990's) were broadcasted again and again during the afternoons on Brazilian TV networks.  If you have between 30 and 40 years of age, and lived in Brazil through your teen years, you probably seen each of them at least 10 times.

The movies I intend to analyse in a series of 4 posts are:

Can't by me love - 1987
Ferry Bueller's day off - 1986
Back to the Future - 1985
The Karate Kid - 1984

Always accompanied by lots of hairspray, shoulder pads, perms and other fads of the time, some characters will be remembered forever by our generation, it is time to unveil the subliminal messages of these afternoon classics.

Can't buy me Love - 1987

Patrick Dempsey (Ronald); Amanda Peterson (Cindy)

Before anything, please pay attention to the clothes and hairstyles of the romantic couple. Cindy does like big shoulder pads, she probably got them as a gift from the high school quarterback, who wore them on school games. Over the pads she is using a jacket that looks like a hand-me-down from her father, a very bulky father. Her long hair is carefully crimped by a perm and won't move even if Hurricane Katrina gets all the way to Arizona. Ronald, already "cool" and "popular" at this part of the movie, decided to rip his shirt sleeves off with his own hands, and makes a point of showing his bare chest (great pectorals), I don't know what he had in mind, but sadly it didn't work ...


Ronald Miller (Dempsey) is a typical high school nerd living in Arizona. He has spent all summer mowing lawns to save up for a telescope (1980's stereotypes are unbeatable). However, at an opportune moment he makes a deal with popular cheerleader Cynthia "Cindy" Mancini (Peterson) to "rent" her for $1,000. She agrees so that she can afford to replace a suede outfit that was spoiled by a red wine spill on at a party (they didn't have Vanish stain remover back then). The outfit belonged to her mother and she hadn't received permission to borrow it. Having few options except telling her mom the truth, she reluctantly agrees to help him look "cool" by pretending to be his girlfriend for a month. Both agree never to reveal the pact.

Ronald then trades his nerdy-but-loyal friends for the shallow popular students and undergoes a complete clothing and hair makeover at Cindy's direction (see again the result of the make-over on the picture above). Over the month the two discover each other's individuality and are drawn closely together.  Cindy starts to actually like Ronald and feels attracted by him.  On the last date which Ronald has 'paid' for Cindy then hints that she'd like to kiss Ronald, signifying that she has real feelings for him, but he misunderstands and assumes she wants to talk about their breakup. They dramatically "break up" in front of a crowd at school, but Ronald takes things too far and says some hurtful things about Cindy in front of their friends. 

The next day, Cindy appears disgusted with Ronald when she sees him behaving arrogantly at school and becomes jealous when she sees him flirting with her best friends Barbara and Patty (who also have perms and use gallons of hairspray each morning). Riding on the newly acquired popularity, Ronald takes the girls out on dates.

Ronald continues playing "cool" by hanging out with the jocks and hot chicks. But at a New Year's Eve party Ronald gets pretty drunk, goes into the bathroom with a girl and has sex with her. Cindy is completely devastated, so she also starts drinking heavily. Later, as a surprise Bobby (Cindy's real boyfriend) shows up at the party and learns about her relationship with Ronald through a few of his former colleagues, Cindy is brutally dumped in front of a lot of people. In anger and frustration she tells the party-goers the truth about her relationship with Ronald (detail, she never gave Ronald the US$1.000 back).

Ronald is now rejected not only by the popular crowd (who now are back to teasing him and throwing food at him), but by the nerdy crowd as well.  After much suffering, however, a moment comes for Ronald to redeem himself when he defends his best friend Kenneth against the onslaught of Quint (a bigger and stronger guy). 

Cindy recognizes Ronald's worth after that and the two reconcile when she decides to hop on the back of his riding lawn mower instead of hanging out with her popular friends. He asks her to prom and the two kiss as the title song plays. Closing credits roll while the two of them ride off into the sunset on the lawn mower (don't worry, we will have a Ferrari in the next movie, so let's just stick to the lawn mower from now).

Psycho/Social/Philosophical analysis:

American sociologist George Homans, formulated in the 1960's the "exchange theory".  The theory postulated that social behavior as exchange means that a plurality of individuals, each postulated to behave according to the stated behavioral principles, form a system of interaction.  Social approval is the basic reward that people can give to one another.  Cindy was able to give Ronald social approval, and he paid US$ 1.000 for it.

The desire for status is an innate human condition.  During millions of years, natural selection guaranteed that mammals, and consequently monkeys, apes and finally humans, give high value to status.

Occupying a dominant position within a group of people, encourages the brain to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good, while having a a submissive position in the group encourages the brain to produce cortisol, a substance that makes you feel bad

The release of these substances ("happy chemicals" and "unhappy chemicals"), happen in the most primitive part of our brain (the part related to instincts). Try as we might to rationalise that status is not important, these chemicals will continue telling us that it is.

There is a reason for that, the primitive part of our brain (mammal brain), was formed over millions of years, when we were still monkeys or apes. Being the "alpha male" of a group meant priority over food and more access to females for breeding. The least popular monkeys ate less and were less likely to reproduce.

Millions of years of Darwinistic natural selection made sure that each one of us is, most likely, a descendent of apes which cared about status.  Ronald, as a mammal, was no different from a low status ape trying to improve his status within the groupeven if this meant he had to wear that "look" up there.

*Suggestion for further reading: "I, Mammal" from Loretta Breuning.


  1. Brian3:41 PM

    a classic, worth watching again

  2. Patrick3:42 PM

    I love fashion, it makes me feel more handsome as time goes by, even though I am getting older