1. See the Naturalization section for more discussion of this issue. Primary characteristics of the genre  
There are several characteristics of the genre which seem to be definitive. That is, if I am correct about the audience’s expectations and recognition of the genre—even without their awareness of the genre per se—then these are the characteristics which we might expect the audience to recognize. They are also the elements of a movie which might trigger recognition, and make the viewer more inclined to notice—or even expect—other (primary and secondary) characteristics of the genre. The primary characteristics of the genre which I have identified include the following, though of course they may not be limited to these:
  • The protagonist is a member (or through the course of the film becomes a member) of a particular subgroup of American society.
  • There is a clear distinction made between the subgroup and American mainstream culture at large.
  • Characters in the film define themselves according to the subgroup.
  • At some point in the movie, the protagonist is forced to choose between the subgroup and mainstream society (though “mainstream society” may be represented by a larger, less well-defined group).
It might help to see these elements in the context of one prototypical film from the genre: Days of Thunder.
    Days is one of several movies in the genre that feature a young Tom Cruise as the protagonist. In this case, Cruise’s character (Cole Trickle) is a race-car driver. Early in the movie, he begins driving in NASCAR (switching over from a smaller, “open wheels” circuit). As the movie progresses, we (along with the characters in the movie) find that Cole is one of the best drivers in NASCAR. Along the way, however, he must learn the rules of the NASCAR subculture itself. He does this through interactions with those who are already members: both friends, such as his pit chief Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall), and enemies such as his sometime rival racer Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker).
    From the very opening sequences, the movie focuses on the elements which distinguish the subculture: the exclusive space of the racetrack, the sounds of the cars and of the crowd, the particular dress of the racers and their crews, etc. The second scene of the movie reinforces the distinction, setting the subculture in clear opposition to a more mainstream way of life. We find that car builder and pit chief Harry Hogge has given up the world of racing to become a farmer. Tim Daland (Randy Quaid), who hopes to start up a racing team of his own, presses Harry on his decision. Harry responds, “I don’t mind spreading a little fertilizer around now and then. There’s worse things!” Throughout the film, farming is used as a counterpoint to the world of racing. Farming seems to represent the culture at large, and its opposition to racing is clear. This distinction is echoed later in the movie, for instance, by Rowdy burns, who says that as he was growing up he hated farming. “All I wanted to do was work on race cars. Got to racing, now all I want to do is make enough money to work on a farm.”
    Through Cole’s conversations with his love interest, Dr. Clair Lewicki (Nicole Kidman), we see the extent to which he defines himself as a member of the subculture. When she asks him what he wants from life, he responds, “I want to know it’s not just dumb luck that gets me around that race track.” It is crucial for Cole not to simply win, but to show himself to be a great driver. As he says at another point in the movie (again to Claire), “It’s just like everything else in life—you have to be good at what you do before you can be happy with anything else.” Throughout the movie, Cole is always a racer. He and Rowdy race rental cars on the way to dinner, and even race wheelchairs through the hallways of a hospital.
    During a race, Cole ends up in a massive accident, which puts both him and Rowdy into the hospital. As his body recovers, Cole must come to terms with his fear of getting back into a racecar. For a short period, he stays away from the track, but finally he agrees to drive Rowdy’s car at Daytona (he and Rowdy have, by this time, bonded). In the end, Cole is willing to risk his own life to be a part of the subculture. As he prepares to get into Rowdy’s car—his first time driving after the accident that almost killed him—Cole tells Claire, “I’m more afraid of being nothing than I am of being hurt.” To him, leaving the NASCAR circuit is the same as “being nothing”—a fate worse than death. Cole does get into the car, of course, and he goes on to win Daytona.
    The characteristics of the genre should be easily identifiable in this synopsis. We are first introduced to the subculture itself, through the opening shots and the conversation between Tim and Harry. The subculture is clearly distinguished from a more typical life on a farm, which we may take to be representative of mainstream life in general. Next we are introduced to the protagonist, Cole, who quickly becomes a member of the subculture. We see repeated instances of the way Cole defines his own identity through racecar driving (as do other drivers in the movie). This is reinforced when Cole finally chooses his identity in the subculture over life in the mainstream—and over the security of life itself.

I would like to point out a pair of implications which arise from the four primary characteristics identified above. The first follows from the distinction between the subculture and society at large. In Days of Thunder, farming and racing are depicted as mutually exclusive activities. Tim asks Harry to leave his farm in order to build a racecar, and Rowdy talks about leaving racing in order to farm. This mutual exclusivity is typical of the genre. There is therefore a kind of oppositional quality to this distinction. The choice to accept life within the subculture is a rejection of mainstream life (or any other options which may be presented), and vice-versa.
  Genre Analysis
  Race, Gender,
    and Class
  The Postmodern
  Works Cited and
    Films Referenced

Punchline (64 sec.)
Quicktime 7.9MB
Real 1.8MB

    Consequently, and given that characters within the subculture define their identities according to membership therein, it seems that these characters are themselves defined in opposition to mainstream culture. The struggle for identification, after all, is most evident in the protagonist’s effort to choose between the two worlds. This varies in degree across the genre, but is the case in virtually all of the movies.

Secondary characteristics of the genre
The primary characteristics listed above are definitive to the genre, in that they are the characteristics which are most recognizable and most likely to trigger our awareness of other films in the genre. In addition to those, there are quite a few characteristics which are recurrent among the movies in this genre, but which may not be as quickly recognized (even subconsciously) by audience members. A few of these characteristics may indeed be definitive to the genre, though I have not identified them as such. Some of these characteristics appear in virtually every movie within the genre, and others appear quite frequently. Still others appear in only a few of the movies, but are nevertheless helpful in attempting a definition and examination of the genre as a whole. What follows is an open list of these characteristics, with examples from various subculture films.

The protagonist and most other members of the subculture are young, straight, white, and male. This is the case in virtually all of the films in this genre—or at least it was, prior to 2001. Up until then, only two or three films were exceptions—Punchline, whose protagonist is a suburban housewife (Sally Field), The Color of Money, whose protagonist seems to be the aging stake-horse Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), and Bull Durham, whose protagonist is an aging minor-league baseball player (Kevin Costner). Even these exceptions, however, speak to the importance of this characteristic to the genre. Punchline is one of the few movies in the genre in which the protagonist’s family plays a significant role—it is, in fact, one of very few in which we are even made aware that the protagonist has a family. The protagonist of this film, Lila Krytsick, is faced throughout the film with the crisis between her identity as a stand-up comedienne and her identity as a wife and mother. This, eventually, is the choice she must make—and in another anomaly for the genre, she is able to choose both.
    In the other two exceptions, The Color of Money and Bull Durham, the variance is simply the protagonist’s age. And in both films, the protagonist’s age is the central issue of the film—setting in gross relief the decision between life within the subculture and life without. This is what lends power to the closing line of The Color of Money (“I’m back!”). In addition, both of these films feature a young white male counterpart to the protagonist—Vincent (Tom Cruise) in The Color of Money, and “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) in Bull Durham. In The Color of Money, in fact, one could argue that Vincent is actually the protagonist.
    The other exceptions to this rule, as mentioned above, have all been released since 2001. In fact, virtually all entries into the genre since 2001 have been exceptions to this rule. The Fast & The Furious, for example, features a white male protagonist in a subculture populated almost entirely by men (and a few women) of color. The protagonist in Blue Crush is a white female, but all of her friends (and most of the other surfers in the movie) are non-white. Drumline and Biker Boyz, meanwhile, are the first movies in the genre to have men of color as protagonists.

The protagonist is the best, or one of the best, at what he does.
Cole Trickle wins Daytona in his first full season as a NASCAR driver. Lane Frost (Luke Perry) is a world-champion bull rider in 8 Seconds. In Pushing Tin, air-traffic controller Nick Falzone (John Cusack) is able to weave intricate paths through the sky—to the consistent amazement of his co-workers—while humming a tune. His rival in the film, Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton) is even better. As Nick tells Russell late in the film, “until you came along, I was the best.”
    Certainly, at one level this exceptionalism of the main character is typical of a certain type of narrative—a narrative, one must note, that is common in Hollywood. Northrop Frye argues that fictional works “may be classified, not morally, but by the hero’s power of action” (33). Of his five “fictional modes,” three are marked by heroes who are more powerful or intelligent than either their environment, their companions, or both. Two of the three seem to characterize most genre films: the romantic mode, in which the hero is superior (in degree) to other people and his environment; and especially the high mimetic mode, in which the hero is superior to other people but not to the environment. With both modes, he argues, the audience allows a certain degree of distance from the real world which we inhabit in our everyday lives. As such, both modes allow the audience members themselves some distance from their everyday lives.
    This exceptionalism of the protagonist is especially interesting, in any case, in the context of this genre, where the question of distinction is so significant in its own right. The subculture itself, in each of these movies, stands out. The main character, meanwhile, is made to stand out from a community (the subculture) which he is supposed to be utterly a part of. What is the effect of this apparent contradiction? The effect is significant, as we will see.1

The Color of Money (50 sec.)
Quicktime 6.2MB
Real 1.4MB

  There is a character in the movie whose role is to teach the protagonist about the subculture. I call this character the Wise Old Man: though he is not always much older than the protagonist, he seems to have a historical kind of wisdom concerning what is and is not possible/acceptable/good within the boundaries of the subculture. The historic quality of the Wise Old Man character is significant, in that it lends history (and thus legitimacy) to the subculture itself. The existence of the Wise Old Man keeps the subculture from seeming frivolous, indulgent, or ephemeral.
    In Days of Thunder, Harry Hogge is representative of the history of NASCAR racing, and his past is a frequent topic of conversation. Harry spends most of the movie teaching Cole how to control himself and his car, and Cole confesses to Claire that control is the one thing he most wants (and needs). Harry also helps Cole to learn the subculture’s vocabulary, with which he can understand the prime mover of the subculture, the car itself. The issue of vocabulary is a common one throughout the genre. Terminology is one of the distinguishing traits of most subcultures, and it is used throughout the genre to reinforce the existence and distinction of the subcultures in question.
    In The Fast & The Furious, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) befriends the undercover cop Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) after humiliating him in a race, and goes on to initiate him into the street-racing scene. Significantly, Dominic owns a classic Dodge Charger, which lends him a historical aspect not present in the other members of the subculture (all of whom exclusively drive late-model foreign cars—or racing motorcycles). Much the same pattern is apparent in another undercover-cop entry into the genre, Point Break. In that movie, Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) teaches FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) the ins and outs of the California surfing scene. Interestingly, in each of these two movies there is another Wise Old Man—on the police side. Brian O’Conner’s commanding officer, Sergeant Tanner (Ted Levine) tries to keep him from succumbing to the street-racing scene, and consistently reminds him of his duties as a police officer. Johnny Utah’s partner, Agent Pappas (Gary Busey), tries the same thing in Point Break. Neither entirely succeeds.
    The Wise Old Man is not always entirely wise (in Hoosiers, he is the town drunk), not always old (in Punchline, Tom Hanks plays a much-younger Wise Old Man to Sally Field’s protagonist), and not always a man (in Blue Crush, fittingly enough, it is Michelle Rodriguez’s character who keeps the protagonist focused on surfing). And in both The Color of Money and Bull Durham the protagonist himself is Wise Old Man to his younger counterpart—as we might expect. But the character is present in every movie in the genre, and plays a significant role in virtually every one as well.

The leading female reinforces the distinction between the subculture and the mainstream.
The protagonist’s love interest generally holds a position firmly within or without the subculture. In Days of Thunder, Dr. Lewicki spends the majority of her time questioning Cole as to why he is a racecar driver, though she apparently comes around when he wins Daytona (one can’t be sure, since this is the end of the movie). In City Hall, Marybeth Cogan (Bridget Fonda) is a constant voice nagging in the ear of Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack), trying to get him to forget his political aspirations and his sense of loyalty, and to “do what is right.” This is the most common type of female character in the genre—she stands outside the subculture, and looks on it with dismay or open disdain. She frequently challenges the protagonist, urging him to leave the subculture and lead a “normal” life. The role is also easily reversible, as evidenced in Punchline. Lila’s husband (John Goodman) complains constantly about her devotion to comedy, which he sees simply as a conflict with her more traditional role of wife and mother.
    This characteristic of the genre is reminiscent of Westerns, in a sense. As Will Wright has noted, “in the Western, the image of society [as opposed to individuality] is usually that of women and older men” (139). The major twist, of course, is that in the subculture genre older men (i.e., Wise Old Men) are actually representative of the subculture, as opposed to society. But women are typically representative of mainstream society, as they were in Westerns. I will explore this connection to the Western genre in considerably more detail in the next section of this paper.
    There are also, we must note, women on the other side of the line—those who are actually within the subculture, and who help to compel the protagonist to choose it. Notable examples are in Wall Street, Point Break, and The Fast & The Furious. Even in these movies, of course, she does serve to reinforce the distinction between the subculture and the mainstream.

The subculture is racialized or ethnicized.
This is a relatively recent development for the genre, beginning primarily with Boiler Room in 2000. While the characters in Boiler Room are primarily white, they are ethnicized whites—the main character is Jewish, and several of the other characters are Jewish, Italian, and Irish. Ethnicity is consistently alluded to, with, for example, references to Hebrew School and Little Italy, not to mention the impersonation of the brogue that consistently reappears when Richie O’Flaherty (Scott Caan) is on screen. Beyond that, the entire subculture is racialized as black. Characters in the movie consistently speak a bastardized form of African American Vernacular English, for example, and the soundtrack to the movie is filled with rap. The very first feature of the movie—the New Line logo—is backed with a hip-hop-esque “scratched” version of the New Line theme music. The film itself then opens with Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi) reciting a kind of self-defining (and subculture-defining) epigraph from The Notorious B.I.G.: “Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” (Ironically, Seth follows this with the line “Nobody wants to work for it anymore,” in such a way that it sounds as though it’s the next line of the song. The actual next line from B.I.G. is “It’s hard being young from the slums.” It’s apparent where the racialization stops.) The movie ends with a reference to the same shortened quote.
    Following Boiler Room, as I partially indicated above, there has been a tendency towards more ethnicization and/or racialization of depicted subcultures. In The Fast & The Furious, released a year after Boiler Room, all of the drivers (other than the small crew that O’Conner actually joins) are all strongly identified as racial minorities; Chicanos, Blacks, and Asians self-isolate into small cliques or “teams.” O’Conner is played by Paul Walker, an archetypical blond, blue-eyed white male. He joins the whitest team in the movie, but even this team is ethnicized/racialized by the presence of the swarthy team leader Dominic and his Chicana girlfriend (Michelle Rodriguez, who plays a Hawaiian surfer in Blue Crush). In the movies which have followed The Fast & The Furious (Blue Crush, Drumline, and Biker Boyz), this explicit racial quality is also present in either the protagonist or the subculture or both.

The Fast and The Furious
(51 Sec.)

Quicktime 7.3MB
Real 1.4MB

The subculture and its members are identified with the poor and working classes. Stuart Hall, et al. note that (in Britain, at least) post-World-War-II subcultures are composed primarily of working-class youth. In that sense, cinematic depictions of subcultures as working class (and young, for that matter) are simply reflective of reality. It is difficult to imagine, for instance, an upper-class racecar driver. However, the subcultures in question here are, in fact, not entirely populated by the working-class, as Hall’s mods and punks were. Yet even in the case of stock brokers, for instance, these movies go to lengths to identify the protagonists as working class. In Wall Street, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is the son of a struggling airplane mechanic with working-class values (who happens to own the line of planes which he mechanics). In the same movie we see the following exchange:

Bud Fox: This is a really nice club, Mr. Gekko.
Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas): Yeah, not bad for a City College boy. I bought my way in; now all these Ivy League schmucks are sucking my kneecaps.

Gekko, the Wise Old Man in this movie, is an extremely wealthy junk bonds speculator. Later in the movie, we hear him refer to $800,000 as “a day’s pay.” Yet he takes pains to portray himself as simply an upwardly mobile kid from the working class.
    This characteristic can also, as one might expect, come in combination with the racialization/ethnicization of the subculture. In Searching for Bobby Fischer, for example, while most of the young chess prodigies are affluent white boys, the true Wise Old Man character (one of two in the movie) is a homeless black man (Laurence Fishburne) who hustles money playing chess in Washington Square Park.

As may be obvious from the characteristics mentioned above (and as I have made explicit in some cases), there are strong connections between the subculture genre and other genres of Hollywood film. In the next section, I will discuss two genres which I think bear strong relations to this one—namely, Westerns and gangster movies.



The Fast and The Furious
(61 sec.)

Quicktime 8.8MB
Real 1.7MB