At 12:03 EST on May 17, 2022, I posted this poll on Twitter, using the handle @drnoir33:
Let the tournament begin!
Who is the most compelling teenaged character in a 1980s film? The 1st 1st round matchup between Sheltered Kids is
Frances “Baby” Houseman (DIRTY DANCING)
Stacey Hamilton (FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH)
Who advances to the Great Eight?
The attached poll gave voters 24 hours to choose, with a reply tweet linking to an explanation of the tournament now underway. A few hours earlier, I had published this essay, setting out the characters, rules and matchuWho Is the Most Compelling Teenaged Film Character of the 1980s?ps for the search for the Most Compelling 1980s Film Teen Character. In two rounds of transparent, difficult decision-making, I had whittled the initial field of 64 teen characters to 16, divided evenly across four loose categories: Sheltered Kid, Genius/Artist/Dreamer, Rebel/Outsider, Innate Hero – as well as between boys and girls.
I had curated similar film-character tournaments twice previously. The first, conducted in May 2021 to find the Worst Character in Neo-Noir, yielded 373 total votes over 15 matchups – eight in the first round, four in the second, two in the third, one final – for 25 votes per matchup. I allowed 36 hours per poll, and I created a new account for the sole purpose of voting; a Twitter user cannot vote in her/his own poll. My wife Nell also voted in each round, though she arrived at her choices strictly independently.
The second tournament, conducted in January and February 2022 to find the Most Heroic Character in Film Noir, yielded only 243 total votes – 258 if you count the choices I would have made; I decided I would only vote to break a tie. This happened once, when I broke a first-round 15-15 tie between Rachel Cooper and Irene Jansen in favor of Jansen. I also limited the voting to 24 hours, launching each new matchup as close to midnight EST as possible. I do not know why the per-matchup dropped to 17 (including my “votes”) – perhaps a combination of Twitter users being disinclined to accept anyone as heroic at that time and the shortened voting time?
From the start of the Sweet 16 matchups, though, this tournament had much higher turnout. Values in parentheses reflect my hypothetical vote.
Frances “Baby” Houseman beats Hamilton, 14-10(1).
Rather than the landslide I anticipated, Hamilton – in my mind, the teen character most grounded in reality in the Sweet 16, if not the entire tournament – put up a very strong fight against Houseman. Not for the first time, though, Twitter voters averred that nobody puts Baby in a corner. Also, one Twitter voter kept choosing “Baby” because she also graduated from Mt. Holyoke College; I commend such loyalty.
Jarrett beats Goodson, 14(1)-13.
Once again, I thought this vote would not be close – Ordinary People can be viewed as more of a late-1970s film, while Risky Business was peak 1980s. Not only was I wrong, though, I got the winner wrong. Timothy Hutton’s Academy-Award-winning performance just edged out Tom Cruise’s star-making performance.
Anderson beats Pearl, 8-4(1).
Spanning the entire decade, from 1980s’ Time Square to 1989’s Dead Poets Society, was not enough to keep this from being the lowest-turnout matchup of the tournament. The very low profile of these characters did not help.
Lydia Deetz beats Ralph Garcy, 16(1)-2.
In an early sign of things to come, Deetz absolutely crushed Fame’s Garcy, despite Barry Miller’s ability to make audiences root for a despicable character. But Winona Ryder’s magical turn as the disaffected goth who communes with the recently-deceased in Beetlejuice was simply too much to overcome.
Andie Walsh beats Jeff Spicoli, 14(1)-12.
In the second upset in five matchups, the fiercely independent working-class girl edged the happy-go-lucky surfing stoner by two votes. While Spicoli inspired many future stoner characters, he is just one part of a talented ensemble. Molly Ringwald carries Pretty In Pink on her back. At least one Twitter voter recoiled at the idea of Sean Penn’s breakout role as “compelling,” in fact, while the affection for mid-80s Ringwald was palpable.
Ferris Bueller beats Watts, 28-8(1)
While this outcome was not especially surprising, Watts – Mary Stuart Masterson’s punk-attitude drummer in Some Kind of Wonderful – did stay close in the early voting. However, once the call to “Save Ferris” went out, it was effectively over.
Marty McFly beats Billie Jean Davy, 19(1)-1.
Michael J. Fox’s time-traveling McFly was the top seed of the entire tournament, based upon his starring role in the film with the highest Internet Movie Database (“IMDb”) score: Back to the Future, at 8.5. With deep respect to Helen Slater’s intrepid and resourceful falsely-accused teen on the run in The Legend of Billie Jean, however, earning even that single vote is kind of impressive.
Lloyd Dobler beats Nancy Thompson 12-10(1).
After four out of five matchups in which the winning character prevailed by an average of 18-4, the first round ended with a surprisingly close race. To me, John Cusack’s anti-materialist Dobler in Say Anything feels like the first great teen character of the 1990s, predating Christian Slater’s anti-establishment Mark Hunter in Pump Up the Volume by 16 months. Moreover, A Nightmare on Elm Street is arguably the best of the teen slasher films that defined the first half of the 1980s. Nonetheless, a Cusack character advancing to the Great 8 makes sense.
Through eight matchups, a total of 185 votes (excluding my potential votes) – an encouraging 23 per matchup – had been cast.
Moving on, we learn who represented each category in the Final Four.
“Baby” Houseman beats Jarrett, 16(1)-11 to win the Sheltered Kid quadrant
For a character from a 42-year-old film not specifically targeted to teenagers and which look back to the 1970s more than ahead to the 1980s, Jarrett more than held his own with 25 Twitter votes in total. But Dirty Dancing was simply too much of a cultural phenomenon to overcome.
Deetz beats Anderson, 35(1)-10 to win the Genius/Artist/Dreamer quadrant
Deetz did not just clobber Anderson in what I playfully dubbed the Reality Bites matchup. She set a new record for the most votes won by a character in a matchup across all three tournaments (so far). The previous record-holder was Noah Cross of Chinatown, who earned 33 and 34 votes, respectively, in the second and fourth rounds of the “worst neo-noir character tournament.”
Walsh beats Bueller, 9(1)-8 to win the Rebel/Outsider quadrant
After two matchups averaging 36 votes, turnout dropped precipitously for what I dubbed the John Hughes matchup. In what to me was the biggest upset of the tournament, Walsh continued her “Cinderella story” march right into the Final Four.
McFly beats Dobler, 37(1)-18 to win the Innate Hero quadrant.
It took just two matchups for the peripatetic McFly to break Deetz’s single-matchup vote record. Dobler held his own, though, earning 30 votes overall in two matchups.
In the meantime, while the Sweet 16 and Great 8 were evenly split between males and females, the Final Four consists of three girls and one boy. And the 36 votes-per-matchup average across these four matchups set a new record for any round with multiple matchups.
Speaking of which:
Deetz beats Houseman, 28(1)-18.
The goth ghost-whisperer finally put Baby in the corner, though the latter was still able to open the eyes of the adults around her to issues of class and gender discrimination while earning a solid 48 total Twitter votes in three rounds.
McFly beats Walsh, 35-16(1).
The Cinderella story ends sometime between 1955 and 1985, as Walsh finally succumbs to McFly, though not before earning a respectable 39 Twitter votes in three rounds.
Finally, after 14 rounds and a record-shattering 426 Twitter votes (31 per matchup), it came down to a battle of the sexes in the Finals:
McFly beats Deetz, 27(1)-25!
From the opening minutes of the matchup, which began at 12:07 am EST on May 31, 2022, the voting was very close. Deetz was actually ahead for most of the vote, until McFly finally opened up a matchup-high three-vote lead in the late hours of voting. Deetz earned the final vote of the tournament, but still fell just short of the title. I had assumed Marty McFly would run away with the title, given the iconic status of the Back to the Future franchise, so I was pleasantly surprised by how hard-fought the final matchup was.
Meanwhile, as Table 1 shows, both Deetz (104) and McFly (118) are the first characters across three tournaments to earn more than 100 total Twitter votes; Cross held the previous record with 98. Values in parentheses are votes I would have cast, while each round’s winners – as well the overall winner – are in boldface. Excluding “my” votes, a record-smashing 478 votes – 32 per matchup – were cast in this tournament; I am extremely grateful to everyone who participated.
Table 1: Voting for Most Compelling 80s Film Teen Character by round:
|Character||Round 1||Round 2||Round 3||Round 4||TOTAL|
|Frances “Baby” Houseman||14||16(1)||18||–||48(1)|
|Billie Jean Davy||1||–||–||–||1|
In the previous two tournaments, only eight characters cracked double digits in votes. In this tournament, 11 did so, with nearly half (7) earning more than 25 votes:
7. Conrad Jarrett, 26 (5.3%)
6. Lloyd Dobler, 30 (6.1%)
5. Ferris Bueller, 36 (7.3%)
4. Andie Walsh, 42 (8.5%)
3. Frances “Baby” Houseman, 49 (9.9%)
2. Lydia Deetz, 107 (21.7%)
1. Marty McFly, 121 (24.5%)
These seven characters account for five of every six votes (83.4%) cast in the tournament. There is a reassuring spread to these seven teens in terms of:
- Gender: Four boys overall, but three of the top four are girls
- Chronology: Films range from 1980 to 1989, with four released between 1985 and 1987
- Socioeconomic status: Upper-middle-class Jarrett, Bueller, Houseman and Deetz are balanced by lower-to-middle class Dobler, Walsh and McFly (at least, until the end of the film)
- Psychology: Bueller and Dobler are clear-eyed optimists who know their own mind, while Jarrett and Deetz struggle to overcome suicidal ideation and/or action
Unfortunately, all of these characters – and every character in the Sweet 16 except Garcy – is white, and even he was played by a white actor, somewhat diminishing the range of these characters.
Meanwhile, Deetz won a higher percentage of the total vote finishing second (21.7%), than Barton Keyes of Double Indemnity did in winning the “Most Heroic Film Noir Character” tournament (19.7%), making her the third-highest vote getter in percentage terms across the three tournaments. Anton Chigurh of No Country For Old Men, the runner up to Cross in the neo-noir worst character tournament, rounds out the top five with 18.2%
It should not be surprising that a tournament centered around teenaged characters from 1980s films should garner fully 32% more votes than one centered around terrible neo-noir characters and nearly double (90%) one centered around heroic film noir characters. Not only are these films far better known, even among the cognoscenti of film Twitter, they are widely beloved by the Generation X members – those born between roughly 1964 and 1980 – who appear to dominate the platform. In fact, the 15 films from which the Sweet 16 were selected (Fast Times yielded Hamilton and Spicoli) average a very solid 7.2 IMDb rating – ranging from 6.5 (Times Square) to 8.5 (Back to the Future).
In other words, the 1980s were not just a golden age of teen-oriented films, these films were of higher quality overall. Directors, writers and producers like Robert Zemeckis, John Hughes, Cameron Crowe and Tim Burton took advantage of an exceptionally-gifted pool of younger performers – including future superstars like Matthew Broderick, Tom Cruise, Cusack, Timothy Hutton, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Penn and Ryder – to tell intelligent and highly-relatable stories. Paraphrasing Morgan Richter, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Valley Girl and Sixteen Candles form a bridge between the raunchy (often lower-quality) teen movies of the 1970s and the more sophisticated teen films released after 1984. Which may explain why six of the seven top vote-getters appeared in films released between 1985 and 1989.
One final thought. We have shared with our daughters – now 12 and 14 – five of the films that account for six of the characters in the Sweet 16, with Dead Poets Society next in the queue. They generally enjoyed them, especially Back to the Future and Pretty In Pink, telling me these films pass the ultimate test – approval by the next generation of teenagers.
Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.
4 thoughts on “And the Most Compelling 1980s Film Teen Character Is…”
Wow, I didn’t watch enough tv/movies clearly: only really heard of 3 of the contestants! 🥴
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I have never seen A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, though now I am curious…its star, Heather Langenkamp, was six (?) years ahead of Nell at the National Cathedral School in Washington, DC, so, you know, she is practically family. 🙂
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