'Poltergeist' and Why Gender Tropes are Apparently 'Ok' so Long as They Target Teens

05/29/2015 10:26 am ET | Updated May 29, 2016

So I've recently seen the movie Poltergeist, the 'eh' remake of the 1982 Steven Spielberg original. It manages a few thrills so long as you're not hung up on things like tight narrative or good acting. My 11-year-old son enjoyed it though, so consider that the bookend to my own review here. Here are a few observations (warning: SPOILERS ahead):

1.) Even if your house is built on an unmoved cemetery I'm pretty sure you can't dig six inches down to plant a flower and turn up a vertebra.

2.) Then again, if your house is built over an old cemetery and you DO uncover a vertebra, it's probably not from a horse. Seriously, whoever finds a horse vertebra in their front yard?

3.) How does a family with neither parent working get a mortgage for a house?

4.) Is there an accredited university anywhere on the planet that actually has a "Department of Parapsychology?"

So the film isn't the most logical. Hey, then again neither was the 1982 original... we get it, building a neighborhood over a cemetery is naughty, but wouldn't all the dead folk have already moved on to their eternal reward before the big build? Why are they all stuck in Purgatory? I suppose it doesn't matter, and don't get me started on how the story breaks down further in the 1980s sequels.

But the observation that inspired me to actually write this is:

5.) Is it just me or is "bitchy teen daughter" one gender trope that no one seems to complain about?

Saxon Sharbino plays the family's teen daughter Kendra and she spends the early part of the film mainly scowling, griping, being hostile and demanding things like a new cell phone (nice product placement iPhone!), despite the family's clear slide into financial ruin. Sure, when the family's younger daughter gets eaten by her own closet (I kid you not, although in fairness, it leads to one of the movie's best lines toward the end), she is allowed to seem at least mildly concerned for someone other than herself. Later as the family house implodes around her she decides it is time to apologize to her father for being such a "bitch" to him.


Overall, I think Hollywood is gradually getting better when it comes to gender tropes... by no means perfect, but better. We're seeing more women in strong lead roles, with more interesting and complex characters. That's not to say there's not still far to go. A recent study suggested that women account for a measly 12% of protagonist roles in top grossing films. But these issues are, at least, constantly getting attention as are any gender-based missteps in top films. For instance, comments by Scarlett Johansen's Black Widow in the recent Avengers movie, that she regretted being unable to have children, set off considerable discussion of gender stereotypes.

But "bitchy teen daughter" roles seem to get a shrug, despite being, in my opinion, a far blunter gender stereotype than a single conversation about parenting.

I suspect part of it may be that we still thinking it is ok to malign teens as a group. Dubious social science has been repackaged to us as supposed "narcissism epidemics" or suggestions that teens are like zombies, incapable of rational thought. One pediatrician was quoted in the news media saying teen brains are "neurologically programmed to do dumb things" which had me wondering if pediatricians' brains are programmed to say dumb things. Sure, some teens are jerks, but so are plenty of older adults. I've had difficulty observing an age/asshole correlation.

Further, there's little evidence that things like mental health issues are particularly problematic among teens. According to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data, for instance, depression peaks between (40-59), not during teen years (sure, insert joke here about this being the age of folks parenting teens). Nonetheless, I was at a 2013 CDC/Institutes of Medicine meeting on gun violence where one participant joked about knowing all teens were mentally ill because he had teenaged daughters. This elicited polite laughter from the crowd of medical and mental health professionals. Would the joke have been as funny had he claimed all women or all members of a minority group are basically mentally ill? If someone disparaged women as a whole, we would rightly respond with outrage, but is it ok so long as they are teen girls?

Tropes about teens are, I'd argue, not just a minor issue, but reinforce poor interactions between adults and teens that ultimately disadvantage teens. Thus, when we see examples of parents publically humiliating teens as a father did in 2012, shooting his daughter's computer in a Youtube video, we actually have debates about whether such behaviors constitute good parenting. Somehow, we've come to view teenagers as subhuman failures, despite a wealth of data they are doing rather well. And those that are subhuman don't deserve protection from stereotypes and prejudices. This undoubtedly hits all teens but if Poltergeist is anything to go by, I suspect it hits teen girls hardest of all. So long as we continue to portray teen girls as two-dimensional "bitches" I have to wonder how seriously we are taking gender stereotypes.