From Geek to Chic and Back Again
Teenagers in high school often lose themselves trying to act like someone they are not to fit in with the popular crowd. The 1987 film, Can’t Buy Me Love, directed by Steve Rash, grapples with this concept by following the master plot of romantic comedies described by Leger Grindon. Ronald Miller is a nerdy high school senior who perceives his last year of high school as the most crucial point in his social life. Ron offers $1000 to popular cheerleader, Cindy Mancini, to pose as his girlfriend for one month, allowing him to infiltrate the popular clique. He succeeds but soon learns social success does not bring him true joy. Ronald Miller’s masquerade; core conflicts such as personal development and self-sacrifice; intimacy and exploitation; and staying loyal to friends versus pursuing romance; sites of passion and order; as well the conventional innocent and fool personalities in Can’t Buy Me Love fits into Leger Grindon’s schematic for romantic comedies to validate its position within the genre.
In Can’t Buy Me Love, Ron puts on a masquerade to achieve his goal of popularity. By doing so, he “provokes humor through the incongruity between the actual and assumed self and creates suspense as to the success and consequences of the ruse” (Grindon 16). Cindy helps transform his wardrobe by buying him new outfits and accessories, as well as teaches him how to style his hair. Ron’s transformation, in turn, attracts the attention of the popular crowd. After he publicly breaks up with Cindy, she warns him that popularity is not everything, and he should not change to please others.
Because Ron does not take her advice, Cindy reveals Ron’s masquerade to the popular people at the New Year’s Eve party. She exposes him by saying, “He bought me. And he bought all of you. He was sick and tired of being a nobody. Yeah, and he said that all of you guys would worship him if we went out” (“Can’t Buy Me Love”). Although Ron’s fake façade falls apart, Cindy’s confession of the truth helps Ron reframe his perspective of social status. Then, Ron admits to Cindy, “All I ever wanted to do was get close to you. And then, when I finally got there, it wasn’t me anymore” (“Can’t Buy Me Love”). Ronald Miller’s “cool guy” masquerade drives the conflict of personal development versus self-sacrifice, exploitation versus intimacy, and staying loyal to friends versus pursuing romance.
The first conflict is between Ron’s personal developments and self-sacrifice. According to Psychology Today, “When we value something (or someone) more than we value our own self, we may protect what matters most to us rather than our own self” (Tessman). For example, Ron spends his hard-earned cash from mowing lawns over the summer to replace Cindy’s damaged $1000 suede outfit she stole from her mom instead of the telescope he intended to buy. Ron’s desire for popularity caused him to sacrifice his intelligence for the love of the popular crowd because he lost the chance to expand his knowledge of astronomy. Ron also sacrifices his self-identity by “renting” Cindy to pose as his girlfriend, which will launch him into acceptance by the popular clique. In addition to this internal conflict, both characters take advantage of each other even though they want a relationship.
The airplane graveyard scene induces the second internal conflict between intimacy and exploitation. The airplane graveyard is a special place to Ron, which serves as a site of passion where Grindon describes the “break down of inhibition and expression of desire” occurs (19). Ron teaches Cindy about airplane history and gives her a new perspective of the moon. Cindy realizes she has feelings for Ron because he does not value material things as others do, and he stimulates her creativity and aspirations rather than her body. Another article from Psychology Today states, “Someone who is real and vulnerable gives us the space and permission to be the same” (Seppala). As Ron and Cindy spend more time together, Cindy shares her secret poetry and opens up about her college boyfriend troubles. However, the high school serves as a site of order where social circles try to “exercise authority and reason” as to why Ron and Cindy should not date (Grindon 19).
The site of order causes miscommunication between the two because they desire a real relationship with each other, but do not know how to within the norms of the high school social hierarchy where a geek would not have a chance dating a popular girl. For instance, Cindy’s friends think she dates Ron for “charity” and not because she may be attracted to someone outside of the popular clique. Therefore, at the airplane graveyard, Ron decides to exploit Cindy’s status and bypasses the possibility of having a romantic relationship with her. He misses the hint from Cindy for the two of them to kiss. Instead, he begins to plan how to stage their official break up. Although Ron receives love and attention from the popular people using deception, he jeopardized having a best friend and healthy romantic relationship.
The third core conflict is between Ron staying loyal to his friend and pursuing love. Can’t Buy Me Love is unique because of the main character’s desire for love is toward his relationship with Cindy and his relationship with popular peers. Ron drifts apart from his old friend group and his best friend Kenneth because the popular people do not perceive the group’s enjoyment of Saturday night card games and the yearbook committee as “cool.” Over time, Ron stops spending time with Kenny because he found the admiration of popular people more satisfying than his friendship with Kenny. Ron wants to go to parties, drive-ins, and dances rather than bring his new friends to places that have special meaning to him. Later, Ron betrays his friendship with Kenny when he throws a bag of dog poop at Kenny’s house on Halloween night to remain liked by the jocks. While these conflicts move the plot forward, they arise because of the way the personality types interact with each other.
Can’t Buy Me Love has two conventional character personalities, the innocent and the fool, seen in romantic comedies. Leger Grindon defines the innocent personality as “childlike, unsophisticated and naïve, but open to education” (15). Ronald Miller fulfills the innocent personality. He lacks experience in fashion and socializing outside of his geeky friend group. With Cindy’s guidance, Ron goes from “totally geek to totally chic.” Another example of Ron’s innocent personality is when he tries to educate himself on popular dance moves to “present himself as attractive to the beloved and even to fulfill their conception of an ideal partner” (Grindon 17). Ron watches what he thinks is the end of American Bandstand, a music-performance, and dance television program. However, the movie later reveals the programming as the PBS African Cultural Hour.
Ron performs the African anteater ritual at the Columbus Day dance under the impression it was the newest craze. The fool personality, as described by Leger Grindon, is “a clown [and] a butt of jokes, ready to take a fall” (15). At first, Ron’s classmates hesitated, but slowly joined in the dancing, which furthered Ron’s popularity. Their actions demonstrate the fool personality because they blindly follow trends set by popular people. However, the rest of Ron’s geeky friends on the sidelines laugh at their classmates because they recognize the African anteater ritual. The popular girls and jocks are fools because they cannot think for themselves. For instance, Cindy’s friends throw themselves at Ron as they compete with each other to have sex with him, and the jocks hang out with him after school. Rather than forming fulfilling friendships and human connection, the innocent and fools are too preoccupied with each other’s popularity.
Can’t Buy Me Love’s use of the masquerade, core conflicts, settings, and conventional personality types when compared to Leger Grindon’s framework for a romantic comedy constitutes its placement within the genre. People may believe being someone they are not will get them noticed and loved by their peers, such as when Ron transformed himself from “lawn boy” to the most popular person in high school. However, the story of Ronald Miller demonstrates people love others for their authenticity, as shown by the circular ending of the film depicting Ron riding his lawnmower into the sunset with the girl he loves.