The Sly Subversion and Unbridled Rage of The Legend of Billie Jean

The 1980s, packed full of kid-driven adventure films, has just as many beautiful disasters as it does universally beloved hits. But to be included in either category requires a film to possess some sort of a legacy, be it positive or negative., The 1985 Helen Slater vehicle The Legend of Billie Jean feels as though it has the characteristics of neither category. Or both. It vacillates wildly between excellence and incoherence from moment to moment; it would likely be a cult classic if only anyone remembered that it existed.

The Legend of Billie Jean occupies a dark little corner of obscure, forgotten, and derided ‘80s movies, the red-headed stepsister of more popular subversive films about teens confronting the establishment. Nevertheless, the film deserves to be held in higher esteem, if only for the treatment of its heroine: Billie Jean is one of the most powerful, capable representations of a teenage girl that we see in film, full of steely resolve and righteous anger.

At its heart, The Legend of Billie Jean is a film about empowerment – for women, for young people, for members of the working class. Through her experiences with a veritable mountain of injustices perpetrated against her, Billie Jean speaks for youth who feel disenfranchised. They flock to her like would-be apostles. The film leans into allusions to both Jesus Christ and Joan of Arc in their characterization of Billie Jean, from the way that she suddenly and almost accidentally accumulates a reverent group of followers to her decision to cut off her long blond hair after watching part of the 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc. (In a particularly unsubtle tribute, there is a scene late in the film where a giant effigy of Billie Jean is set on fire, evoking a burning at the stake.)

But while Billie Jean’s motives are undoubtedly honorable, the film also speaks to the inherent hollowness in this sort of instant fame. Her fans mimic her style and echo her rallying cries but are mostly just swept up in a fad, and even Mr. Pyatt, her assaulter who is alleging himself to be the victim in all of this, exploits the situation by creating merchandise with Billie Jean’s image on it. This element of social commentary on the nature of viral celebrity feels bizarrely prescient, especially when combined with a heroine who blurs the line between fame and infamy.

So where’s the problem? Why has Billie Jean largely been relegated to the scrap heap of 1980s teen schlock history? It’s not a great film, to be sure, but there are plenty of bad ‘80s films that have attained cult status for similarly cheesy shenanigans, whereas Billie Jean is either maligned or forgotten entirely. It’s certainly possible that audiences of the time, just like some of the characters in the film itself, didn’t quite know what to make of the movie. One potential explanation for this is inextricably linked to gender. When you look at other, more successful teen adventure films of the 1980s, they’re almost exclusively male-driven. Presenting a female version of that, one that is tough and uncompromising yet distinctly feminine, may have been a bridge too far for 1980s audiences. There’s seemingly endless space for rough-and-tumble boys to get dirty and challenge authority, but none for girls to do the same.

The unbridled rage represented in the film, particularly coming from a teenage girl whom audiences have been taught to regard as silly and vapid, may have been a poor fit for the popular depiction of 1980s girlhood. To be sure, the poverty-stricken, embattled populist Billie Jean provides a stark contrast to the materialistic, bubble gum teen girls of Valley Girl and Girls Just Want to Have Fun. One almost wonders if The Legend of Billie Jean might have had an easier go of things if it was released a few years later, creating a double feature with the equally subversive Heathers rather than The Goonies.

Billie Jean’s transition from a soft-spoken teenage girl into a confident figurehead of a movement is endlessly fascinating, and Helen Slater’s performance is understated but effective. The film is inarguably shaky in its execution and features some truly puzzling tonal shifts (one, involving Yeardley Smith’s obsession with getting her period which culminates in her beginning menstruation in the middle of a shoot-out, is exactly as bizarre as it sounds). Despite this, Billie Jean is a worthy heroine, and one that audiences could easily identify with, if only they knew she existed. We can only hope that one day audiences will rediscover this film, and she’ll finally get the justice she deserves – after all, fair is fair.

Audrey Fox is a Boston-based film critic whose work has appeared at Nerdist, Awards Circuit, We Live Entertainment, and We Are the Mutants, amongst others. She is an assistant editor at Jumpcut Online, where she also serves as co-host of the Jumpcast podcast. Audrey has been blessed by our film tomato overlords with their official seal of approval.

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