Hold On To That Feeling: ‘Glee’ and Don’t Stop Believin’ (Part Two)

Rachel Berry (Lea Michele, front) sings Don’t Stop Believin’ for her Funny Girl audition. Glee, 4×19 (2013). Fox.

By Rachel Malstrom | 7th of Feburary 2022

Ryan Murphy, one of the show’s creators, writers, and often director, said in an interview with Variety that Glee was meant to be pure escapism, different from the crime shows and science fiction shows dominating the narrative television slots of the time. However, since Glee is a dramedy, meant to encourage repeat viewership through love triangle drama and feuding characters, sometimes the escapism takes a backseat to the plot. Furthermore, Glee, at the time of airing, was known for being cutting edge, willing to confront issues facing teenagers such as gun violence, teen pregnancy, and eating disorders. As the series went on, the show eventually would add more wild and unrealistic moments of escapism that rarely worked. Nevertheless, the show would often opt to return to its “Don’t Stop Believin’” roots. In what could have been seen as a cheap ploy to recreate the success of the pilot, the song became its own character, important to the members of the New Directions, and to the audience. In what we’ll see in Part Two of my analysis of the show, the song’s use encapsulates every person’s hopes, dreams, and, in a sense, their fears. ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ reminds us that we are all chasing happiness and belonging, and that acknowledgement allows the viewer to escape into a world where they feel like they are a part of something special, and thus are special themselves.

The Rhodes Not Taken (1×05): Don’t Stop Believin’ (Quinn’s Version)

Fast forward from the Pilot to episode five of the first season, and Rachel, the so-called star of the New Directions, has quit the glee club to join the school’s production of Cabaret, because she was feeling underappreciated in the club. Quinn (Dianna Agron), Finn’s cheerleader girlfriend and new glee club member, has discovered she is pregnant. But, more importantly, with Rachel gone, she is given Rachel’s solo parts in “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Unhappy in her lead role in Cabaret, hearing of someone else taking her part in the song that has come to represent happiness in the show, the very essence of glee, makes Rachel feel even more lost. The show could have chosen to have Finn dueting with Quinn using any song to signify what Rachel is missing out on, but it would not have captured her joylessness the same.

Joining the school play with a teacher who is not supportive and does not believe in her like Mr. Schue always has does not inspire the kind of greatness she thought she would achieve branching out on her own. She might have believed being the star would provide her with the something special she has been yearning for, but seeing as Glee does not introduce the rest of the cast of Cabaret it is clear that doing something solo is all too similar to performing alone in one’s bedroom mirror with a hairbrush microphone. As much as she tries to remedy her sadness by attempting to recruit Finn over to the musical, she is unable to find her sense of belonging within the confines of Sandy’s strict and lonely stage production. 

The New Directions also feel helpless in their venture to win sectionals without their star vocalist, but it is Rachel who must find her way back to them in the end, and hearing that they meant to perform “Don’t Stop Believin’,” the song that made them feel like a team, without her is the kick to the gut she needs to make her realize that success does not always lead to happiness. 

Journey to Regionals (1×22): Don’t Stop Believin’ (Regionals Version)

Season one ends with the all-important Regionals. All feels hopeless because Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), the school’s cheer coach that seems to want to erase all happiness from the school by eradicating the glee club, is one of the judges. It has already been established that the New Directions have to win Regionals or the club is done for, and Mr. Schue goes to Emma for some guidance as he feels particularly devastated by the group’s chances. Emma reminds him of the video from his Show Choir Nationals, and how he said it was the happiest moment of his life. She tells him, “that feeling is way more important than winning and losing.” Later, as Mr. Schue drives in his car, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ starts playing on the radio. “Hold on to that feeling,” the song demands again, and Mr. Schue has to pull over so he can cry by the side of the road. In the next glee rehearsal, Mr. Schue reveals to the New Directions when he was ready to give up all joy to become an accountant, how it was their performance of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ that brought him back. As a result, he announces an all-Journey setlist at Regionals, urging the club to embrace the fun of getting there, rather than worry about the results. 

At Regionals, by the time the New Directions get to the “Don’t Stop Believin’” part of their medley, the crowd is up and clapping along. Josh Groban, one of the celebrity judges, says that the New Directions have heart, and even Sue can’t help but recognize the team’s joyous performance. Despite all of the other judges placing New Directions in the losing spot, Sue places them at number one, because she too is won over by the power of Journey.

This is the first time the show uses the song to remind the audience of its call to happiness. Even when Glee gets too serious with its plots of teen pregnancy, homophobia, and crumbling marriage, which is often the challenge of the teen dramedy, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ brings the audience back into its embrace. While some may connect to the show’s heavier themes on a personal and emotional level, the loneliness and the search for meaningful experiences present in the song is something everyone can relate to — even Sue Sylvester herself. It’s a song about longing. And it is this same longing that inspired McKinley High students to join the New Directions, the same longing that inspired the show’s cult following.

Sweet Dreams (4×19): Don’t Stop Believin’ (Rachel’s Version)

In the season four episode, “Sweet Dreams,” Rachel, now living in New York, has an audition for a revival of Funny Girl on Broadway, which has been her dream her whole life. After being advised not to sing a song from the show, she labors over what to sing for her audition. Rachel ultimately decides to audition with ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ after Finn advises Rachel to choose a song that takes her back to her passion for performing. During her performance, the original glee club members appear onstage, performing with her. Looking younger than they have in so long, they wear their iconic red shirt and blue jean combo, providing backing vocals (in spirit, they aren’t actually auditioning with her). As Rachel follows along to the original choreography, she recaptures the magic of the club’s first performance of the song as she stands on the precipice of what she has been dreaming of her entire life. She looks happy and confident in her performance, because succeeding here is not an accomplishment she was ever going to achieve on her own. It is a win she shares with the ones who have been dreaming with her. After the performance, one of Funny Girl’s producers says, “something happened to you in the middle of that song,” and asks what it was. Rachel reveals that it was the memory of her friends performing alongside her, and that she would not be the performer — or woman — she is today without them. The show understands that it is at its most magical and special during a performance of “Don’t Stop Believin,’’ and for the viewer, that song taps into the joy that had them hooked on the show to begin with. The moment not only reminds the audience of how far these characters have come, but also of how far we’ve come as the audience. If you watched the show live, four years have passed by this point, and maybe we had seen our own dreams come and go, or met the people who helped shape who we have become. The song is everyone’s favorite guest star: you half expect a live studio audience to cheer whenever the song begins.

New Directions (5×13): Don’t Stop Believin’ (Glee Cast Season 5 Version)

Glee’s two part special, “100” (5×12) and “New Directions” (5×13), feels more like a finale than any other season finale the show has to offer. Sue has finally demolished the glee club, and now all of the graduated members and current members of the club come to bid the New Directions farewell. Amongst all the reminiscing, the most important goodbye comes from a video the New Directions made where they all talk about the impact Mr. Schue has had on their lives for Schuster and Emma’s unborn son. And as they say goodbye to the club’s director, they sing the song that started it all. In what would become the final performance of “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the show, each glee club member, old and new, join each other on stage. Although they are not wearing their coordinating red shirts or Regionals costumes, they look more like a team singing “Don’t Stop Believin’” on that auditorium stage than they ever do singing any other number.

Since the song has become so synonymous with the New Directions as a whole, this performance is the perfect acknowledgement of the members who have come and gone. It is an acknowledgement of the way that club, and this song in particular, has touched so many people, not just the characters but also the people watching on a weekly basis. 100 episodes of any show comes out to be a pretty mixed bag, but “Don’t Stop Believin’” remains the thread that keeps the show consistently inconsistent. More shows need some kind of symbol that reminds the audience why they started watching to begin with. With every ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ the show offers a hand to hold and anchor for the show’s ambitions. It never promised to offer solutions to all of the world’s problems, despite its obsession with acknowledging them. 

Looking back on the now completed series, it doesn’t feel like “Don’t Stop Believin’” got the goodbye it deserved. It gets left behind in this last New Directions performance of the song in season 5. When the characters bid their final goodbye at the end of season 6, a season that decided to tear down all of the show’s characters and relationships just to have to sloppily build them back up in 13 episodes, they sing OneRepublic’s “I Lived” which, while a decent song with lyrics that are meant to emphasize how far everyone has come, it fails to capture the show’s spirit. “Don’t Stop Believin’” hooked fans because it is about longing for more, something that everyone relates to. “I Lived,” however, feels more like a brag, it’s about looking back and hoping that everyone lives life to the fullest, implying that the Glee characters have done that, and the audience members likely still feel the same longing on display in “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Therefore, the show’s final song, its final bow, is fully incapable of providing the same kind of escapism, and it completely misses the point. “Don’t Stop Believin’” just offers one piece of advice, “hold on to that feeling.” Find a little glee, and maybe watch the next episode anyway, and that journey (no pun intended) was really what made the show so attractive to begin with.

Rachel Malstrom is a writer from Virginia. She graduated with a B.A. in Film and Television Studies from The University of Vermont and prides herself on having seen every Tom Cruise movie. You can follow her on Twitter @teamboby.

‘The Bling Ring’ Is All Too Familiar with Its Own Spectacle

The Bling Ring (2013). A24.

by Claire Davidson | November 4, 2021

Sofia Coppola never truly allows any one idea in her filmography to remain dormant. Instead, her oeuvre is always recontextualising previous themes into updated experimentations. If Lost in Translation (2003) is to Somewhere (2010) what The Virgin Suicides (1999) would eventually be to The Beguiled (2017), the sister project to Marie Antoinette (2006) is 2013’s The Bling Ring. Like its predecessor, the film is based on real events, but seen through a mythologized abstract lens; the source material is merely contextualization rather than fact. 

The two films are clear in their parallels: Marie Antoinette depicts its titular royal as an emblem of excess, yet one that is unique in its inward-looking depiction of a social network created and maintained by women, made obvious in its famous ‘I Want Candy’ montage. However, where Marie Antoinette depicts insular feminine hypervisibility within the confines of a literal castle, The Bling Ring places this supersaturated scrutiny of young women in a modern setting: 2009. The height of reality television and paparazzi culture, as well as the early days of the burgeoning power of social media. Though the plot of The Bling Ring is cluttered with scenes of frenetic activity, numerous parties offering drugs, dancing, and cacophonous house and electronic dance music that pulsates with a bloodshot energy, unlike Marie Antoinette, the film’s cinematography does not objectify or glorify its participants. Instead, the camera places itself at a distance, more a spectator of the group’s behavior rather than an embellishment of it. As a result, the story’s most exhilarating moments are not amid chaos, but the more introspective segments that reveal why the girls seek this attention.

An adaption of the Nancy Jo Sales article for Vanity Fair, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” about a real-life burglary group with the titular nickname bestowed to it by media coverage, The Bling Ring depicts a cohort of teenagers who, without a real plan or end goal, commit to the hobby of robbing celebrity households and aimlessly taking their possessions. The film’s opening sequence is crucial in highlighting an example of these burglaries, its few lines of dialogue overpowered by the soundtrack inclusion of ‘Crown on the Ground’ by the noise pop duo Sleigh Bells. This musical placement only amplifies the scene’s shameless revelry through its stomping percussion and grinding, clipped-and-distorted guitar riff, invoking the image of a high school cheerleader being drowned out by the triumphant band that accompanies her, the pinnacle of high school royalty having it all. This casual appropriation of the wealth their celebrity idols acquire as displayed in this opening scene is just another day for these kids, a pursuit that is given its value for the envy it prompts in their peers not “brave” enough to make such plans themselves. It is almost as if the teens conduct their crusades of acquiring expensive possessions—and, by extension, an extrapolation of the fame of the celebrities that own them—like a high-end shopping spree, one enhanced by the potential danger of getting caught.

The Bling Ring

Like the languid and exploratory Somewhere, Los Angeles is depicted as a flashy wasteland of empty vanities. However, instead of wallowing in the depression inherent in such a juxtaposition, the teenagers of The Bling Ring embrace such a location as theirs for the taking. What’s more, the teenagers at the center of the robberies do not even live in Los Angeles proper, but instead the sunny city of Calabasas, where their idle free time is spent romantically embellishing their neighboring city as an ideal. Though Calabasas is certainly not devoid of its own attractions—the Kardashian family stands among some of the area’s most famous residents—the girls remain outsiders looking in on the hurricane’s eye of media indulgence, only dozens of miles away from finding themselves starstruck in Hollywood. Yet, it’s clear that while they don’t quite live in LA, this is not due to a lack of accumulated wealth that would allow them to do so. The most attention given to any family’s individual house is that of Nikki (Emma Watson) and her sisters, a large two-story emblematic of the bulky real estate landscape of California that would be immortalized in HGTV-style reality television in the decade to come. Though the inside of the residence is clearly quite spacious, the details to which the film pays the most attention are the bare off-white walls and uninspired, sparse furniture lining the interior. Their space is not one used for entertainment or community in the house itself, but as a sort of external boast to anyone who might visit or pay attention: that the family owns the house simply because they can, and that, in acquiring such ostensible assets, they are made better than potential onlookers who cannot say the same. 

Nikki (Watson) and her family.

The family is depicted as similarly lacking belief in anything tangible, their only meaningful rituals gradually becoming their worship towards the notions of upward mobility and adjacency to stardom. Her neighbors, too, seem to fixate on the same obsession with maintaining appearances: during the film’s first act, as ringleader Becca (Katie Chang) gradually familiarizes narrator Marc (Israel Broussard) with the mechanisms of her burglaries, they tour a friend of a friend’s house, which is easily broken into. The kitchen and living room of the home are surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows, inviting an even greater gaze to be cast upon the interior’s sleek, antiseptic modernity, an implicit reminder of the wealth required to obtain such a meticulous appearance. 

These houses are not just divorced from warmth and camaraderie, but actively antithetical to the community such a shelter can provide. This reality is made all the more stark when considering that this film takes place only a year after the Great Recession, it becomes clear that the houses displayed in The Bling Ring simply become material representations of money to be passed from one owner to the next. This fetishization is not strictly limited to property, either: the otherwise beautiful landscape of the Californian palm trees that Becca and Marc pass as they cruise through the city is rendered as if sourced via snapshots from a curated Instagram feed. These passing reflections on the world around them become fragments from a life extracted to become statements of aspiration, valuable not because of any intrinsic beauty but because the experiences such natural landscapes symbolize are coveted by those who can’t have them. 

Example of iconic LA streetscape(s). The Bling Ring.

As the girls who lead the group pursue more and more heists, their literacy regarding the degrading ways by which female celebrities are viewed by the era’s popular culture is made clear. The film takes place in the wake of tabloid culture’s peak. An era that, despite not being unique in the instantaneous gossip spread like inescapable wildfire, was unique in that it was plastered in newsstands and everyday buildings, locations where celebrity trivialities would likely be the last thing on any consumer’s mind. Yet, with this tangibility came a distinct type of addictive bait akin to the candy often placed adjacent to these magazine racks in a grocery store: once the urge to indulge is introduced, it becomes irresistible. Making this situation worse was the overt misogyny with which many of these stories were framed: many of the women covered were often bashed for consuming drugs, gaining (or, less often, losing) even the slightest amounts of weight, and potentially being irresponsible homewreckers and reprehensible cheaters when divulging into matters of relationships (see: the coverage of Britney Spears’ departure from Justin Timberlake, which blamed her for accusations of cheating despite both the fact that she remained quiet about her sex life and Timberlake’s much more vengeful recollection of the event).

When ringleader Becca (Katie Chang) starts to target celebrity houses instead of her usual petty theft of friends, the first target she selects is none other than Paris Hilton, perhaps the epitome of tabloid-era demand and disdain, as her every antic was viewed by the public at the time as further evidence of her shallow stain on the American public. Her particular persona during the 2000s was framed by the tabloids as one of juvenile socialite frivolity, as represented by her hot pink, frequently bedazzled wardrobe and her reputation for being “famous for being famous” (a mantle that would later be taken on by figures such as—what do you know—the Kardashians). When the girls break into Hilton’s house, initially, this expectation is confirmed, as they are greeted by chair pillows that have a print of Hilton’s face spread across their surfaces. Filmed in Hilton’s actual house, this enormous volume of clothing in her closet is ostensibly presented as further evidence of her particularly juvenile understanding of her own fame, as her wardrobe and the decorations that surround it are often rendered in loud prints and various tacky placements of hot pink. 

Members of The Bling Ring breaking into Paris Hilton’s shoe closet.

Yet, if anything, the girls seem to idolize Hilton for how she uses her obscene wealth and status for ‘irresponsible’ purposes; along the same adoration, is their love for Lindsay Lohan, who narrator Marc (Israel Broussard) describes as Becca’s “ultimate fashion icon.” The more time the girls spend in Paris Hilton’s shrine to her own image, the more they find themselves enjoying the experience, they rave over her clothes, jewelry, purses, and shoes, and especially when they decide to take to her nightclub room and attempt to impress each other by taking turns pole dancing. The glint in their eyes, however, comes not from the style with which her home is decorated. It is Hilton’s incredible shoe closet that the girls take an extended amount of time to admire and peruse, an area that reveals that most of her possessions are valuable not because of their fashionable nature, but due to the wealth they represent. 

The Bling Ring intentionally paints itself as minor celebrities in their own small radius of fame, getting invited to more parties and more opportunities to do harder drugs as The Bling Ring (both film and the robbery gang) progresses. 2009, the year the Bling Ring committed their crimes, was proclaimed by Business Insider to be “the year the newspaper died,” for the amount of print institutions that closed their doors that year. The teens’ insertion of themselves into an increasingly elusive news cycle of gossip and tabloid drama reads as all the more intentional due to this tension, as they cunningly navigate the news media’s transitional space with just enough secrecy to remain noteworthy without becoming threatening. 

The Internet becomes more and more crowded with the information that allows them to rob so covertly even as the girls remain completely unabashed about their burglaries. As they pose for their webcams amidst fast-moving montages of paparazzi photographs that stack atop each other within seconds, they remain well aware that their antics could be forgotten in seconds. Even their environment is shot in desaturated pastels and overlit sterility, giving a youthful but empty gloss to the entire saga, almost as if the film was recorded with a filter from the very first-generation iPhones that would’ve given the girls a portal to such fame. However, it is as celebrities where the teens occupy territory of immortality, their antics wrapped in a bubble of temporary unaccountability that, in being shunned by the press, conversely gives them a sense of admirable notoriety for their schemes from both fellow partygoers and strangers on social media. If Marie Antoinette was, in all its candy-coated, decadent glory, Sofia Coppola’s knowing tribute to the MTV music videos of her comeuppance, The Bling Ring is a recontextualization of that reckoning with feminine fame as Coppola has lived it. The film’s sister project grows her reach in tandem with MTV’s increasingly exploitative extensions of parasocial celebrity relationships, as the network pivoted from passive music videos to more active provocations of its stars’ lives in its transition into the reality television market.

Emma Watson and Taissa Farmiga in The Bling Ring.

Viewing The Bling Ring retrospectively, the girls’ belief in their own stardom is even more flimsy than it is depicted through the instantaneous nature of the film. The unflattering fashion choices that they so clearly covet have been rendered that much more cringeworthy over time: not close enough to the past to make them relevant to the current moment, but not far away enough from their original era to inspire a nostalgic reaction or a newfound appreciation for their style. Instead, the abundance of faux-furs, bodycon dresses, washed-out color palettes, gaudy usages of sequins and shiny leather, and vaguely ‘bohemian’ patterns are left that much more pathetic in their pursuit, as are the girls’ fantasies of hard-edged rebellion. Still, for the teenagers, costuming themselves in such clothes to construct a façade of power clearly imbues their lives with a fleeting semblance of meaning. Even Marc at one point dons a pair of Paris Hilton’s hot pink high heels, having acquired a means to feeling desirable in such fashion that counteracts the bodily insecurities he reports having felt in the film’s exposition prior to meeting the girls.

That the girls are so clearly convinced of the gravitas of the world they have constructed for themselves is even satirized in the film’s musical cues, which Coppola chose with the help of frequent collaborating music supervisor Brian Reitzell. As the girls strut in slow motion down the Los Angeles streets in their newly acquired possessions, the opening vocal sample of Kanye West’s single ‘POWER’ can be heard at full blast. This isn’t even the only track from West’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy used; as Marc and Chloe (Claire Julien) are seen driving through the night, clearly under the influence of cocaine, Chloe is heard belting snippets of ‘All of the Lights.’ In the same scene, she is seen singing along to the hook of M.I.A.’s ‘Bad Girls’ right before crashing into another car, after which she appears indignant and resigned while taking a mugshot. That the songs featured are presented as such clear illustrations of the exhilaration with which the teens approach their heists is only amplified in cutting them off. As white, largely wealthy American suburbanites, the girls remain convinced that they’ll never be caught or dethroned, taking for granted the privilege offered in their opulent revelry. The girls’ supposed invincibility is inherent to their motivations for the robberies in the first place. 

Similarly to The Virgin Suicides, Marc’s narration illuminates what he still views as a mystery: why the girls pursued such danger while having the means to obtain most of their stolen possessions themselves. Like the social media feeds they use to achieve their ephemeral infamy, Marc becomes a reflection on which the girls project a curated version of their personalities, each representing themselves as extensions of the same savvy, conniving whole. Marc’s comparison of media coverage of the Bling Ring burglaries to that of the pop cultural idolization of Bonnie and Clyde provides a metatextual recognition from Coppola that by canonizing the crimes of these teenagers in film, even when displaying their eventual downfall, the film, too, provides a layer of admiration that feeds into the cyclical nature of its participants’ obsession with fame. The girls’ burglaries become a way for them to maintain control over their image in a world that they know will scrutinize their every move as women, a means to be admired without truly being known. 

Of course, as a consequence—and remaining true to life—the Bling Ring is eventually convicted for their robberies, with Becca and Nikki receiving the most charges and a portion of jail time. While Becca mostly resigns herself to the shadows, and Marc fully admits the wrongdoing in his actions, Nikki doubles down on the spectacle. Her real-life counterpart, Alexis Neiers, claimed that the Bling Ring’s leader was a “klepto[manic] freak,” and Nikki’s defense of Becca (or lack thereof) is only barely more restrained: at the beginning of the film’s recap of the events, she is seen giving a monologue that the event was “attracted into [her] life,” and, in an interview at the end of the film, claims that “the truth will come out” when she is finally allowed to give her testimony of the burglaries. She seems to deny that what made her famous even happened in the first place, with her mother encouraging this defense. The film’s final line of dialogue involves Nikki presenting a call-to-action to follow her in an interview: “Anyway, you can follow everything about me and my journey at Nikkimooreforever.com.” With this in mind, the fact that Neiers eventually went on to become a minor television personality on the short-lived E! reality show Pretty Wild is hardly surprising. Nikki’s final words act as the sharpest demonstration that she knows she will be vilified regardless of what she does, so, in order to maintain her sense of control—and infamy—she might as well lean into expectations, if only to extend her grasp a little bit longer. 

The Bling Ring

While the current pop cultural media has been inclined to re-examine its previous scalding treatment of female celebrities, the events portrayed in The Bling Ring took place only a couple years after Britney Spears’ infamous decision to shave her head in the midst of a justifiably enraged meltdown over invasive paparazzi determined to capitalize on her every move. Sofia Coppola herself was often the subject of similar subjugation by the critical press who dissected her filmography, which often painted her pursuits after the Academy Award-winning Lost in Translation as indicative of her shallow, privileged worldview in a nepotistic industry where her father, Francis Ford Coppola, thrived a generation prior to her career. The critical reception to The Bling Ring was similarly middling, with some bemoaning the supposed lack of energy with which the film depicts its central crime sprees. 

As a popular reckoning with how the tabloids poisoned popular understandings of young women, with the likes of people such as Megan Fox, Britney Spears, Brittany Murphy, and the aforementioned Lindsay Lohan given reappraisal, The Bling Ring stands as being almost prophetic. Its examination of how women are forced to navigate fame through a culture that seems to frame their suffering as both a source of salivation and humor is, while not overt, still pointed in the audiovisual embellishments of its subtext. What remains the most challenging—and ingenious—aspect of the film is its willingness to display this reality through a prism not of falsely-convicted martyrs, but of genuinely repulsive examples of wealth inequality that the film’s protagonists take for granted, characters that are likable if only for their downfall. Though the film may not operate with the salacious thrill-seeking that its subject matter may suggest, The Bling Ring reveals itself as a film made with just as much shrewd intention as Sofia Coppola’s widely-recognized earlier work The Virgin Suicides, its encapsulation of such a specific era remaining marvelous in its instantly recognizable time period. However, beyond the bombast of the teenagers’ activities, what remains most astute in Coppola’s thesis on their antics is that, in the years that followed, those same individuals couldn’t be picked out of a lineup. According to The Bling Ring, fame needn’t even be a pretense to attempt to obtain such headlines.

Claire Davidson (she/they) is a writer and actor who currently resides in her decade-long home of Georgia. They can be found posting essays-in-miniature about films that interest her on Letterboxd and posting almost nothing on Twitter @loneclaire.

The Art of the Two-Person Dance Party

Donna (Jenny Slate) and Max (Jake Lacey) dance it out in Obvious Child, dir. Gillian Robespierre (2014). A24.

By Tiia Kelly | September 21, 2021

There is something to the language of dancing bodies that cinema has long understood, and viewers have long felt. Zadie Smith knew it when she looked to the beguiling physicality of figures like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and the Nicholas brothers for lessons on writing. The horror genre, which has developed its own distinct history of contorted bodies, knows it. This Twitter account, committed to posting daily movie dance scenes, knows it especially. 

But there is something else entirely to cinematic dance moments that are less than aspirational — and, at their most joyous, less than coordinated. These, too, contain a certain language: a character’s amateurish flailing during a Saturday detention dance break is, after all, very different to the spectacle of Channing Tatum’s shiny moves in Step Up or Magic Mike. Less visual marvel, more emotionally driven physical outburst, these scenes explore how the openness of messy physicality can dissolve barriers of inhibition and self-consciousness, enriching the dynamics between characters. 

A vital piece of this distinction is the setting. Rather than dancing onstage, in a studio, or a public-space-turned-performance-site, what happens when these acts of dance occur in closed, domestic spaces? What about vast, isolated landscapes, or the fringes of a group of people? In an enclosed rhythmic bubble, absent of any diegetic audience or company, a character’s dance partner is their audience. 

A dance montage in Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, set to the same Paul Simon song the film is named after, depicts a mating-ritual-like encounter between protagonist Donna (Jenny Slate) and love interest Max (Jake Lacey). Donna has just been dumped by her long-term boyfriend, bombed a performance at her regular comedy club, and drunkenly seduced good-natured Max before taking him home for a one-night stand. Over a shot of the pair kissing, the familiar drums of Simon’s song ring out. The film cuts to Donna in her underwear and Max’s unbuttoned shirt, swinging her head and spinning around. In the background is Max: Donna’s beanie on his head, amusedly playing bongos on a couch. 

The montage is characterised by frenetically assembled bursts of activity. Donna and Max jump around, half-dressed, downing beers. They twist their pelvises, spin each other around and wiggle their shoulders. They make out and mouth Simon’s lyrics to one another. In a particularly heart-melting shot-reverse-shot, Max is shown leaning against a wall, smiling, whilst Donna dances about, trying to make him laugh. The scene’s goofiness, representative of any good ‘dance party’ scene, here becomes a shorthand for the characters embracing comfort in one another’s presence. 

Further, the unambiguous song choice — is Donna the titular obvious child? — emphasises the film’s circulating theme of immaturity; the issue of Donna falling pregnant withMax’s child whilst still being a child in many ways herself. Her desire to precede sex with an almost-juvenile dance party mostly offsets any self-seriousness on her part as a sexual being. However, it also grounds her burgeoning relationship with Max in delightfully silly foreplay, and the childlike playfulness of the sequence is the very thing that solidifies their bond. Sex is funny, and there’s no need for pretence or modesty.

Stylistically, Moonrise Kingdom approaches its own dance sequence quite differently. Director Wes Anderson forgoes Obvious Child’s montage approach for a single handheld long shot, in and out of which the characters move. In the aftermath of sharing their first I-love-you’s, Anderson’s two leads, twelve-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), play a Françoise Hardy record on a remote beach they’ve claimed as their own. Suzy is alone in the frame, bending over a radio to play their song of choice, ‘Le Temps De L’Amour’, literally ‘The Time of Love’. She exits the frame then re-enters, holding Sam’s hand. Suzy sways softly to the music. Sam bobs his head. They move progressively more wildly, with Sam wagging his arms about while Suzy twists her body from side to side. The first cut of the scene brings us to a cosier mid-shot, zooming in as the pair share an endearingly clumsy slow dance. 

Susie (Lara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) dance together in Moonrise Kingdom, dir. Wes Anderson (2012). Focus Features.

At this point in the film, Sam and Suzy have deserted their respective homes to run away together. Both characters feel alienated from their peers and guardians, and are drawn to one another’s somewhat uncontainable, curious temperaments. One section of Hardy’s lyrics, translating to the time of love / it’s long and it’s short / it lasts forever, one remembers it, stresses an impermanent moment living on through memory. When you’re young, you feel like you’ll be young forever. Though everything for Sam and Suzy feels eternal and vital in the moment, we see only a brief, formative fragment of their lives. The dance scene epitomises this — the characters try desperately to carve out their own independent space, a mini civilisation for the two of them. Yet their bodies give them away: they’re just kids figuring out what their limbs can do, shooting off energy like sparks. 

In both Obvious Child and Moonrise Kingdom’s dance scenes, the freeform dance party is followed by newfound intimacy. In the former, it’s Donna and Max sleeping together for the first time. In the latter, it’s Sam and Suzy, caught up in their newfound ‘freedom’, trying to mimic adult romantic interactions. Whilst slow dancing, they share an innocent French kiss, after which Suzy invites Sam to place a hand on her chest. “I think they’re gonna grow more,” she says. The succession of scenes indicates, almost, a causality: the shedding of unease and lack of posturing in each pair’s dancing facilitates feelings of closeness. The development of both relationships hinges on this willingness to let go in another’s presence; to be less than mysterious — even embarrassing. 

In Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, this trope is transplanted into the period genre, subverting the classic period film ball scene. These moments, traditionally defined by barely concealed yearning and incredibly charged hand touches, are traded for a scene that places characters Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Laurie (Timotheé Chalamet) on the literal outskirts of this formal atmosphere. After Jo accidentally burns her dress at a party, leaving her unable to dance with the rest of the guests, she meets Laurie, who suggests a solution: the two of them can dance on the porch surrounding the house, where no one may see her scorched frock.

Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Laurie (Timotheé Chalamet) in Little Women, dir. Greta Gerwig (2019). Sony Pictures.

The scene, accompanied by the jubilant strings of Alexandre Desplat’s score, is washed in warm light from the party inside. Jo and Laurie mimic partner choreography, clasping hands and performing intricate footwork before bumping into one another, laughing. They vacillate between cultivated and raucous, depending on whether they are visible to the partygoers inside, guiding each other in refined steps around the porch before erupting into looser, whole-body thrashing. The two frolic riotously as literal outsiders — forgoing the decorum of Victorian-era courtship to embrace the unrestrained cravings of their youthful bodies. The physicality of this early scene suffuses Jo and Laurie’s subsequent interactions: they are all scrambling energy and play, lightly hitting and hanging off each other. 

In contrast to Obvious Child and Moonrise Kingdom (and despite what Laurie may later come to think), the porch sequence emphasises the platonic camaraderie central to the dance-party trope. Private, spur-of-the-moment dance parties relish in what our bodies long to do when nobody’s looking. One’s dance partner must, then, be a co-conspirator. Jo and Laurie are bonded by their porch dance, both errantly like-minded and overflowing with energy.

In all three movies, the two-person dance party is a direct expression of intimacy, connecting characters through the wildness of their unseen bodies. These moments become indicative of characters’ places in their ongoing development. Maybe they’re playing at adulthood, or outright rejecting it through unsophisticated cavorting. Perhaps they’re moving on the peripheries of propriety or finding romance in youthful romps around the living room. Whatever the case, the dance party is there as the rollicking language of familiarity and tenderness to carry them through. 

Tiia Kelly is a writer and editor from Naarm (Melbourne). Her work can be found in Voiceworks, Scum, Kill Your Darlings and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @tiiakel.

The Liminal Space of the Remington Party in Heathers

Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) at the Remington University party in Heathers, dir. Michael Lehmann (1988).

By Sydney Bollinger | September 21, 2021

The world of Heathers (1988) is slightly tilted from our own, often filled with bombastic language and color that reminds viewers it’s not necessarily an realistic portrayal. There’s truth at the core of the film, though, and that truth is that teenagers are cruel, no matter the circumstance. When Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) brings Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) to a party at Remington University, it’s an official invitation not just to be school royalty — but to a lifelong club of “cool” kids. Veronica’s made it, as long as she follows in Heather Chandler’s footsteps. To accept the invitation, though, Veronica has to forgo her adolescence for adulthood.

For Heather Chandler, this Remington party is not just a chance to let loose and have a good time — there’s a mission involved. As Westerburg High’s HBIC, Heather Chandler has a facade of unattainable coolness to maintain, a coolness that keeps her out of reach from her high school peers and hip enough to consort with college boys. Dating a college boy has another benefit, too — it gives Heather a leg up over her peers who will be attending the university with her in the future. She already knows people, she has the lay of the land, she has her in. So for Heather to invite Veronica to the Remington party, she’s letting Veronica into this sacred transition space, a space that Heather has spent time and care crafting to protect and maintain her status with her peers and the college students. 

When the girls arrive at the party, Veronica is immediately introduced to Brad (Kent Stoddard), who sees her more of a party plaything than a person with whom to develop a meaningful relationship. Veronica shows obvious discomfort during this interaction, whereas Heather is all smiles, putting on a performance for David (Larry Cox), the man she came to see. After this brief introduction, Heather and Veronica distance themselves, not just in space, but in actions. Even from Veronica’s introduction to her new man, she acts shy and removed, choosing to look at the ground, projecting discomfort at the situation, as if she doesn’t want to be there at all. Heather continues to play the part of cool girl, knowing that she can’t back down on her performance of confidence, because then she will seem too young. To stay at the party and stay with these people, she has to leave high school behind. 

The Remington party is interspersed with Veronica’s narration as she writes in her diary post-party, unleashing all of her thoughts and frustrations with the fact that she went in the first-place. The diary itself is a hallmark of a teenage girl. She says she wants to kill, unselfishly—her self-reflection on this event is intimately aware of the damage Heather Chandler causes in her wake both to herself and others. Veronica consistently acts as the moral compass of Heathers, both at the party and elsewhere, as if she’s the only person who can see through the play-acting cruelty. Her admittance to wanting to kill Heather when reflecting on the party, is not just a desire to kill the person, but to kill everything Heather stands for, particularly the type of existence that asks to skip the naivety of adolescence. It’s adulthood, with its tantalizing independence, that Heather Chandler craves, so to get it, she subsumes her power to the only person who can help her achieve what she wants — the man at the Remington party. 

Veronica and Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) are at odds. Heather wishes to enter adulthood whereas Veronica chooses to remain in adolesence.

Back at the party, Veronica continues to express disinterest and frustration with Brad, who admittedly just wants to get laid. His behaviour is both immature and demeaning; he implies that Veronica is only there to please him, as if there was some unwritten agreement before the girls arrived. Heather, on the other hand, finds herself alone with David, stuck in a performance in order to maintain her status. Though she shows glimpses of innocence — like when she asks David if they can get back to the party — she ultimately gives into David’s request, performing oral sex, from which she finds no satisfaction. For Heather, it’s a means to an end with lasting mental effects. Following her time with David, she swishes water in her mouth and spits at her own reflection in the mirror. Heather is disgusted by her own actions, but feels she has no choice but to carry on. The conflict between her and Veronica, then, stems from their disparate views on the propriety of maintaining “status”: Veronica doesn’t care, but Heather sees this as all-important. 

In total, the scenes from the Remington party last only a little over four-minutes, but in those four minutes, Veronica and Heather are pitted against each other shot-for-shot. Though not a competition, the editing forces comparison between the two girls, whose reactions to the party are nothing alike. When Veronica and Heather finally meet up again, Veronica vomits on Heather’s shoes, expelling everything that she had to hold in to be accepted at this party. Veronica’s performance, though, does not receive a standing ovation from Heather, who risked her own social capital in bringing a friend. The film ensures that this is clear; Heather Chandler is not in the business of forgiveness. In Heather’s terms, this excursion was a favor to Veronica, a way for Veronica to cement her status as Westerbrook elite. Veronica needed Heather in order to appear more desirable and more adult in the eyes of their peers. In vomiting, Veronica physically rejects the toxicity of the Heathers for something else, able to see through the facade of high school hierarchy.

Outside the party, Heather once again reminds Veronica what she has sacrificed in order to give Veronica popularity: “You were nothing before you met me. You were playing Barbies with Betty Finn. You were a Bluebird. You were a Brownie. You were a Girl Scout Cookie.” While Heather’s intent is vindictive, her insults point out Veronica’s innocence, exposing the ways that Veronica did not fit in at the party, claiming her own adolescence. This assertion on Heather’s part is far from the truth, though, because following the party, Veronica and JD (Christian Slater) play strip croquet and have sex. With Heather’s attempt to remind Veronica of her less-than-cool origins, she focuses on Veronica’s past actions without looking at the person Veronica has become as part of the Heathers. She holds her last shred of power over Veronica and reminds Veronica that she can ruin her reputation by telling the entire school of her Remington party misdeeds. This backfires twofold: Veronica says “Lick it up, baby. Lick it up” in a display of defiance toward Heather and on the following day kills Heather, albeit unintentionally. Heather thinks Veronica carries a reprehensible innocence, but isn’t fully aware of Veronica’s own steps into adulthood; Veronica’s shrouds her coming-of-age from the Heathers and her peers, whereas Heather Chandler wears it on her sleeve. The Remington party, then, is an example of the larger conflict between the two stages of life, which plays out over the course of the film.

Heather thinks Veronica carries a reprehensible innocence, but isn’t fully aware of Veronica’s own steps into adulthood.”

The Remington party, then, is the catalyst for the rest of Heathers, the first domino in a string of killings committed by Veronica and JD (Christan Slater). Veronica has to show up to Heather’s house the next morning to make amends, or she faces the consequences of Heather’s wrath. When she walks through the door of Heather’s house, she absolves herself of the previous night’s philosophical musings. She chooses popularity over being true to herself. JD, though, has other plans. Perhaps the only other person in the film to see beyond the high school facade — though not without his obvious faults — JD lets Veronica revel in adolescence. He has no qualms with her choosing to live the high school experience, as long as it means toppling those who try to hold power. So, he manipulates Veronica into killing her best friend.

Regardless of her decision the night before, Veronica is thrust into a world full of “adult” actions and decisions. She has to navigate dating JD and murder plots disguised as suicide pacts. As the film progresses, Veronica becomes more alienated from herself. Caught up in JD’s antics and contending with the remaining Heathers, she has to “grow up” and resolve a mess she had a hand in creating. At the end, when she seeks friendship with outcast Martha Dunstock (Carrie Lynn) and former friend Betty Finn (Renée Estevez), Veronica reclaims her innocence and adolescence, leaving behind the world of the Heathers for good. This choice provides resolve for the conflict that arose between Veronica and Heather Chandler at the Remington party. In choosing adolescence, Veronica pushes back on a narrative that asks her to give up her formative years in favor of social capital. 

Veronica’s decision to let go of adulthood and be a teenager again is a decision that can only be made with insight and maturity, both of which Veronica demonstrates throughout the film. Though the party was a turning point, it was only a turning point for the dissonance between Heather Chandler and Veronica. Heather Chandler performs adulthood to gain acceptance and status, whereas Veronica knows what she wants and what she doesn’t want — as evidenced by the speech she begins to give Brad. In the end, Veronica excels at occupying the liminal space between the two stages in life; she sees beyond the confines of high school and adulthood performance to arrive at what’s truly meaningful, like her new caring friendships and familial connection.

Sydney is a Charleston-based film writer who focuses on the macabre, the teenage experience, and eco-criticism in film. Connect with her on Twitter @sydboll.

We Were Here: An Ode to the Wannabe Dance in One Tree Hill

Shelley (Elisabeth Harnois), Rachel (Daneel Ackles), Peyton (Hilarie Burton), Hayley (Bethany Joy Lenz), Brooke (Sophia Bush) and Bevin (Bevin Anne Prince) dance to Wannabe at their graduation party in One Tree Hill, 4×21 (2007). The CW.

By Claire White | September 21, 2021

To say the first four seasons of One Tree Hill had an impact on my life is an understatement. Although I was definitely way too young to be watching, the melodramatic lives of the residents of Tree Hill, North Carolina mesmerised me. The show was introduced to me by my older sister and her friends. Coincidentally, one of my sister’s best friends had a younger sister my age, and we instantly became best friends, too. This meant that at some school musical or band rehearsals, we would form one big group of sisters and friends, and talk about the show. Who was our favourite Scott brother (the broody and literary Lucas, played by the Chad Michael Murray, or Bad Boy Tamed Nathan, played by the tall, dark and handsome James Lafferty — both of whom were also star basketballers); whether we were a Brooke (captain of the cheerleading team, fashion designer, hot), a Peyton (brooding tortured artist, reluctant cheerleader, epitome of “music is my life”) or Hayley (aka Tutor Girl, honour student, teen wife); swapping mp3 files of the songs we found on one tree hill music dot com and downloaded off limewire; and quoting our favourite memorable lines (“Alright, are you guys all ready for Fall Down Boy?” / “Fall Out Boy!”). 

When I think about party episodes in teen television — of which there are many — I always come back to One Tree Hill, and the graduation party at the end of season 4. Actually, not the party, but a particular moment of it. Spilling out the doorways and empty window frames of an abandoned two-story brick mansion, complete with large white pillars (honestly, how do party scenes find such large places?), the stone cold classic Wannabe by the Spice Girls starts playing. Immediately, at the sound of the iconic “dun, duh duhn” recognition sets in and one of the cheerleaders, Bevin, jumps into frame, pulling Brooke along with her. Peyton joins in, and everyone around them clears the way as the three start to dance: in formation, and fully choreographed. The three laugh and sing along, as if they are in their own personal music video. Soon, Hayley is pulled in, too. Rachel and Shelley join in, and suddenly all six girls are singing and dancing along to the same choreography like it’s their song, and they are the stars. The crowd around them watches and cheers. It’s a little messy, and full of laughter, but as in sync as they can be. 

“… and suddenly all six girls are singing and dancing along to the same choreography like it’s their song, and they are the stars.”

Whenever moments like this pop up, I always think about the history of it: when did they learn the dance? How long have they been doing it? And though most of them were members of the Tree Hill Ravens cheerleading squad, Shelley wasn’t, so it can’t be a cheerleader thing. All these questions aside, what matters most about this moment is the carefree joy, which is not exactly rare for them, but after the year they had (grief, heartbreak, pregnancy, psycho stalkers), they more than deserve it. There’s also something about the togetherness of it: Shelley’s inclusion is a bit of a wild card as she had disappeared for a while, but beyond that, all jealousies and anger from the past are forgotten. 

The scene is only about a minute long, but it was enough to make an impact, and it’s stuck with me. For a while I didn’t know why, but after all this time I realised it’s because I know how that moment feels. 

My sisters, our friends, and I were no stranger to this feeling of what it means to dance as one, and just have fun with it. When Taylor Swift released her album Fearless (Taylor’s Version) earlier this year, listening to ‘You Belong With Me’ again came with a vivid memory. We had created our own dance to go with the song, and in my mind it was not only the memory of doing the dance moves together, but the feeling that it came with. It’s like being in a secret club, a dance only we knew and got to be a part of. It was laughing along, and feeling like I belonged somewhere, because I knew the moves. It was something we shared together. 

Recently, when I rewatched the episode with the ‘Wannabe’ dance, I was surprised to remember it happened during the season finale. A graduation party always conjures up the same feelings: excitement and anticipation for the future, with some sadness, too, because it is one of the last times everyone will be together in the same way. It is apt then, that this episode is titled ‘All Of a Sudden I Miss Everyone.’

“We Were Here.” One Tree Hill, 4×21 (2007).

Earlier, I mentioned it was the first four seasons of One Tree Hill’s nine season run that impacted my life. This is because eventually, my sister and her friends graduated, my best friend moved schools, and the later seasons weren’t able to capture my attention as they once had. That time in our life was over. But I will always hold the show close to my heart and be grateful for the impact it has had on my life. Starting with my professional interest and love for teen drama’s, and least of all on my music taste, which, as you can imagine, made me insufferable as a teen. I’ll always want to return to these early seasons in an effort to remember what it felt to be that young and together with everyone again. There’s nothing quite like the high school years. 

The episode ends with the Tree Hill teens all standing together on the river court, a basketball court which had become important to them. And as they stand there reflecting on the closing of this chapter, their freshly painted names dry on the pavement surrounding the bold red words: “We Were Here.” The last time my sister and our friends all saw each other was four years ago. The second last time was two years before that. People move apart, you grow up, and once in a lifetime, pandemics happen. It has been a while since I’ve been able to party and dance with my friends. I sometimes worry I’ve forgotten how. And although I no longer remember the moves for all the dances we’ve made over the years, I know it’s not the choreography that made these moments special, but the people I was with, and the memories they make. Once upon a time we danced together. And all of a sudden, I miss everyone.

Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen film tragic from Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. She is a Co-Founder of Grow Up, a founding member of online film journal Rough Cut, and Greta Gerwig Scholar. You can follow her on Twitter @theclairencew.

Seize the Day, or Rewatching Empire Records in the Age of COVID

Gina (Renée Zellweger) and Corey (Liv Tyler) dance through the workday in Empire Records, dir. Allan Moyle (1995). Warner Bros.

By Mahnaz Dar | September 21, 2021

Almost every piece of media hit differently once COVID started. Watching a crowd of maskless people rock out to “Twist and Shout in” Ferris Bueller’s Day Off made my stomach do an involuntary dip. Meanwhile, characters who extolled the virtues of handwashing, like The Sopranos’ Paulie Walnuts and the title character of Monk, seemed unnervingly prescient. Later, over a year since the pandemic began, one movie moment felt especially resonant: the party scene that concludes Empire Records (1995).

Just as Saturday Night Fever (1977) utterly embodied the ’70s, Empire Records was pure ’90s, from the fashion (tiny plaid skirts, huge baggy jeans) to its grungy, anti-corporate ethos (“Damn the man!” as protagonist Lucas puts it). The film chronicles a day in the lives of the teenage employees of an indie record store. After Lucas (Rory Cochrane) learns that the store will be sold by its owner, Mitch (Ben Bode), to the corporate chain Music Town, he plans to raise the money to buy Empire Records by gambling the day’s earnings on a wager at Atlantic City. When Lucas loses it all, manager Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) has to figure out how to cover for him—and keep his job. Meanwhile, the other workers deal with their own crises, including, but not limited to, a teen shoplifter-turned-shooter, and a visit from washed-up 80s pop singer Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield). 

Wouldn’t the protagonists of the film be better served by a few therapy sessions, rather than a roof party?”

Yet by the film’s close, all the characters are dancing on a rooftop to the strains of the Gin Blossoms, their woes seemingly forgotten. Throwing a party and taking donations from hundreds of attendees allowed Joe to raise the capital to buy the store from the odious Mitch. Now, they celebrate. Gina (Renée Zellweger), who earlier confessed a secret desire to become a singer, belts out “Sugar High” (the first stop on a musical trajectory for Zellweger that would include Chicago and Judy). And while Corey (Liv Tyler) shot down A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) a few hours ago when he first declared his love, she now returns his feelings.

Though I’ve been a fan of the movie for years, the conclusion always seemed hastily tacked on. And I’m not alone; critic Roger Ebert called the ending a “mess,” adding, “Why did I hear eerie echoes of ‘Hey, gang! Let’s fix up the old barn and put on a show!’”

To me, it didn’t seem plausible that the characters were so willing to cut loose after everything that went down. True, the store is safe, but throughout their day in the life, the characters have made some disturbing revelations: We learn that perfectionist Corey’s path to Harvard was fueled by an amphetamine addiction; that troubled Debra tried to kill herself the night before; and that the reason Lucas is so driven to save the store is that Joe and Empire Records are all he has, as his own mother had abandoned him years ago. Wouldn’t the protagonists of the film be better served by a few therapy sessions, rather than a roof party?

A year into the pandemic, I revised that opinion. As restaurants and shops shuttered, offices switched to a work from home model, and friends took to Zoom to see one another, I started to fantasize about the day when the pandemic was finally behind us. The restaurant meals would make Gavin Newsom’s French Laundry outing look spartan, the outings with friends would be endless, and the shopping sprees would be decadent. But until that day, there didn’t seem anything worth celebrating; I envisioned myself in a holding pen until the world returned to normal.

That day, of course, never came, and it slowly dawned on me that it never would. And when I once again rewatched Empire Records, I saw the characters not as misguided or naïve, but as brave. Their problems aren’t going to be surmounted in a day; they’re issues that may span lifetimes. But their ability to carve out space for joy, despite knowing that tomorrow may bring just as much sorrow, is stirring.

Gina makes her singing debut on the rooftop of Empire Records, as everyone parties below.

Ebert wasn’t the only critic to trash Empire Records when it was released, and it’s easy to pick apart issues with plot or pacing. But for me the movie, and especially that finale, reverberates more than any other teen party scene, mainly due to its pitch-perfect depiction of raw adolescent emotion. Like a moody teen, the film whipsaws from rage to melancholy to elation — a scene where a frenzied Corey, reeling from a screaming match with Gina, hurls merchandise in a rage, cuts abruptly to a rare moment of bonding between a calmer Corey and a surprisingly nurturing Debra. The finale is just as intoxicating, as the camera seems to be torn about whom to follow: Gina flailing in delight as she makes her singing debut, or Corey trying to catch A.J.’s attention, or Joe and Lucas buying back to the store to the delighted crowd of hippies, stoners, and punks watching it all take place.

The film had a strong effect on me—though not in a literal sense. I didn’t seek out the thriving 2020 underground party scene; I was not about that “Masque of the Red Death” life. Instead, the movie spurred me to seek out moments of happiness whenever I could, whether that meant taking a long walk or splurging on cupcakes just because. The point was that I wasn’t putting off enjoying myself until a far-off date in the future that might never come.
Pop culture often depicts partying as the path of least resistance for the proudly lazy and aimless; think the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party),” or Bluto in Animal House. But in Empire Records, a teenage party becomes a beautifully, desperately courageous act. More than that, it’s a call to action to finally seize the day.

Mahnaz Dar is a New York–based writer and editor who loves revisiting the films of her youth, consuming all things true crime, and finding meaning in Sopranos rewatches. Her work can be found in Library Journal, Screen Slate, and Rewire. You can find her on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

The Art of “The Look”

Pacey (left) and Joey (right) share “The Look” while she dances with the titular Dawson, cementing an inevitable fate: that they should be together. Dawson’s Creek, 3×22 (2000). The WB.

By Niamh Cullen | September 10, 2021

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a TV show reaches its peak when two characters share a stolen longing glance with one another after at least half a season’s worth of angsty build-up. As Alanna Bennett notes in her thread on the topic, chemistry is determined by the sacred art of looking. The power of a look can not be underestimated, but what is it that categorises “a look” as THE look? It is this look (“THE look”) that signals to the audience that they are witnessing a shift. That their assumptions in reading between the lines, picking up on indications in the writing and obsessively dissecting it through tweeting into the void will be validated. “The look” is the first look between two characters which will underpin their dynamic and will become the catalyst for around three seasons worth of relationship based drama. It presents itself laden with cliché signifiers and gets utilised by essentially every popular TV series at one point or another. This trope of “the look” is one I resent almost as much as I love. 

We can categorise a look as being “the look” when it combines both a betrayal (of a third party who is in with one of the “lookers”), tense build up incorporating repressed feelings, and it marks a pivotal shift in relationship dynamics. This look marks the start of a new relationship coming to the forefront of the plot. It’s the moment you pause, take a breath and sit with what you’ve just heard (or seen) as Laurie Metcalf advised in Lady Bird (2017). However, for me this moment is bittersweet. The plot after this look becomes a distant memory to me as I sacrifice it’s ‘rewatchability’ at the altar of a two minute supercut edit on YouTube documenting in precise detail the couples barely there interactions in the build up to this “look”. The look is the confirmation we seek, but once the moment has passed you can never get the rush of vindication again. Following this heated longing stare the show falters and fails to ever reach the dizzying heights of that loaded moment. The conclusion I have come to is that tragically, a TV show dies the moment of this perfect immaculate scene — “the look”.

The acceptance of this trope as being the thing that my attention is dependent on came about in a That’s So Raven-esque vision. I was minding my own business watching a new show half heartedly, allowing my focus to drift. It was a “two windows open at the same time, I think I’ll check my email and Twitter and maybe paint my nails” kind of focus that I was giving to this show. Then, something happened. It was like kismet, or divine intervention. I glanced over to the show and gave it my full undivided attention in time to witness a scene that triggered this realisation. The show was Panic (2021) and the scene was the one where Jack Nicholson’s definitely not a teenager and certainly on the horizon of his thirties son snogs a girl whilst looking at another girl who had up until this point maintained a rivalry with him.

Panic (2021-) Amazon.
Bearing witness to an immaculate use of the ‘with someone else but staring at another’ look is a gift from the screenwriting Gods.”

Bearing witness to an immaculate use of the ‘with someone else but staring at another’ look is a gift from the screenwriting Gods. It is predictable and perfect. We know what it means. I eat it up every time. It was in this moment when watching Panic that I saw all of the other moments this trope had been executed perfectly. And I also realised that generally when rewatching, I will watch up to these scenes. The problem with any blissful high is there will always be an inevitable come down. Once this scene has transpired the show begins to falter for me. The couple together? Ok great. The couple suppressing feelings for one another and making their tension the pillar of the story? Unmatched. 

Before focusing more on why this scene is a show’s final breath for me, I would like to pay homage to some of the finest TV moments demonstrating “the look”. These are specific moments, looks that once pass can never be replicated. The couple can share many a lingering stare at one another throughout the rest of the show’s run, but it is THE look which pushes things off the precipice and confirm the character’s are indeed going down the path we viewers had predicted (or perhaps just longed for). The couple in question may have gotten together by this point, but it is this look which solidifies it as being the show’s new focus. Cut to Katie Holmes swaying on the dance floor; we are around the start of the new millennium and are about to witness the modern day romantic pining standard of which all other shows strive to achieve. She glances up over the titular Dawson’s shoulder to see Pacey, sitting… staring. She watches him, he watches them. She looks away, guilty over a look. And just like that the ending is written. Anyone could see these two should be ending up together just from this one look. Before this transpired the writers could’ve back-pedalled and reestablished Joey and Dawson, but after this look the stage has been set for Pacey to take his place as the main romantic lead. We see this echoed in season three, episode seven of Gilmore Girls ‘They Shoot Gilmores Don’t They’ with Jess and Rory. It could be argued this “look” comes in the big break up scene where Rory is in the arms of her eight foot first boyfriend, however, I would argue the real “look” happens earlier at the twenty three minute mark. Here, Jess obnoxiously snogs his girlfriend on the bleachers after a sustained and tense staring standoff with Rory on the dance floor with her mother. The two look at one another with disdain bordering on hatred. I swoon every time! 

‘They Shoot Gilmore’s Don’t They,’ Gilmore Girls, 3×07 (2002). The WB.

Or we could look to the moment of guilt ridden longing a la Damon and Elena in season two of The Vampire Diaries. In the eighth episode, ‘Rose’, Elena looks over Stefan’s shoulder into the disturbingly blue eyes of his brother. The look suggests both a weariness of their own predictability in utilising such a trope whilst also having a touch of ‘obviously we will get together within a season’. I would go as far as to say Veronica Mars and Logan in episode fifteen of season one exhibit “the look” with a subversion of expectations. Technically, she shares the classic longing look with ex boyfriend Duncan as she slow dances with a pre New Girl Max Greenfield. The look lacks chemistry and any real commitment. However, Logan’s drunken interruption of this scene lays the foreshadowing for what less eagle eyed viewers would see as this unexpected coupling. This poor execution of “the look” feels purposefully done as it sets up the Logan and Veronica storyline which kicks off mere episodes later. The look scenes don’t lie, they heavily imply!

Perhaps there is a latent masochist in me who enjoys watching pining and suffering over the actual relationship. Or maybe it’s just that I know not long after “the look” the pair will get together and writers will give them ten episodes max of happiness before things get messy in a bid for new drama. It’s not to say I hate the show after “the look”, it’s just that before this moment they are protected from harm. From “the look” onwards they are ripe for destruction. 

I suppose I could pin it all down to the writing, that it becomes poorer because shows do not allow relationships to survive under the melodrama. But if I’m being honest with myself, after “the look” I can stop playing detective. I crave “the look” because I want the show to pat me on the head and congratulate me for knowing instinctively and intuitively where the chemistry lies and what the writing is leading to. Perhaps, regardless of how writers treat the couple once they get together, I will always come crawling back to the crumbs we were fed at the start as opposed to the overindulgence of a feast. Without the analysis of convincing myself and others that I know where the plot is leading and what subtle moments are suggesting, my motivation to watch is gone. I would rather rewatch a scene from season one where the couple have their feet angled towards one another across a room and scream into the abyss I KNOW CHEMISTRY WHEN I SEE IT like I’m Charlie from that ‘Its Always Sunny’ scene with the board of feverishly drawn string between evidence behind me. 

“The look” captures everything that I want. Betrayal, tension and pain met with acceptance of the longing. This look says to audiences ‘do you see where this is all leading? Have you backed the right horse?’. It isn’t the Big Kiss or romantic declaration. It is as much a look between the characters as it is a look between the writers and us: And it’s the only reason I want to watch.

Niamh Cullen (she/her) is an English Literature undergrad based in Edinburgh who is currently trying to work out what she will do with said degree. You can find her discussing her fleeting obsessions on Twitter @niamhcullenn.

In Defence of the Britney Spears movie ‘Crossroads’

Zoe Saldana, Taryn Manning and Britney Spears in Crossroads (2002) dir. Tamra Davis. MTV Films.

By Claire White | September 7, 2021

In the opening scene of Crossroads (2002), a teenage girl dances around her bedroom singing along to Madonna’s ‘Open Your Heart.’ With her door closed, it’s a private and carefree moment away from the pressures and expectations demanded of her on the day of her high school graduation. It’s just a moment in time, a moment that is hers. 

The scene is familiar to so many girls who see it, because who hasn’t danced around the room singing to your favourite song? What makes this scene different, though, is that the teenage girl is portrayed by pop sensation Britney Spears, and she is in her underwear. To me, her being in her underwear is an insignificant detail; it even makes sense for the setting. But for many reviewers, it’s (rather creepily) the only part of the film worth mentioning. Chris Kaltenbach wrote for The Baltimore Sun, “Go see Crossroads if you want to hear Britney sing or see her wear next-to-nothing. But otherwise, avoid this trainwreck at all costs.” Similarly, Jeremy Conrad wrote for IGN “Casual ‘admirers’ of the singer would probably, uh, enjoy her hopping up and down on her bed in her undies or the scene of her in her pink bra and panties, but everyone else may want to stay away.” Released in early 2002, Crossroads was at the height of Britney’s fame. A child star member of The Mickey Mouse Club turned teen icon and then international mega-star, the early 2000s was a period where Britney was growing into a young woman and discovering her sexuality (the very sexy and very iconic ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’, which led to the pearl-clutching of many, was released a year earlier in 2001). However, this left commentators and critics unable to view Britney and her turn in a (relatively innocent) coming-of-age film about independence and female friendship through any other lens. 

Directed by Tamra Davis and written by pre-Grey’s Anatomy Shonda Rhimes, Crossroads is the story of three former-best friends who reconnect on the night of their high-school graduation and go on a road trip from their home in small-town Georgia to Los Angeles. Each girl has their own reasons to get to LA: Mimi (Taryn Manning), who is seen as the school’s outcast due to her life in a trailer park and being heavily pregnant, is on her way to a singing competition to win a recording contract, and asks her former-friends to come with her; the popular Queen Bee Kit (Zoe Saldana), clings to the idea of her absent fiance, and joins the trip to visit him at UCLA, where he goes to school; and Lucy (Spears), the sweet and lonely Valedictorian, who wishes to break free from her overbearing, but loving, father goes in search of her estranged mother in Arizona. 

The obligatory display of spectacular girlhood. MTV Films.

The late 90s and 2000s were a time of spectacular girlhoods. Whether it was TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996-2003), or movies like the Bring It On (2000-2009) series and The Princess Diaries (2001), teen girls were shown as gifted, talented, or even royalty. Off screen, this phenomenon was stoked by the rise of pop stars like The Spice Girls, Christina Aguilera and most notably, Britney. The flash of paparazzi cameras, the shine of Hilary Duff’s lipgloss, the sparkle of a belly-button ring were all images saturating the market. Crossroads is no exception to this, not only from the very presence of Britney, but also evident every time Lucy gets on stage to sing, decked out in studded belts and drenched in stage lights. 

But the film isn’t as flashy as one would expect for the time. In tone with the earthy and pale hues of the desert and cheap motels, the film is shot in a de-saturated style, creating a less polished texture than that of, say, Clueless (1995) or Jawbreaker (1999). Furthermore, we can look at a comparison between Crossroads and 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan, the star-vehicle for one of Britney’s predecessors, Madonna. In Susan, Madonna embodies a character who is just as mysterious, glamorous and awe-inspiring as she is in real life. She wears her of-the-era signature lace bow in her hair, stacks of bracelets and a highly coveted jacket. Madonna’s Susan is not only the image of the woman New Jersey housewife Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) desperately wanted to become, but the film contributes to the vibrant, fairytale vision of New York. It is a film, and setting, befitting Madonna. Spears’ Lucy, on the other hand, is the sweet good girl, sitting in a rusty car dressed in sweatpants and a bucket hat. Here is a pop idol dressed down-to-earth, away from the glitz and glam we usually see her surrounded by. We are reminded that Britney is just a girl from Louisiana, which allows her to reach out to girls on their level and say “I am just like you,” (admittedly, as much as one can on a film set that was created for you), and these everyday issues surrounding growing up are real.

We are reminded that Britney is just a girl from Louisiana, which allows her to reach out to girls on their level and say “I am just like you,””

In 2002, Nathan Rabbin wrote for AV Club, “Crossroads could traumatize 10-year-old girls looking for lighthearted escapism, and not just because of the vacuum-like nature of Spears’ performance or the film’s grainy, under-lit look.” While the film does deal with heavy topics such as body image, rape, estranged and/or abusive parents, and a miscarriage with a hint of Rhimes-esque melodrama,the film does not intend to traumatise. These heavy topics are portrayed mainly through allusion and unspoken realisations, which went over my head when I myself watched the film as a child, but feel quite well done in adulthood. Crossroads is, from the very beginning, Britney’s movie: She came up with the concept of the story, and worked in collaboration with Rhimes over the script. In a featurette about the making of the film, producer Ann Carli mentions how important it was to Britney that the film took girls seriously, that she didn’t want a film that “talked down to [her] peers.” This includes covering issues that are a reality for so many teens. Yet, it wasn’t all quite so serious: what the film does best is it’s exploration and embrace of female friendship. 

From Heathers (1989) to Mean Girls (2004), throughout the 90s and 2000s, female friendship on screen was often seen as catty or insidious: on TV, Brooke and Peyton in One Tree Hill (2003-2012) constantly called each other bitches, and each week we would wonder if “best friends” Blair and Serena in Gossip Girl (2007-2012) actually liked each other or not. Beyond such cattiness, even friendship films that appear wholesome such as Angus, Thongs & Perfect Snogging (2008)and Wild Child (2008) center on the pursuit of a guy which results in the best friends breaking up in the process. Crossroads works differently. The road trip itself is a reunion for Mimi, Kit and Lucy, who were best friends as kids but grew apart in high school. And although they fight out of frustration while waiting for the guy driving them, Ben (Anson Mount) to find a tow-truck in the Louisiana sun, it’s never enough for one of them to leave. On the road, any hard feelings from high school are quickly forgotten, and when tragedy strikes, they are there for each other. Typically, Lucy does fall in love with the handsome, mysterious and originally thought to be dangerous Ben, but this romantic narrative is not at odds with that of her friends: no one is accused of being jealous, for example. Sure, Lucy basically steals Mimi’s recording contract dreams by proving to be the better and more confident singer (this is Britney Spears, we are talking about. If anyone is the singer, it’s her), but is there a more beautiful moment than of three friends on the open road laughing and singing along to Shania Twain and Cheryl Crow at full-belt? It’s a hold your friends close movie. It’s a breaking free, together, movie.

is there a more beautiful moment than of three friends on the open road laughing and singing along to Shania Twain and Cheryl Crow at full-belt?”

For both Mimi and Lucy, singing becomes a form of expression, and a symbol of individual freedom. For Mimi, it is a chance to get out of her town, to achieve her dream of reaching the Pacific Ocean, and find a better life for herself. For Lucy, it is a way to make her voice be heard, and make her own decisions. 

The film’s main single, ‘I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,’ starts out as a poem written by Lucy on the road. Finally away from her controlling Dad (Dan Ackroyd), and making choices for herself, the words speak to the in-betweenness of coming of age, and the desire for the space to explore who it is you’re becoming. Lucy no longer wants to live a sheltered life. At the same time, as someone who had grown up in the public eye, Britney was dealing with the same issues. At 20 years old, the song and the film were an outlet for Britney to call the shots, and demonstrate that there is more to her than people realise. The song was also a single on her third studio album, Britney. Self titled and credited as co-writer on six songs, the album — and film — was Britney’s way of re-introducing herself, with a more adult sound. ‘I’m Not a Girl’ itself, while not written by Britney, is a song that is very personal to her, and while filming the scene where she sings the song, she started crying: “I love this song … because I can totally relate.” 

For some, the film becomes just an extended music video (the film’s director Tamra Davis was a prolific music video director prior to Crossroads). But even so, Crossroads is a visual representation of what the song is about, and contributes to its meaning. Although it may have taken some until news about Britney’s conservatorship to truly understand a song like ‘Lucky’ Crossroads clearly encapsulates the message.

Britney Spears as Lucy. MTV Films.

In her own words, Britney describes the song:

“You’re not a girl, you’re not a woman, you’re just figuring yourself out: what you wanna accomplish in life, and what you wanna do … She’s basically saying ‘Just give me some time,’ … ‘no matter what, I’m always gonna be ok. I’m gonna find it within myself, my inner strength, and I’ll be ok.’ 

‘It’s ok, girls, to have those days where you just cry, and nothing’s going right, you don’t feel good about yourself, because we all go through it.’ The bottom line [is to] keep your friends around you, it’s all ok.”

It is therefore undeniable that the film and the song both speak to who she is as a person, or at least, a part of herself she wanted to share with the world. Control has always been important to Britney. It comes up all the time in her songs, and interviews throughout this time. Not only control for herself, but to imbue the importance of girls having control to her fans, and how they can get it. It is well discussed that for the iconic ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ music video, the uniform and high school setting was Britney’s idea. In Crossroads, Lucy, Kit and Mimi’s roadtrip represents them all taking control of their own lives, which is what makes everything we hear about Britney’s conservatorship so heartbreaking. Although I never meant to make this piece about the conservatorship, even looking in hindsight, it is always there, hanging overhead. In their investigative article about Britney’s situation for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino and Ronan Farrow also bring up the importance of control in Britney’s career: “And, all along, as her fans have noticed, she has been singing songs that she didn’t write but which nonetheless seem to speak directly to her situation: my loneliness is killing me; I’m a slave for you; I’m not a girl, not yet a woman; you want a piece of me.”  It has always been there. The ongoing battle over Britney’s conservatorship, and the #FreeBritney movement means we are all re-evaluating how we, both personally, and the media, treated Britney, especially during the height of her fame. This is why it has been so important to me that we revisit Crossroads, a film which is largely forgotten, hard to come by, and plagued by sexist and gross reviews. Through the film and Britney’s accompanying singles, audiences can learn something about the importance of control, not only for young girls, but for ourselves: the importance of autonomy and using your voice. Long before her conservatorship, this was Britney’s message that we failed to understand, but must not forget. We owe it to Crossroads. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to Britney.

In July, Grow Up hosted an Instagram Live discussing Crossroads with Claire and culture writer and music video scholar Sydney Urbanek. You can view the talk on the Grow Up Instagram page here.

Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen film tragic from Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. She is a Co-Founder of Grow Up, a founding member of online film journal Rough Cut, and Greta Gerwig Scholar. You can follow her on Twitter @theclairencew.

How Gossip Girl Reboot Sinks into Teen Idealism (And Misses the Point)

What would a Gossip Girl reboot be without the hierarchical position of the steps at the Met? HBO.

By McKinzie Smith | September 3, 2021

Gossip Girl is a fantasy. We know this and we crave it. If you watch Gossip Girl, either the original 2007-2012 run on the CW or the new HBO reboot, you can feel the unreality coursing through each glossy frame. The Gossip Girl televisual universe is the only world in which Blair Waldorf’s perfectly coiled hair could still hold up after eight hours of prep school and New York City humidity.

This absurdity grants us distance. Because Gossip Girl is so unlike reality, it’s hard to draw parallels to your own life. At its best, the original Gossip Girl made a mockery of the lives of the wealthy. There’s only so far one can go in their suspension of disbelief as characters break up, get back together, die and come back, fumble major opportunities, and treat each other like Serena treats her cell phone in the series’ second episode (that is to say, like trash). The show portrayed wealth as the thrust behind these characters’ major issues; wealth was what made them empty, hard, unstable. Money was the fall-back on which they could rely after shattering someone else’s dreams or heart, as with Blair always threatening to move to Paris when something goes wrong.

And yet, there’s also something alluring to it all, isn’t there? As much as we can claim that Gossip Girl is just something we can laugh at and indulge in, there will always be the cold, hard facts: These people can do whatever they want, because they are young, rich and hot. None of these things are easy to ignore. Unlike some, we cannot escape our desires to shop on 5th Avenue with a bottomless credit card in a cute little headband. 

The original Gossip Girl (2007-2021) was hedonistic teen fantasy, and that’s why we loved it. The CW.

In the 2000s, especially in its twilight years when Gossip Girl originally aired, being blonde, skinny, rich, and a little bit of a bitch was the iconic look of the era. Paris Hilton and Heidi Montag aren’t that far of a cry from Serena van der Woodsen. The costumes worn and brand names dropped within the show were a direct reflection of that world. Despite Gossip Girl being decadent, it was making good use of valuable social signifiers. By showing its characters engaging with real sought-after brands and events, it tugs on hidden desires that we’ve picked up simply through existing. At the end of the day, Blair has Manolo Blahnik’s and you do not.

There were hopes that HBO’s Gossip Girl would approach this aspect of the original with fresh eyes. We live in a new era, where different kinds of bodies are celebrated, kids use Depop to shop, and headbands are passé. When the diverse cast was revealed and showrunner Joshua Safran told Variety that “[t]hese kids wrestle with their privilege in a way that I think the original didn’t,” it felt like a given that the reboot would explore new ways to satirize its subject matter.

It hurts to be wrong. The six episodes currently available approach their characters in a much more straightforward manner than their predecessor. There is only a little campy fun to be had, though luckily the privilege conversation runs deeper than the acknowledgement that Dan and Jenny Humphrey have to live in Brooklyn instead of Manhattan. For the majority of the season, however, what the writers have done is sink Gossip Girl deeper into teenage idealism. When the original show created caricatures of contemporary fascinations, it often did so at the risk of glorifying its characters. Such is the flaw of much satirical work. This version is too sympathetic for that. With the camp element mostly missing, we’re left with a show where characters are vehicles for what is considered cool and edgy by today’s standards, even if they do have their eye on political issues. When these characters take each other down over social media, have threesomes, and wring their hands over ‘cancel culture’, I am surprised by the lack of ironic distance. Believe it or not, we are meant to see them as glamorized versions of real people, instead of puppets for our schadenfreude. In this attempt to make its characters relatable, the show obscures the original point. It’s creating something new, it’s just not doing it very well yet.

The casting of teen blog icon Tavi Gevinson as teacher (and newly minted Gossip Girl) Kate Keller is at odd’s with Gevinson’s legacy, Rookie Mag. HBO.

It could stand to take a look at one of its main cast members: Tavi Gevinson is our GG. She is a Madewell-wearing millennial teacher and she resents her students for being wealthy and successful. But for many, Gevinson is an extension of their teenage years, having given them a representation of young people that was not only attainable but honest in its complexity.

The intended audience of the show likely won’t know anything about Gevinson. As niche as she is, she is a signifier of her own making. Gevinson was a real-life blogger at the same time the original show was airing. When she was only 11 years old, she began posting her outfits to Style Rookie, a quirky fashion blog she created. It exploded in popularity until it became Rookie Magazine, a place where Gevinson and other teen girls could publish their writing and share their lives. 

The purpose and aesthetic of Rookie Mag was directly at odds with Gossip Girl. Rookie reveled in truth and kindness. Despite ostensibly being a culture magazine, its pages had more in common with a scrapbook than Vogue. Gevinson’s outfits were often frumpy-chic, so far out of style that they became the style. She recommended her readers listen to Hole and read books on psychoanalysis. Now-renowned photo and video artist Petra Collins (who has helmed Olivia Rodrigo’s two latest music videos) was a resident photographer for Rookie, imbuing the magazine with a girly, sweet haze. It was by teens, for teens.

Rookie, like the new Gossip Girl, aimed to be relatable. But instead of presenting the surface level things that make us all similar, like using Instagram and wanting nice things, it pinpointed deeper desires. Teenagers just want to be acknowledged. Most use social media to do this, sure, but that’s too easy. Gevinson allowed them to have a legitimate platform to speak on their wants, their interests, their secrets. It advocated for identity on your own terms, not based on what others want from you or what might make you cool. It posited that through self-actualization, you could create your own ideal. 

There are moments where this new Gossip Girl seems to hint at this, especially with the introduction of Aki’s father. Though Aki is one of the more peripheral main cast members, his father plays a large part in the sixth episode. His treatment of main character Zoya due to her political beliefs and Aki’s burgeoning queer sexuality is indicative of the ways in which focusing on wealth and self-image will not help us come to terms with ourselves. Two of the new characters, Zoya and Obie, bond over their shared interest in social justice; something that finally comes to a head for the main cast in the same episode. Zoya encourages Obie to act on his convictions and protest his mother’s business, unintentionally leading Obie to bond with his ex (and Zoya’s sister), Julien. It’s a juicy plotline but manages to pack social relevance too. 

By taking a page from Gevinson’s zine and acknowledging that teenagers, including those born of the rich and powerful, need to forge their own paths away from the prying eyes of adults, especially when it comes to doing the right thing, there could be an interesting narrative to be had. Who are these characters without social media and the pursuit of wealth? Moreover, how can that theme be used to explore today’s youth culture and its reliance on those very things for salvation?

“[t]hese kids wrestle with their privilege in a way that I think the original didn’t” Joshua Safran.

We’ve been left at a crossroads with this reboot. Though it somewhat misinterprets the appeal of the original text and flounders at its goal to represent teenagers with honesty, by the end of the season it has found an interesting footing. At times, it’s just as enjoyable as the OG GG, even without the exaggerated exploits of Serena and Blair. However, with shows like Euphoria (2019 – ) and Betty (2020 – ) more realistically depicting the lives of young people on the same network, this Gossip Girl still has a lot of reflection to do.

There’s an easy acknowledgement by the show that different characters do, in fact, have different levels of privilege depending on their race, gender, sexuality, and level of wealth. This balance between contemporary issues and scandalous moments is difficult to pull off and episode six is the first one to have done it right. If it continues to move in this direction, there is potential for a great show in there somewhere, but they haven’t quite hit it just yet. Will Gossip Girl transcend trends and go the way of Rookie Mag, or will it find itself bogged down in its glamorization of contemporary youth culture? Only time will tell. XOXO…

McKinzie Smith (she/her) is a Film Studies graduate from Portland, Oregon. She loves French films, french fries, and her french bulldogs. Follow her on Twitter (@notmckinzie).

How Meadow Soprano Ended Up Just Like Her Mother

Like mother, like daughter: Carmela (Edie Falco) and Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) Soprano. The Sopranos (1999-2007). HBO.

By Shea Vassar | August 18, 2021

Carmela: From the Beginning

Carmela Soprano née DeAngelis was born in 1960 to Hugh and Mary. What is known of her early life is gathered from bits and pieces of conversations. Tony and Carm met in high school and were married in 1982, the same year Meadow was born. Though curious about intellectual topics, her getting married and starting a family at a young age left no time for higher education. 

On several occasions Carmela attempts to venture into the workforce but fails for various reasons. Though jealous of women who have the opportunity to go to college or start their own businesses, she has little motivation to make her own money because Tony’s income supports her family’s upper middle class lifestyle. In return, she tries to be a successful housewife⁠—though the maid comes in a few times a week⁠—and mother to Meadow and Anthony Junior. It’s not always enough. Underneath it all she remains embarrassed by her own lack of intellectual sophistication. 

Meadow: From the Beginning

Meadow Mariangela Soprano was born in New Jersey in 1982 to Anthony and Carmela Soprano. While Meadow is seventeen when the show begins, her big personality and sassy attitude suggest she has always been like this. Booksmart and clever, she is strong willed and often blurts out her thoughts and opinions. While there are times when her social life is her main priority, Meadow still manages to succeed in her academic career, first in high school, and later at Columbia University.

With wide interests and an ability to charm those around her, Meadow’s opportunity to excel is not limited to a particular field. Her potential is first seen and acknowledged by the time she is a teenager, and her mother worries about who might influence her. First Carmela is watchful of Hunter Scangarelo’s influence over her daughter. She perceives Hunter, one of Meadow’s closest friends, as a waste who will not grow up to be anything admirable. Then Carmela is suspicious of Jackie Aprile Jr’s intentions as Meadow’s boyfriend. The latter could be a manifestation of a mother’s hope that her daughter will not fall into the same mobster wife’s life that she will endure eternally. 

The Sopranos, Season One (1999). HBO.

Tension between Carmela Soprano and her daughter, Meadow, is evident from the beginning of The Sopranos. What first appears to be a simple moment of angst between parents and their teenager takes on a more nuanced meaning from the emotional and mental depth creator David Chase puts into the show’s long arc. Young Meadow is mean to her mother because she wants to be everything Carmela isn’t. Ironically, in the end, she becomes just like her. 

The Pilot Tells It All

“Miss Meadow,” Carmela says before opening her daughter’s bedroom door. Dressed in a lavender skirt suit, her medium-length blonde hair perfectly hovers above her blazer’s shoulder pads. “Every year on this date since you were itty bitty, Mom and Meadow get all dolled up, drive into New York, Plaza Hotel, for tea under Eloise’s picture,” she says to her daughter. Meadow continues to lay on her bed until her mom carefully dangles a pair of gloves in front of her face. She suddenly sits up after Carmela insists the two always have so much fun. “To tell you the truth, I felt it was dumb since I was eight. I just go because you like it.” Carmela tries to hide her disappointment as she pauses, “And here I thought this was something we would do long after you got married with girls of your own.” Meadow replies, “Hopefully I won’t be living anywhere around here by then.” 

In retrospect, this conversation reveals more than just a snarky teenager who thinks they are too cool for their parent. Meadow is confident in telling her mother that she not only dislikes the yearly tradition they have practiced for nearly a decade, but that she hopes to get far, far away from New Jersey and her family. Although Carmela might want a future for her daughter that she never had the chance to achieve, Meadow’s mention of living away from the family is an unspoken disappointment. 

From Coast to Coast

Carmela’s desire for her daughter to stay close is explored throughout season two as Meadow begins her college application process. Meadow wants to go to the west coast, to the University of California, Berkeley. Neither Soprano parent is in favor of this move. While Tony might be afraid of the liberal attitude stereotypical of West Coast schools, Carmela’s fear of losing control of her daughter is a major motivator. 

Armed with ricotta pie, Carmela visits her neighbor, Jean Cusamano, a second time. The last time she talked with Jean, Carmela insisted that her sister, an alumna of Georgetown University, write a letter of recommendation for Meadow. This time, Carmela brings with her an unspoken threat. It is one of the only times Carmela uses her well known status as the wife of a mobster: she requests this innocent civilian help secure the letter. 

Carmela dedicates herself to keeping Meadow somewhere close to home. And, in the end, Meadow decides on Columbia University, just on the other side of the George Washington Bridge. While Columbia is not exactly a right-winged paradise, Meadow’s constant visits to the Soprano household allow Tony to voice his opinions while Carmela keeps an eye on her.


Tea with Eloise at the Plaza. HBO.

Towards the end of season four, there is an episode where the Soprano family head to Manhattan to have dinner at Meadow’s new apartment. Carmela’s bad mood could be due to a number of things (including the disappearance of Furio, the man she has been crushing on all season long), but there is still all the underlying tension between her and Meadow that bubbles to the surface. “The fact that Mead has got roommates and a boyfriend and a whole life that viewers no longer know very much about just underlines how independent she is becoming. Meadow is no longer trapped in that little corner of NJ where she grew up. But Carmela still is, and she knows it. She envies her daughter’s opportunities,” the Soprano Autopsy website states about this episode. 

A conversation about Herman Melville’s Billy Budd brings Carmela’s embarrassment about her lack of sophistication to the surface. While her frustrations could also be caused by other incidents happening in this season, the overwhelming emotion that Carmela normally hides spills over. Even if she does not acknowledge her envy of Meadow, or her unease at being one of the least refined people in a room, her children pick up on these sentiments. 

As a call back to the pilot episode, Meadow and Carmela meet for tea and scones under the Eloise portrait at the Plaza Hotel. Again, Carmela is unable to hide her resentment towards Meadow, who at one point yells, “Would you rather I go to Montclair State? Then maybe I could drop out like you did.” The strained relationship witnessed in Meadow’s room during the first episode of the series has only gotten worse. 

The Pivot

Everything changes when Meadow gets engaged. 

All Carmela’s schemes and watchful protection couldn’t hide her desire for her daughter to succeed in this predictable and old fashioned way. Once Meadow’s interests had turned to social justice and the law center where she volunteers, Carmela officially had nothing in common with her little girl. Now, with a wedding to plan, that all changes. Meadow is in no rush to tie the knot, but this sliver of similarity allows for a bandaid to slow the bleeding of her relationship with her mother. 

In the end she doesn’t even marry Finn, her long term boyfriend turned fiancé. Towards the end of the show, Meadow tells her family that she is going to law school, and dating Patrick Parisi, a mob son. The decision to go into the legal field is not a complete surprise. She spent a lot of time at the pro-bono law center, and was an intern at a law office in the first part of season six. But Patrick Parisi is a different story. 

The End

For so long, Carmela bragged about her little girl who would be a pediatrician. While legal and medical careers are about equal in terms of prestige, Patrick’s influence as a lawyer is a major distortion in Carmela’s plans for Meadow. Despite this, the obvious progress the young Soprano has made as an independent adult away from New Jersey and the organized crime life is now null, as Patrick is the son of one of Tony’s men. 

It might not appear like Meadow’s fate is similar to her mother’s—she has the three things Carmela has longed for, education, a career, and prestige—but is this what she wants? Because this question cannot be confidently answered, I believe Meadow is making decisions without truly knowing what she wants. She has set herself up to live a life fuelled by bitterness and jealousy. And she will never have the option to escape the mob family she has been connected to from birth. She has become just like her mother. 

Shea Vassar is a Cherokee writer and film critic who drinks too much coffee and is friends with all the cats in the world. You can follow them on Twitter and Instagram @justsheavassar.