‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’: The Confidence and Wisdom of Linda Barrett

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

This guest post written by Angela Morrison appears as part of our theme week on Ladies of the 1980s.

The only thing people seem to remember about Amy Heckerling’s 1982 film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is Phoebe Cates emerging from a swimming pool in her red bikini, removing her top as she tells Brad (Judge Reinhold) how cute she always thought he was, The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo” playing on the soundtrack. First of all, this is ridiculous because the entire movie is memorable, and there are much better scenes than Brad’s masturbation fantasy. Secondly, it is completely unfair to reduce Phoebe Cates’ character to a mere sex object, existing only for male viewers’ pleasure.

Phoebe Cates brings life to the energetic, worldly, confident-yet-vulnerable Linda. Her character is the heart and soul of the movie, as she gives Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) advice on sex, relationships, and navigating her way through high school. Linda is a few years older than Stacy, so she takes on the role of mentor, passing on her knowledge about the world to her younger friend. She is also Stacy’s number one supporter when her heart gets broken by both Ron Johnson (D.W. Brown) and Mike Damone (Robert Romanus).

One of the most striking things about this film is the casual way that Linda and Stacy discuss sex. Linda often expresses surprise at 14-year-old Stacy’s sexual inexperience, and she quickly reassures Stacy that “it’s just sex.” Linda’s attitude toward sex – which she passes on to Stacy – is that it needn’t be a big deal, but rather, should be seen as a fun and pleasurable activity for young women such as themselves. Part of the fun for Linda is deciding who she wants to have sex with – she assures Stacy that if she was not in a relationship with an older boy named Doug, she would go after Ron Johnson herself. She urges Stacy to make her own decisions, letting her know that she has the power to decide who she wants to have sex with, and when. The film never takes a judgmental attitude towards these young women, their sexual activities, and their frank discussions of sex.

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Stacy takes Linda’s advice and has sex (for the first time ever!) with Ron Johnson. For some people, having sex for the first time is a big deal, an important event in their lives. However, Linda lets Stacy know that it is okay for it to not be a big deal, for it to just be a pleasurable part of going on a date – it does not mean she has to get married, and she does need to be in love with her sexual partner. Having sex with Ron Johnson is a positive experience for Stacy, although she ends up feeling rejected when he does not call her for another date. Linda is right by Stacy’s side as always, supporting her and telling her that she can do better than a 26-year-old stereo salesman. Linda lets Stacy know she is loved and supported, and that she need not worry about Ron Johnson disappearing from her life. This film portrays women supporting women, and the power of female friendship.

Most 1980s teen movies feature female characters who are insecure for any number of reasons – films such as Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club portray characters who are unsure of themselves and the world they are growing up in. While these films are realistic in their portrayals of the pain that comes with being a teenage girl, Fast Times at Ridgemont High gives us a character such as Linda, who exudes confidence in everything she does. She gives Stacy expert advice on how to give a blowjob, she lounges by the swimming pool and tells Stacy she and Doug always climax simultaneously, and she moves through the school hallways and her job at Perry’s Pizza as though she always knows what she is doing. When Damone does not show up to drive Stacy to the abortion clinic, Linda does not hesitate to call him out publicly, and humiliate him by telling the school he is – and has – a “little prick.”

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Of course, Linda is a more complex character than simply being “confident.” She has a vulnerable side, which is evident at many points during the film. Stacy points out discrepancies between Linda’s claims about Doug – that he lasts 30-40 minutes in bed, rather than 20-30, as she previously said. After she tells Stacy that she and Doug always climax at the same time, she follows up with “I think…” And at the end of the movie, when Doug does not show up to her graduation, she is seen crying in the bathroom, reading an angry letter to Doug out loud. She confesses that she wrote two versions of the letter, one in which she calls Doug an “asshole.” Stacy assures Linda that the first version is more “mature” – Stacy knows that Linda only wants to portray herself as mature and self-assured, and she is there for her friend in her time of need, as Linda was for her. Just like everyone else, there are times when Linda is also unsure of herself – but she does not let that stop her from dancing elatedly at the prom, and going on to have a relationship with her abnormal psych professor in college, as the epilogue informs us.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High remains one of the most honest, smart, and funny teen comedies of the 1980s. The frank portrayal of female sexuality sets this film apart from many of the other “classics” of the teen movie genre. The film ends with Stacy deciding that she’d rather have romance than sex – she decides that anyone can have sex, but she wants to find someone she can connect with on every level. Linda of course has one final gem of wisdom to impart on Stacy: “You want romance? In Ridgemont? We can’t even get cable TV here, Stacy, and you want romance!”

If only we all had a Linda to guide us through our lives.

See also at Bitch Flicks: Historical vs. Modern Abortion Narratives in ‘Dirty Dancing’ and ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’; 10 of the Best Feminist Comedies of the 1980s

Angela Morrison is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto Cinema Studies program. She loves classical Hollywood, French cinema, John Waters, and feminist film theory. She hopes to one day be a Cinema Studies professor, one who will not teach movies made solely by boring straight white males. She writes about cinema on her blog Les Demoiselles du Cinema.