Fast Times with Valley Girls: 30 Years Later, What Do Two SoCal Classics Tell Us About America?


[Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on the KCET Departures website under its Intersections column on February 15, 2013.  It is a pop culture supplemental addition to our Retail California series. Part one can be read here. Part two can be read here, and part three here.]

“I hate working the theater,” Mark “Rat” Ratner (Brian Backer) laments to friend Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) in the classic comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. “All the action’s on the other side of the mall.”

Indeed, Rat’s wide-eyed stare focuses on the food court, populated by establishments like Bronco Burger, Mexican Dan, and, where his new crush Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) works, Perry’s Pizza. Written by Cameron Crowe and directed by Amy Heckerling, the short scene in many ways captured a dominant aspect of 1980s SoCal adolescence.

Fast Times was one of two Hollywood films from the early 1980s that came to define a new, suburban phenomenon: the California mall culture. Along with Valley Girl from 1983, the films also defined an often maligned genre — the high school comedy — and established character archetypes that persist to this day. Moreover, to the credit of both films, gender and sexuality are treated in ways that highlight America’s paradoxical relationship to the sometimes taboo subject.

SoCal Mall Culture

In 1980, the Sherman Oaks Galleria opened to great fanfare. Situated between the I-405 and I-101 and consisting of over 120 stores, including the theater where the fictional Mark Ratner would later toil in anonymity, the Galleria represented the “first commercial integrated regional urban shopping center complex in Southern California,” as reported by the Los Angeles Times at the time.

Within three years, popular culture placed it at the center of American and California life, as Fast Times and Valley Girl employed the mall as centrifugal force in their narratives.

Perhaps appropriately, considering the consumerist nature of the 1980s, Southern California’s young women — once defined by surfer girl Gidget — now seemed less about the state’s natural gifts like beaches, and more about its economic abundance — like malls.

To modern viewers the Galleria seems to be a pre-historic remnant of today’s iteration of the shopping mall, or more accurately, those that are left. Since the late 1990s, the demise of the mall has been proclaimed widely. By 2009, 1500 remained nationally, but many just barely. Nearly 10% of the 1500 will fail in the next few years, and websites like attest to this struggle (it even includes an entry for the Galleria). Lucky shopping centers have found new lives as car dealerships or mixed spaces uses, and in San Antonio, home to web hosting company Rackspace.

The Galleria, which today is better known for ArcLight Cinemas, itself became the focus of decline in the late 1990s as damage from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, the loss of anchor stores, and the growing prominence of the internet combined to undermine its economic feasibility. If it served as a model to the mall boom that swept that country in the 1980s, its repurposing as merely an appendage to a high end cinema chain reflects the trend described above.

But It’s Not Just About Malls — SoCal Family

“Disgruntled and wary after slogging through the last dozen Sex-Mad Teenager Movies, I came upon Valley Girl with low expectations,” wrote Roger Ebert in 1983. “What can you expect from a genre inspired by Porky’s? But this movie is a little treasure, a funny, sexy, appealing story of a Valley Girl’s heartbreaking decision: Should she stick with her boring jock boyfriend, or take a chance on a punk from Hollywood?”

The Moon Unit/Frank Zappa collaboration, Valley Girl, was meant to mock what the elder Zappa saw as superficiality; instead it widely popularized the new archetype after its release in 1982. Inspired by the song, the film Valley Girl consolidated the lexicon and identity of this SoCal subculture more than anything else, providing an empathetic visual representation of the Zappas’ satirical ode. In other words, these cultural productions helped us to answer just who was hanging out in these malls.

At heart, the story of Julie Richman’s attempt to venture into the world outside her largely white middle class suburban enclave allowed Valley Girl‘s audience to both laugh at and be drawn into the world of soft pastels, the tripindicular, and the gnarly. Bored with her Valley boyfriend Tommy, Julie finds herself dating L.A. punk Randy — a young Nic Cage, one of the most sanitized punks in film history — as two subcultures moving in opposite directions collide: the fading punk scene giving way to the Valley’s mall retail based ascension.

If critics like Ebert bemoaned the omission of intelligent parents in these types of films, Valley Girl gave Steve and Sarah Richman real roles in their daughter’s life, and even reflected California’s coming of age. Former hippies running a health food store that Julie would gladly exchange for a Pizza Hut in the food court, the Richmans embodied the odd transition of 1960s/70s flower children into responsible parents. Bemused or confused by Julie’s friends and their own juxtaposition with the consumerist culture around them, the Richmans provide support for Julie, while sparking up the occasional splif. One might suggest the Richmans as antecedents to Eugene Levy’s widowed character in the considerably more male-centric “American Pie” films — befuddled by his son but also well meaning and involved.

Though characters occasionally reference them, parents in Fast Times do not really exist on screen. Instead Stacy, Mark, Bradley, and others remain subject to authority figures at school or work, a possible nod to adulthood when institutions and employers serve as the only arbiters of behavior and decorum.

Valley Girl’s post-hippie parents owned a health food store

In contrast to Valley Girl, its predecessor by eight months, Fast Times presents a harsher, but no less insightful, peak into SoCal adolescence. The film begins and ends at the Galleria, opening with The Go Go’s’ “We Got the Beat” as the camera spills over the mall, briefly capturing each member of the ensemble cast. Throughout the film, outside of high school classrooms, the mall serves as the site where conversations unfold, thereby prodding the plot forward. The theater, the arcade, record store, and food court occupy center stage, pretty much encapsulating life for a 1980s youngster.

Bradley Hamilton’s descent from girlfriend-having, cocky employee of the Month at All American Burger, to an embittered single guy, cog in Captain Hook Fish and Chips’ consumer-industrial seafood complex underscores the lower-middle middle class milieu of the film and the future of American teens. In the 1980s and 1990s news stories of overworked adolescents became commonplace.

Meanwhile, Stacy struggles with starting high school and her developing sexuality, for which she employs the problematic advice of the older Linda Barret (Phoebe Cates), whose dubious claims of exaggerated exploits gave predictably disastrous results. Characters in Fast Times want sex, or claim to, but understand very, very little about it. Perhaps today, with the ubiquity of internet service and the medium’s lack of taboos, teens understand it, for better or worse, much earlier in life; but in 1982 it simply wasn’t the case.

If Valley Girl gave a real physical representation to its namesake, Fast Times invented an all-together new archetype: stoner/surfer Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn). From a cinematic standpoint, Spicoli’s creation gave birth to a million knock offs — without Fast Times there would be no Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, nor the updated multicultural 21st century equivalent: Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

In general neither film really does much with race, but Fast Times at least depicts it. Interestingly, for all his antics, Spicoli lived the most racially integrated life, hanging out with the brother of football star Charles Jefferson (Forest Whittaker), Curtis. They even total Charles’ car together. To be fair, Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge recently told audiences that she wanted to cast an African American girl in a prominent role, but her producers squashed her efforts.

Outside of Phoebe Cates, not a single Asian American appears; one can say the same for Latinos. In regard to Asian Americans, it might be ignorance on the part of filmmakers, but to some extent it also represented demographic trends at the time. The Asian American-dominant suburb remains a rather new entity. Though today nearly 6 million Asian Americans and Asians reside in California, in 1980 that number totaled a bit over one million, and in the Los Angeles metro area, just over 400,000. On the other hand, over 4.5 million Latinos lived in California in 1980, and two million-plus in the Los Angeles area. In fact, Latino Americans made up over a quarter of the population. So needless to say, both films mainly ignored these communities.

Minorities are largely absent in 'Valley Girls'
Minorities are largely absent in Valley Girl

Sex and the 1980s

Considering the sexism of the time, both films engage adolescent sexuality seriously while acknowledging how ridiculous and risky those first explorations often are. Taken together, directors Heckerling and Coolidge provide remarkably even-handed takes on the awkwardness and unsexy nature of teenage intimacy. Damone’s failures go far to demonstrate the fallibility of outward appearances — his overconfidence disguises clear romantic and sexual inexperience. Stacy loses her fifteen year-old virginity to a twenty six year-old audio salesmen in a dugout pockmarked with graffiti. Her encounter with Damone leaves her pregnant. In none of these scenes is sex glorified. Valley Girl references and depicts sex too, though it presents a more optimistic rendering of youthful sexual encounters, and Julie and Randy do little more than kiss.

Though many pillar Hollywood for permissive morality and corruption, its treatment of pregnancy usually aligns with more traditional norms. In Fast Times, Stacy’s abortion happens, but there is no judgment. Instead, Stacy’s friends publicly shame Damone for his failure to pay for or help Stacy in anyway. Bradley, discovering her condition, belatedly expresses anger, more towards her unidentified partner than Stacy. The point here is not to celebrate Fast Times for depicting a fifteen year-old girl getting an abortion without parental consent, but rather to note its paradoxical cultural context. Coming only nine years after Roe v. Wade, Fast Times‘ depiction remains unsettling, but apparently also at odds with cultural tides. Would a film today ever consider such a plot line?

Today, in nearly every film in which a young woman becomes unintentionally pregnant, the issue of abortion rarely surfaces; when it does, it’s dismissed summarily. In films like Knocked Up, Juno, Parenthood, and Nine Months, pregnancy often ends up suturing relationships, or “saving the day,” as one writer has noted. Television shows like MTV’s “Sixteen and Pregnant” reassert this cultural norm.

Coming Full Circle

Heckerling’s surprise 1995 hit Clueless revisited both Valley Girl and Fast Times. Filmed in part at Los Angeles’ Westside Pavilion (opened in 1985 and designed by Jon Jerde, who is responsible for L.A.’s Universal City Walk, San Diego’s Horton Plaza and Minnesota’s Mall of America), Clueless provided a 1990s update on Southern California teenage life that leaned toward Valley Girl, but with the self improvement craze of the decade. Loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma, the film reignited “valspeak” while giving valley girls greater personal depth and racial diversity. The new Spicoli? Breckin Meyer’s Travis. The new Tommy? Jeremy Sisto’s Elton. What about the parents? Cher’s (Alicia Silverstone) and step-brother/ love interest Josh (Paul Rudd) have a loving father/step-father that clearly loves them even if a bit distracted by his job.

But not everything follows this neat trajectory. For example, by the film’s conclusion, Travis gives up his drug habit, donates his bongs to charity, and enters a twelve step program — a far cry from Spicoli blowing his reward from saving Brooke Shields from drowning on hiring Van Halen for a party. Cher too demonstrates differences. Though undoubtedly aware of her own sexuality, Cher retains her virginity while expressing far more sexual confidence than Fast Times’ Stacy. In part, this difference reflects fears from the then paralyzing AIDS epidemic of the 1990s, but also maybe Cher’s affluence and the greater cinematic involvement of her father.

In the thirty years since Valley Girl and Fast Times, Southern California changed a lot. Using the two films as a lens provides an entertaining view of SoCal’s consumerist changes, while highlighting broader transformations in society’s grasp of gender and sexuality. Besides, thinking about what these things meant to us then, helps us understand what similar themes mean to young people today.