An ’80s teen classic, Just One of the Guys (directed by Lisa Gottlieb) is about a high school student named Terri (played by Jewish actress, Joyce Hyser) who dreams of becoming a journalist. After losing out on a job as an intern at a local newspaper to two guys she believes to be inferior writers, she concludes that because she’s a pretty girl, her article was not taken seriously. Determined to get the job, she enrolls at a different high school and disguises herself as a guy. Despite the fact that the film is supposed to be set in Phoenix, Arizona, Terri’s accent and mannerisms are unmistakably those of Jewish New York woman. This peculiarity doesn’t distract from the plot much, but it does reinforce anti-semitic stereotypes regarding the “outsider insecurity and resentment” narratives in these types of movies. Revenge of the Nerds, Back to School, The Karate Kid, Heathers, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Encino Man, etc. all feature roughly the same dynamic.
Terri struggles as her life pretending to be a man becomes entangled with her “previous” life and real identity as a woman. She must conceal her gender experiment from her current boyfriend while also avoiding being discovered at school. In the process, she becomes friends with a handsome but awkward student named Rick (who has no idea that Terri is really a girl). As Terri tries to help Rick find a date for the prom, she slowly begins to fall for him. Eventually, Rick does manage to get a date for the prom after standing up to the school bully, Greg Tolan (played by William Zabka in his usual ’80s role of oppressive “Aryan” strawman”) in the cafeteria.
Terri becomes jealous and heartbroken. On the night of the prom, she reveals to Rick that she’s actually a girl. When he doesn’t believe her at first, she shows him her breasts. We really do get to see them in the movie, too and they don’t disappoint (just saying). Rick reacts angrily when he realizes that Terri was dishonest with him about her identity and storms off.
The experience of “becoming a teenage boy” ends up being the subject of Terri’s article. The piece is a success and lands her the job at the newspaper. Terri is still heartbroken about Rick though. After some time has gone by, Rick shows up claiming to have read her article and realizing that he has romantic feelings for Terri.
The primary message of Just One of the Guys is that substance is more important than superficial appearance. This applies not just to physical “looks” but also to assumptions about people. The major feminist component to this is how women are only appreciated for their bodies, style and overall physical attractiveness.
Terri feels as though her writing is not taken seriously because she’s an attractive and fashionable young woman. This belief is reinforced by various men in her life. After informing Terri that he thought her article submission was merely “good,” her teacher suggests that she should consider becoming a model instead of a writer. Her boyfriend seems only interested in her because of how she looks and doesn’t even seem to be listening to a word she says half the time. He views her passion for writing as nothing but a “hobby.” What little empathy he displays for her internal feelings is phony and is merely a means pacify her so they can just “get on with it” and have sex. Her horny younger brother is obsessed with sex and openly admits that he would be content to just use women for their bodies for his entire life. In a comical scene, he cynically pays lip service to his appreciation of women’s minds by reading off the interests of the Playboy centerfolds on his bedroom walls.
Terri decides to attend a different school where she pretends to be a man, believing that if she submits the exact same article that she did before, it will be praised and published. This is where the film gets interesting, because after submitting the article, she gets essentially the same feedback (minus the sexist side commentary) that she received from the other teacher, which was basically that the content just wasn’t substantive or interesting enough. This causes Terri to question her own superficial assumptions about the prior instructor’s motives and also leads to a realization that she must dive more deeply and passionately into the subjects she’s writing about, rather than merely scratch the surface.
While pretending to be a man, she also falls for her friend Rick who is very interesting and has a lot of depth to his personality, while he is mostly lacking in the style department. He is pretty much the opposite of Terri’s classically handsome boyfriend Kevin (who outwardly exudes confidence, charm and materialism while having a very shallow personality). Rick is also unique in being one of the only male characters in the film to not express an explicit interest in sex. He only talks about sex reluctantly at one point, after Terri asks a number of probing questions. When Rick expresses interest in various girls from school, the interest seems to be of a romantic nature rather than an overtly sexual one.
As a man, Terri also finds herself sexually objectified by a girl named Sandy, (played by a pre-Twin Peaks Sherilyn Fenn) whom by default we can safely assume is only interested for superficial reasons since Sandy doesn’t have any idea “what’s underneath” (quite literally in this case). The character who seems to have almost no redeeming quality whatsoever is the high school bully, Greg Tolan, yet his girlfriend Deborah believes that deep down he is just insecure, implying that she is able to see something substantive within him.
Ultimately, when Terri reveals to Rick that she’s actually a woman, it’s symbolic of having finally reached the genuine and exciting level of depth that her article requires, and she ends up getting the writing job.
The scenes with her little brother are my favorite. Though he is crude and his outrageous remarks are played for laughs, he is refreshingly honest about sexual topics, and there are more truths to some of his statements than most people would like to admit. There’s a scene where he’s trying to teach Terri to scratch her balls so she will appear more like a guy. Grossed out by the idea, she says “Well maybe my balls don’t itch,” and he responds that “All balls itch. It’s a fact of life.” Most of his scenes are like that. Though Buddy often seems like a voice of sanity regarding Terri’s bizarre activities, the schemes he employs in attempting to lose his virginity are every bit as ridiculous.
Feminist elements within the film:
Woman as Man:
This one is obvious, but basically the entire premise of the film is Terri dresses up like a man and becomes “Terry,” in order to be taken seriously as a writer. This is done to make a social statement about how men and women are treated but also for practical reasons (she wants to win the writing competition).
We see this mainly in the little brother (Buddy), who faces humiliating rejection from various women he propositions for sex. The most notable example is when he is on the ground begging his disinterested algebra partner to stay and have sex with him, and she coldly declines. He also frequently hits on his sister’s friend (played by gorgeous actress, Toni Hudson) who goes as far as to tell him that if they were “the last man and woman on earth, the human race would die out.” Rick also gets rejected in a humiliatingly dismissive fashion by several women he asks to the prom.
Blondes vs Brunettes:
This one is somewhat subtle, but Terri is a brunette, and her best friend Denise is a fairly stereotypical blonde. Denise isn’t portrayed as ditzy, but she’s clearly the less intellectual and more “feminine” of the two. Terri is more aggressive and bookwormish and adopts a tomboyish demeanor. There is definitely a contrast between the two that’s highlighted by their hair color. Also, when Rick falls for the blondish beauty, Deborah, Terri becomes jealous. She tries to convince Rick that Deborah is too superficial and uninteresting. So there is a slight blonde/brunette rivalry there.
Lots of misogyny in this film. On example is when Terri overhears one of the teachers joke about how he’s considering flunking one of his students because she has such great legs and he wants to continue to be able to look at them for another year. Another example is Terri’s boyfriend, who treats her like a sexual object and is disrespectfully dismissive of her career ambitions and intellectual pursuits.
The film makes a social statement about how people are perceived based on physical appearance and especially how women are seen as sex objects. While the scope of this message broadens and takes some interesting turns, the basic narrative is presented from a feminist perspective. Terri becomes a guy so she will be recognized for her writing ability instead of her looks. It turns out to be more complicated than she anticipates, but she does in fact get treated differently by almost everyone around her when her appearance changes. Even on the most basic level, her boyfriend seems revolted by her boyish haircut.