In many ways, growing up in the twenty-tens hardly resembles the experiences of past generations. Today’s teens don’t know life without smartphones, Insta-fame or HPV vaccines. But at least one staple of adolescent culture has held strong for the better part of a century: sleepovers. Members of the not-quite-adult set have gathered for gossip and parent-free shenanigans since at least the 1920s, when the sleepover made its silver-screen debut. Since then, the movie slumber party has changed to reflect the trends of the times, from 1960s beach bunnies, to the rise of skimpy clothes and campy slasher flicks, to the millennial man-crush craze. Here's an evolution of the sleepover, according to hollywood.
The 1920s Shows the First On-Screen Sleepover
This 1920 silent film starring Olive Thomas is best known for popularizing the term for a stylish, independent young woman, but it also includes the first slumber-party scene in cinema. The titular flapper, 16-year-old Genevieve King, gets together with her friends one evening for makeovers, pilfered alcohol and what might even be gossip (but it’s hard to tell given that it's a silent film). While the movie also features a mustache-twirling villain, a safe full of gems and various prohibition-era shenanigans, "The Flapper" lays the groundwork for the modern-day slumber party: a time for teen girls to dip their toes in adulthood without interference from boys or parents. While the term “slumber party” doesn’t appear in the American lexicon until 1942, social sleepovers would soon become an important part of the flapper lifestyle.
The Bedroom Wasn't Big Business
After “The Flapper,” sleepovers took a long hiatus from the silver screen. The reason? Instead of focusing on regular teenage life, movies showcased the untamed fringes of polite society. As a result, the box office became a haven for movies about rock and roll, gangs and rock-and-roll gangs, such as “The Wild One” and “Rebel Without a Cause.” Movies geared specifically towards young women started featuring characters who wouldn’t be caught dead at a slumber party. The 1957 hit “Tammy and the Bachelor," for instance, is about a teenage girl who lives on a houseboat, makes moonshine and has a goat for a best friend.
The slumber party does, however, make a rare appearance in the classic “Some Like It Hot." Jack Lemmon’s Jerry, disguised as a woman, shares a drink with Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar in the top bunk of a train's sleeper car. When word gets out that they’re having a party, the bunk gets hilariously crammed as every girl on the train shows up with booze and snacks in hand. For the most part, however, culture wasn’t concerned with what happened in bedrooms.
Beaches over Bedrooms
Less freaky than hippies, but still bearing a sex-and-rock-and-roll vibe, surfers became the fantasy subculture of choice for millions of '60s teens. The beach-party genre capitalized on this trend, and studios raced to put out a string of movies that featured bikini babes, huge dance sequences and little-to-no plot.
“Pajama Party” is the brain-dead beach-movie take on the slumber party — “the party that takes off where others poop out!” as its tagline insisted. Its plot involves a martian who comes to earth disguised as a hot surfer dude, falls in love with a bikini babe, joins the Mafia and has a generally raucous time. While terrible by most measures, the film is notable for being one of the first to feature boy-girl slumber parties. But mainly it emphasizes the absence of bedroom storylines from mid-century film.
Nostalgia Knocks on the Bedroom Door
Nobody throws a slumber party quite like Frenchy. She and the Pink Ladies invite new girl Sandy over for a showcase of vintage sleepover antics, virtually unchanged since the '20s — we’re talking tobacco, alcohol and gossip. While wearing nightgowns and rollers, they smoke a few cigarettes, drink some brandy and discuss boyfriends, school and sexual dalliances.
It also veers into a slumber party mainstay: shaming. Sandy finds herself as less of an honored guest and more of a yardstick for adolescent milestones. She coughs when she smokes her first cigarette and gags when she gets her ear pierced. Rizzo sings “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” a show-stopping number about how lame it is to be a virgin.
“Grease” and its famous slumber-party scene also delved into nostalgia, an increasingly common element in '70s pop-culture offerings. The film portrayed a ’50s-era slumber party in a sexually frank way that never would have happened in actual '50s films. In fact, the ’70s saw a full-blown 50s revival, when the wild success of “American Graffiti” and “Happy Days” inspired studios to reimagine the youth culture of 20 years prior. The trend sparked the creation of masterpieces like “Grease” and bombs like “Slumber Party ’57," an exploitation flick that panned as both too too sexual and too boring.
Skimpy Clothing and Serial Killers
The late 1970s and 80s breathed life into the sexy slumber party trope, where pillow feathers fly and skimpy tank tops replace classic, modest PJs.
Written by the feminist novelist Rita Mae Brown, 1982’s “The Slumber Party Massacre” features a mass murderer with a phallic power drill who invades the female basketball team’s sleepover. There’s a lot of nudity and gore, but the film skewers the trope and makes the teen girls the heroes.
Brown and director Amy Holden Jones place the violence inside the sleepover and give the slumber partiers a home-court advantage in the process. While somewhat vapid, the skimpy-outfitted slumber partiers are resourceful enough to defeat the mad driller. All the male characters, on the other hand, eventually die. The movie might not be scary, and look like it was filmed on a potato, but at least the girls-in-skivvies do something other than talk about boys. Consider the Bechdel test passed.
The Slumber Party As Rite of Passage
For ’90s kids, high school rom-coms like “Clueless," “10 Thing I Hate About You," “American Pie” and “Heathers” were the pinnacle of slumber-party entertainment. Shockingly, none of these movies except "Clueless" contain actual slumber parties — and even that was merely a vehicle for a character transformation. For that, we have to turn to the goth-girl favorite “The Craft," a surprisingly intense tale of teen outcasts-turned-witches that might be the finest pre-“Potter” rendition of adolescent sorcery.
It starts out innocent enough: Four girls at a sleepover. They’re certainly not the cliquey cool girls, as is clear from their sweats and leather pants. Cigarettes are casually shared and early-90s grunge-slash-goth culture abounds. Then they play the classic sleepover game ‘light as a feather, stiff as a board’ and the girl they’re lifting actually levitates. It’s all downhill from there, as the girls spend the rest of the movie swapping bodies, summoning deities and making bullies go bald. Still, “The Craft” deserves credit for injecting some black magic into the good ol’ slumber party when other big movies ignored it.
The Bro-Mantic Era
In the bromance-centric decade that was the 2000s, "Superbad" rises above the likes of “Wedding Crashers," “Knocked Up” and “I Love You, Man." While strong male friendships are front and center in all films, they’re all ultimately there to facilitate the protagonist getting his act together and settling down with a woman. “Superbad” is different and the sleepover scene proves it.
After a long night of trying and failing to get girls into bed, Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) cozy up to each other on the floor and speak intimately about their relationship. Away from the pressures and judgement of their high school lives, they reveal how scared they are to go to different colleges, how sorry they are for their immature behavior how much they love each other. It becomes clear that “Superbad” is less about getting laid than about two friends dealing with separation anxiety and, in addition to upping the nostalgia-factor, many sleepover movies followed suit.