(Photo courtesy of Pop Sugar)
The Evolution of First Love
Looking Back on My Journey With Teen Romance Films
By Sarah Komisky
I still remember the excitement I had walking out of Tower Records (Gen Z. feel free to Google now). But seriously, this was a ‘90s music enthusiast’s bliss. In my plastic, mustard-colored bag, was a Sixpence None the Richer CD (yes, compact disc) and I was all in my feels over the song “Kiss Me.” I mean, who wasn’t? It was my generation’s alt-pop love anthem. And I myself was trying to navigate those waters, which I no idea about in junior high. Yet, there I was, a teen movie goer who just saw “She’s All That” in theatres and was still swooning over that endearing, twinkling backyard dance scene. I was also wishing Freddie Prince Jr. could take me to prom (even though I was not quite old enough to attend). Yep, I was totally hooked.
In many ways I appreciated the quirky, smart, art student Laney Boggs (Rachel Leigh Cook) who worked at a restaurant where she had to wear a Falafel hat and went to spoken word events. Although I was much her, unorthodox and creative, I was thrown into the popularity of the Zack Siler’s (Freddie Prince Jr.’s) of the world. Not by choice, but by happenstance of peer acceptance, and, I didn’t know what to do with it. It’s very odd to be given something you aren’t really seeking. It’s also strange when someone chooses you to be someone they want. I never felt I had to deny any part of who it was until I got noticed by a “Zack” in high school. It was a teen dream until he begin pointing out the things he felt needed to go like being what he considered too shy and too deep. Thus, a fear of rejection was born and I began living in two worlds. Part Laney. Part Zack. I felt they needed to be compartmentalized to be OK, to be liked. It was complicated. I needed direction and I sadly, wasn’t being myself.
Going back to 7th grade, when it came to love, or what I could comprehend of it in 7th grade, I was absolutely taken by the characters’ on screen relationship. In the film, the cute, man on campus, Zack, makes a bet to turn the seemingly “nerdy” Laney into a worthy prom date. In the process, he unexpectedly falls for her, becoming a kinder, more sensitive version of himself. Sigh. Did I mention this is Freddie Prince Jr. here? Enough said. For me, the “first love” aspect totally made sense in knowing why he would pursue Laney. Duh, she’s really cool and has substance. Why wouldn’t he? However, the unfortunate reality is that the world doesn’t always look at it that way. In terms of faith in God and His definition of love, His views, which I believe are the elevated as the correct views, become contrary to popular belief that love is more about the exterior than the actual person. Ouch.
Etched in my heart and mind were the first lessons media gave me concerning first love. For one, it’s a feeling (enter Sixpence). Two, it’s an ideal. Three, it means conform if you want to be “pretty” and noticed by an attractive guy. Forth, artsy, spectacle wearing girls aren’t attractive. Ugh. Although I do not condone or support all of the beliefs, values, and content in the film, I do appreciate the love story. Yet, not all the message of love portrayed in the film is correct. Tragically, while girls are bingeing on these teen films, they are also being spoon-fed messages on love from a worldly source rather than a godly source (The Word of God; AKA the Bible.) All of this is occurring before teens have a chance to discover what it means to have a crush! Meanwhile, negative messages continue to fly under the radar and we are oblivious how it’s negatively impacting our minds, hearts, bodies, and spirits concerning our relationship with God.
Furthermore, here’s a deeper look at some of the other messages I received in popular coming of age films I myself saw growing up:
- Value comes from a person, not God. All female characters in teen films flourish and find significance when “picked” by their crush.
- Looks matter. Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger, “10 Things I Hate About You”), Landon Carter (Shane West, “A Walk to Remember”), Austin Ames (Chad Michael Murrey, “A Cinderella Story”) Josh Bryant, (Erik von Detten, “Princess Diaries”) and Jason Sharp (Justin Timberlake, “Model Behavior.”) Is good looking a theme here?
- Status is important. The football player. The popular guy. The singer. The dancer. Clearly, these guys have swag and apparently, you need it too. Popularity = happiness.
- You must fit in and if you don’t, you need a makeover (a la’ Chase (Adrian Grenier in “Drive Me Crazy”). Being you isn’t good enough. Changing yourself means acceptance.
- Love is intense and passionate. Inseparable means “I love you,” well, in Hollywood that is (there is a 1.30 minute time span to evolve the relationship, but a teen doesn’t know that).
- Romance is idealistic. If you have a boyfriend, in the words of the Lego song, “everything is awesome.”
- A bad boy can change. All wrongs are made right in the name of love.
- The guy in my life will always say and do the right thing. Obviously, he has no flaws, right?
- In love, you always get a happy ending. ALWAYS.
And these are just some of the initial ones that come to mind in my experience as an early teen. Minus the fact that many teen films also normalize sexual exploration, illustrate love as primarily physical, encourage rebellion with teen angst and promote questioning or disregard of parental guidance. Those in the film industry know what sells. And hey, everyone loves a love story. However, teenagers and even young adults don’t know their vulnerabilities as they work through adolescence and young adulthood without actively differentiating film from fantasy. Unfortunately, many adults get stuck here in the contrived veraes what is real in authentic relationship.
Subtly, these movies in our youth inform our definition of what it means to experience “first love” – for worse or for better.
As a teenager, I simply consumed these films like junk food and would ooh and aah over how much these characters were in “love,” longing to experience the “first love” I would see in films. But that kind of love portrayed that is mostly all rainbows and unicorns is not substantial or a healthy kind of love that God would intend for us.
Now, the longing for love isn’t “bad” or wrong. Either are crushes, desires for relationship, dating, to be kissed (yes I said kissed), etc. etc. God wired us females with an integral need to be pursued, loved, valued, validated, admired, and cherished. It’s innate in us. However, in the right context, with the right definition and representation, a Biblical representation of God’s love. Because, God’s love is very different from Hollywood’s version of “first love.” God’s love involves purity, sacrifice, pursuit, respect, value, honor, acceptance, and unconditional love. Culture’s representation elevates passion, lust, sex, sexuality, physical appearance, self-gain, and superficial pursuits. God’s love offer’s so much more.
Now, am I saying to make rules, boycott the genre, and stop our streaming? No way! On the contrary, I unfortunately think we as Christians have been guilty of saying “no” too often to our teenagers. And, it sadly results in legalism and eventual rebellion. While I want to acknowledge that I don’t agree with all the views, beliefs, or morals represented in popular teen romances, I do want to also say that they aren’t all negative. And, there are many things I do think we can appreciate and enjoy. In fact, current teen films have done a better job at offering more true to life stories of “first love” with characters that work through struggles, have imperfections, and break down of cultural stigmas of beauty, which is all great!
However, there is a danger of looking at these films as a guidebook for romance. Being too young to experience “true love” for myself, I didn’t have the proper filter to digest these films. To take the good and discard the bad. I just took all of it as truth. And that’s where many teens go wrong simply because they just don’t know any better. They are just wanting to watch what is popular at the moment. We have all been there. Yet, our God-given desires become misguided when we misinformed and we are left to our own premature interpretations. It becomes dangerous when we simply take every message a movie gives us as a way “first love” should be handled. Here’s the deal, as an adult with several years removed from these films, here’s what you need to know, love is quite different that what media portrays it to be.
Let’s look at a better blueprint – God’s design for love. Corinthians 13:4-8 in The Message says, “Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always ‘me first,’ Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end. Love never dies.” Now that’s a love worth waiting for. Worth experiencing. That’s, true love.
Therefore, a better approach to watching these films is to watch them with an adult you trust and has the same God-lens as you. Have open conversation with them on questions you may have concerning “first love.” Know it’s a judgement free zone, so you don’t have to feel weird sharing your feelings. Also, take time to learn what true love means. What does God say love is? Find good examples where it is illustrated in your life with family, friends, etc. Note the things you like that are good. It’s not too early to begin your own journey of understanding. Then, take responsibility for developing your own media filter. Challenge yourself on messages you may have received from teen films. Are they helpful? Edifying? Do they agree with your moral and spiritual beliefs? Be responsible for your heart. Think about how you are being informed and what might seek to degrade your love lens. Consider your own triggers. What is going to be good for you, and what’s not? 1 Corinthians 10:23 in the NOG version says, “…I’m allowed to do anything, but not everything encourages growth.” So lean into what honors your relationship with God and what honors you as a person. If it’s going to cause you to say, become addicted to romance films or daydream all the time, reconsider what you watch. When it comes to love, think about how the film is molding your belief system. Take the positive and walk away from the negative. Enjoy the films, but learn how to sift by not believing everything as truth that is presented to you. On the other hand, look for the good that connects the dots with faith and culture (even if the film is secular). Celebrate those, talk over the pluses of “first love” in that film, and take it with you on your discovery as a teen. We’re learning and growing. And love must be learned from real life experience, not a full reliance on films for advice or a romance roadmap.
Going back to my junior high and high school self, I look at each of them with much compassion. Content wise, I give myself grace for what was trending at the time, just like I believe all teens should have (and all adults should remember to give to the teens in their lives). The good thing is that we can learn from our past, our mistakes, and our younger versions of ourselves. And to be honest, the general concept of the movie (overall), is super adorable! I hear the song “Kiss Me” today and it still makes me nostalgic. And, I think that is endearing to be able to have a song that encapsulates the charm of good ol’ fashion romance. I also appreciate the correct part of love demonstrated in this film that still make say, “awww.”
Although “She’s All That” got some things wrong, as adult here’s what I learned as I’ve grown up… You don’t have to change to be accepted! You do not have to live in two separate worlds. You can be yourself and have acceptance. Let’s be real, in adolescence, we’ve all felt a bit weird and insecure. Through growing pains, I learned I did not need to try harder to be someone else. I bought into the false belief media helped give me to conform to earn love and attention. I was very mistaken. As an adult, I now know inauthenticity doesn’t work. People pleasing to gain acceptance is an awful and painful trap. I’ve learned from my teen years to not hide my personality or conform to something else out of fear of rejection. I also came to understand that the right guy will love you for you, not the synthetic version you think you to be in order to be accepted by him. Girl, you are worth more than that! And this is where I think “She’s All That” gets it right in terms of giving the message that we should get to know someone and like them for who they are, not who we think they should be. Beauty comes from actually discovering something different, which is super attractive and so not boring!
I also think their view on relationships founded on friendship as noted by Zack at the end of the film is also really on point. And, I still really love that very sweet and simple dance under twinkling garden lights in Laney’s backyard. Yes, I do still secretly wish I could have went to prom with the ‘90s version of Freddie Prince Jr. Hey, a girl can dream, right? But here is what I truly know that I didn’t back then, true love is way bigger than teen films. It’s more stunning. More real. More amazing. More lasting. More of substance than anything every depicted on screen. And when we define it correctly, through God’s point of view, it is special, fulfilling, and life-giving. So, relish in your favorite teen films. Laugh, cry, sigh, and resonate with your favorite on-screen teenagers. Have fun, but, remember to let God evolve your meaning of “first love” that may be experienced as early as your teen years or later as an adult. Either way, it will better than any film you can see, because, it’s real.