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Fast Times at Ridgemont High helped make the San Fernando Valley synonymous with youth culture.
Courtesy of Everett Collection

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How ’80s pop culture typecast the Valley

The region was overlooked in movies and music for years until Frank Zappa and ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ came along

“People think Valley Girl is a happy kind of song, but it isn’t,” Frank Zappa told Billboard magazine after his satirical 1982 tune became a surprise radio hit. “I’ve always hated the Valley. It’s a most depressing place.” Maybe he was angered by the public’s largely uncritical response to the song. Instead of taking the musician’s scathing critique of American consumerism to heart, listeners paid more attention to his daughter Moon Unit Zappa’s “Val-speak” lyrics: “barf me out,” “gag me with a spoon,” “bag your face,” “tubular.”

Valley Girl gave a scattered geographical overview of the San Fernando Valley, with references to such locations as Encino, the Galleria, and Ventura Boulevard. For many Americans, it was their first introduction to the 260-square-mile region located just north of the Los Angeles Basin, and the portrait it painted was a vapid cultural wasteland of shopping malls and not much else. The image was reductive but potent—and it took off.

In the 35 years since the Zappas’ song hit the airwaves and kicked off a nationwide craze, the landscape and demographics of the San Fernando Valley have changed, in some ways dramatically. But even as more diverse and multifaceted pop-cultural representations of the Valley have sprung up, its reputation is in some ways still tied to the music and films of the early 1980s.

“I don't think anybody thought [these representations] were ‘reality,’ but they formed a detailed picture for a lot of people,” says Valley native and LA Observed publisher Kevin Roderick, who wrote the 2001 history The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb

Los Angeles had been depicted on film and in music for decades, but the Valley was largely overlooked.

“So much of the rest of Los Angeles is just mythologized, whether for good or for bad,” says Laura Barraclough, an assistant professor at Yale who wrote the 2011 book Making the San Fernando Valley: Rural Landscapes, Urban Development, and White Privilege. “From the film Chinatown to the Boyz n the Hood soundtrack and all that, the Valley just gets completely left out, and that's still true.”

It’s not that the San Fernando Valley had never been depicted onscreen or in song.

“We all grew up surrounded by movie and TV stars and saw familiar places on screen all the time,” says Roderick. “A popular 1940s movie starring a singing cowboy was called San Fernando Valley and Bing Crosby, the country's most popular singer, made the theme into a hit song of World War II.”

The Crosby song shot all the way to No. 1 on the pop charts. But its depiction of the Valley was a world away from Zappa’s.

For audiences of the 1940s, the largely rural swath of land dotted with small bedroom communities represented a bucolic escape from the madness of the big cities. It was a different Valley then.

By the time Valley Girl was released in June 1982, the San Fernando Valley had transformed from the pastoral landscape captured in Crosby’s song. Between 1945 and 1980, the population more than quintupled, rising from 228,000 to over one million. Shopping malls such as the Northridge Fashion Center, Sherman Oaks Fashion Square, The Promenade in Woodland Hills, Topanga Plaza and the Glendale and Sherman Oaks gallerias anchored towns from Canoga Park in the West Valley to Glendale in the east, and they had become watering holes for the region’s teenage residents.

The Sherman Oaks Galleria, then a new mall, became a star after it was used as a central location in Amy Heckerling’s 1982 surprise hit Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Fast Times didn’t specify a geographic setting, but its use of real Valley locations marked it as a quintessential “Valley” film.

The Sherman Oaks Galleria before it was renovated in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
Public domain
A Madonna look-alike contest at the Sherman Oaks Galleria in 1985.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Fast Times was really adopted as a Valley thing, because it showed the Sherman Oaks Galleria and a lot of Valley streets, even though it had nothing to do with the Valley,” says Roderick.

The Galleria is the setting for a good portion of Fast Times’ plot, and, as presented onscreen, it is a vivid, self-sustaining world far removed from the prying eyes of grownups.

“[Fast Times] gave people the visuals for the whole mall culture of the San Fernando Valley,” says Amy Asbury, author of Valley Girl: Childhood in the 80s. “The Valley was hot in the summers, so a lot of people really did hang out in our malls. Parents could drop off their young teens, and they would be able to go to movies in the theater, eat, shop and hang out, all in this air-conditioned hub.”

Despite offering sweet and sympathetic portraits of its central characters, the mall-obsessed youth culture it depicted was occasionally subjected to stinging criticism. In his contemporary review of the film, New York Magazine critic David Denby offered a savage assessment when he recalled visiting one unnamed shopping center in the “northern part” of the Valley during a vacation to California:

Each store had its distinctive décor ... and each décor made reference to something genuine that existed somewhere in the world (in Paris, in Florence, in New York). Since there was no place else to go (the town was an instant condo nightmare, with rows of tan-and-brown houses), this collection of cultural images really was the entire world for the kids who lived there. Leaving the mall, I got myself all worked up wondering how the kids in that town could possibly know what a real neighborhood felt like, a place that had some flavor and culture of its own ... wouldn’t they be stunted forever?

Denby’s appraisal of Valley geography was over-generalized, but it wasn’t entirely inaccurate.

“My friends and I did hang out at the malls and the parking lots at 7-Elevens in any number of strip malls throughout the Valley as soon as I got my driver's license,” says Barraclough, who grew up in Northridge and Shadow Hills. “So I think the landscape element of the Valley, that depiction of the malls and the homes with the backyard pools, all of that, it's actually pretty accurate ... to my own experience.”

Capturing this topography on film was important for Martha Coolidge, who got her first big break as a director with Valley Girl. Unlike Fast Times, Valley Girl was transparent about its setting. In the opening credits, a helicopter shot provides an overview of the Valley’s suburban sprawl. When we first meet the title “Valley Girl” Julie (Deborah Foreman), she is pawing through the racks at what is supposed to be the Sherman Oaks Galleria, even though interiors were filmed at an entirely different mall.

“We didn't shoot at the Galleria interior. Very disappointing,” says Coolidge. “It was too expensive. They weren't film-friendly. So what we did is we shot in the Torrance mall, which is certainly not the Valley ... Then we shot the exteriors of the Galleria. But you know, a mall is a mall, really.”

Much more than Zappa’s song of the same name, Valley Girl has a strong sense of place. In a mid-film montage set to Modern English’s “I Melt With You,” Coolidge splices in footage of Valley exteriors as Julie and her Hollywood-punker beau Randy (Nicolas Cage) stroll along its streets. The Studio City Du-Par’s, Encino Bowl, Casa Vega restaurant in Sherman Oaks, and the Sherman Theater are all lovingly showcased.

“If I had an extra five minutes, I'd grab a camera, go out and shoot a sign or shoot them on the sidewalk, and then cut it all together,” says Coolidge. “Unlike so many films that are shot in the wrong place, I wanted it to be very rooted in what it was and who it was and you know, the reality of it. Because it is unique. And it was influencing the country.”

Like Fast Times, Valley Girl was a sleeper hit, and it continued to boost the Valley’s profile, which over the prior year had come to represent the geographical center of ’80s youth culture. Coolidge’s depiction of the region isn’t a scornful takedown like Zappa’s, but she presents it as a land of pastel-colored sameness—a direct contrast to Randy’s moody, mohawked world on the other side of the hill.

Valley Girl made the contrast between the Valley and Hollywood very black and white, says EG Daily, who played Loryn in the film. “It's a little more subtle [in real life], but I thought it was a beautiful, artistic way to make the contrast,” she says.

“[The movie is] really about defining yourself, differentiating yourself ... [so it] needed [the contrast] to be very strong,” says Coolidge, who now resides in the rural community of Shadow Hills in the Valley’s extreme northeast. “My art director did the Valley wardrobe, and we just stuck with colors. We all shopped together and decided what colors they would be.”

For Coolidge, this presentation was a necessary form of artistic exaggeration, but it made a vivid impression and fed the prevailing image of the region as geographic dead center for Reagan-era excess and conformity. Not that Valley residents necessarily minded. These pop-cultural products put their neighborhood on the map after decades of neglect. The mocking nature of Zappa’s lyrics was almost besides the point.

“I remember the moment I heard it, actually,” says Valley Girl star Heidi Holicker, who grew up in Studio City and attended Grant High School in Van Nuys. “I was at a party, a Valley party ... and I thought, ‘Oh, that is so funny!’”

Valley fever extended far beyond Hollywood.

Zappa’s song inspired a number of quickie books designed to capitalize on the phenomenon, with titles including Fer Shurr! How to Be a Valley Girl—Totally!, The Totally Awesome Val Guide, How to DeProgram Your Valley Girl, and The Valley Girls’ Guide to Life by writer and illustrator Mimi Pond. It even spawned a strangely earnest “Valley Girl” competition held at the Sherman Oaks Galleria in 1982, co-judged by none other than Moon Unit Zappa.

Like the other “Val Gal” guides, Pond’s book was a tongue-in-cheek primer on the region and its residents, even dictating the proper beach for a Valley Girl to sun herself at. (The correct answer: Zuma.) “Over the years I've heard from women ... from all over the country,” says Pond, who interviewed teenage girls at the Sherman Oaks Galleria and other Valley hot spots for the book. “And they just thought that living in the Valley would be the most glamorous thing ever.”

Though the movie Valley Girl was a relatively hasty production—it was released just 10 months after the song first hit the airwaves—by the time it entered production the region’s reputation had been pretty well-cemented. Co-writers Andrew Lane and Wayne Crawford used the stereotype as a launching pad for their story.

The original movie poster from Valley Girl.
The stereotype was that if you’re from the Valley, “you can’t be very deep.”
Courtesy of Everett Collection

“Part of the tension between Nic Cage's character from Hollywood and Debbie Foreman's character from the Valley was that he viewed her with some suspicion in the beginning as being kind of a lightweight,” says Lane. “You know, if you're from the Valley you can't be very deep. And she, on the other hand, was a little bit afraid of his edginess. So we were addressing that preconceived notion, that trope, of how people viewed the Valley.”

Valley Girl was so successful that it gave its distributor, the now-defunct Atlantic Releasing Corporation, enough capital to fund another project inspired by the fad. The resulting film, 1984’s Night of the Comet, took things in a darker (albeit still humorous) direction by positing a world in which two Valley girls survive a zombie apocalypse. Director Thom Eberhardt was so keen on remaining authentic to the stereotype that for a scene involving a shootout in a shopping mall, he protested when Lane and Crawford suggested a low-rent alternative.

They ended up shooting at the former Bullock’s in Woodland Hills. “I still don’t know how we got away with that. We were in there four nights in a row, shooting guns—blanks, of course—and, at the end, exploding a small grenade. All those brand-new, unprotected and pricey clothes in a place that smelled like gun smoke when we left,” Eberhardt says.

There is a subversive bent to Comet that perhaps signifies the tail end of the fad. Not only do the film’s two lead Val gals defy the stereotype by revealing themselves as capable warriors, they literally shoot up the local mall (albeit only after going on a joyous post-apocalyptic shopping spree). Though Eberhardt swears there were “no messages allowed” on the production, it’s hard not to see the film as a B-movie corrective to those already-tired “Valley girl” clichés.

Yet the clichés persisted—at least into the following decade. Movies such as 1988’s Earth Girls Are Easy, 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and even Heckerling’s 1995 teen classic Clueless played on the phenomenon—though in the latter film, the wealthy Beverly Hills characters turn up their noses at the land over the hill (even if they do attend the occasional party there).

In Clueless, Murray shaves his head at a party in the Valley.
Courtesy of Everett Collection

But the 1990s also brought new cinematic interpretations of the Valley at odds with the sunny, relatively innocent visions presented in films of the previous decade. The seedier parts of the region were showcased in the Quentin Tarantino films Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights recast the Valley’s unassuming suburban sprawl as porn central; in Magnolia, he literally rained down a cataclysm of frogs on the 818. For some, those films supplanted what had come before.

“When I think of the Valley, I think of Quentin Tarantino's Valley,” says Pond. “Reseda, Pacoima, mile upon mile of shitty dingbat apartment complexes. They always have a donut place, a nail place and a cell phone place."

For those under 30 particularly, the ’80s interpretation of “the Valley” introduced by the Zappas has far less resonance. “If you ask millennials outside of SoCal what the valley in Valley Girl refers ... the majority wouldn’t know,” says Eberhardt.

Barraclough, who has moved to New Haven, Connecticut, also sees a generational divide. “The farther we get away, and as the Valley itself starts to change more and more, it doesn't mean the same thing for me to say that I'm a Valley girl. Most people I run into out here haven't seen those films—they're too young.”

Still, for those who are old enough to have experienced the phenomenon in real time, the image of the Valley as both a cookie-cutter paradise and a wasteland is hard to shake, even as its malls empty out and its cheaply-constructed tract homes and backyard swimming pools are razed.

As a testament to the phenomenon’s lasting power, Valley Girl is now getting a big-screen musical remake directed by Rachel Lee Goldenberg and starring Jessica Rothe and Josh Whitehouse (Foreman, Holicker, and Daily all have cameos).

It’s not difficult to imagine how Frank Zappa would have felt about all this. His response may have been similar to Pond’s, who reflected on her own contribution to the undying phenomenon by lamenting with a cackle: “Oh my god, what have I done?

Editor: Jenna Chandler