Whose Summer Was Really Ruined? Time, Space, Race and Class in the Teen Summer Romance

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing (1987). Johnny (left) and Baby (right) are a young couple crouched together in the trees, Baby's arm around Johnny's shoulder. They are both wearing their dance clothes - he in a black vest and pants, and she in a white collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up and tied in a knot at the front, with blue denim shorts.
Vestron Pictures

In quarantine, so many of us have flocked to old, familiar films that provide comfort and escapism. With so much uncertainty and so many opportunities restricted, we long for hope, fantasy and freedom. For us, that led to the teenage summer romance – the ultimate symbol of freedom. In the teenage summer, anything is possible. Those few months seem to stretch out forever, creating a time and space where love blossoms and you can be whoever you want to be.

This summer, of course, is different. Millions of teenagers have lost those months. They’re stuck inside, uncertain of what the world will look like when they emerge.

Looking at three examples of the summer romance – Dirty Dancing, Call Me By Your Name, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants – we can see the way time and space can embody the intensity of the teenage fantasy. But, who are these fantasies for? Who has access to open spaces in upper class resorts and Italian villas, and who is limited by minimum-wage jobs and cramped living situations? And how might this reflect our current summer reality?

Away from it all

In summer romances, setting is everything. Beautiful, sweeping landscapes provide the protagonist with physical and emotional space to open themselves up to love and new possibilities. These settings also serve to free the protagonist from societal limitations. Love can bloom free from restrictions of age, gender or class.

Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the main character in Call Me By Your Name, embodies this freedom. His family’s giant villa sprawls lazily across the Italian countryside, and his summer knows no boundaries – nor does his relationship with love interest, Oliver (Armie Hammer). 

The villa is magnificent – all grand interiors, stone arches and sunlit rooms. As the film goes on, we become so used to its beauty that we forget this is an escape. Outside, in the “real world,” the AIDS crisis was killing men like Elio and Oliver by the thousands. But poolside in northern Italy, the outside world’s heteronormativity, homophobia and death fade away.

Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name (2017). A vast hillside in Italy with a rushing waterfall in the background, Elio, a teenage boy wearing a blue raincoat and a yellow backpack, heads off towards the waterfall. In the foreground is his companion, the older Oliver, wearing a grey hoodie and shorts, looks back towards the camera.
Sony Pictures Classics

As Martin F. Manalansan says in his analysis of Brokeback Mountain and its acknowledgement (or lack thereof) of the AIDS epidemic, Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) ‘exist not in historical time but in romantic time.’ The same is true of Elio and Oliver. They are shielded from reality by their wealth and whiteness. As the AIDS crisis decimates LGBT and Black communities, Elio and Oliver are able to escape labels that could have been death sentences and exist in their safe romantic bubble. We see this reflected in the lighting of the film, with bright, warm light falling across the landscape, emphasizing Elio’s reverence for Oliver and the fantastical quality of the world they live in. 

However free Elio and Oliver might be within the confines of the villa, there still comes a moment they need to leave that bubble to progress. These scenes unfold in Bergamo in a hazy, almost dream-like state, lit significantly darker than the rest of the film. The sequence ends when Oliver returns home, bringing the summer and fantasy to an end. 

In Dirty Dancing, the freedom of open space is separated along class lines. The film follows the romance between Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey), a wealthy girl visiting a Catskills resort with her family in the 1960s, and Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), one of the resort’s dance teachers. The resort operates along clearly defined class strata – the guests are almost universally white and upper class, while the waitstaff are wealthy, college students making some cash over the summer. For them, the resort is an escape from a turbulent outside world in the midst of the Vietnam War abroad and rocked by Civil Rights protests at home.

In contrast, Johnny and the rest of the workers are a racially diverse group for whom a summer job is a financial necessity and could be the difference between affording rent and food for the following year, or not. Baby acts as a conduit between the two worlds. She is passionate about politics and foreign policy, but her sheltered upbringing has made her naive. Her interactions with Johnny and the other workers give her a shock about the “real world,” but her romance with Johnny transcends class barriers. As Johnny teaches Baby to dance, the resort is swathed in an oppressive humidity which breaks into a fierce rain as she struggles to master the moves. As they drive away from the resort, the rain clears. The lush green lakeside provides the setting for the two to bond, to find common ground free of the barriers that separate them.

In Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, space and light serve as a reminder of who gets the epic summer romance. Of the four friends – Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), Carmen (America Ferrera), Bridget (Blake Lively) and Lena (Alexis Bledel) – only two get that chance. Lena and Bridget jet off to Greece and Mexico respectively, where the exotic locales enhance the romance. Both storylines take place primarily outdoors – Greece is colorful, crisp and clean, matching the innocence of Lena’s character.. Mexico is lit with a yellow haze, giving the impression that everything is a bit dustier and emphasizing Briget’s more sexual desires.

Carmen and Tibby aren’t afforded the same luxuries. While the wide open spaces of their settings allow Lena and Bridget to overcome age differences, geographic distance and old family rivalries in pursuit of romance, Carmen and Tibby’s settings only serve to further entrench restrictive systemic boundaries.. Carmen, the only character of color with a leading storyline in any of these movies, is whisked off to South Carolina where she spends the summer getting to know her father’s new, white family.

Alexis Bledel, Blake Lively, Amber Tamblyn, and America Ferrera in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005). Four female friends, Carmen, Tibby, Lena, and Bridget, are walking along a city street during the day, dressed in colourful girly outfits - except for Tibby, who has long hair dyed blue and wears a black and red goth-style outfit. Tibby is pointing to something further along the street, the other girls look on with curiosity.
Warner Bros.

In contrast to the openness of Lena and Bridget’s storylines, Carmen’s story is centered around boundaries. She is confined to space where she’s ostracized and separated from her father and his new family by racial and economic lines. The lighting here is softer and especially flattering to the blonde, white family, who visually differ from Carmen’s darker features. 

Finally, Tibby is the only member of the foursome that stays home for the summer, feeling abandoned by her friends as they head to their various destinations. Her mother is a working single parent, requiring Tibby to take on responsibility for her baby sister in addition to her summer job at the local supermarket. Everything about the cinematography of Tibby’s setting reinforces its restrictions The lighting is harsh and the angles feel oppressive. Scenes are shot between towering aisles or from above, embodying the idea that Tibby is trapped with no time or space for romance.

Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?

The summer romance hinges on an element of fantasy, on protagonists who are set apart from their peers through intelligence, purity or beauty. They’re “not like the other girls/boys” and viewed by others as superior. In each story, the older love interest enhances the protagonists’ belief that they are special in some way. Romantic teen angst often manifests itself as a singular experience, giving way to the feeling that you’re alone and only this one, usually older person, can understand you. 

Each main protagonist exhibits qualities that distinguish them from their peers – Lena and Bridget fall on opposite sides of the spectrum in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but they both exhibit more mature qualities. Bridget is “boy crazy” and more interested in sex than other girls her age. She overtly uses her sexuality to get the attention of Eric (Mike Vogel), her older love interest. By contrast, we’re led to believe that Lena’s love interest, Kostas (Michael Rady), is more interested in her mind. He says to her, “Some people show off their beauty because they want the world to see it. Some people hide their beauty because they want the world to see something else.” There’s something in Lena that boys her own age wouldn’t understand, it seems, while there’s something in Bridget that they wouldn’t be able to handle. 

Elio and Baby’s stories unfold similarly to Lena’s. “I like the way you say things,” Oliver says to Elio. In the speech at the end of Dirty Dancing, Johnny says Baby has “taught me about the kind of person I want to be.” Elio spends the summer transcribing classical music and talking about Bach and Heraclitus while Baby dreams about joining the Peace Corps and openly stands against the Vietnam War. Both Elio and Baby have other love interests they could pursue, but both choose the older option, feeding into the idea that no one their own age could ever understand them. These are subjects a “typical” teen might not broach, but these teens are not typical – they are one-of-a-kind and, for teens watching the fantasy, serve as examples of what to strive for.

Elio’s agency and confidence, particularly in the first half of Call Me By Your Name, is a prime example of the fantastical teenage point of view. After rebuffing Oliver’s initial advances, Elio instigates most of their interactions. He takes initiative leading up to the sex scene, where instead of lingering, the camera pans away, leaving everything to the imagination. The fantasy remains until Oliver leaves, but now that they’ve taken the physical step, Oliver’s age and level of experience feel more overt. During the infamous peach scene, Elio breaks down in embarrassment when Oliver catches him masturbating with the fruit. In contrast, Oliver doesn’t seem uneasy about the act at all.

Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name (2017). A wide shot of a large, sunlit living room with a vast fireplace and antique furniture - Elio sits shirtless in shorts at the grand piano, playing. In the background, Oliver watches him from the doorway, wearing yellow swimming shorts and an open white shirt.
Sony Pictures Classics

Similarly, Dirty Dancing shows us a teenager’s romanticized view of sex. For all that the title implies, the movie is actually fairly chaste. The physical connection between Baby and Johnny is shown almost completely through dancing while the sex is implied – the film focuses on the lead up and the aftermath, rather than the sex itself.

This decision emphasizes how teenagers romanticize sex, particularly their first time. The build-up seems endless, filled with tension, chemistry and romance – something a teen can easily imagine. However, when it comes to the physical act, they have no template. These movies don’t show an outside perspective, but the internal, rose-tinted fantasy of the lead characters.

All good things…

But the endless summer must eventually end. These stories don’t dwell on what happens afterward, allowing the fantasy to last forever. “We wasted so many days,” Elio says to Oliver as the summer draws to an end, but is that the truth? Elio and Oliver’s most touching scenes come before they have sex. Set by the pool, in town, on long bike rides, these languid scenes do the bulk of the work in building their connection, allowing them ample space to discuss philosophy, music and more. 

In contrast, the later parts of the movie whirl by. After sex, they begin to hurtle toward the inevitable end of summer, a stark difference from its lazy start. This structure is all too relatable for teenagers aspiring for an epic summer romance – you have all the time in the world, until you don’t. 

In Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, each character experiences time differently. For Lena and Bridget, summer flies by – Lena and Kostas’s romance is shown through montages of motorbike rides through the city, or of Lena sketching Kostas against the pristine Grecian landscape. These snapshots of their time together create the feeling of time passing, allowing both the audience and Lena to buy into the intensity of their relationship. For Bridget, musical montages are coupled with movement, as she sprints across soccer fields and along beaches, mirroring the headstrong intensity of the character.

For Tibby, though, the summer crawls. Her scenes feel cyclical, as if she’s living the same day over and over again, creating contrast with the momentum of Lena and Bridget’s storylines. “I’m stuck doing time at Wallmans … while the rest of you jet off on your little adventures,” she says to her friends as they escape town, leaving her trapped with only a summer job for distraction. For Carmen, scenes that highlight the divisions between Carmen and the new family – whether it be introducing her to their Hispanic maid or uncomfortably comparing her body shape to theirs while trying on dresses  – feel almost painfully long, as taxing on the audience as they are on Carmen herself. 

America Ferrera in Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (2005). Carmen, a young Puerto Rican woman with long, dark curly hair, is sitting in a wicker chair out on a porch, wearing a white vest and grey trousers. She has her legs crossed underneath her and is smiling off-camera.
Warner Bros.

Like with Lena and Kostas, Dirty Dancing uses musical montages to show the summer whirling by. In one of the film’s first scenes, the resort manager tells the Housemans, “Three weeks here, it’ll feel like a year,” and the same is true of the film. The montages and dance scenes also signal Baby’s personal growth and her relationship with Johnny, without the need for much dialogue. Dance replaces conversation as their physical and spiritual connection transcends practical differences and class barriers.

Of course, a key aspect of the teen romance is the happy ending. In the genre, that happy ending is rarely challenged by broaching the viability of the relationship in the real world. In Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Lena leaves Greece smiling. Kostas can’t return with her, so she leaves the experience behind in a perfect, self-contained fantasy.

In Dirty Dancing, too, there’s no discussion of whether Baby and Johnny will stay together forever. The ending suggests that the combination of Johnny’s cynical insight and Baby’s naive optimism has overcome class barriers, but Baby is still protected by her wealth and status and can leave the resort having grown as a person from her romance. To think beyond the discrete summer period would ask how Johnny’s life may be affected after being fired. The final dance number of the film forces us to dismiss questions of the future and live in the present, basking in the simplicity of the happy ending.

However, both Call Me By Your Name and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants subvert traditional summer romance endings by looking beyond the veil of summer, breaking that fantastical haze with a glimpse of realism. Months after summer’s end, Elio suddenly learns Oliver is getting married. Elio goes through a myriad of emotions, eventually ending in acceptance and a fond memory of the summer in his heart. In the aftermath of Bridget’s summer in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Eric visits her to apologize for the way their relationship unfolded. The two part ways amicably, definitively bringing their relationship to a close

The summer romance focuses on the present, effectively cutting out all questions of the future. But, with the real world’s future so in flux, this summer it was impossible not to question what would happen next. 

2020’s endless summer

Let’s go back to the real world, as we write this piece from our makeshift home offices. An analysis of the teenage summer romance in these works brings up recurring questions of who these stories are for, reflecting the inequalities in our current news cycle. The wealth gap, systemic racism and the plight of low-wage workers have been thrown under the spotlight by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing (1987). Baby, a young white woman with very curly brown hair, is dancing her way along a small wooden bridge amongst the foliage. She is wearing a salmon coloured vest, blue denim shorts, and white plimsolls.
Vestron Pictures

Call Me Be Your Name, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Dirty Dancing only emphasise what has always been true. Right now, wealthy families have the ability to run from the virus, escaping to summer homes and leaving their poorer counterparts to deal with the fallout. Teens in small apartments in the city, teens who work at essential businesses like grocery stores – they weren’t afforded a summer romance in any of these films and they don’t have the ability to escape now. 

The singular nature of adolescence is evident in all three films and the pandemic only serves to exacerbate that sense of oneness. Baby, Elio, Lena and Bridget consider themselves wise beyond their years and spend the summer connecting with the one person who understands them. With millions of teens stuck inside their homes with no one but parents and siblings around, the need to find the person who sees the real you feels like the most important thing in the world. But who has time to maintain a relationship right now? Certainly not someone expected to pull their weight at home, whether that be with a job, chores, or watching a younger sibling.

The Western world has now been in the throes of this pandemic for four months, or has it been four days? In March, the weeks stretched endlessly, then we blinked and it was August already. Much like in the teenage summer, many of us have stepped away from our usual nine-to-five schedules and time is marked by experiences, not not by the clock. As Claudia Hammond, author of Time Warped: Understanding the Mysteries of Time Perception, wrote for the BBC, when you have new experiences, time moves quickly. But when you look back it seems that a very long period has passed. This was many people’s experience at the beginning of lockdown, but now the inverse is true: the days seem to drag but, retrospectively, time seems to have disappeared. Like the subjects of these films, we have found our concept of time entirely out of our control, at the mercy of our circumstances.

In March, there seemed to be a feeling that coronavirus would end like a summer romance – when September came, everything would go back to normal. But as teenagers begin to return to school or start the next chapter of their lives at college, it is clear that isn’t true. As we face the ways this pandemic will continue to ripple across the coming years, our society will divide into those for whom this was just a summer fling, and who has to bear the brunt of the consequences. After all this is over, who gets to go back to their normal lives, having used this time for self improvement and personal growth? And who spent it cleaning, in supermarkets and delivery warehouses, or stuck inside fearing for their life, and emerges struggling to pick up the pieces?

by Sammie Purcell and Katharine Swindells

Sammie is a freelance journalist who has written about education, film and culture for publications such as Boston University News Service and Oz Magazine. For more fun insights, you can follow her on twitter @sammie_purcell8

Katharine is a journalist from London who writes about politics, social policy and identity, and has been published in the Guardian, Cosmopolitan and Prospect Magazine. You can keep up with her on twitter @kathy_swinds.

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