Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
In this paper, I will analyze the messages in the film Perks of Being a Wallflower by looking at the story it tells about middle-class expressive individualism. First, I will introduce the movie and provide a brief summary of the film. I will closely analyze scenes from Perks of Being a Wallflower to illustrate the themes of toxic masculinity, relationships and mental health. Then, I will summarize Robert Bulman’s theory of suburban school films, and the stories they tell about adults. Finally, I will discuss why it is important to see Perks of Being a Wallflower as a movie that helps young adults find themselves.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a film and book focused around a fifteen year old boy named Charlie. Charlie is coping with the recent suicide of his friend Michael and trying to find his way around high school as a freshman. In his English class he finds a mentor, Bill Anderson and in his shop class he finds Patrick, his new best friend along with Patrick’s step-sister Sam. During the course of the school year Charlie goes to his first party, tries drugs and alcohol, he has his first date and kiss. His life at home is decently stable, but his parents and siblings are distant and cold at times, especially when it comes to showing affection. As Charlie grows into his own person and creates new bonds with his new friends, a disturbing secret is then let out; he has been repressing this memory of his Aunt Helen sexually assaulting him as a child. Once this is realized, Charlie has a huge breakdown that ultimately leads him to a second suicide attempt and in the hospital. At the end of the film, Charlie is seen writing a letter forgiving his Aunt for what she did and then him in his second year of high school, finding new friends.
Charlie is an awkward, shy, quiet kid who is left to loneliness and depression after one of his close friend’s commits suicide; he challenges the tropes of masculinity that most films do not portray. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the main character isn’t your typical macho man that most young adult films depict, “as a young, male teen- Charlie is largely open and honest about his thoughts and feelings, often interjecting his thoughts and being so open that it gets him in trouble at times”. Charlie is a boy who is in touch with his sensitive side and does not have a problem with it. The typical macho man that is seen in most young adult films often have traits of toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity can include anything ranging from violence, hiding their emotions, homophobic remarks or even any form of sexual assault. Charlie does not fit into that category, he is everything but that; on the contrary, Patrick does at times fit into that category. Patrick becomes a great friend to Charlie when including him into his friend group and giving him a warm welcome, but “we see that he succumbs to more toxic traits, abandoning Charlie when he needs him most when trying to snake and see his boyfriend Brad, who keeps their relationship secret due to his fear of being outed as a homosexual…Patrick starts doing various drugs, drinking for often and causal sex all used as coping mechanisms.” Patrick shows the harmful effects of toxic masculinity not only to himself, but to those that surround him. Charlie and his friends both challenge and show the harmful conformity to tropes of masculinity that seem to often be analyzed in young adult fiction and film.
Furthermore, not only does Charlie face result of toxic masculinity from his friends, but also his family. Charlie and his family and not affectionate towards each other, as a matter of fact showing it to the same gender is often frowned upon, “I walked up to my grandfather and gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. He wiped my lip print off with his palm and gave me a look. He doesn’t like the boys in the family to touch him.” Charlie is being taught that affection is not something to be given, especially towards men and this in turns creates a disconnect from forming close bonds and friendships with other males.
When it comes to relationships Charlie has not always had the best luck, until he met Sam. Sam is the third person in the inseparable trio that is Patrick and Charlie. Through football games and parties, Sam and Charlie form a close bond and they share intimate experiences and feelings with one another without the feeling of being rejected which, is something that they both fear. At one point Sam, who recently broke up with her boyfriend asked Charlie why he did not pursue anything with her, he replied, “I like Craig. And I know that I told you not to think of me that way. And I know that we can’t be together”. Naturally following that Sam and Charlie kiss, she tells him that his first kiss should be with someone who loves him. Both characters emphasize the feeling of acceptance and importance of connecting in a real and honest manner. The impact of their relationship leads to Charlie realizing there are healthy coping mechanisms for the trauma he has faced. Like Charlie, Sam was also molested as a child, but the way she copes with it is through developing a healthy relationship with herself.
Although the kissed shared between the two was something Charlie often fantasized about, it triggered a flashback of his Aunt Helen sexually assaulting him as a child. Although Charlie was young when Aunt Helen had died, he still feels a tremendous amount of guilt that contributes to his emotional stress that kept him out of school, “I don’t know how long I kept going to the doctor. I don’t remember how long they kept me out of school. It was a long time. I know that much”. Charlie’s mental health cripples him at times because he tends to overthink and analyze the past and his experiences. Throughout this time of Charlie’s struggle, his parents are not shown helping him or anything of that nature.
A mans mental is often stigmatized; which is seen especially through Charlie and his home life. One thing that is known is that Charlie’s father thinks that he is too kind and sensitive. Charlie’s relationship with his father isn’t a stereotypical one, Charlie’s dad still subscribes to an emotionally distant and often aggressive brand of masculinity, where anger is the only acceptable emotion to display. This leads to Charlie suppressing all of his emotions and only getting them out through either writing letters or finally snapping and ending up back in the hospital. Eventually Charlie has a monumental breakdown over the realization that his Aunt Helen molested him and this sends him into a downward spiral, “Charlie once again attempts suicide, and he is placed back in an inpatient facility.” It takes this second attempt from Charlie for his parents to form a close knit bond with him.
Since meeting Patrick and Sam, Charlie has felt a sense of belonging, but it wasn’t always that way. As an incoming freshman with mental health problems, Charlie felt isolated and depressed after his friends suicide, but it isn’t until he meets Patrick, a senior in his shop class that he finds his place within a friend group, “the film accurately represents the struggle that individuals face in their desire to belong and connect with others and the experience of being isolated and lonely when you feel as if you do not matter.” This film and book addresses many challenges that teenagers today face as they grow up. Many teenagers want to fit in and connect with others just like Charlie.
Perks of Being a Wallflower is a book and film that both credit and discredit Robert Bulmans theory. Bulman asserts that, “adults are not antagonists in every suburban school film. They’re often simply absent…adults play the fool”. Charlies parents oblivity to his mental illness and experiences with sexual assault ultimatly affect his downward spiral. His parents are present in his life, but are often cold to him and seem as though they are absent to him and his sister. This is shown through their lack of affection and their views on their own son, Charlie’s father thinks of him sensitive. They are only there for him towards the end when he ends up in a mental hospital.
On the contrary, one character in Perks of Being a Wallflower does disprove Bulman’s theory of adults being fools. Bill Anderson is an english teacher at the high school Charlie attends. From the moment Charlie stepped into his classroom, Mr. Anderson was drawn to him. Throughout the film and book, Mr. Anderson is seen as a mentor to Charlie. He is one of the only adults in his life that helped him mature and come out of his shell. Not to mention, he nurtures Charlies natural talents and makes him feel special intellectually. Mr. Anderson gives Charlie new books to read and he even gives him advice, after a talk Mr. Anderson told Charlie “I do consider you a friend, Charlie”. Perks of Being a Wallflower breaks the barrier of Bulman’s theory, a student and teacher being friends, let alone just talking about personal issues or struggles is very uncommon in suburban high school films.