Recently, Molly Ringwald, a member of the popular 1980s “Brat Pack” group of young actors, wrote a piece for The New Yorker where she analyzed watching some of her old films with her daughter, notably the John Hughes vehicles that made her a star.
Ringwald rightfully pointed out how Hughes altered the face of teen films. To paraphrase, until then, actors playing teens were older; the everyday aspects of their lives were not given focus; female characters had no real efficacy. Hughes changed all that. His films were popular, funny, engaging, and those of us who watched them could identify with the characters. We saw ourselves on screen — our fears, triumphs, and foibles.
She also noted how uncomfortable it made her to view these films in the current #MeToo atmosphere. In particular, the sexually aggressive and harassing behavior of the John Bender character in The Breakfast Club could be grounds for a lawsuit today. In the film, it’s played for laughs, and Claire, Ringwald’s character, responds positively to it in the end. In Sixteen Candles, Farmer Ted’s deal to return a classmate’s pair of underpants for a chance at an unconscious (and non-consenting) woman is equally problematic in light of our newly awakened sense of how women in 2018 are still treated as if they aren’t quite human.
Sexy anti-hero and “criminal” John Bender, played by Judd Nelson.
In those days, behavior like Bender’s (and in real life, Harvey Weinstein’s) was ubiquitous. Pushback was rare. Nobody talked about consent. In most of these films, men, or boys, did have all the power. The female characters existed as a means to an end (status) or offered an end in themselves (the quest to get laid as seen in Porky’s). Getting the girl one had a crush on was a major achievement that implied a woman can be acquired like a coveted object or trophy.
I think Ringwald made a good case for viewing these things as debatable. They always have been, but for some reason, perhaps self-preservation or internalized misogyny, many women who grew up during that time did not view them as such. I’ve already seen pushback on her article in my own circles. A notable example came from a male writer I know, who stated that he saw Hughes’ portrayals of teenagers as semi-authentic for the time, and that Ringwald doesn’t speak for everyone.
Of course, they were authentic. And Ringwald does point that out. But when does nostalgia become a reason to dismiss acknowledgment that these characters exhibit attitudes we no longer wish to entertain? Society evolves and the things we took for granted then absolutely should make us uncomfortable now.
I have the same feelings as Ringwald when I read some young adult (YA) literature from that era. In my own personal library, which contains a large amount of YA and children’s literature largely because I have a horror of discarding books, I had one from a library book sale called A Different Kind of Love (1985). Protagonist Elizabeth, nicknamed Weeble, is a fourteen-year-old girl in a single-parent family whose visiting uncle’s affections become inappropriate.
Author Michael Borich deals with something we don’t often think or talk about when discussing child molestation — that being touched and held and in turn, loved, feels good. That it’s possible for a child who is being victimized to have affection for an abuser. And that abuse often comes from people we feel we should trust or love, and how difficult and confusing that can be for victims, and why it’s so hard for them to speak up.
Reading it did make me squirm, mostly because the adults, though concerned, are so blasé about the situation. At the time of publication, teachers were not mandated reporters, so a trusted educator in whom Weeble confides does nothing more than advise her. Her mother kicks her brother out of the house (good), but no one calls the police. And though Borich declines to explore it, the mother’s first reaction is a common one in molestation cases where a family member is involved: disbelief.
Though some might think dated materials can be safely retired, I think it’s fine to use them for a larger discussion. I did end up ultimately discarding the book in the interest of space. But in my mind, I’ve moved forward from that time along with society. I know if I have children that talking to them about Weeble’s confusing feelings and the proper adult reactions, whether I use her as an example or not, would have to be part of that particular discussion.
And I would let them watch Hughes’ films, once they’re old enough to understand and talk about them. Ringwald makes mention of racism and homophobia in Hughes’ writing; it’s there, and it’s obvious. Hughes was both progressive and backward, and this uneven dichotomy shows glaringly in his treatment of exchange student Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles.
Yes, Long Duk Dong was a horrible Asian stereotype. Even his name is a racist joke. In contrast, we have his sexy girlfriend Marlene, a character referred to as “Lumberjack” (Deborah Pollack) because she’s taller — and thus less desirable — than the prom queens. Lumberjack is athletic, strong, and confident. She takes no shit and goes after the boy she likes. She’s also affectionate and in touch with her desires. She’s the best character in the film.
Debbie Pollack and Gedde Watanabe in Sixteen Candles (1984)
I can’t blame Gedde Watanabe for playing The Donger; at the time, few non-caricature roles for Asian actors existed. Despite this and Samantha’s father referring to his oldest daughter’s fiancé as “an oily bohunk,” a slur used to refer to people of Hungarian or Slavic descent, I don’t think these films should be binned. In addition to Lumberjack’s positive portrayal, the targeted audience of this film found much to identify with in Samantha’s family dynamics and her attempts to navigate a crush on the cutest boy in school.
In closing, Ringwald writes:
John wanted people to take teens seriously, and people did. The films are still taught in schools because good teachers want their students to know that what they feel and say is important; that if they talk, adults and peers will listen. I think that it’s ultimately the greatest value of the films, and why I hope they will endure. The conversations about them will change, and they should. It’s up to the following generations to figure out how to continue those conversations and make them their own—to keep talking, in schools, in activism and art—and trust that we care.
My writer friend can discount the misogyny in Hughes’ films because as a man, he never had to deal with it. We’re not too disparate in age and we both grew up with these attitudes. It took time for me to parse my own internalization and discard them. I still enjoy the films too and I understand where he’s coming from. It’s hard not to romanticize the past, but we also have to recognize the tarnished aspects of it.
Ringwald’s instinct to watch her films with her children is a good one. So is her desire to initiate a discussion involving the elements that have changed or evolved over time. No, we no longer feel that sexual harassment is funny or entertaining. Yes, you’re right to feel uneasy about it, and here’s why. If kids today can recognize that when they watch the films, and parents are engaging them on these topics, then we’re on the right path to a more respectful society. John Hughes’ films can serve as a tool to get us there.