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A Psychosocial Look at “Kids”

I know I’ve discussed Kids before but… bear with me just a minute.

This article was inspired by someone else’s homework.  Next to a public printer at a University was someone’s forgotten assignment for a Psychology class which read: “Analyze a character from one of the following films from the perspective of one of the following psychological theorists.”  The films listed were mostly crap that younger generations adore (10 Things I Hate About You,  13 Going on 30, The Princess Diaries, etc), but, sticking out like a sore thumb was that classic 1995 movie Kids.  For me, this made for an interesting thought experiment that I could shape into an article – what are the different psychological theories that one can apply to the film Kids.  Quick word of advice, I’m not going to give a synopsis of the film, but I am going to discuss key plot details (if you can imagine Kids having a plot); naturally, it’s recommended that you’ve seen the film.

Kids & Freud

If you take the film’s title, Kids, and remove the K and the D, then you get the key Freudian concept that this film discusses – the ID.  The Id is the naturalistic, primal thought we all have that operates on the pleasure principle.  The Id is the devil on our shoulder telling us what to do because it’ll feel good, and is countered by the Ego which operates on rationality, and says “maybe you should rethink that course of action, there will be consequences.”  Then there’s the Superego which is a sort of buffer between the two, but we need not discuss that here – none of the kids in this movie utilize that, they are all id with malformed ego.

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The id of Kids or… kIDs

Telly likes to have sex with virgins, wantonly taking cherries like a hungry thief in an orchard.  He finds a sweet young girl, manipulates her and convinces the naïve girl that he loves her, deflowers her and moves along.  This is his Id at work, doing what he does for the sake of pleasure alone.  There are consequences, such as the crushed emotions of each victim who realizes they were scammed out of such a precious possession, but Telly does not concern himself with that.  Telly is something of a remorseless sexual sociopath, but he doesn’t care how that makes him appear to others.  Even his carefree and reckless friend Casper expresses a moment of disapproval (“Two virgins in one day?  There’s got to be a law against that”) but Telly just shrugs it off.  Telly’s opening voiceover of “Virgins, I ‘em,” explains absolutely everything about him and his Id.

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Telly operating under the pleasure principle of his id.

Casper is a bit more rounded, actually, with Id and Ego.  Mostly Id because he mostly does whatever he wants with little concern for consequence or how it makes him appear to others.  In fact, many people hate Casper simply because he’s an asshole.  At the end of the film, Casper rapes Jennie as she sleeps simply because he wants to get his dick wet, social niceties such as consent be damned.  Though the fact that he spends the whole rape saying “It’s okay Jenny, it’s me Casper,” would suggest that he has a slight concern for consequence or how his actions are interpreted by others.  A lot of Casper is egocentric, meaning he is concerned about how he appears to others.  When he violently beats a kid at the park to the cheers of others, its clearly because Casper wants their acclaim and respect, he’s operating on his ego, making what he believes to be a rational decision in order to increase his status in the social group.  Casper’s frequently violent actions are rational – in Casper’s mind – as he’s willfully establishing himself as an alpha male.  Men who do this nowadays are accused of doing it to compensate for a small penis – but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.  I mean, if one really wanted to go Freudian all over Casper’s subconscious, we could discuss the fact that he’s always putting things in his mouth (cigarettes, joints, beer bottles) and talking about blowjobs to suggest an oral fixation – Casper was weaned too early, which explains why his gaze so longingly lingers on Telly’s mother’s breasts as she feeds a baby.  But, alas, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

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Examples of Casper’s Oral fixation

But, speaking of being egocentric….

Kids & David Elkind

David Elkind was a child psychologist whose 1967 book Egocentrism in Adolescence pretty much defines how we think of teenagers these days.  It worked with Piaget’s theories of the formal operations stage of adolescent development and created expanded theories about why teenagers do the things they do.  A teenager might be able to recognize the type of adolescent egocentrism that Elkind talks about; however, adults who deal with teens will definitely see plenty of examples of his theories every day.  The two specific parts of his theories on adolescent egocentrism I’ll be discussing in relation to Kids are “imaginary audience” and “personal fables.”

The imaginary audience is the fact that a teenager will frequently believe that their appearance and actions are the focus of everyone’s attention.  You’ve probably seen the cliché of some teenager who feels their social life is ruined because of a pimple, when, in reality, nobody actually gives a shit about their acne.  The concept of the imaginary audience is why anti-acne treatments make so much money – because they know teenagers feel everyone is watching them.  In Kids we see examples of this with the readiness that all the kids conform to social norms, how quick they succumb to peer pressure and do things just to fit in.  For a teenager, this increased self-consciousness affects their actions and their self-esteem.  This is why Casper brutally beats another kid in the park – because he wants everyone to see him as tough, he believes that’s how he earns value.  This is why so many different kids in the film smoke pot or drink heavily, because they believe every other kid is watching them and judging them on their participation in these activities.  This is how Telly successfully gets so many naïve virgins to bed, because these girls believe that love and sexual activity are seen the exact same way and to abstain from the latter is to exclude oneself from society.  This also accounts for many of Jennie’s actions throughout the film – her belief that people will now see her completely differently now that she’s HIV positive, and it destroys her self-esteem.

These kids personally don't care how they look, they only care how other people THINK they look

These kids personally don’t care how they look, they only care how other people THINK they look

Personal Fables, according to Elkind, are how teenagers believe they are special and unique to the point where they feel they are the first person to have experienced things.  This is why teen girls feel “nobody has been in love like him and I are,” or any teenager feels that “nobody has suffered from a breakup so terribly.”  (Personal Fables also account for all the adolescent bullshit that is tumblr – but that’s a different discussion).  Personal Fables is what gets Telly all those virgin girls, as he feeds their need to feel special and unique.  The conflicting conversations about teen sexuality between boys and girls are simply kids recounting their own personal fables; they believe they know everything about sex from their limited experience and make statements about “All boys are…” or “All girls love…”  These are statements which we, the audience, know are false, but can realize that these kids have constructed their own personal fables of how the world works.

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Feeding the uniqueness of personal fables

That egocentrism is key to understanding the behavior of adolescents in Kids.  Their personal ideas of being special and unique and that they are the focus of everyone’s attention motivates all of their actions because….

Kids & Erving Goffman

Goffman was a sociologist and, actually, one of my favorite sociological thinkers.  I don’t believe he was on the list of psychological theorists which inspired this article, mostly because Goffman wasn’t a psychologist, but his ideas of how people operate in society do sufficiently work as an interpretation of the movie Kids.  Goffman dealt with social ideas of stigma and “dramaturgy.”  Stigma, Goffman claimed, is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person (for instance, we don’t think highly of those who engage in frequent drug abuse or sexual misbehaviors).  Goffman’s dramaturgical theory suggests that a person’s identity is not stable, but rather, is constantly remade as a person interacts with others; in short, social interaction is akin to how actors perform roles on a stage.

How these kids will prescribe to, or "perform," social norms for acceptance.

How these kids will prescribe to, or “perform,” social norms for acceptance.

In the world of Kids, certain things we would normally consider deviant are social norms here.  Drinking, the use of illegal drugs (mostly marijuana), and rampant sexual irresponsibility are social customs.  To abstain from these activities is deviant – NOT drinking or smoking pot is cause for stigmatization and expulsion from the social group.  There is clearly shown in the sequence where a group of teen boys and a separate group of girls in another location discuss their sexual escapades.  With the boys group, they are all smoking pot and passing around a whippet, clearly mocking those who are inexperienced at the act.  During their conversations, sexual inexperience is downplayed or stigmatized.  Jennie, who’s only sexual experience was losing her virginity to Telly some months prior to this, downplays that inexperience to be accepted in her peer group of more sexually liberal girls.  A boy who is clearly lying about his sexual experience is mocked and ridiculed at his attempts to avoid stigmatization.

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A kid will build their identity based on social norms and how their peers respond to them.

Another scene that shows this is later in the film as Jennie, long after Jennie has learned that she is HIV positive.  She’s searching the city for Telly and stops by a rave.  At this point she’s learned the negative health consequences of her behavior, but still takes Xtacy to be part of the social norm.  She performs, in a sense, pretending to enjoy the drug and be a part of the “rave kids” scene to avoid stigmatization.  Also, very importantly, she doesn’t tell anyone about being HIV positive – that would cause extreme stigmatization.  In fact, that’s half the reason she’s so depressed; it’s not the health concerns that bother her so much as the loss of her normal function in her social circles.

Kids & BF Skinner

I’ve saved him for last because he’s my favorite – Skinner’s ideas of Behaviorism just seem to make sense.  People are conditioned to operate in certain ways based on systems of rewards and punishments – behavior that is rewarded is repeated and behavior that is punished will not be repeated.  There is a lot more to it than just that simple concept, but that’s the gist.  Skinner’s model of behaviorism also works best as a way to interpret Kids.

Lacking legal or parental supervison, it is the peer group that rewards/punishes behavior

Lacking legal or parental supervison, it is the peer group that rewards/punishes behavior

Let’s look at Telly again and his heedless destruction of hymens.  This is a socially deviant action; we don’t respect people that manipulate and use innocent teen girls.  At least I don’t respect him, if you happen to believe that Telly is a stellar example of male virility that we should all aspire to then, please, go away.  Point is, without any kind of punishment for his actions, he continues to do the things he does.  Oh there’s a reward (an orgasm), but nothing is ever present to stop him.  There is also the respect he gets from Casper that reinforces this behavior.

Telly is awarded Casper's respect for deflowering a virgin - therefore the behavior will reoccur.

Telly is awarded Casper’s respect for deflowering a virgin – therefore the behavior will reoccur.

In fact, that’s rather the whole theme of the movie – these kids do the socially destructive things they do because there is no parent or person of authority to say “Hey, you can’t do that.”  There is no structure to provide consequences to these actions.  Younger kids are smoking weed and drinking because they’re rewarded (elevated status in their peer group) and never punished by parental or legal authority.  Casper does the things he does for social rewards, and there’s never a negative consequence.

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The rewards for behavior are primarily based in positive emotions.

A clear example comes with Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) and Ruby (Rosario Dawson) as they go to a clinic to get tested for HIV.  Ruby lists her irresponsible sexual history, with several partners, unprotected and, heck, she even did anal a few times.  The girl is sexually liberal (and the scene comes in the middle of a long discussion about teen hypersexuality) but is worried that there might be consequences.  Ruby, however, is clean, which brings her some relief.  While she’s warned to be more careful, one wonders if she really will be – did she learn a lesson?  Jennie, who’s only sexual partner was Telly, tests positive for HIV.  Jennie spends the movie regretting her actions, in a sense she was “punished” for her behavior.  It is not likely that Jennie will be sexually irresponsible in her future.

Jennie's disbelief stems from receiving punishment (HIV) for a behavior that's consistently been rewarded.

Jennie’s disbelief stems from receiving punishment (HIV) for a behavior that’s consistently been rewarded.

What has been the point of this?  Well, I hope it leads to a greater understanding of the film’s message.  Kids seemed to point and say “this is what your kids are doing because you’re not paying attention.”  By looking at it through these different psychological and sociological lenses, we can see that Kids behave this way for reasons more that we don’t pay attention.  Rather, the message of Kids is to provide a sense of authority and socialization greater than the negative influences they receive from peers.  Kids is one of my favorite movies, for a very good reason, because of how accurate it portrays what happens when socialization goes awry.

About The Author
Matthew Coats
Matthew Coats
Formerly known under the pseudonym of Alex Jowski. Site owner, movie aficionado, and film school grad. Matthew Coats presents reviews, some written, some as vlogs, and some as weekly shows, for a variety of different movies and television shows. After years of struggling to get his own projects off the ground amidst the normal routine of living, Matthew Coats decided to create a site in order to share and promote movie reviews, video games and much much more from talented and original people all across the internet.

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