American Graffiti: Anti-Female Bias

The four protagonists are all male high school graduates at a turning point. Their crucial dilemma is staying in town or going to college. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) are about to go to college, but Curt is hesitant about it. “I was thinking I might wait a year,” he tells Steve, “go to city.” As in other movies, the kids are aware of the town’s possibilities and limitations. “You can’t back out now!” says Steve, “We are finally getting out of this turkey town, and now you want to crawl back into your cell.” The radio station’s manager concurs with Steve: “No offense to your home town here, but this place ain’t exactly the hub of the universe.” The manager’s frustration derives from his realization that “there’s a whole big beautiful world out there…and here I sit sucking Popsicles.”

They represent different types. Attractive and pleasant, Steve (Ron Howard) serves as his class’s president. Curt (Richard Dreyfus) is the bright, inquisitive intellectual; winning a prestigious fellowship assures him that he would go to college. Less handsome, Terry the Toad (Charlie Martin Smith) is the type who follows: Worshipping Steve, he gets to use his grand impala. John Milner (Paul LeMatt) is a negative reference figure: at 22, he is still immature, emulating James Dean. He drives a yellow ’32 Ford deuce coupe, puffing on a Camel, with his butch haircut molded on the sides into a docktail. John is the simpleton, anti-intellectual type, unimpressed with college. “You probably think you’re a big shot,” he tells Steve, “but you’re still a punk.” The champion of drag-racing, John considers himself a ladies’ gentleman.

The conversations carried out by the youngsters may sound trivial–to adult viewers–but are important to them. At the girls’ lavatory, Laurie (Cindy Williams) is worried because Steve is going away. Her friend Peg Fuller is sure she’ll forget him in a week; if she’s elected senior queen, she’ll have many admirers. “Remember what happened to Evelyn Chelnick when Mike went into the Marines” says Peg, trying to cheer Laurie up, “She had a nervous breakdown and was acting so wacky she got run over by a bus!” At the same time, at the boys’ lavatory, the guys work as intensely on their coiffures as the girls do, smoothing their ducktails, primping their glossy waterfalls, and waxing their crew cuts to stand stiff. After teasing Eddie Quentin for using a pimple cream, Steve applies it on his neck. Eddie is surprised to hear about Steve and Laurie’s “arrangement.” “We’re still going together,” says Steve, “but we can date other people;” it is clear, however, this was his idea. To make him jealous, Laurie goes with a hot-rodder, but at the end they are reunited after an accident. The drag race in American Graffiti lacks the consequential effects of a similar race in Rebel without a Cause, though the Modesto youngsters have probably learned about such races from the James Dean movie.

Focusing on the boys, American Graffiti takes an exclusively male point of view. If the movie were made a few years later, it would have had to include stronger female parts. The girls in the film exist as romantic interests for the boys, lacking personality of their own. Still the movie shows different types of girls: Laurie is compared with Debbie in the way they relate to love and sex. Laurie’s ideal is to have a monogamous relationship, whereas Debbie is more pragmatic.

The narrative ends with Curt’s departure to college out East. His plane takes off while the soundtrack plays “Goodnight Sweetheart.” What were the options of small-town kids at the time: go to college, run away to the Big City, or stay in town and live a complacent and stifling life. However, with all his ambition to pursue his studies, Curt’s departure from town conveys the price, the loss of intimate friendships he will never experience again. (In Stand By Me (l986),
Richard Dreyfuss played another writer who, looking back on his life, realize he never had the same intimate friendships he had as a teenager). But he also knows that if he stayed in town, his life could have turned worst.

The fate of the four friends is printed on screen, and it is shocking because it violates the film’s predominantly nostalgic and pleasant mood. The viewers are suddenly thrown off balance, from a fantasy-dream to a newsreel. The cards tell that John Milner was killed by a drunk driver, in 1964. Terry Fields was reported missing in action in Vietnam, in 1965. Steve Bolander is an insurance agent in Modesto. And Curt Henderson is a successful writer who went to Canada (to avoid the draft).

Several feminist critics have singled out the narrative’s sexist bias, charging that the filmmakers obviously did not find it necessary to report what has happened to its female characters.