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Reviewed by:
  • Hollywood Goes to High School
  • Lakshmi Srinivas
Hollywood Goes to High School By Robert C. Bulman Worth Publishers, 2005. 191 pages. $23.95 (paper)

Robert Bulman seeks to bring much-needed sociological sensibility to the study of the high school film. Observing that most studies treat the genre "monolithically," Bulman differentiates urban public, suburban public and private school films. The book argues that Hollywood's portrayal of adolescence and high school rests on social class distinctions and that the films reflect and reinforce a "middle-class cultural hegemony" that has to do with "individualism, self-sufficiency, free expression, hard work and fair play." (p. 7)

Bulman insightfully unearths consistent differences in film subgenres, each with its distinctive view of adolescence and individualism. Urban public school films revolve around class struggle between the "morally-challenged urban poor" and their "virtuous middle-class teacher-heroes" (p.119) where academic achievement and utilitarian individualism are the avenues out of poverty for lower-class youth. In the suburban school films, middle-class students battle one another; heroes lurk among them; school is not a place of learning, rather it is a metaphor for oppressive society, populated with corrupt and incompetent adults. Students fight a culture of conformity and find their sense of self through expressive individualism. In the private school films where class struggle is "full-blown," the "integrity and merit of working and middle-class heroes is contrasted with the moral and emotional bankruptcy of wealthy antagonists." (p. 23) Each of these subgenres reflects a perspective that encompasses the cultural anxieties and tensions, prejudices, preoccupations and fantasies of middle-class Americans.

Differences between subgenres are seen to correspond to real-world asymmetries in which the poor are expected to exercise utilitarian individualism to better their lot while middle-class youth are given the freedom to exercise expressive individualism in their search for meaningful identity. In this linking of class, culture and varieties of individualism, Bulman's argument finds some agreement with author Adrie Kusserow's identification of "soft individualism" as opposed to "hard individualism" in parenting and school culture in three New York neighborhoods. See Kusserow's American Individualism, Child Rearing and Social Class in Three Neighborhoods published in 2004 by Palgrave.

The study is a think piece, somewhere between a 'cinematic ethnography' and analysis of film as popular myth. In framing the discussion to address American individualism, identifying change agents as 'cowboy heroes' who are outsiders (reminiscent of Will Wright's classic study of the Western), noting that characters overcome social barriers and constraints and that the narrative resolves contradictions toward neat and happy endings, Bulman highlights characteristics shared by a variety of film genres. The resulting analysis is general enough to reach beyond the high school film while being somewhat removed from the richness of the films' social world. Ethnographically-significant observations for example, that school is a place for articulating difference and hierarchy, for expressing intergenerational conflict, violence, deceit and deviance, where education is seen as stifling conformity and where, on occasion, teacher-heroes are military veterans or out-of-work mercenary soldiers are made, but do not drive the analysis. [End Page 1852]

Bulman convincingly demonstrates that high school films are not about schooling, rather they are social settings where identity issues, rite of passage and the grand drama of adolescence is played out. Would it then not have been better to reframe the study to address these broader themes? A reframing together with a discussion of the translatability of the high school genre to non-American films would have better suited the comparative dimension of the study and the inclusion of 41 foreign films, not all of which relate to high school we learn as few foreign films were to be found that could be categorized as 'high school films.' The question then arises if the high school film is an American genre, does it lend itself to cross-cultural comparison?

There are other methodological questions. For example, the criteria for selecting the 185 films which form the sample are not clear. Neither is it clear which films form the backbone of the analysis. Individual chapters present a discussion of the synopsis of selected films with...


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