By: Katherine Porter.
Throughout modern media, teens have been depicted as constantly raging against the machine, sticking it to the man, and dodging from society’s harsh grip, all in an attempt to try and become their “true self”. One of the most popular themes represented in modern high school films is this idea of the suppressed adolescent finally discovering their identity, which typically occurs after a long and heated battle against a conformist adversary. But can this breakthrough actually occur in real life? How truly applicable is this concept of breaking the chains of conformity and reaching the peak of individuality?
Robert Rodriguez’s popular teen film, The Faculty (1998), provokes the viewer to question the applicability of this notion, essentially showing a digression in individuality within its’ five main adolescent characters. Beginning the movie as five distinct, idiosyncratic teens from varying social groups, the main characters eventually learn to conform to society’s stereotypical roles for high school students instead of maintaining their personalized identities as before. By allowing the individualistic students to hypocritically conform to society’s norms and denounce their distinctive identities, Robert Rodriguez raises the important question regarding the fate of teens in high school films: are the students really becoming individuals after all? Or are they simply evolving to achieve what we as a society deem as successfully “different” adolescents?
Robert C. Bulman, author of Hollywood Goes to High School: Cinema, Schools, and American Culture, discusses the idea of individuality presented in high school films, specifically analyzing the differences in how individuality is achieved within the varying socioeconomic levels of schools portrayed in films. Although modern teen movies are largely fiction, Bulman argues that, “films doreveal a certain truth… these films, if viewed systematically, tell us truths about the culture that produces and consumes them” (Bulman, p. 1). Describing how we as a society use film as a way of making sense of the world around us and coping with the complexities and confusion of life, Bulman reasons that society believes that, “the source of… personal fulfillment is to be found within the heart and mind of each individual regardless of social context” (Bulman, p. 9). By comparing both the actions of two of the main characters within The Faculty and Bulman’s work, I argue that there is not an accurate achievement of individuality by the end of the film; therefore, revealing Rodriguez’s belief that high school students portrayed in movies have not sincerely become their true selves, but rather the exact opposite.
Set in Herrington High School, The Faculty introduces six students all from varying social cliques who are eventually drawn together to combat one main issue: the impending overthrow of the human race by their alien teachers. The story begins with the discovery of a supposedly newfound alien species by Casey Connor, a clueless nerd constantly picked on by the school bullies. Casey resents his status in the social hierarchies of high school and yearns for recognition and approval by not only his peers, but also his long-time crush, Delilah Profitt. Delilah is the head cheerleader and queen bee of Herrington High dating Stan Rosado, a star quarterback with a potential athletic scholarship for college. Casey also befriends Stokely “Stokes” Mitchell, a rebellious outcast pegged as the “school lesbian” who uses the façade to cover up her growing crush on Stan. Another character pegged as a school outsider is Zeke Tyler, the local drug dealer currently repeating his senior year. Although he is one of the smartest kids in school, Zeke rages against the system, not completing his work and toying with his teachers and classmates simply for the hell of it. Zeke does not care about his reputation or his actions, until the arrival of the beautiful new girl, Marybeth Louise Hutchinson. Similar to Zeke, Marybeth quickly learns she does not fit in with the other kids, but her past remains a mystery.
After discovering the school faculty have decided to infect the students with their mind-numbing, conformist, alien ideals, Casey, Delilah, Stokes, Zeke, Marybeth, and Stan all join together to figure out how to stop them. Using their individual expertise and talents from each of their social groups, the gang quickly determines that the only way to defeat the aliens is to kill their “Queen” through a homemade drug that Zeke has created. But as time passes, suspicions continue to heighten among the students as to the validity of their identities. Are they truly who they say they are? Or have they already been secretly converted to a dreadful alien lifeform? After forcing each other to take Zeke’s drug to reveal the hiding alien, Delilah outs herself and destroys the drugs to save the other aliens. Solely relying on Zeke’s hidden drug stash in the car, the remaining kids race to the school to destroy their high school principal, the believed leader of the aliens. Their plan is thwarted however, with Marybeth revealing her true form as the Alien Queen after Principal Drake’s demise. Each teen soon becomes separated in the chaos of the moment and the aliens begin to take advantage of their isolated states. Attempting to convince each student to convert to the alien race, the aliens utilize each student’s weakness as a way of urging them to change. Marybeth persuades Casey to become infected by stating,
I thought that maybe I could give you a taste of my world. A world without anger, without fear, without attitude, and the underachiever goes home at night to parents who care. The jock can be smart, the ugly duckling beautiful, and the class wuss doesn’t have to live in terror… I can make you a part of something so special… so perfect, so fearless. (Rodriguez).
Denying Marybeth’s offer, Casey runs away, leading her to the gym where he eventually kills her in a satisfying defeat.
Fast forward one month later, the students’ lives are soon reverted back to normal. Now known for his courageous act of defeating Marybeth, Casey has become the most popular kid at school with Delilah as his new girlfriend. Stan and Stokes are now also as an item, after realizing their true affections for one another during the alien battle. Now the star quarterback of the school’s successful football team, Zeke no longer fights against authority, having become society’s stereotypical jock. Each student’s life has miraculously transformed for the better. However, their coveted personalities have now been changed, leaving only a hollow shell of the person they once were.
Within Hollywood Goes to High School: Cinema, Schools, and American Culture, Robert Bulman mainly focuses on the theme of individuality presented in various subgenres of high school films. Bulman outlines the foundation of individualism by explaining, “While individualism has many manifestations, at its core is the idea that the individual has autonomy and independence apart from social groups and institutions” (Bulman, p. 14). This autonomy can differ within the varying socioeconomic levels of students; thus, Bulman categorizes high school movies into three subgenres: urban, suburban, and private school. Each of these subgenres contain some variation of individualism, which Bulman defines as either expressive or utilitarian. Owing to the fact that The Faculty is set within a suburban environment, I will place a strong focus on Bulman’s beliefs specifically regarding expressive individualism within high school films.
Bulman defines expressive individualism as, “the criticism of an American culture dominated by materialistic values” (Bulman, p. 17). An expressive individualist “values not material achievements, but the discovery of one’s unique identity and the freedom of individual expression” (Bulman, p. 10). Although utilitarian individualism remains an important topic when discussing high school films, expressive individualism is usually solely found within suburban high school films, with the main character achieving individuality after a rejection of the conformist ideals of their peers and adults. Bulman summarizes the actions of students within suburban films by explaining, “Students in the suburban school films must reject peer conformity and the authority of adults in order to realize and freely express their true individual identities” (Bulman, p. 67). In order for the conflicted adolescent to become their true self, “obedience to authority, conformity to the expectations of parents, teachers, and peers, and academic achievement clearly do not provide a solution to the problems in their lives” (Bulman, p. 79). These expressive students march to the beat of their own drum, placing less of an emphasis on hard work and self-sufficiency; thus, rejecting the values of utilitarian individualism.
When considering the theme of expressive individualism within Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty, Stokes’ dark and rough demeanor typically comes to mind. At the beginning of the The Faculty,Stokes quickly becomes known for her abrasive personality and love for science fiction. Completely epitomizing the goth girl archetype and labeled as the “school lesbian”, the other students ostracize Stokes for not fitting into the cookie cutter norm that society celebrates. Rodriguez employs an interesting soundtrack for the film to amplify the repressed emotions of his characters, specifically within the introduction of the five high school students within the first few scenes. In order to emphasize Stokes’ desire to be apart from the group and to avoid conformity, Rodriguez introduces her with a rendition of the anti-conformist ballad “Another Brick in the Wall” by Class of ’99, playing in the background. In Frederick Lois Aldama’s collection of The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez, he explains the atmosphere that the introduction soundtrack gives to the scene by explaining,
In his translation from words on a page (script) to film, we see Rodriguez’s mastery of knowing how his audience will gap fill. A clear sense of his audience… allows for an economy of means to be used in orchestrating the audio and visual elements together in such a way as to guide the audience to gap fill all that is left out. With the instrumental riff of Floyd’s “Another Brick” the audience will recall the song that focuses on the theme of resistance to school and teachers as agents of mind control, of adults as not understanding teenagers… and as seeing teens as a faceless multitude… of schoolchildren (Aldama, p. 65).
With the somber lyrics of, “We don’t need no education/ We don’t need no thought control” playing in the background as Stokes climbs the stairs of Herrington High, the audience begins to understand Stokes’ character as not just another goth girl, but rather as a leading anarchist in the battle against society and her peers’ beliefs (Rodriguez).
Although Stokes is not a lesbian, she maintains this status to continually drive others away from her. She even refuses to be friends with Marybeth after she comes to her looking for a new friend. Stokes states, “You know, you were right about me. I don’t have any friends and I like it that way. Being a lesbian is just my sense of security” (Rodriguez). Stokes finds a way to express herself through her dark clothing and loner attitude in a way that is completely different from society; for that, the school labels her as different and weird. By continually supporting this false façade to justify her loner attitude and harsh appearance, Stokes successfully upholds her expressive individualist values. In chapter four of Bulman’s work, he describes a way of how high school students should act to truly employ the values of expressive individualism. Bulman advises to “throw off of the shackles of their repression at home and school, to stand up to authority, to rebel, to deviate from the norm, to find their true identity, and to turn their anger, boredom, frustration, and depression into creative self-expression” (Bulman, p. 68). Stokes faithfully follows these guidelines; consequently, she can rightly be classified as a thriving expressive individualist.
As the movie progresses and the students begin battling the conformist aliens, we begin to realize a sudden change in Stokes’ demeanor. Her feelings continue to increase for Stan, the popular football player, and she soon begins to question her identity. After Stan is transformed into an alien towards the end of the movie, he attempts to convince Stokes to join him and the aliens’ efforts. He implores her to convert to the aliens’ more conformist, orthodox world by stating, “It is so much better. There is no fear or pain. It’s beautiful and you will be beautiful… There’s no problems or worries. We want you. I want you” (Rodriguez). Although she initially denies his offer to become infected, Stokes eventually gives in to the pleasures of feeling accepted by society.
Replacing her iconic goth look with a “normal” teenage girl appearance, Stokes hypocritically goes against her initial wishes of maintaining her unique identity, eventually swapping for a more accepted, stereotypical image. As Stokes begins to hang out with the other students within the group, Stokes realizes her true longing to become accepted by others. She misses her sense of belonging, which she did not feel as an outsider. Bulman describes this longing for acceptance by explaining,
Without such ties to a community, history, or tradition, middle-class Americans often feel alienated… The middle class [student] longs for the sense of community and shared meanings that their ethic of individualism denies… As the authors of Habits of the Heart put it: We deeply feel the emptiness of a life without sustaining social commitments. Yet we are hesitant to articulate our sense that we need one another as much as we need to stand alone (Bulman, p. 21).
Instead of maintaining her individualistic values, Stokes gives in to this feeling of acceptance and being wanted. By changing Stokes’ personality by the end of the film, Rodriguez shows the true power that society has over individuals; therefore, accomplishing the exact opposite of the typical high school movie and proving to the audience that a happily ever after ending does not always exist in real life.
Perhaps one of the most rebellious and independent characters within The Faculty, Zeke is the not-so stereotypical “wasteoid” who happens to be one of the smartest kids at Herrington High. Introduced with a sharp wit and ingenious drug-pushing abilities, Zeke defies the role of a typical dead-beat stoner kid and surprises every person he comes across with his bountiful knowledge and insensitive comebacks. Due to these undeniably distinct characteristics, Zeke’s character presented within the first half of the film remains an obvious example of Bulman’s expressive individualist. By refusing to do his homework and constantly fighting with the English teacher, Miss Burke, Zeke successfully rejects utilitarian values and the authority figures that uphold them.
Bulman describes how the hero of the suburban film, “rejects characters who offered such salvation in the urban school films—the teachers… It is up to the student-hero (the expressive individual) to defeat this symbol of conventional, utilitarian, and conformist authority” (Bulman, p. 70). By not only pitting all of the main characters against these conformist authority figures, Rodriguez makes Zeke, the most expressive student of the group, the solution to the demise of the emotionless, conventional alien foes. Once again emphasizing a character’s beliefs and actions through sound, Rodriguez utilizes, “The sound of a muffler and the sight of a black-and-red striped fish-tailing Camaro [Zeke’s] with tires screeching shifting to another extradiegetic sound: D Generation’s “Helpless” (about standing in the shadows feeling alone and how teachers “gave us bad religion/ Stomach aches and scars)” (Aldama, p. 64). D Generation’s “Helpless” epitomizes Zeke’s perspective as a student trying to make sense of the chaotic world of high school and the oppressive rules and actions of authority figures.
As the movie develops however, Zeke’s mood surrounding his peers and school begins to change as Stokes’ did. He soon begins to care for Marybeth and starts to question his past actions surrounding school. During one intense scene, the newly infected Miss Burke publicly humiliates Zeke, bashing his troubled home-life in an attempt to have him break down and adhere to society’s rules:
Miss Burke: “Eat me you asshole! I’m the one with no tolerance, you pathetic little runt!”
Zeke: “What are you going to do, call my mother?”
Miss Burke: “Now how am I supposed to do that little Zekey boy? Do you even know where she is? Europe? Sri Lanka? I wonder what remote location she to this week to hide from her great bug bastard mistake. I’ve taken your shit for too fuckin’ long! Dickless, drugged induced excuse for a human being… I’m sick of you little boy. And if I have to see you peddling your little wonder dust again, I’m gonna shove my foot so far up your ass you’ll be sucking my toes till graduation” (Rodriguez).
Although he does not show his humiliation immediately after the incident, we can understand the anguish in his voice when he describes his rocky relationship with his parents to Marybeth:
Zeke: “Yeah, my mom and dad are dead too.”
Zeke: “Yeah, they’re still breathing, but for all intents and purposes they’re very much dead.” (Rodriguez).
Similar to Stokes, Zeke decides to not initially follow the alien’s advice; however, by the end of the movie, it seems as if Zeke truly took Miss Burke’s instruction to heart. Perhaps longing for the attention by his parents that have become almost nonexistent in his life, Zeke turns his life around and drastically shifts his values from before. No longer maintaining his rebellious, outsider persona, Zeke becomes the star quarterback of the football team. Seen with the other popular jocks clapping their hands on his back during football practice, Zeke has now made friends with the people that he had once despised the most. Rodriguez paints the person who was once the most insubordinate kid at Herrington High into the iconic picture of the stereotypical high school jock. Zeke’s rebellious antics do not keep him safe from the ever-grasping hand of conformity; therefore, supporting the realistic idea of conformity succeeding in the clash of the expressive individual versus society.
Although Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty begins with the introduction of five very expressive individuals, we can identify by the end of the movie that these ideals have been lost. No longer toiling against their peers’ views and the alien faculty’s conformist ideals, Stokes and Zeke, the most expressive individuals within the group, transform into the perfect suburban stereotypes; thus, supporting the idea that discovering one’s “true self” during the continual battle against conformist ideologies is not always realistic.
By changing her gothic appearance to a more conventional, stereotypical choice of clothing, Stokes rejects her distinctive persona which epitomized her character at the beginning. By the end of The Faculty, she starts dating the most popular guy in school, further conflicting with her outsider identity from the past. Longing for acceptance by her peers and giving into peer pressure, Stokes decides to discard her personality–which society considered as too strange and different to be accepted—and start fresh all to appease society’s views. Effectively achieving society’s idea of success with becoming “pretty” and getting the popular guy, Stokes deviates from Bulman’s expressive individualist and squanders her unique identity from before.
Zeke also successfully alters his personality by the end of the movie by transforming from the rebelling drug dealer to Herrington High’s popular star quarterback. Now with a desire to be taken seriously by his parents and teachers, Zeke eventually sides with what he had been fighting with all along: the oppressive, conformist ideals of society. Essentially waving the white flag of surrender, Zeke chooses to turn his life around in order to be accepted by others. By making the most individualistic character give in to societal norms, Rodriguez demonstrates that no individual is safe from the oppressive values of conformity. In order to accurately achieve Bulman’s idea of individuality, one must constantly struggle against society; it is a constant battle, which will never truly be over until this inherent longing for acceptance can be overthrown.
Although the students initially reject the conformist values of their alien inhabited teachers and peers, the main characters still successfully defy Bulman’s logic of truly achieving individuality by the end of the film. Rodriguez argues that students of all ages cangive in to peer pressure and the repressive views of authority, even if they maintained individualistic values beforehand. Students are always in constant turmoil with the threat of obedience to the oppressive ideals of authority; the battle is never really over in their lives. Robert Rodriguez truly emphasizes the genuine power of societal impressions, bringing to his audience a somewhat depressing thought that not all endings within movies are truly as happy as they seem.
Aldama, F. L. (2014). The Faculty (1998). In The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez (pp. 62-68) Austin: University of Texas Press.
Bulman, R.C. (2015). Hollywood Goes to High School: Cinema, Schools, and American Culture (2nd ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.
Keeyes, J. (Trans.). (2012). The Faculty. In Z. Ingles(Ed.), Robert Rodriguez Interviews(pp. 3538). Jackson: The University Press of Mississippi.
Rodriguez, Robert, director, The Faculty. Miramax Films, 1998.